Sport Psychologist Provides Assistance to Student Athletes

Post from The Breeze, a James Madison University Newspaper

By Forest Deal

Courtesy of the Breeze at James Madison University
Courtesy of the Breeze at James Madison University

As the old sports adage goes, practice makes perfect. However, this often refers more to the physical than mental side of the spectrum. Until recently, the JMU Athletics program had no specific mental training for its athletes.

Bob Harmison Jr., the director of sport psychology for JMU Athletics and a graduate professor of sport psychology, came to JMU to help formally start a sport psychology program for student athletes in 2008. Sports psychologists such as Harmison work with athletes to improve their mental game or overcome any mental blocks they might be facing. The role of a sport psychologist is to educate others on how to become more mentally tough and independent. 

“I work with athletes on an individual level, I work with them on their mental toughness, confidence, motivation, dealing with anxiety and pressure,” Harmison said.  

People sometimes associate a stigma with psychologists and believe people only see them if there’s something wrong. Harmison feels the same preconceived notion holds true for sport psychologists, so athletes are sometimes hesitant to approach them with the fear that others might think something is wrong with them. In actuality, many of the top athletes in the world use sport psychologists to enhance their mental toughness, according to Harmison and head women’s soccer coach David Lombardo. 

“Since the fall semester of my freshman year I have really improved with handling my emotion on the court,” Rachel Nelson, a sophomore on the women’s tennis team, said. “Dr. Harmison instructed me on how to set up a routine in order to control my emotions.” 

An athlete like Nelson can benefit greatly from individual instruction, but entire teams can improve their mental toughness after working with a psychologist.    

Coaches will typically approach psychologists to help with overall team traits. Sport psychologists meet with coaching staffs and instruct them on how to instill mental toughness into their athletes.  

“I also work on a team level where I help teams establish aspects like commitment and dedication throughout the whole team,” Harmison said.  

Lombardo says he has his team meets with Harmison three to five times a season. 

“We want to build team culture, a competitive spirit and overcome any rough patches that either the team or a player may be facing,” he said. 

Many coaches lack in-depth knowledge of sport psychology, creating a greater need for sport psychologists in athletic training. Over the last 10 years, the interaction among sport psychologists and coaches has led to increased awareness. According to Harmison, more and more coaching staffs at the collegiate and professional level are trying to utilize sport psychologists. 

Harmison, for example, holds a coaching forum three to four times a year for all JMU coaches to come together to discuss incorporating the different topics of sport psychology into their programs. There’s a pyramid of mental toughness attributes in the field of sport psychology that the programs try to incorporate. 

At the foundation of mental toughness, psychologists and coaches try to establish confidence and motivation in athletes. Harmison says athletes must have the desire to be competitive and improve, but they also need to believe they are capable of achieving the goals their team or coaches set. 

The next level comes down to how an athlete deals with adversity. 

“The adversity phase is where we coach athletes on how to deal with expectations that are put on them and how to overcome obstacles that come in their way,” Harmison said. 

The third and final stage of the pyramid deals with an athlete’s perspective. In order to get the most out of their training and perform their best, athletes need to stay in the moment and keep a positive perspective on the situation.

“Athletes will become frustrated when they are not performing well and they don’t know how to overcome their mental block,” Lombardo said. “Sometimes they need help with regaining focus so they are working smarter and not just harder.” 

In the end, training the mind can be just as important as training the body. 

“Improvements in mental toughness are not as measurable as other physical aspects in sports, but it can make a world of difference in an athlete’s performance,” Harmison said.