Athletes Can Learn To Cope With Bad Breaks

March 11, 1997

University Park, Pa. -- It is an athlete's worst nightmare -- the muffed fly ball, the intercepted football pass, or an unfair call by an official. Then, he or she struggles with feelings of fear or panic in the middle of the game.

An athlete needs to quickly switch emotional channels, replace negative self-talk with positive self-images, refocus mentally and jump back into the game, notes the March issue of the Penn State Sports Medicine Newsletter. The successful athletes will be those who understand that the most important play is always the next play, the newsletter adds.

"Sports are about overcoming adversity by reacting positively," says David Yukelson, Ph.D., sports psychologist and member of the newsletter's editorial board. "Athletes have to put their minds in a position to deal with whatever happens. Following a key play by an opponent, a bad play by a teammate, or simply a tough break, the trick is to think positively when everything around seems to be negative."

Yukelson works with men and women athletes on 29 varsity teams at Penn State to develop the mental skills necessary to compete at the elite level.

"We teach them methods to deal with adversity," Yukelson notes. "What separates excellent athletes from average athletes is the ability to let go of mistakes quickly and perform well under all conditions."

Yukelson helps athletes to understand their own patterns of behavior during competition and analyze their responses when things go wrong. Once they understand their own reactions, they can condition themselves to react appropriately to adversity.

The Penn State sports psychologist encourages athletes to develop a pre-performance routine and visualize ahead of time how they will react during competition. Then, when a mistake occurs, they can switch channels so they don't get bogged down by frustration caused by their mistake.

"We also try to teach athletes to concentrate on things over which they have control instead of dwelling on things that they cannot control," says Yukelson. "We tell them there is nothing they can do about officiating, the skill level of the opponent, the weather or their past performance.The most important thing is to be mentally and emotionally ready for the next play.

"If swimmers gets psyched out because they lose the first of four events, they are not dealing effectively with a difficult situation," Yukelson notes. "They should be gearing up mentally for the remaining races. We want our athletes to feel so recharged that they can't wait to make the play that will turn a contest back in their favor."

These mental skills take time and practice, with no cookbook approach that works for every athlete. However, several sessions with a sports psychologist can be enough to make the person aware of scenarios that trigger negative thoughts and positive ways to intervene, according to the newsletter.

If athletes are willing to recognize problem situations, practice ways to overcome adversity and evaluate their own progress, they can master a quick mental turnaround in a game situation, says Yukelson.

"Coping strategies for dealing with adversity are life skills that carry over into the academic, personal and social domains as well as the athletic domain," adds the sports psychologist.

The Penn State Sports Medicine Newsletter is a monthly publication of Penn State's Center for Sports Medicine. For subscription information, write to: Penn State Sports Medicine Newsletter, P.O. Box 3073, Langhorne, PA 19047-9377.

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