(Editor's note: The mental aspect of sport is often overlooked, and there's confusion regarding the roles sport psychology can play. This is Part 3 of a three-part series explaining mental health, mental skills and sport psychology. Danny Desin, M.S., is a member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology and a prospective Certified Mental Performance Consultant (CMPC). Desin interviewed three former Montana athletes -- Dylan Donahue, Josh Huestis and Christina Aragon -- about the mental aspect of sport. For Par 1 with Dylan Donahue, please click here. Part 2 with Josh Huestis, please click here. )
What percentage of any given sport -- individual or team -- is mental?
Athletes of all levels will often answer this question with a number 75 percent and above. Assuming that’s true, what percentage of time does any given athlete devote to improving themselves in the mental aspect of their game? The most common answer to that question is zero percent. That means no time spent improving the one aspect of the game that the athlete is in complete control of, no time spent looking at the value of sport and how it can help in so many other areas, no time spent gaining the competitive edge.
Bill Russell said that “concentration and mental toughness are the margins of victory,” and he is absolutely correct. Think about how many athletes who are not as skilled as their opponents end up winning. The same applies to teams. To put it in the simplest way possible: That phenomena is the result of mental ability, which is the primary focus of sport and performance psychology.
There is a question that lingers with most in Montana: What does a sport psychology consultant do?
There are many terms used for this type of career. Sport psychologist, sport psychology consultant, mental game coach -- all really the same. The main body of sport psychology is the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. Instead of licensing their members, they offer a certification that ensures that those in the field are competent. After completing the requirements, one becomes a Certified Mental Performance Consultant. Consultants work with teams, individual athletes, and even coaches. This work is done on the field and off the field. It is delivered in ways that are uniquely catered to the team or athlete that needs the service but always focuses on the performer’s well-being and level of performance. Almost all professional sports organizations have a “Mental Performance Coach” somewhere on their staff. Many college organizations are also investing in sport psychology, and smaller organizations are beginning to, as well.
Christina Aragon is a well-known name in the sports world of Montana. She is a former Billings Senior High and current Stanford University runner whose accomplishments are extensive, including a fourth-place finish at the 2018 NCAA Division I National Championships in the 1,500-meter run. Aragon takes part in a unique sport as far as mental ability goes because of the almost-guaranteed pain that runners endure during their races. Aragon touches on this topic in her responses, and also talks about the benefits of working with a sport psychologist.
Q: Please describe your experience in working with a Sport Psychology Consultant.
Aragon: "I began working with a sport psychologist in my junior year at Stanford, and it has been an extremely positive experience, both for my relationship with running and my personal happiness as a student-athlete. It is difficult to fully understand your own thoughts when they are caught up in your head, but sport psych has helped me to better understand my own patterns of thinking. This has allowed me to form a healthier relationship with running that is based on excitement at the possibilities, rather than a need to accomplish something in order to achieve happiness."
Q: How important are mental skills in sports?
Aragon: "I believe that mental skills make up a large portion of what sport is. When looking at elite athletes, all of them are talented and all of them are fit. At this level, an athlete’s ability to work in conjunction with their own mind is what often determines results. In an endurance sport like running, I have found my headspace to have a huge impact on performance. Endurance sports are all about existing with pain and using goals to remind the mind that the cost of the pain is worth the result you are pursuing. Endurance athletes have to work to develop the mental skill of changing the relationship they have with pain, recognizing it as a good and natural part of the sport. Since mental skills have been a centerpiece in my experience with my sports, I assume that it is a dire part of any competitive sport in which you are practicing and competing at a high level."
Q: What role does mental health play in sports?
Aragon: "Mental health is important because the relationship you have with you own mind in life is often going to be reflected in your self-talk in a sporting event. I have found running to be almost a parallel world where I get to learn real-life lessons in the lower-stakes context of sport. The things that you learn in sports about your own internal being and the skills that you develop to interact with that being are the same skills and lessons that you need for the hardships of life. Therefore, I think working with someone on headspace in the context of sports and the setbacks of sports can consequently help to improve overall mental health. As you compete at a higher level, I have found that personal enjoyment and stress levels can have a greater impact on how you perform. Working with someone on overall mental health can help to make competition a more enjoyable and life-enhancing experience, which can consequently lead to more success, as well."
Focusing on mentality can make an athlete happier and more successful. Although the concept seems simple, the results can be profound. The margins of victory are often measured in inches. Inches can determine whether or not a last-second shot goes in. Inches can determine whether or not the defense gets the goal-line stand they’re looking for. Inches can determine the winner of a close race down the back stretch. Sport psychology may not give an athlete a mile, but it just may give the inches necessary to succeed.
About Danny Desin (www.desinsportpsych.com): Danny Desin has been around the Billings sports community all of his life — as a spectator, player, and coach. Desin received a Bachelors of Science in Psychology from MSU Billings and played college basketball for both Montana State University and MSU Billings. Has has graduate level education at both Boise State University and California Southern University, where he finished a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a specialization in Sport Psychology. He is a member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology and a prospective Certified Mental Performance Consultant (CMPC).