Special to FOXSports.com – Oct 22, 2005 – Dan Weil – As sports have turned into big business, the use of sport psychologists has mushroomed. Teams and athletes are looking for any kind of edge they can get, and experts are quick to point out that the mental game is key to athletic performance.
Roland Carlstedt, chairman of the American Board of Sports Psychology and a sport psychologist himself, estimates that up to two-thirds of professional teams have hired practitioners to help give their players a mental edge. “It’s a very glamorous field,” he noted.
John Murray, a 43-year-old psychologist in Palm Beach, Florida is one of the major psychologists in sports. He played tennis tournaments as a youngster and began his career as a teaching tennis pro after graduating from Loyola University in New Orleans.
The more he learned about tennis, the more he got excited about the mental aspects of the game. “I started to realize just how important it was to performance,” Murray said. So he went back to school at the University of Florida to earn a Master’s and PhD degree in psychology. He wrote his dissertation about a national championship Gators team during the 1990s and in ’99 opened a private practice.
Murray has counseled the Miami Dolphins, Olympic diver Michelle Davison and numerous golf and tennis players. “My philosophy is very simple,” he said. “I’m helping athletes improve their mental skills.” He breaks those skills down into eight categories, including resiliency. “How do you recover from the loss of a point, a game or a match?” Murray said. “You have to be vigilant to keep your passion and joy.”
Part of Murray’s work is helping athletes reduce distractions Ã¢â‚¬â€?”anything that gets in the way of pure performance,” as he put it. “It could be a personal issue. It could be that you’re wasting too much time in social situations or doing too much media. I help you dump some of that stuff to free up your mind and body to perform.”
While some sports psychologists are either pure sports science teachers with no training in treatment of personal problems or pure psychologists with no training in sports, Murray offers experience in both areas.
One of the techniques common to sports psychologists is getting athletes to think in terms of taking small steps rather than solving all their problems in one fell swoop. “I had an NFL quarterback who was struggling,” Murray said.
“He was taking it all on himself, not realizing he had a whole team around him. I came in and gave him a lot of work on imagery and relaxation Ã¢â‚¬â€? small steps without trying to do it all at once.” The result: “He relaxed and broke his slump after we intervened,” Murray said.
Among the imagery he had the quarterback go through was to lie on his back for five to 10 minutes visualizing situations where he dropped back to pass, faced pressure, found his primary receiver covered, checked off and completed short passes to his secondary receivers.
“Like Napoleon said, battles are won before soldiers go to the field,” Murray said. “There are a lot of things you can do.”
Pro tennis player Vince Spadea is certainly happy with what Murray did for him. After reaching his top world ranking of 19 in 1999, Spadea fell on hard times. He endured a record 21-match losing streak that lasted until mid-2000 before he decided to seek help.
A sports psychologist helped Vince Spadea reverse career free-fall that included a 21-match losing streak. (Clive Brunskill / Getty Images)
Several businessmen mentioned to him that they utilized performance therapists. “And these people are looking for the best team money can buy,” Spadea said. So he realized maybe there was something to it. “I’d heard about golfers using psychologists and with tennis being similar, I just said to myself, I need to go about this more professionally.”
So he decided to consult Murray. “I had to start from the drawing board,” Spadea said. “I’d fallen to No. 250 in the world. John’s technique involved taking little steps.” During weekly sessions, Murray helped Spadea focus on an agenda of what he wanted to accomplish. They put together a plan for every day.
“I didn’t like traveling on a plane, so John taught me relaxation breathing techniques,” Spadea said. “You work your mind up so much that sometimes you don’t feel great or hit well. We started with these small remedies and got to the point where we figured out what we wanted out of each element of practice and what was my intention for a ranking. We made all of these objectives and put them on paper.”
It obviously worked because Spadea won his first ATP tournament last year and reached a career-high ranking of 18 earlier this year. But after a recent slump pushed him down to a ranking of 55, he felt he needed another jump start. So earlier this month, Spadea, with Murray’s encouragement, issued a guarantee that he will break into the top 10 next year.
“I want to get passionate in doing something I’ve never done before,” Spadea said. “I want to challenge people who don’t think it’s possible and to challenge myself.”
One of the country’s most prominent sport psychologists is Fran Pirozzolo. He worked with the New York Yankees from 1996-2002 and also consulted with boxer Evander Holyfield. Now, he is the psychologist for the Houston Texans and serves more than a dozen men and women golfers.
“I start by listening,” Pirozzolo said in an E-mail interview. “The act of listening isn’t as simple as it sounds. This is why it takes years of training to be a psychoanalyst.” After listening to his clients’ needs, Pirozzolo works with them to set up a training model. Sometimes he puts together a guided visual imagery CD to boost mental toughness. “We set goals. We communicate on the phone. I watch them play. I go to the range with them in the case of golfers, or I caddy for them.”
While Murray and Pirozzolo make a good living from their work, many sport psychologists don’t. And Carlstedt, chairman of the American Board of Sport Psychology, seeks to make the field more professional. He is developing a code of protocol for sport psychologists.
“The establishment is still not convinced about the worth of sport psychology; so it isn’t paying what it should,” Carlstedt said. “Million-dollar decisions about players are being based on rudimentary information, and teams are letting people who talk their way into the job get access to players.”
Dan Weil is a frequent FOXSports.com contributor.
Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.