Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Sport Psychology In The Weightroom: Establishing a Foundation - By Fayyadh R. Yusuf, Ph.D.

Originally posted on the old NaturalStrength.com site on March 1, 2001

In a recent conversation with an N.F.L. running back I was asked if my job as a sport psychologist was "dealing with players who have mental problems?". Based on his tone, I suspected he equated "psychology" with an extremely negative connotation and wanted to put that perception to rest immediately. "No," I responded. "The players I work with don't have 'problems' so much as they're not fulfilling their true potential. My job is helping them overcome any hurdles that may be preventing them from playing great all the time."

This response was good enough to peak his interest and open a line of communication between the two of us. In addition to wanting a resource to bounce his thoughts off of, he wanted my professional opinions on these same matters. By our times end, he seemed interested in the benefits a sport psychologist could provide to an athlete in the N.F.L. The thing he realized is that competition is 90% mental, so retaining a specialist who can help him develop this area is no different than working with a strength or position coach.

In most cases, good coaches address the psychology of performance as part of their athletes' preparation. But sometimes the athlete can't confide in the coach or the coach doesn't possess the necessary knowledge to help. That's where I would come in and offer my perspective. Having been asked to write articles for the NaturalStrength web site, I hope that my professional expertise on the mental side of sport will be a positive learning experience for you, the weight lifting enthusiast.

As of this moment, my intention is to maintain a series of short articles which address issues I've deemed relevant to strength training--for both the coach and athlete. Including this article, I already have seven topics in mind. After that, I look to the readers for my inspiration.

For those of you wondering about my credentials, you may be interested to know that I have worked as a performance enhancement consultant, personal trainer, collegiate strength coach and researcher in the psychology of excellence for over five years. My educational background includes a masters degree in Sport Psychology and a doctorate in Evaluation. Currently, I develop mental programs (the way a strength coach develops lifting programs) for individuals wanting to maximize their mental acuity. My clients range from junior athletes to professionals in a variety of sports. While I don't profess to hold any "answers to life," I do hope that some of my thoughts prove valuable in your personal quests.

As with any client, whether they're involved in sport, the arts, business or even medicine, I begin with philosophy...


Philosophy is simply the way we think about life (both personally and professionally). How we think is based on our perceptions of all the stimuli around us. For example, how do we react in times of distress? when things are going well? when no pressure is on us to do anything? Our instincts in all of these situations, and countless others, comes from our philosophy.

Everyone has a philosophy despite age or circumstance. The problem is that the vast majority of us fail to conduct a thorough self-evaluation of our thought patterns. Our attitudes, therefore, go unchecked, unchallenged and often times, underdeveloped. While I strongly believe that everyone has room to improve, some persons are fortunate to be raised with a great mind-set. But for the rest of us, it takes hard work to maximize our mental proficiency.

Philosophies are similar to physical traits in that our parents give us their tendencies. If their habits include seeing the positive in all situations, living a healthy lifestyle and working hard, then chances are good that their children will adopt a similar view. Other significant influences include teachers, coaches, friends, etc. who pass their philosophies on to us. This process starts when we are very young; children are able to absorb a surprisingly large amount of information even before they can clearly express themselves. And as the infant grows into a young adult, the values learned during the formative years become more deeply ingrained.

Again, this is similar to physical traits. As we grow older, our facial features, complexion, physical frame and hair often resemble some morphosis of our parents. Barring surgery, this development is inevitable. Changing our philosophical disposition, however, is very different in that regard. The beauty of our minds is that it is one of the few things we have total control over. Despite the manner in which we were raised, the power to change is within each of us--we are our own surgeons.

Of course, there is no real "cutting" involved in this procedure. Therefore, I prefer to think of mental training similar to physical training. With a prescribed plan of attack, diligence and patience, changes can be made naturally over time. But given my experience in both realms, let me assure you that the former is far more challenging. Pain thresholds may be an unavoidable factor to growing stronger, but those moments only last for a short period of time. The discomfort of changing attitudinal factors, on the other hand, is an on going process that demands attention 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Why? Because mentally, we are always active (even when "resting").

Interestingly, in my work and research exploring the philosophies of various performers, I've learned that the persons who excel at their professional lives generally hold the same values in their home life too. For example, during observations of a surgeon operating on his patients, I noted behaviors reflective of efficiency, tenacity and concentration. Later, I noticed the same demeanor while this same surgeon was playing tennis and cutting the grass. These are inner qualities which he possesses despite circumstance. Likewise, the head football coach of an N.F.L. team I've spent time with applies his spiritual convictions both at home and with his team. His religious convictions guide his everyday decisions at all times.

From a psychological perspective, it makes sense that these individuals excel in life because their minds are at ease. There are no conflicting "personalities" competing to make decisions; there is only one philosophy for any given situation. If this is the case for athletes in the weight room, then those who strive to get the tenth repetition of a set will apply equal resolve when challenged by complexities at school or work. But what does one do if the innate philosophy to achieve needs improving?

If you consider our quest for greatness a journey, than the process of getting better is never ending. Even for those few individuals who compete at the elite level (e.g. professional sports, multi-national corporations, etc.), there is room to get better. The key is knowing what areas require improvement.

Through appropriate self-evaluation we can assess philosophical strengths and weaknesses. Knowing strengths is integral because they serve as our weapons during difficult times. Finding weaknesses is equally important because they are the focal points of practices. In an athletic event, technical evaluations (e.g. strokes, footwork, blocking, etc.) are done through statistics and video analysis. We watch and count how many shots were made during a game, whether everyone was in proper position before a play, or other observable factors relative to playing well. Analysis of philosophical/mental performance can be performed in the same manner except that the focus is on "what were you thinking at this moment?."

Three things should stand out immediately about this process. First, it requires the subject (i.e. the athlete) to participate in his/her own evaluation. Second, the athlete must remember his/her thoughts of past events. And third, the athlete must trust the coach in order for honest communications to develop. The coach, in effect, merely facilitates this evaluation; he isn't the expert because he can't identify an athlete's thoughts. But once the deficiencies are revealed, it is the coaches (or sport psychologists) job to help guide the athlete in a direction that will improve his/her thoughts. If the coach happens to be the "subject", than s/he should seek outside means (e.g. people, literature, etc.) for developmental strategies.

There are numerous resources to learn from when attempting to improve our philosophical disposition. And thanks to the technological advances of the internet, many are relatively inexpensive. My favorite and thus far most reliable guidance comes from reading articles, biographies, and perspectives of persons who have excelled in their chosen endeavors.

While reading this literature, I pay particular attention to the attitudes or thought patterns which emerge during the persons life. For example, how do they handle success? misfortune? injuries? Those aspects which I am comfortable adopting, I attempt to incorporate into my own life (and/or work). It's similar to the weightroom adage: "if you want bigger legs, then find the person in your gym with the biggest legs and do what he does." Imitation is the way to go--assuming you're selective in the chosen qualities. In other words, one must be discriminating when choosing role models and their respective behaviors.

Another consideration to keep in mind is that it's impossible to retrace the exact footsteps another person has taken in their life's journey. You can't possibly meet the same people, experience the same events or feel their emotions. Although many people who excel in their chosen domain may share some philosophical beliefs fundamentally, everyone's journey is unique--as is yours.

This sense of individuality is comparable to physical differences. Athletes who lift the same amount of weight or play the same position rarely look the same physically. Some quarterbacks are taller than others, some pointgaurds are quicker than others and some tennis players are stronger than others. So why can they all perform well in their respective sports? Because they know how to maximize their abilities by being strong in mind.

When it comes to the weightroom, coaches and athletes must have a great philosophical foundation from which to begin their training. Their mental habits will determine how they deal with both successes and setbacks during lifting sessions. So to get the most out of themselves, it's imperative that they recognize their mental habits. Those that inhibit progress should be weeded out while emphasizing those that promote success.


In order to assess your philosophy, take several weeks to address the following situations. Someone who knows you should do the same during that period. At the end of the established period (e.g. 3 weeks) compare answers.

*describe X's disposition (physical and mental characteristics) when things are going really well in the weight room. cite specific instances/examples.

*describe X's disposition (physical and mental characteristics) when things are going really poorly in the weight room. cite specific instances/examples.

*describe X's disposition (physical and mental characteristics) when things are going really well outside of the weight room. cite specific instances/examples.

*describe X's disposition (physical and mental characteristics) when things are going really poorly outside of the weight room. cite specific instances/examples.

*what is X's attitude toward strength training in general?

*in order of degree (highest to lowest), describe three of X's strengths. cite specific instances/examples.

*in order of degree (highest to lowest), describe three of X's weaknesses. cite specific instances/examples.
Does modern bodybuilding make you sick? You should write for Natural Strength! I always need good articles about drug-free weight training. It only has to be at least a page and nothing fancy. Just write it strong and truthful with passion! Send your articles directly to me: bobwhelan@naturalstrength.com

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