Reframe Podcast: Episode 12

Sport Psychology Today: Interview with Dr. Robin Vealey

Dr. Robin Vealey teaching class

In this episode, we gain a glimpse into the growing world of sports psychology. What it is, what it isn't, and how it has been quickly expanding far beyond the realm of coaching and athletics alone. And to learn more, we're here Dr. Robin Vealey, who is not only an EHS professor of sports psychology, she's also one of the leading researchers in the field today.

Read the transcript

James Loy:

This is Reframe, The podcast from the College of Education, Health and Society on the campus of Miami university.

In this episode, we gain a glimpse into the growing world of sports psychology. What it is, what it isn’t, and how it has been quickly expanding far beyond the realm of coaching and athletics alone. And to learn more, we’re here Dr. Robin Vealey, who is not only an EHS professor of sports psychology, she’s also one of the leading researchers in the field today. 

So Dr. Vealey, thank you for being here today. Can you start by maybe just giving us some background on what it is you study and what you’re interests are?

Robin Vealey:

I like to say I study and am intrigued with the achieving mentality in sports. So I began my work in anxiety and then moved into confidence and have also studied burnout. So if you think about it, like, trying to achieve, there is a certain mentality associated with that. And of course you need to have coping skills and resilience and confidence and know how to  . . . the research actually shows that having anxiety doesn’t hurt performance, it is whether or not you use that in a facilitative or debilitative way. Everybody gets anxiety. It is how you interpret it that affects whether it hurts your performance or not. 

So I have always been fascinated with that. And so then that also then moves into . . .  I am also interested in coaching effectiveness. So I do a lot of work with coaches and I have written a book on coaching psychology. And then I do a lot of applied work in terms of mental skills training. And so how can we take these cognitive behavioral strategies, you know, visualization, productive thinking, relaxation-type skills, and how can we the use that to then enhance people’s performance and wellbeing. So I have always been fascinated with that. 

James Loy:

What are some of the common misconceptions around sports psychology? When you say the term sports psychology, is that something that is becoming more, like, more and more well-known? Or what to some people still think when they are introduced to the concept? 

Robin Vealey:

Sure. Maybe the first one is that sports psychology is like clinical psychology. That we are dealing with clinical issues like clinical depression, clinical anxiety, eating disorders if you will, alcohol abuse. And, I just talked about this with my grad students this morning, the issue with sports psychology is we are a hybrid field. So professionals out working in sports psychology have trained in either kinesiology like I have or psychology. So we do have some people in counseling psychology that also offer services. But it’s taken awhile to reduce the stigma with athletes where they think if you see somebody in sports psychology you’re abnormal or there is something wrong with you. And I like to use the line, “You don’t have to be sick to get better.” 

There is nothing wrong. It is just like taking extra physical reps. This is just trying to systematically use the mental reps. But then that’s the second misconception. Well, it’s really maybe two different misconceptions. The second I like to think about that is if you come to see me to help your performance, then you are going to be able to come in my office and in 15 minutes I’m going to be able to like get you to be more confident. So there is this idea that it is this quick fix and I’m gonna say something to hypnotize you and it’s just like physical training. You know, the idea that you could do this in 30 minutes would be like trying to go down to the gym and strength train in 30 minutes and get stronger.

The research in our work with elite athletes shows it takes months and years of training and visualization to get really good at this. And so that is really the third one is that you can do just little bits and pieces. It has to be systematic. Everybody visualizes. Everybody uses imagery. But they don’t use it systematically. Because, for example, an athlete gets in a slump. And really they don’t realize it but they are visualizing themselves striking out or missing a free throw. And so what you’ve gotta do is learn to control that, if you will. And that takes some time and it takes as much work as the physical training. But a lot of people, they want the Spock Mind Meld from me, you know, which doesn’t really work.

James Loy:

Can everybody benefit from it? How often is used to focus on someone who is in a slump? Or, like, to laser in on an issue or a specific problem? Or is it more used in a general sense to improve overall wellbeing?

Robin Vealey:

Both. I mean, interestingly I get called a lot or get contacted a lot when there is a problem. But I teach my students . . . the worst time to really begin mental training is when you are in trouble. But in all honesty, that’s when I hook up sometimes with athletes or teams, because there is a reason to kind of bring you in. But the best time to work in sports psychology and apply this would be off season/preseason. Because, again, it takes time to work on these things because sitting in my office, I could probably convince you of how to think better and visualize. But in the heat of competition that needs to be habitualized routinized, just like all your physical stills. 

And so I think, yes, we can help people try to fix somethings, but it is really best if it is like systematic. So what I do. Somebody comes in and we try to help them resolve this crisis, but then we say okay now let’s continue on and make this a more systematic program. 

James Loy:

How are some ways we tell if it is working or not? I mean I know I am sure that coaches pay attention to statistics and objective measure of performance of how many baskets are being made or improvements there, but are there other ways to tell if it is actually working? 

Robin Vealey:

Well, that’s a really good question. And one of the things I always ask my students, I ask them, you know, what percent of your sport do you think is mental? And I get anywhere from 40 to 90 percent. And then I’ll say, okay, how much time do you spend mental training? And I typically get a very low number or even zero, and I’ll ask them why? And one of the answers is it’s really hard to quantify. And that’s why our field has been slow to catch on, I think, say in university athletic departments because every university athletic department has a strength and conditioning specialist because if you work with him or her, you are going to show that I increased my vertical jump by 3 inches and I increased my bench press by 200 pounds.

You work with Robin Vealey or a sports psychologist. Are they more confident? So to answer your question. One, it is performance and you can see that. We do have psychological inventories that we can use, but I like to say that its performance but also wellbeing. You know, I just tell the coaches that’s hard to quantify. But the coaches that buy in, they can tell by observing behavior. And, you know, even if it is not performance. Let’s say it is a soft ball player and maybe her hitting average doesn’t rise but . . . one thing we train people on, of course, is to focus on quality at bats because you can’t really control outcomes so much in sport. The coaches, they understand that. Yeah, better quality at bat. They can see that. But in all honestly, that’s hard. Because they want to see the quantifiable outcomes and its often hard to give them that.

Now in our literature, we have evidence-based practice. So, you know, in our literature, yes, we’ve taken these psychological techniques and strategies and there’s, my goodness, hundreds of studies shown that imagery enhances performance. Or self-talk enhances performance and decreases anxiety or increases confidence. So that’s in the published literature. But when it comes to coaches they are, “Okay, are the gonna win?” Well, and I can’t promise that. But I like to say that I can help put them in a position to win.

James Loy:

Is the field . . . Is it also more applicable to a wider range of activities too? The name, just “sport psychology,” sort of implies that it focuses on sports a lot, but, I mean, is there a wider use for the techniques that you can employ?

Robin Vealey:

Yea, well, the term that is used a lot is performance psychology. And so we are really doing performance psychology and so in this department the performance focuses on sport and physical activity. There is also exercise psychology and working with people . . . I just talked to someone yesterday who is getting ready to run a half Iron Man. We do mental planning for that and working through barriers and pain and all of that. And then many people in my field consult with businesses, corporations, musicians, artists, because that it all . . . it is the same thing. You are getting performance anxiety and you need to focus. So absolutely. It is about performance psychology. 

James Loy:

What are some of the things that you would tell someone who would be dealing with high stress situations? You already talked about some quick things that maybe they could do in about 15 minutes, but it still takes a longer time to really adopt and habitualize these practices. But just for the sake of our understanding, what are some of the things that you would tell people, that they could do to increase their focus or mental toughness, or whatever it may be?

Robin Vealey:

Well, there are really two schools of thought. There is the cognitive behavioral where you focus on  . . . I like to call it . . . I like to simplify it for the athletes and say we teach you to think better and to respond better. And so one thing is learning, again, things that cause you to be distracted or you to lose your focus and then we come up with a focus plan for that. Elite athletes, they don’t go to the Olympics and just hope it all goes well. They have got their whole physical training routine, but they have a whole mental plan. And they go from a very broad . . . getting all the information, but when they are getting ready to perform they are in execution mode. The “zone” is kind of overrated. They hope they are going to get into the “zone,” but meaning that it is very focused. They are focusing on their preparation. Their confidence and belief in the process, not that they are necessarily going to win, and the fact that they are ready. And they can’t do anything more and so it is learning how to think better versus letting all these other thoughts come in.

So as a surgeon, they’ve got all the information, they get there and they are focused. And a lot of surgeon’s play music and they get into flow just like we get into flow in sport, which any surgeon working on me I want to be in the “zone” or in flow, if you will. So relaxation strategies. Just simple things like understanding your breathing and how to be able to go to a breath, a centering breath or even a cleansing breath. A lot of my colleagues teach that to athletes but the same thing would be people . . . before you’re going to speak somewhere. If you are a musician.

And of course a new approach is the whole mindfulness and acceptance, which is really interesting to me and meditation, for example, one of my colleagues at the Olympic training center . . . it used to be that mental skills training was seen as something that you could just . . . it was kind of the icing on the cake. Oh, if you want to do this, it is something extra. It is not like that now. He’ll bring you in there and were gonna meditate for 30 minutes. I’ll tell you what, meditating for 30 minutes is hard. Meditating for 5 minutes is hard. And it is expected now and what meditation does is it teaches you to focus on right now, this moment, which is what competing is.

See people get in trouble when they think about the past or the future. I’ve gotta be right now. This shot. Not, “I’m gonna win the Master’s.” Not, “I have to birdy this hole.” But this shot, this moment. And that is very, very hard to do unless you keep training to kind of do it. And that’s why the whole mindfulness and acceptance helps you kind of get there.

James Loy:

I like that reference to how it used to be icing on the cake but now it is much more of a priority, and becoming, seemingly, much more accepted in the mainstream. So I guess my final question is where do you see it going from here? Will it become even more of a priority? Or how will sport psychology continue to evolve do you think?

Robin Vealey:

Yeah, I think . . . I mean it is already a priority, but what we’ve got to figure out now and do a better job of is integrating it into just the normal practice and training routine. That’s the other thing that’s changed. It would be like, “Okay, now we are going to talk to Dr. Vealey for 10 or 20 minutes.” Versus colleagues now, they are on the field with the coaches and they are at practices they are . . .  it is not something extra. It is not, “Oh, now we are going to do mental training.” It is part of the whole thing. It is totally integrated. That’s what’s happening now, and that is where we are going to go more and more, I think.

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*Intro/outro music used in podcasts: "Tech Toys" by Lee Rosevere