Sport Psychology Counseling
Dr. John Murray
I've always admired Steffi Graf's awesome talent and achievements, her ability to remain focused in the face of tremendous distraction, and her courage and fortitude to play through injuries. I fondly remember watching her training sessions while I was coaching tennis in Munich in 1985. She was just a prodigy then and the tennis world had no idea what it was in for. Now she's facing the possibility of retirement, as the years and injuries have taken their toll. I suppose that everything that goes up must eventually come down, but I'd love to see her shine at Wimbledon again this year.
In a recent Tennis Magazine interview by Andrea Leand (June, 1998), Billie Jean King is quoted as saying "maybe some counseling could turn her life around and put the tennis in perspective." Steffi is then quoted in enormous print as saying, "I don't believe in counseling. I can't see sitting around talking about myself." Although I respect Steffi's opinion and stand in awe of her accomplishments (21 Grand Slam singles championships including 7 Wimbledons, 5 French, 5 U.S. and 4 Australian), I'm finding it hard restraining myself from offering an alternative perspective for those who might benefit from talking.
Everyone copes with stress uniquely. Although Steffi's stoic approach appears to have worked for many years, she is facing tougher challenges now, as she is far from 100% physically while having to confront names such as Hingis, Davenport, Coetzer, Williams, Novotna, and Kournikova. In Leand's article, I identified a few issues that players deal with. Let's examine these and suggest that counseling might help.
Coping With Injuries
Athletes at all levels face injuries. Whether these are just minor bumps and bruises or serious rotator cuff tears, the physical and emotional impact can be devastating. Fear of re-injury is a major issue. There are many mental techniques to assist in coping with injuries, and psychological counseling is beginning to have a greater impact in sport injury rehabilitation. In my doctoral dissertation, I found that athletes who perceived greater social support tended to have better moods following injury. One way to enhance social support is through pre- and post-injury counseling. There are many imagery routines to maintain your skills even when you cannot be there physically.
Coping With Retirement
When your whole life has been geared toward athletic excellence, the prospects of retirement can be dreadful. This is commonplace at the collegiate level where 99% of the athletes don't go on to play their sport professionally. Counseling is a way to prepare athletes for the inevitable loss that occurs after the glory is over and only memories remain. As with any loss, people need effective ways to cope. Going at it all on your own might work for some, but I'll submit that the vast majority of athletes benefit from early discussion and planning for retirement. There is definitely life after sport. Not planning for financial retirement is ridiculous, and failing to plan for the emotional effects of retirement is just as silly.
What good is sport if the only purpose it serves is to win? If you cannot appreciate the process as well as the success and achievement along the way, you're missing a lot. Enjoying your accomplishments is not the same as slacking up or distracting yourself from your next match. Rather, it's just a healthier outlook that contributes to motivation and prepares you for true success within yourself. Recall from the February, 1997 article that tennis is a great means of enhancing personal growth. How often do you go to the dentist? If you make it once or twice a year, then why not consider regular counseling checkups as well? What's more important, your teeth or your overall well being?
Your Wimbledon Notebook for Mental Skills
As you are enjoying the splendor of the English grass, I'd like to encourage readers to begin looking for mental skills in action. First, print this article out. As you are watching matches, make notes as you recognize the demonstration of mental equipment in the match. List the match, player, and mental skill recognized by writing it in the space below the list I've provided. Email me a copy of your favorite observation for a future Mental Equipment article.
Here are some of the mental skills we've discussed. Of course, there are many others. If you see new ones, let me know!
Dealing with Mind Games
The Killer Instinct
That's it for now. Enjoy Wimbledon and I'll see you again soon!
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This column is copyrighted by Dr. John Murray, all rights reserved.
Dr. John F. Murray is currently a licensed clinical psychologist and sport psychologist in Florida. In addition, he is a tennis professional (having taught tennis internationally in North America, Hawaii, Europe, Middle East), formerly certified with both USPTA and USPTR. He has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and masters degrees both in Clinical Psychology and Exercise & Sport Sciences from the University of Florida. He maintains a personal web site at http://www.johnfmurray.com/.
Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to John by using this form.