With the Olympics taking center stage on many American television sets this month, the elite athlete stands (or skates, skis and jumps) in front of us as the epitome of skill, training and preparation.
For many, the Olympic stage is one to which we’ll never rise. However, there are lessons to be learned from these athletes when it comes to mental preparation. The field of sports psychology has a deep body of research on maximizing performance, research that is being applied to the average human both on and off the local golf course.
New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter spoke with Pamela Enders, Ph.D., a Cambridge-based psychologist who runs a performance coaching business where she works with local business people, lawyers and performance artists. Enders, who is also on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and runs a private clinical practice, has given workshops and written about performance skills for legal publications and is working on a book aimed at helping lawyers. She spoke about her work training professionals to use sports psychology techniques to improve performance in high stakes situations.
Q: How do sports psychology techniques translate to other worlds?
A: About 50 to 80 percent of what contributes to success in athletics are the mental factors. If that is true in sports, I believe that it is true in any type of endeavor we embrace. Sports psychology really gives people the tools to move themselves from being mediocre to excellent if they are willing to put forward the time and effort. It is not magic, of course; it is really a matter of knowing what tools will work for you and coming up with a system and a plan to practice and apply them.
If you think of elite athletes, Olympic athletes, virtually all of them will have worked with sports psychologists. If you take the Olympic ideal and apply it to the business world, who doesn’t want to succeed as well as an Olympic athlete? If you are starting a business, you have to pitch your ideas to investors and you better be able to do it with confidence and poise. If you are applying for a job, you have to be confident, clear, precise. Anxiety can interfere with performances of any kind.
Q: You have also served as chair of the Joint Committee on the Status of Women at Harvard Medical School and founded the Center for Therapy and Study of Women at Massachusetts General Hospital. Do you specialize with women in coaching as well?
A: I really see equal numbers of men and women. I do think that women are more reluctant to make themselves visible. Men will come in because they want to work on performance skills to get ahead. With women, there is this notion that if I do a good job and am reliable, that people will notice and I will be promoted. But that is not the case. You’ve got to be out there.
Because I am also a performing artist, I bring those skills to play as well in my work with people and there are ways a woman might present herself which are different from the way a man has to present himself. I hate to say that is the case, but it is.
Q: Is this changing? Are younger women more confident?
A: I do think younger women tend to be more confident until they run into the reality of corporate life or a law firm and they are suddenly surprised by the rigidity of the “old boy system.” In school, they may sail through and do beautifully but in the real world they may have some problems with their confidence. That is when they need a mentor to help them figure out the political structure and how to work through that.
Q: You also work with musicians and singers, in part because that is what led you to this field, right?
A: When I was a young woman, I thought I was going to be a singer but I took a detour and got my Ph.D. instead. As a resolution to a midlife crisis about 15 years ago, I thought it was time to get out of the shower and back in public to sing so I started going to open mic performances. I was so anxious I couldn’t catch my breath and I would forget the lyrics. I said to myself, “You are a shrink, figure this out.” That is when I discovered the world of sports psychology.
Q: What tools do you use on yourself?
A: Visualization is a very powerful tool. For instance, I talk about creating a mental movie where you are producer, director and star. I come up with a power word or phrase that conjures how I want to feel in that performance moment and then I see myself in the performance situation, going on stage and performing the way I want to perform.
It really does work, because you are literally changing the brain each time you visualize.
There are a number of other things to do: create a performance schedule and a particular way of performing and reframe anxiety.
Q: What is the most important skill you teach?
A: Focus on performance or process goals, not outcome goals.
We think in terms of, “Did I make the sale or not” but we don’t really have control over whether somebody buys our product, only over our own performance. And, if we focus on that, interestingly enough, we are more likely to make the sale.
I worked with a group of bagpipers who were heading to Scotland to perform in a world competition. I said, “All right, tell me the things you are worried about.” They said the weather and the fact that they have biases against Americans; I made a list. I asked if they had control over any of these issues. No, of course they didn’t have control over the weather or biases, etc. So I asked, “How much energy are you putting into worrying about things that you have no control over? Let’s come up with another list of things you do have control over.” They have control over attitude and how much time they practice, those kinds of things.
It was interesting to see how the anxiety level fell and how much energy there was in the room because they could focus on things they could control. That is all part of the mental preparation. Little things like that can make a huge difference in how people feel and how they end up performing.
Q: Do you feel that this field is an expanding area for psychologists?
A: I think that in an increasingly competitive employment environment, it is incumbent on individuals to find ways to be competitive and teaching these techniques can make a difference. How are they going to ace that interview? What skills do they need to make themselves heard and understood?
With the Affordable Care Act, it has been said that private practice as we know it will no longer exist in a few years. So, all psychologists need to find ways to reposition themselves as experts or people of authority in a particular niche. Finding a niche that is consistent with what you love and what you are good at is the way to go.
By Catherine Robertson Souter