M y coach was worried. “Stay calm,” he kept barking. It was a warm summer day in Davis, California—a Sunday elimination day in the final tournament of the season. I was an experienced player on a competitive fastpitch softball team from Marin County. I was a leader. I batted fourth; I was being recruited by colleges. I usually played left field. But at 7 a.m. it was almost 100 degrees and my team needed four wins in a row to play in the championship game that night. My coach, a tall burly man named Bruce, who always wore suspenders over his blue shirt and scared other coaches with his gruff voice and straggly beard, had asked me to play catcher. It was a position I had played for only one year in eighth grade, in a local recreational league, but I had agreed with excitement to give it a try.
As a catcher, you maintain the rhythm of the game by tossing the ball back to the pitcher after each pitch. It’s a simple throw. Any competent fielder can do it. When you miss, everyone notices; the game slows and runners steal bases while your teammate retrieves the ball. Now I was squatting behind home plate, holding a borrowed catcher’s mitt in my right hand, wiping my sweaty palm onto my pants. C’mon, c’mon, what’s wrong with you, I mouthed to myself as our pitcher spun the ball, in her right hand over and over again, and waited for my sign. I was talking to myself, as athletes often do, but my thoughts were filled with fear. I didn’t want to mess up again.
I had thrown nearly every ball over our pitcher’s head, and it was only the first inning. I didn’t understand it. Something must be wrong with my arm. Maybe my hand? How else could my throws be so inaccurate? Our pitcher windmilled her arm, and her pitch snapped into my glove. The muscles in my own arm felt loose and my throwing motion felt relaxed as I brought my arm behind my head and prepared to toss the ball back—a twenty-foot throw that I had been repeating unconsciously, with ease, for nearly a decade. But when I released the ball it spun sideways off my hand, again, and soared inexplicably off line, landing near the shortstop.
I wasn’t sick, or injured, or even tired. I had simply lost the ability to throw.
I kicked the dirt and eased myself back into a squat as my coach walked out to the umpire and said he needed to make a substitution. He looked at me and I realized I was being pulled, a crushing demotion for someone who had always been counted on to excel under pressure. I began pulling the catcher’s gear from my legs. In my head I was trying to remember the reflexive motion that had made throwing a softball so simple, so smooth, only an hour before. I had played in championship games, been picked for numerous competitive teams, hit game-winning doubles, and thrown out runners at home plate from the outfield. And suddenly, in an easy game, against a weak team, I couldn’t make a simple toss back to the pitcher.
There are names for what was happening to me. Golfers call it the yips, usually to describe putters who mysteriously develop debilitating twitches in their motion. Archers call it target panic, the sudden loss of form just before letting the arrow fly. Baseball players sometimes use the term Steve Blass Disease, after a successful pitcher who suddenly, inexplicably, lost the ability to throw strikes, and never regained his form.
We now know that all of these bizarre difficulties, when they show up in athletes, are just forms of an elaborate interaction of brain and muscle called performance anxiety.
Gymnasts can have performance anxiety. So can football kickers, free-throw shooters, swimmers, tennis players, and shot putters. It can happen to children and adults, professionals and Olympians. It’s not a new phenomenon, but a debility that athletes have traditionally hidden with shame. When I experienced my first crash encounter with performance anxiety, I denied it with indignity. As a bewildered 16-year-old, I turned inward because I didn’t know I could seek help. Much has changed over the seven years since then: Psychologists are developing new ways of thinking about performance anxiety, and new approaches and therapies to treat it. College programs and professional teams now employ experts to integrate psychological coaching—often called “mental training”—into their organizations. Some athletes are beginning, with a new level of openness, to embrace sports psychology.
But for many athletes, performance anxiety is still as confusing as it was to me. Successful athletes, after all, are supposed to be accustomed to the spotlight. They are praised for their ability to excel in the most difficult situations, to be able to control their throws and putts and shots with the most precise accuracy when the game is on the line. For athletes who thrive under pressure, the sudden inability to perform can be devastating. “I think the saddest thing is far too many athletes don’t get the skills to manage anxiety and they leave sports really early,” says Kristen Dieffenbach, a West Virginia University professor of athletic coaching education and a sports psychology consultant. “because they don’t know how to fix what’s going on.”
-- Stephen Weiss, professor of psychology at Upper Iowa State University
I n 1972, Steve Blass, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, was at the height of his career. After pitching his team to two wins in the World Series the year before, Blass won 19 games and, at 31, was chosen to play for the All-Star team. There was no indication that his success was in peril. But the next year, for reasons no one in baseball could ever quite figure out, his pitches were erratic. In 89 innings, Blass walked 84 batters. When he did manage to throw the ball over the plate, his pitches were weak. He tried everything to regain his form—seeking psychiatric help, practicing meditation, pitching on one knee in practice. Nothing worked. He gave up trying to regain his form. In 1975, Blass quit baseball.
That same year, in a long sad article, the New Yorker baseball writer Roger Angell described Blass’ collapse as “unique.” The story Angell told was one of a sudden, incomprehensible loss of skill, a plague that seemed to have no underlying cause. One day Blass could pitch. The next day, he couldn’t. Spectators were mystified. What was this frightening, inexplicable force that could seize a professional athlete so suddenly? It’s something psychologists are still trying to understand. “You just don’t go from the best in the league to someone that can’t even play in the league anymore,” says Stephen Weiss, a professor of psychology at Upper Iowa State University. “How can that happen overnight?”
These strange and sudden declines occur most noticeably in sports that require athletes to perform specific mechanical motions—throwing in baseball; serving in tennis; and putting in golf. But a soccer player or swimmer may face equally sudden anxiety and a confusing decline in performance. What causes it is still just conjecture, Weiss says. Psychologists point to trigger events—a few bad throws causing an already anxiety-prone person to spiral out of control, for example. In rare cases the breakdown can be caused by focal dystonia, a neurological disorder that causes involuntary muscle movements. But this has mainly afflicted musicians, and a purely mental breakdown can also cause similar muscular twitches. Alan Goldberg (no relation to me), a sports psychology consultant who specializes in curing sports performance issues, believes all performance anxiety is caused by a buildup of emotional and physical traumas in an athlete’s past. Past injuries or years of dealing with ultra-competitive coaches, he’s written, can lead to a sudden block and decline in performance.
Whatever the cause, what Angell described was in fact just a severe form of performance anxiety. “I can say anxiety now,” Blass told Sports Illustrated in 2010. “Back in the day, there was a stigma.” In the 1970s, athletes rarely felt comfortable admitting to psychological problems—that’s how any sort of mental diversion from the norm was understand, as a problem—and professional teams generally did not employ sports psychologists. But things started to change in the 1980s: A group of sports psychology practitioners founded the Association of Applied Sports Psychology, and some elite organizations, including the United States Olympic Committee, started to hire performance psychologists. Since then, sports psychologists and mental coaches have joined Division I athletic programs and been hired by professional organizations. Researchers have put a greater emphasis on refining practices to better treat performance anxiety. But it has been a slow movement, and only now is psychological training at the elite level becoming commonplace.
When I was sixteen, sports psychology was only beginning to get a footing at the elite level. In competitive youth sports, it would never have occurred to anyone to call in a psychologist, and my inaccurate throws mystified my coaches. They couldn’t tell me what was going on, or how to fix it. After that Davis tournament I never again played catcher, but even at my regular position in left field, I still couldn’t throw accurately. I knew it was all in my mind. When I made a few good throws, I could suddenly throw for the rest of the day. When I had to field a double off the wall—with no time to think—my throws would sail sharply into the shortstop’s glove. But most of the time my throws were so inconsistent that my coach at Redwood High School finally asked our shortstop to run out to left field every time the ball was hit to me so I could toss it to her underhand. The ball felt awkward in my grip. I was clutching it or fumbling it, holding it too tight or too loose, consciously feeling it spin off the side of my hand as it flew diagonally away from my target or letting it tightly stick too long in my sweaty palm as I hurled it directly into the ground. When I made a bad throw, my eyes would water and I would swear under my breath. I was nothing. I was worthless. I found myself thinking: Please don’t hit the ball toward me. Anxious athletes can be brutal to themselves, says Dieffenbach. They manage to beat themselves up in ways no smart coach ever would. “Often times it’s really detrimental,” she says.
On the way home with my parents from one particularly bad tryout, my dad glanced up at me in the rearview mirror as I stared out the window with the volume up on my iPod. “We got to talk about this, J,” he said. My dad’s a college professor. He wanted to teach. But I didn’t want to listen. I wasn’t willing to admit something was going on. “Leave me alone,” I snapped. “Nothing’s wrong.”
But it wasn’t true. The anxiety was now a constant worry. I would start to think about it even before I reached the field. At long red lights, I could feel my heart rate increase as I drew quick sharp breaths and thought pointlessly about when the light would change. I couldn’t control it. “The problem just consumes them and they are never able to regain their status,” says Weiss as he describes why some athletes ultimately choose to leave the game.
Biologically speaking, it’s wrong to think about this anxiety differently than we view generalized anxiety. A singer or speaker prone to stage fright experiences the same mental processes as an athlete battling sports anxiety. As we feel worry, our muscles tense, breathing quickens, and we begin to sweat profusely, all because a small almond-shaped group of neurons in the brain called the amygdala is responding to the worry by activating the “fight or flight” response in our sympathetic nervous system. Perhaps, what sets elite athletes apart is that they manifest performance anxiety in very public, baffling ways. When they fail, their performance is judged and critiqued by everyone looking in as the athlete struggles to regain form.
Athletes like swimmer Claire Donahue have lived this. The first time Donahue swam at the Olympic Trials was four years ago; she had never worked with a psychologist. Before her race, she was sent to the “ready room” behind the starting blocks. As she sat there with her competition around her, she began to get scared. She was still young, and wasn’t really expected to make the team, but she had put so much pressure on herself to do well. She surveyed her opponents and thought about how strong they looked. How could she compete? What if she came off the blocks too slow? What if she messed up? “I was thinking so many negative thoughts – it was almost out of control,” Donahue says. As she walked out to the blocks in front 13,000 people, Donahue’s muscles tensed up and her stomach lurched. She came off the blocks so fast that she had almost no energy left for the rest of the race. It was the biggest stage Donahue had every competed on, and also the most nervous she had ever felt. “I didn’t have control,” Donahue says.
-- Andrew Ramay, pole vaulter on UC Berkeley's Track and Field team
A ndrew Ramay walks into the small conference room at the University of California at Berkeley dressed in a purple shirt and baggy jeans and eases himself into one of the office chairs arranged around the brand new wooden table. The room is set up with a flat screen TV, a projector, and a white board. It looks like a place where teams could talk strategy or watch game video, but Ramay is here to talk about his mind. He is an accomplished pole-vaulter, recruited to vault at Berkeley, and now in his second year on Cal’s track and field team. When he made the transition from high school to college, his expectations were high. But during his freshman season his confidence plummeted. He found he could no longer clear heights he had mastered in high school. Now, placing his elbows on the arms of his chair, Ramay looks across the table at performance consultant Jonathan Okada. “I don’t trust what I’ve done, or my ability,” he says.
Ramay cares a lot about his performance. He is slender, with remarkably muscular arms, a sign of just how much time he spends in the weight room. But his devotion can work against him. When he does not succeed, he grows angry with himself and loses his mental composure. “When he first came in from high school, I think his expectations of himself and what other people would expect from him were very high, and if he didn’t meet those he was going to fail,” says Okada.
Today will be a short meeting. Ramay just recently started working on his jumps in practice, and Okada wants to check in. After a poor jumping session earlier this week, Ramay and his coach went back to working on his pole runs—“basically vaulting without the vault.” The run is all about precision—he must start off at the right speed, stay low, come up and be tall at the right moment, and count his steps so he springs into a jump off his left foot. But even in his pole runs, Ramay has trouble focusing.
“I was really distracted,” Ramay says. “I’m trying to get myself to focus in on staying relaxed and having a good run, and then I forget to count.” Okada takes notes on a white notepad as Ramay talks. He asks Ramay to think about where his focus is when he does a good jump. “If it’s focusing on counting, that’s where your focus needs to be every time that you run,” Okada says.
Okada is working slowly with Ramay, trying to figure out what skills will help him the most. During their lessons they have concentrated on Ramay’s focus point by talking about something called “task orientation.” Instead of thinking about his vault, Ramay has a tendency to be thinking already about the outcome and consequences—if he hits the bar, his team might lose; he might let down his coach. Okada wants Ramay to focus on the task he’s doing in the moment. This has been difficult for Ramay because when he thinks about his vault he finds himself concentrating on his form, his run, his steps and getting distracted by the other people on the track. They are still trying to find the one focus point Ramay can think about every time he vaults. “It’s very easy to get distracted when you’re trying to focus on everything at once and you’re perceiving that you’re making mistakes and you're not doing as well, when maybe there's areas that you are in fact getting better,” Okada says. Okada is trying to build Ramay’s confidence. He knows he can be too hard on himself. But he has to recognize where he’s improving, to believe that his mental training can work. Ramay looks at Okada and nods. “That might be it,” he says. His voice is calm. But he repeatedly rubs his fingernail with his thumb as he listens.
A clinical psychologist would call Ramay’s mental training cognitive behavioral therapy, currently the most common form of psychological training used to address sports anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy addresses undesirable behaviors, emotions, and thoughts through a variety of mental skills that help athletes refocus and alter their thoughts. When our anxiety is too high, our bodies reacts with a complete breakdown in complex motor functions. Our vision constricts, our muscles tense, and suddenly the coordination and power that made vaulting or swimming or throwing so simple is lost. By instilling athletes with mental skills, psychologists believe they can help athletes overcome anxiety and regain control of the moment.
This is the kind of mental training Claire Donahue undertook as she prepared to swim in her second Olympic trials four year after her shaky first effort. Donahue met with Elizabeth Shoenfelt, a professor of psychology at Western Kentucky University, every week for eight months to train her mind. At first, Donahue found herself getting worse. She would track how many times she was thinking negative thoughts—What if I mess up? What if my turn is bad? What if I lose?—and was shocked by her negativity.
Shoenfelt taught her to control these thoughts. When a negative thought came into her mind she would recognize it without letting it grab her. She would tell herself, “I know what to do. I’ve done this event a million times.” But her progress was gradual. The negative thoughts didn’t disappear easily. “If you are thinking I don’t want to have a bad turn, you’re probably going to have a bad turn,” Shoenfelt says. “We tend to focus on things that are wrong by human nature.”
Shoenfelt decided to track Donahue’s progress, so the young swimmer could actually watch herself improve. Over time, Donahue did learn to harness her thoughts. For her, this was the most important change. But it wasn’t the only thing she did with Shoenfelt. In practice, Donahue would try to mimic the pressure of an actual race by visualizing herself swimming at a meet. She would also set goals and track her progress. One of Donahue’s major goals was to complete her entire race with perfect strokes. When she felt like she had a bad week, she would look at her chart and realize how much she had improved. Often the yardage she had to swim in practice seemed insurmountable and Donahue found herself fixated on how hard the training would be to complete. To stay motivated and focused, Donahue started bringing six pennies to the pool and placing them on one side of the tiles on the pool deck. Each time she would finish a set or a lap she would reach up and move one penny to the other side of the tiles. When she forgot to bring pennies she would start moving the snorkels or paddles on the pool deck.
As she sat in the ready room at the 2012 Olympic Trials, Donahue surveyed her competition. They all looked so athletic. She grew nervous. But this time—as Shoenfelt had taught her to do—she began taking deep breaths. She visualized a successful race: walking into the pool, feeling relaxed as she warmed up, feeling calm on the blocks, making a good turn. She repeated to herself that she wanted to have a good time, to get to the Olympics, and to enjoy herself. When she stepped out to the blocks in front of 13,000 people in Omaha, Nebraska, Donahue was calm. She qualified for the team, with a second place finish in the 100-meter butterfly, and went on to win a gold medal, swimming the butterfly leg of the 4x100-meter medley relay in London.
In the past few decades elite athletes, like Ramay and Donahue, have begun to embrace mental training as part of their regimes. At college campuses, athletes stop in the hallways to talk openly to their sports psychologists or “mental coaches.” There is no doubt that the word “psychology” is still stigmatized in sports, but, at least at the elite level, teams and coaches are recognizing that they are at a disadvantage if they ignore the mental game. Athletes who have never experienced sports anxiety, or just suffer from a lack of confidence, work with mental coaches as a matter of course, training their minds to handle pressure situations before any crisis occurs. UC Berkeley, like other major Division I athletic programs, is integrating psychology into performance training. At Berkeley, seven performance psychologists now work with 80 percent of the athletic program. Three years ago, only 10 percent worked with psychologists.
In Major League Baseball over half the teams now employ psychologists or mental coaches, like Seth Kaplan. Kaplan, who has a degree in sports psychology and works as a consultant in the field, started working with the Baltimore Orioles during spring training in 2012, giving players, mainly at the minor league level, mental skills to achieve peak performance. He teaches pitchers that it’s normal to feel anxious in pressure situations. It’s what you do with that anxiety, he tells them, that is key. By the time his athletes start to feel too anxious, he has already taught them to have a built-in routine to calm their nerves. They’ll start with rhythmic breathing—inhaling through their nose and exhaling through their mouth. They will visualize a good pitch, and tell themselves something positive. And they will focus on a single external point—often the catcher’s mitt.
Researchers have demonstrated the importance of external focus points. When athletes concentrate on specific body movements that have become automatic, they actually hinder their own performance. In numerous studies, Gabriele Wulf, Professor of Kinesiology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has found that athletes perform better when they focus their attention on something outside their body. In one study, she found that basketball free-throw shooters improved when they focused on the basket, or the ball’s trajectory, rather than on wrist flexion or form. Weiss recently published an article titled “Curing the dreaded ‘Steve Blass Disease,’” in which he argues that external focus is the key to curing debilitating performance anxiety.
But even with this increased emphasis on mental training and research on sports anxiety, performance anxiety can still be devastating and perplexing for athletes. “I thought I was a psycho,” says Brady Jimison, a Division I soccer player at the University of San Francisco. When he decided to transfer to USF last year, Jimison told me, he started feeling severe anxiety for the first time in his life. He didn’t understand what was happening. Almost daily, he found himself growing dizzy as he ran drills on the large open soccer field under the gaze of USF’s Lone Mountain. His vision would constrict; the sky would start to cave in on top of him. Often, after practice, he could not remember what drills he had done. “I was so scared to let the coaches down or ruin my soccer career, so I wouldn’t say anything, and that would obviously make it worse,” Jimison says.
We’re sitting at a table surrounded by other students in the University of San Francisco’s University Center as Jimison describes these panic attacks that caused him to lose his starting position last season. He sounds—I note with interest, given what happened to me—lighthearted. Jimison is tan, with short brown hair and an athletic build, and today he’s dressed in green USF warm-up gear, because that’s what his team wears on game day. Jimison recalls how his sports anxiety came to carry over into his regular life: how he would panic when he had to ride the bus or fly on an airplane. At practice, his panic attacks would sometimes get so bad that he didn’t feel like he could play. He would tell the trainers and coaches that he was feeling sick or injured and skip practice.
But on one particularly bad day, he decided to tell the truth. His coach didn’t understand. He expected Jimison to tough it out. “You know when you’re anxious, you start thinking of crazy shit in your own head, and when you have a coach making you feel like an outsider, it almost cements it,” Jimison says. Yes, I know this. I know it very, very well. This response is common from coaches, at all levels, who expect athletes to be mentally tough under pressure without ever having trained their minds. Athletes condition, practice their mechanics, weight train. But the idea of training the mind still seems elusive to some coaches and athletes. There is an assumption that we’re either born mentally tough or not. “Coaches can contribute to an athlete’s anxiety or contribute to their skills, and recognize when they need extra help,” Dieffenbach says.
Jimison did decide to seek help on his own. He spoke briefly with Yvonne Gomez, the mental training coach at USF. And since the summer before he transferred, Jimison has worked with a psychiatrist. He ended up on medication because his anxiety was so severe. But shifting his perspective was the key. He learned he wasn’t an outsider—that others suffer from similar anxiety. He began to realize soccer wasn’t the most important thing. As he took pressure off himself to perform, he actually got better. “I’m starting tonight,” Jimison says with a smile.
-- Kristen Dieffenbach, West Virginia University professor of athletic coaching education and a sports psychology consultant.
S o, here’s what happened to me.
In summer of my sophomore year of college, four years ago, I found myself scratching my nails in a small empty room as I waited for the white door in front of me to open. I was here, for the first time, to see Jeff Greenwald, a Marin County-based sports psychology consultant.
At one point, tantalizingly, my throwing accuracy had started to come back. My high school coach needed me in the lineup as a hitter, so my spot on the team had never been in jeopardy, and with the repetition of daily throwing, my accuracy seemed to be reappearing, just as mysteriously as it had disappeared.
But the recovery didn’t last. I made it through my freshman year at Pomona College, a small Division III school in Southern California, without much discernible problems in my throwing. Then when I came back the next season, the trouble was back.
It’s hard to describe throwing. When you do it right, you never think about it. Before the ball lands in your glove, you are already starting to throw, guiding the ball to your throwing side and reaching your hand toward your glove to meet it. As you pull your arm back, you turn your wrist quickly to face away from your target, and then, just as quickly, snap your wrist back as you bring your arm smoothly over your shoulder and let the ball spin off your hand. In slow motion, this action can make people cringe when they watch; it looks painful, as though the thrower is doing something no arm is mechanically meant to do. But the magic of a perfect throw is the sensation—or lack of it. When you’re throwing right, you feel nothing.
My sophomore season, I felt something. My throws hurt. I would lift my arm back and it would involuntarily wrap around my head. When I brought it forward, I’d be clutching the ball so tightly near my body that I would sometimes swipe the side of my ear with my hand. Everything felt off now. I hated to throw. I had hid my past from my college coach, but my hitting didn’t protect me this time. I lost my starting position. That summer, my mother recommended I see a psychologist.
Greenwald was a soft-spoken man with an athletic build that came from years of elite-level competitive tennis. The room in which we met reminded me of the cliché psychologist’s office: books lined the wall, and in middle was a couch for me and a chair for Greenwald, who would take notes as we worked on my breathing, visualization and positive self-talk. We had key words, like “smooth,” to remind me what it was like to throw a softball correctly. I would visualize a successful throw as I counted each deep breath I took—my arm gliding over my head, the ball snapping off my wrist, the ball zipping into the glove. On the softball field, Greenwald would yell at me and blow a whistle as I threw, to mimic the pressure of a game. He also taught me to focus on my target’s glove. I had become obsessed with my mechanics, pre-Greenwald; I used to concentrate intently on my motion each time I threw. I’d practice in my dorm room with a rubber ball. Nervous athletes like me have a tendency to overthink and try to control our motions. This only exacerbates the problem. Beginning athletes need to process their mechanical techniques, but as they practice those skills they reach a point where they become automatic. And that’s how they should be. “Automated behaviors are resistant to stress,” says Shoenfelt.
Now, as I continued to work with Greenwald, and practiced the mental skills he was teaching me, I could see my accuracy improving. My obsession with my technique faded. When I came back for my junior year, I continued to practice these skills. Greenwald had recorded a soundtrack for me, his soothing voice telling me to let my body and mind sink into a state of relaxation, to picture myself standing confidently on the field, throwing with accuracy. I would listen to it before every game, as I took deep breaths and visualized a good performance.
And it was working. At one particularly tiring practice my coach hit ball after ball to every fielder until the sun began to set. I waited for my turn eagerly and each time the ball came I fielded it with ease and fired it back toward the infield with accuracy. My mind was clear. My throwing was again automatic.
I wish I had known the power of mental training earlier. But the idea of training the mind is elusive. It takes practice. And among coaches and athletes, there is still an ingrained assumption that we’re either born mentally tough or we’re not. It’s simply not true. Research has consistently demonstrated that athletes can and should train their mind. Experiences, like mine, show that we can change our mental framework; that we shouldn’t just give up on athletes with anxiety. The mind is like any other muscle. It must be developed. “Coaches should not view mental troubles as an abnormality,” says Dieffenbach. “It’s like if your athlete has a sore shoulder—you don’t write that person off as damaged goods.”
In fact, people are starting to argue less about whether the mind should be trained and more about how to best train the brain. Keith Kaufman, a psychologist and research associate at Catholic University, has co-developed a form of therapy called Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement. Mindfulness has a basis in Buddhist traditions and started being used as a medical therapy in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts. Mindfulness relies on meditation skills to teach patients to recognize thoughts without reacting to them. Anxious thoughts don’t need to sabotage you, the idea goes. Now, researchers, like Kaufman believe that mindfulness therapies can actually help reduce stress and anxiety in sports.
Mindfulness is a swift departure from the widespread cognitive behavioral techniques used to treat performance anxiety. Traditional cognitive behavioral therapies tell athletes to identify their negative thoughts and change them into something else, with techniques like positive self-talk. But Kaufman believes this kind of therapy may be causing athletes to focus more intently on their thoughts, and worry more. “When it comes to sports anxiety, it doesn’t work to pretend it’s not there,” says Kaufman, who has published three studies in which his research team tested the impact of mindfulness techniques on athletes and concluded that it can reduce sports anxiety over time. At the foul line, a basketball player would use his mindfulness training to recognize he is having negative thoughts, but realize they are not important and instead focus his attention on the basketball in his hand. Kaufman has found that mindfulness therapies take more practice for athletes to adopt than cognitive behavioral therapies. But neuroscientists now believe in the concept of neuroplasticity, the idea that the brain can be changed and rewired in adulthood with mental training.
Leslie Sherlin, the Chief Science Officer at Neurotopia, a Southern California-based company that specializes in performance brain training, also teaches athletes to rewire their brains. He uses something called neurofeedback, a way to monitor the brain’s activity and reaction, to condition athletes to control their nervous system’s reaction to pressure situations and limit anxiety on the field. While mental skills are important to helping athletes reach a desirable physiological state, neurofeedback teaches them what that state feels like, Sherlin says. In Neurotopia’s office in Marina del Rey, there is a small white room with a flat screen television and a reclining couch. On a recent afternoon, Joe Hanks, an undefeated heavy weight boxer ranked among the top 15 in the world, sat in the recliner as electrodes were hooked up to his head. Then he played a video game – with his mind. When his brain activity was in a desirable state a car moved steadily across the barren terrain in the game. When he grew unfocused or anxious, the car slowed or the screen even turned black. “Neurofeedback is teaching them to be aware of an internal state that they otherwise wouldn’t be aware of,” Sherlin says.
While techniques to treat performance anxiety continue to adapt and develop, elite teams are realizing that mental techniques give athletes an edge. This is a relatively new phenomenon in the United States, which has long been playing catch-up to other countries. Sports psychologists worked with Olympic athletes from the Soviet Union as early as the 1960s. At the elite level, everyone is skilled, Kaplan says. It’s the mentally tough athletes who will excel. “My mental strength program is very proactive in nature. It’s akin to getting an oil change every 3,500 miles so you don’t have car problems,” Kaplan says. “I can’t even imagine why any team in any league wouldn’t have a mental training expert working with the team.”
I often wonder whether my sports anxiety would have been as severe had I known from the beginning that I was not alone—if instead of working incessantly on my mechanics, I had spent those hours as a high schooler training my mind. I don’t blame my high school coaches. They stuck with me even at my lowest points in the outfield. Plus, anxiety runs in my family—my mother is scared to drive on freeways, and as a teenager I was scared of elevators. If I had gone off to college without ever experiencing sports anxiety, I imagine the pressure of college athletics might have triggered it. But by the time I sought help, before my junior year of college, I had allowed my anxiety to build until my throwing motion had been reworked into an awkward, cringe-inducing mess.
And here’s where my story takes one more mean twist.
By my junior year, after the summer with Greenwald, I realized I could throw with accuracy. The anxiety was gone. But my once smooth throwing motion was no longer automatic. Years of obsessively reworking my mechanics had led me to develop bad habits. I could no longer throw with the same power and zip.
It’s hard to tell, as I continued to practice my mental skills, whether my smooth motion would have returned. By the midpoint in my junior season I seemed to be on my way to recovery, finally: I was leading the league in batting average and throwing with accuracy. But during one game, as I slid around second base trying to avoid being tagged, I reached my arm back toward the base at the same moment a player on the opposing team tagged my shoulder so hard in the opposite direction that it ripped my rotator cuff. It may have been just an unfortunate fluke, but I’ve wondered whether, by spending so much time obsessing over my form, I had slowly weakened the muscles in my arm, allowing it to tear so easily. After a surgery and nine months of physical therapy, I came back to play my senior season, but I knew my throwing arm would never again be as strong.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, I lugged a bag of gloves and balls, swung a bat over my shoulder, and headed out to a softball field in Berkeley. I now captain a slow-pitch softball team at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism. I play outfield or infield, rotating from position to position like a trained expert. I can’t say the anxiety is gone for good. Sometimes, when I offer to pitch, I feel it creep back in. All I need to do is lob the ball softly underhand toward the plate, but I can’t get a grip. It slips sideways off my wrist and angles off the plate. But I’m not pitching today. We started each practice off by loosening up our arms, standing maybe 20-feet from each other as we lobbed the ball back and forth. Today, as I lifted my arm behind my head, I turned to look back at it and make sure it was cocked at a 90-degree angle, ready to throw. Then I faced my target and focused intently on the glove in front of me. I took a step with my left foot, brushing the infield dirt with my cleat, and let my arm glide forward with my body as I snapped the ball off my wrist. It flew to my teammate’s glove with pace and ease. My thoughts were empty. I’ve practiced those mental skills over and over, but, here, I no longer needed them. The throw still lacked power, and my arm stung for a second, near the surgery scars on my shoulder. But I was confident. I wasn’t thinking any more. I was just throwing.