Do happy athletes make better athletes?

Meditation and mental conditioning have been transforming the culture of the Seattle Seahawks football team since coach Pete Carroll took over in 2010.  As detailed in the September issue of ESPN The Magazine, Coach Pete Carroll in conjunction with sports psychologist Dr. Mike Gervais is redesigning most everything about professional football.

“The big idea is that happy players make for better players,” notes ESPN author Alyssa Roenigk.  Coach Carroll preaches the importance of staying positive and accountable, taking care of each other, being concerned about a player’s personal life, and focusing on mental health as well as physical status. Players regularly attend meditation sessions. Coaches emphasize a player’s positive performance rather than humiliating them in front of their teammates. Players’ sleep patterns, dietary habits, and metabolic status are monitored. Regular counseling is encouraged rather than viewed with suspicion.

The connection between one’s mental state and physical performance has always been recognized but the science of sports psychology began over a hundred years ago. Early research focused on issues of reaction time of athletes and the best ways to structure practices.  College football coach “Pop” Warner worked with a sports psychologist in the 1920s to improve the performance of offensive linemen. Phil Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs, hired psychologist Coleman Griffith in the 1930s to work with baseball players to improve hitting.

Baseball guru Yogi Berra recognized the importance of Psychology when he asserted “Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.”

There are 300,000 sports psychologists nationwide working with virtually every type of athlete. They deal with issues of motivation, goal setting, stress management and effective strategies to enhance performance.

This is not psychobabble intended to help athletes feel better, but scientific techniques designed to help athletes perform at a higher level and teams to be more successful.

We have a long way to go in applying these techniques to youth sports programs. Sports are great for kids, with lots of physical and psychological advantages. Kids involved in youth sports generally do better in school and learn lots of important lessons about self-discipline and teamwork.

These advantages are sometimes offset by managers (and parents) who continue to masquerade abusive strategies under the guise of effective coaching. Verbal abuse and humiliation are not necessary to produce highly competitive athletes.

The same can be said of parents. Some of the most obnoxious behavior I have ever witnessed in youth sports occurred by parents, who vent offensive and hurtful feelings on kids and coaches.

I understand sports is all about competition and winning.  Sports psychologists are proving that there are more effective and humane ways to be successful.

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