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Psychological Consulting with Varsity Athletes

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Several years ago the head coach of a Division-I men’s hockey team contacted me to discuss his concerns about one of his highly recruited players. The coach knew that I had been attending all the games, and he knew that I am a clinical psychologist. He drew the inference that I would probably know much about sport psychology, and could therefore assist this struggling athlete. Although I was flattered by the invitation, I explained to the coach that sports psychology is a specialized profession and that my interest in sports did not qualify me to represent myself as a sports psychologist. Coach told me that he understood, but still asked if I would talk to this young man. I hesitantly agreed to do so.

The player, whom I’ll call Joey, had been an elite and very successful hockey player prior to college. However, half way through his freshman year, he failed to live up to expectations that he would be a leading scorer on the team. In fact, he hadn’t scored a single goal, and seemed tentative and skittish throughout most of the games. Joey eagerly accepted the coach’s recommendation that he talk to me to try to sort out what the problem was.

In our first meeting, we discussed Joey’s hockey career throughout his youth, as he spoke with pride about his impressive statistics and many awards. When discussing his game since beginning college, he said he was baffled about why he was underperforming. In our second meeting, I asked Joey to talk about anything that felt different in this year’s playing as compared to last year’s and the year before that. Obviously, the level of play was much more competitive at the collegiate level. The crowds were much larger, and the venue more intense. However, Joey said that he wasn’t particularly fazed by any of those differences. I asked Joey to go deeper in his self-exploration, and to talk about the emotional aspects of his collegiate experience that were new to him. After a few moments of silence, Joey said, “I know that this shouldn’t be a big deal, but one big difference is the behavior of my father. When I was a high-school athlete, my father was very critical of how I played every game. He would nitpick the way I handled the puck, the way I held the stick, the way I skated. Every flaw of my game would be scrutinized. However, now that I’m a college player, he’s not critical at all. After each game, he just says, ‘Good effort.’ Although this sounds crazy, I really miss the critiques, because at least his criticisms were proof that he cared.” After sharing this observation, Joey seemed a bit stunned as he came to the realization that his deficient performance in collegiate hockey had psychological underpinnings not specifically related to what was happening on the ice.

I suggested to Joey that it might be beneficial for him to invite his father to comment on his game, perhaps in a toneless critical than his previous style, yet with observations and assessments that would be helpful to Joey. Joey followed through with this suggestion, and engaged in a heart-to-heart discussion with his father in which his father shared his own conflict about how to interact with Joey at this higher level of play. Joey’s father explained that he didn’t want to embarrass Joey, and he didn’t want to sound condescending. In the weeks that followed, Joey and his father engaged in constructive critical assessments of his play, and Joey’s skills on the ice once again shined brightly. When word about this transformation spread to other players, I was contacted by a half-dozen members of the team asking me to “do to them what I had done to Joey.”

Thus began my role as a psychological consultant to the varsity hockey team. Occasionally, I have been interviewed about my work with the team, and I’m asked about my role as the sports psychologist for the team. I always respond, “No, I’m not the sports psychologist. That’s the job of the coach.” I explain that I am a consulting psychologist who helps players develop insight and understanding about the factors in their lives that interfere with their attainment of athletic excellence. Most commonly, the distracting issue has to do with a relationship, perhaps with a significant other, or with a parent, or with a coach. In some instances, the player is distressed by academic pressures, or worried about family matters, or consumed with personal worries. For some players, the consultation involves just one or two meetings. For others, periodic talks prove beneficial.

When asked my thoughts about why these consultations are so eagerly sought by players, my response is this: Hockey players who have been recruited to play Division-I hockey in one of the most competitive leagues in the country are a special breed. Besides being exceptionally skilled, they tend to be very emotional individuals. In the game of hockey, this emotion provides them with fuel to compete and to excel. However, when they are not on the ice, they may feel lost about how to manage their heightened level of emotionality. They find great relief when they talk through their feelings, express their fears, and work through their challenges. Many of these young men have been surprised, yet relieved, when tears come to their eyes as they talk about thoughts and feelings rarely discussed until this point in their lives. In this process, the spotlight is not on scoring goals or winning games, but rather on managing their emotions in ways that will help them excel in all spheres of their lives.

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