Posts Tagged 'sport psychology education'

Novitiate Sport Psychers: Relationships

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

Relationships are the foundation of all satisfying and enduring endeavors

Athletes rely on each other in the realm of sport. Partnership seems to be a defining factor of all great teams. It’s the emotion which stems from these positive relationships that drives motivation to surge forward. Young people get involved and then stay involved in sport (or teams) when relationships work. When those same ties begin to erode, moving on is the next logical step. The same is true in the professional world.

It’s not always the relationship that gets someone hired, but it’s the relationship that provides the opportunity to interview. It’s not simply the relationship that keeps business partners together, however, a strained team does not stick through the hard times.

Individuals who pride themselves on building strong relationships consistently have a support system both professionally and personally. At the beginning, middle and end of a career it’s this support system that breeds opportunity and allows success to endure. My questions to the new sport psychers of 2013 are:

  1. Who is your support system?
  2. What are you doing on a daily basis to maintain this support system?
  3. What are you doing on a daily basis to continue building your future support systems?

All the best in building strong relationships,

Matt Cuccaro


Advice for a Recent Sport Psych. Graduate

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

Here are my BIG 3 SUGGESTIONS for Stacey:

1) Define (and maintain) your Role – Sport psychology and it’s merits can be difficult to measure.  In the reality of the business world decisions are made by how much something is “worth” to customers.  So then, what exactly is sport psychology worth?  The answer…there is no answer!!?  It’s worth nothing and everything at the same time.  Mental success is difficult to define, much less measure, so good luck defining it’s “worth”.  So then, as a practitioner (especially a neophyte) what leverage do you have to convince someone to hire you?

My suggestion is to generate a firm and well founded philosophy that will become your product.  What do you truly believe enhances performance…and HOW will you put this philosophy/product to use with the population in question?  From there it may be effective to create a timetable of how much time and how many sessions will it take to educate the population on your product until they truly “get it”.  It’s one thing to get in the door, and another to stay in (which is a discussion for another post), but it is imperative to stay true to the mission established at the beginning.  I have heard too many disaster stories of recent graduates who end up filling “other roles” with the same population they are trying to do sport psychology work with.  Not only do you tend to lose credibility, but you also lose the ability to develop your sport psychology product and refine it to become successful in the long-term.

2) Maintain a High Standard of Ethics – It’s human nature to want people to like you.  Be aware of that and do not confuse high quality and effective work with the desire to be liked.  Yes, we are hired to listen to and support those around us, but there are professional boundaries that must be established.  As a young practitioner you will likely not be much older than (and you may actually be even younger than) the population you work with.  Be a professional first…and be a professional second.  Period.

3) Establish a Support System – You will need help.  After 5+ years of working with athletes on player development and the mental aspects of performance every day, I still rely very heavily and continue to develop a support system for myself.  Thanks mostly to my colleagues on this blog!!  But there are other local clinical psychologists, family members, and friends who support my professional and personal needs so I can stick my role (see #1) on a daily basis.

Like any other pursuit in life, developing a quality sport psychology product takes highly channeled effort.  Hopefully these BIG 3 SUGGESTIONS assist you to channel that effort effectively Stacey!!

A common question…

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

Throughout the years I have received thousands of questions.  More than any other question, however, the one I receive most often is, “What exactly do you do for a living?”  The answer is simple and complicated at the same time…

I have designed and implement a mental training program to assist student-athletes in reaching their potential on and off the golf course.  Students are equipped with a mindset which is supplemented by skills to assist them to maximize their potential through quality practice, self-management, and a mindset of continuous improvement.

It all starts with student-athletes creating a clear and specific mission they would like to achieve.  This mission provides purpose and the motivation required to continue learning on a daily basis in order to reach personal short and long-term goals.  An individual with a specific purpose will overcome potential obstacles and distractions that may draw attention away from the task at hand.  Once the student-athlete creates his or her own mission, and understands the importance of having a purpose for every action, they will begin to engage in quality practice.  Quality practice can only be achieved when the student knows what he/she is working on and holds him/herself accountable for it.  Hitting balls, chipping, or putting mindlessly (without purpose) does not maximize time and energy; and worse yet, might lead to overuse injuries.  The more engaged the practice, the more learning and improvement occurs during that time.  Quality practice has two major benefits.  First and foremost, it creates increased confidence that will allow the student-athlete to know they have done everything within their power to prepare for competition.  The second benefit of quality practice is that it will also allow for balance and quality time off the course.  If the student-athlete knows he/she has done everything possible to improve during practice time, there will be no regrets during free time away from the golf course either.

Competition is the time for athletes to showcase their skills and prove their merit.  During competition, there are many external distractions and pressures that athletes must learn to manage effectively in order to play to their potential.  How an athlete responds to these distractions and pressures has much to do with the mindset they take into competition.  There are two distinct mindsets that separate competitors.  One of them is an outcome orientation, which is the mindset of an athlete who is more concerned with the end result (scores, rankings, college scholarships, etc.) and how they might appear to other people.  This mindset leads to inconsistent performances from athletes who typically perform below their potential.  An athlete with a process orientation, on the other hand, is more focused on “playing one shot at a time”.  This mindset allows the athlete to focus on him/herself and the appropriate action to take in the present moment to be successful.  An athlete with a process orientation tends to maintain a consistent level of effort, regardless of the situation, and typically sees more consistent outcomes as a result.

Finally, following competition it is imperative for athletes to engage in active rest.  This is the time for the student-athlete to take a step back and give an honest assessment of his/her own tournament performance and training leading up to the event.  An effective evaluation includes strengths that emerged to continue developing; limitations that exist that may be holding the individual back from reaching their potential; and most importantly, an updated plan to create the next mission to move forward and continue improving with renewed purpose and energy.

Hopefully this piece clarifies, rather than complicates the question of what I do and how I work to assist my student-athletes on a daily basis.  Just as I encourage my athletes to evaluate themselves on a regular basis to reach their potential, I attempt to do the same for myself.  This is my philosophy today.  Only time and introspection will tell if this answer will be the same down the road.

Solid Foundations Make Strong Buildings

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

The same is true when developing great athletes.  An unstable foundation creates a weak base.  A weak base cannot support continued growth.  Without continued growth, an athletic career will never reach its true potential.  A solid foundation on the other hand, can support a great amount of growth, development, and skill acquisition.  A solid foundation built upon sound fundamentals will also remain stable in pressure situations.  Great coaches and athletes continuously monitor the fundamentals of their sport before moving on to more advanced areas of development, which lays the foundation for long, prosperous, and healthy careers.

fundamentals pic

This model of player development may seem elementary, but following through to physically put the model into action is not.  In the real world of sport and competition, coaches and players face constant criticism and doubt when growth, skill development, and wins do not add up quickly.  This criticism and doubt often comes from those closest to the coaches and athletes themselves (parents, friends, team owners/management, etc…).  The temptation to move on to more advanced and more creative skills quickly builds.  Let’s face it, working on fundamentals is typically not as much fun or challenging for coaches and athletes either.  This adds even greater pressure to abandon the patience and long-term vision required to stick to the basics .  Remember, however, that once the coach or athlete does give in to this temptation, there is no way to turn back the clock.  Before you know it, the model starts to look a bit more like this…

fundamentals2 pic

Which model best fits your philosophy?  Does that philosophy show itself in your everyday training?

A Failure in Contextual Intelligence

I was at the fights in Boston on Saturday night (8/28/10).  I had the pleasure of sitting next to a father of two girls (ages 5 and 4), 20+ year vet of a rural police force, husband of a middle school teacher, and MMA/UFC fan.  He had been following the sport for many years now, appreciated the athleticism of the combatants, and was just simply a good guy.  After the first few fights had concluded he asked me what I did for work.  I told him that I worked in sport psychology.  From looking at his reaction to my answer you would have thought I told him I was from Mars.  He had not heard of sport psychology, nor had any sense that there was a role for sport psych in the UFC.

This same week, it was brought to my attention that a “sport psychologist” was featured on a reality television show.  The role of the sport psychology professional was to interview potential mates for an athlete and share conclusions with the employer.

You cannot be serious! (My small tribute to Mac during this year’s Open).  A thoughtful, passionate sports fan has no idea that sport psychology exists.  The reality television show consumer believes that sport psychology professionals should be used like  I’m thinking that it is better that the former spectator appreciates the field rather than the later.  Yet this does not appear to be the case.

One really has to wonder if this is a gross failure of a field to have a reasonable level of contextual intelligence.  The science of sport and exercise psychology is better than ever.  The expectations of a competent sport psychology practitioner are solid (in particular, see the AAASP doctoral level certification requirements –  Yet, the field seems to not understand how to relate to and educate its core consumers – coaches, athletes, and those deeply engaged in sport.  Rather than relating to these constituents, cheep laughs and publicity are sought out with reality t.v., Oprah, and weak soundbites for news stories.  Sport psychology is too often seen as a punchline rather than credible performance enhancer.

In the grand scheme of things, this has minimal influence on me.  I’m a grizzled vet by applied sport psychology standards (1st research study done 18 years ago, almost 15 years of applied practice, and a decade post-doctorate).  Yet I still find myself very anxious and frustrated when these failures of a field to grow efficiently show themselves so clearly.  I feel this because I talk to students and recent graduates on an almost daily basis and there seem to be no more opportunities in the field than when I started well over a decade ago.

Yesterday I had two discussions with young professionals who can be tremendous practitioners of sport psychology.  One is in the midst of his doctoral studies and wrestling daily with how to best train himself.  While asking questions, days pass where he is not reading journals, working with athletes, or engaging in sport psychology.  The field has frustrated him to inactivity at times.  The other is already a success in the field.  A master’s level practitioner that sees 5-10 hours of individual athletes a week (maybe not enough for an affluent lifestyle, but more than most practitioners in this field).  He is also engaged daily in a sports medicine clinic and its activities.  Both of these young gentlemen asked me, “Is it possible to make a living in sport psychology outside of academia?”

A very reasonable question.  I hesitate at an answer.  This field has been very good to me and I enjoy the work I do.  But this required an early and focused start, many years of athlete’s hours (nights and weekends), and a wife that gets my passion and shows great patience.  All this being said, the field has grown slowly and too often those in it fail to truly understand the realities of competitive athletes and coaches (lack of “cultural intelligence”?).  I want to tell the young professionals that sport psychology is a tremendous and lucrative career for all.  I’m not sure if that is a fair answer to give.  Heck the passionate sports father has no idea that we exist.

All this being said, I have not given up.  There are too many good coaches out there and too many athletes that are ready to work on their mental game.  Sure a lot of strides need to be made by the field as a whole to elucidate things and educate others, but the optimist in me believes it will be happen.  Many in my era of professionals have been frustrated, but many still continue to persurvere  and believe that athlete and coaches want us… maybe even need us.

This optimism aside, the field needs to do a better job thinking about who we truly want to serve and support.  Consider their needs and their reality.  And extend beyond striving for pop culture popularity, rather searching to be respected and accepted in the trenches where sport is played and passionately anaylzed.

C.A.R.E. for Adolescent Player Development

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

The phrase “kids are not little adults” has been thrown around in coaching and player development circles for many years.  But what does this phrase mean exactly?  What truly differentiates children, from teenagers, from adults?  Why do adolescents behave in such peculiar (and seemingly irresponsible) ways at times?  The answer lies in brain development.  The following piece will highlight the basics and establish guidelines for working effectively with adolescent athletes.

As the brain develops from childhood to adulthood a series of changes take place.  Although we are actually born with the same number of neurons we possess as adults, the way those neurons connect and interact changes dramatically throughout a lifetime.  Brain development starts from the brain stem and works forward to the prefrontal cortex as we develop mentally.  At approximately three years of age the hippocampus matures, allowing us to retain memories for the first time.  Next, the regions of the brain that handle language and motor development mature allowing us to read and build friendships.  The final part of the brain to fully develop and interact with the other regions is the prefrontal cortex.  The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that controls executive decisions (planning, judgment, and decisions).  Therefore, a failure in concentration, focus, motivation, and consistent effort from teenagers is directly linked to a completely normal, yet undeveloped brain…not necessarily laziness or stupidity as some people observe.

Coaches who C.A.R.E. for developing adolescent athletes follow guidelines similar to the following…

Consistent – Teenagers actually thrive under consistent guidance and rules, although they sometimes do not show it themselves.  At the beginning of a season or each individual practice, establish fair rules and guidelines that are mutually beneficial for a learning environment.  For example, “When one person speaks others listen”.  Once these rules and guidelines are established, there is no guesswork involved.  Coaches must also maintain the same consistency with applying these rules and guidelines.  If coaches and team leaders do not model the same behavior toward rules and guidelines, do not expect your athletes to abide by them either. Create a short list of your “non-negotiable” rules of behavior as a coach and be sure that these standards are highlighted and maintained on a regular basis by both athletes and staff.  The same is true for skill development.  Establish a few fundamental skills that will serve as building blocks throughout the season and revisit them regularly to establish effective habits.

Action – In general, teenagers also have a shorter attention span than adults.  Therefore, activities that are geared toward learning through movement and mutual discussion allow for natural shifts in attention.  Rather than speaking at an individual or group for extended periods of time, allow for mutual collaboration and movement.  Discussion and action also serves as a great measuring stick for how much the individual actually understands and can apply what is being taught.  When discussion time is needed, be specific and concise with the message.  Once the athletes get back to action, it will become clear if the lesson has been learned.

Reinforce – Reinforcement goes hand-in-hand with consistency of rules, guidelines, and actions. It also includes positive reinforcement.  When an athlete shows mastery (or improvement) of a skill, be specific with feedback to reinforce effective habits at least as often as modification and correction is made.  Do not fudge the truth and praise athletes for ineffective skill development or behavior; critiques are needed too.  However, be aware of how much criticism versus positive reinforcement is being given and celebrate successes together.  Specific and timely reinforcement with equal distribution (favor towards the positive as often as possible) will enhance the learning environment and mutual respect between athlete and coach.

Experiment – The adolescent brain is heavily matured in creativity, but not as much in the consequences of acting upon these creative thoughts.  Common teenage thoughts begin with “What if…” statements, so use these thoughts to your advantage as a coach in the controlled environment of practice.  Teachable moments will arise in abundance!  Allow players to experiment with new techniques and strategies.  When the appropriate series of events unfolds, stop and highlight any lessons learned from the experience.  In this way, consequences will become more directly attributed to the experimental “What if…” statements.  One of the most effective ways to learn is through experimentation and making mistakes.  As long as these experiments and mistakes are made (and framed) as lessons learned, athletes will be less concerned with making mistakes in competition.  Again, effective coaches are consistent in both practice and competition as well.  So if mistakes are made in competition, acknowledge these mistakes as lessons learned for improvement instead of detriments to growth and development.

Every coach and every environment is slightly different.  However, all effective coaches consistently evaluate themselves as much as their athletes.  Those who C.A.R.E. for athlete development respect individual differences and also maintain a healthy and controlled learning environment at the same time.  By understanding some fundamentals of human development coaches can become more effective leaders of player development as a result.  For a more descriptive and scientific view on the subject of adolescent brain development, follow this link to a piece written by Dr. Laurence Steinberg (2005).

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