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Guest Column - October 2003

There is a Choice

Creating a Performance Psychology Curriculum for Sports Teams

By Mitch Lyons


If you are involved in organized school or youth sports in any capacity, you have a choice.

  • You may keep the current and traditional team model where children focus on sport-specific skills, with some ambiguous life skill messages taught verbally, varying from team to team.

OR

  • You may try to change the team model to one where children learn from a structured, science-based, written curriculum and text, read by player and coach, that teaches life-long mental skills as the focal point of the team, using sports as the educational vehicle.

The choice is yours. Just as we tell athletes, we can work hard to be better—or not. The choice is ours.

Recently, Newton North High School in Newton, Mass.; Fairborn High School in Fairborn, Ohio; and Kenwood High School in Baltimore, among others, made the choice. They funded the first three programs in their states to change what is taught to sports teams by implementing a written performance psychology curriculum.

As part of the programs, at all these high schools, coaches and kids are:

  • Attending hour-and-a-half workshops
  • Reading an easily understood text, giving practical learning and teaching strategies for both player and coach
  • Taking a quiz on the curriculum
  • Filling out mid-season evaluation forms to try to determine usage
  • Practicing mental skills on a daily basis

At Newton North High School (the first high school to adopt this program in September 2000), a team bulletin board, once adorned with pictures of professional ball players, now has visualization and relaxation techniques posted. The culture is changing because what we teach is changing. On high-school sports teams that adopt the program, children are learning and practicing how to build self-worth through the mental skills of hard work, helping others, creating a positive environment, proper goal-setting, visualization, meditation, task-orientation, recognizing harmful thoughts and changing them, and positive self-talk. Most parents and educators would opt for teaching long-lasting development skills for children as the focal point of their team, if they knew there was a choice. There is. And as a bonus for focusing their thoughts on how to think to have success, they will probably play better, have more confidence and be more satisfied with their experience on their team.

Maybe you think that the manner in which youth and school sports is taught and learned is fine. From personal experience as a coach and watching my two kids go through the sport system from grade school into college, I know that sports can be a lot of fun, just as it is. However, since there is so much time spent between coach and player, shouldn't we put the effort into improving the experience, not only for the elite athlete, but for the 95-percent-plus participating who are not part of the elite? Don't we want to be the best educator, the best teacher, the best recreation provider we can, just as we ask kids to be the best they can?

While Newton North High School (with 2,300 students) is a larger school in an affluent suburb of Boston, the same program is also being put into play Cathedral High School in downtown Boston's South End. This small, urban Catholic school (300 students) has followed Newton's example, despite it being so dissimilar in almost all respects, except in one regard: Both athletic directors at these schools are thinking about how to improve their educational product. In their pursuit of excellence, they made a choice when they were presented with a good idea for their students. Instead of standing pat, they chose to deliver the best they could for their students. Thirteen other high schools in Massachusetts are currently poised to take the same action, pending funding to train additional facilitators. The athletic directors at Fairborn and Kenwood High School chose the same path.

The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) has adopted this concept as part of its award-winning, statewide Wellness program. Doctors, educators, athletic directors and people from all backgrounds support this creative concept. This movement is nascent but quite healthy due the very simple logic of this initiative.

Why are we interested in changing the traditional verbal model of sports teams? Because it makes educational sense. The curriculum is based upon performance (sports) psychology, a body of knowledge that has grown exponentially in the last two decades. We write down our curriculums for academic subjects because what we teach kids matters. What kids learn in sports matters as well.

Written curriculums provide a standardized education for each child so we know what they will be learning. If implemented, a written curriculum takes the "luck" factor out of what type of experience children will have on a team. With a written curriculum based in performance psychology, all players, starters and nonstarters, are striving for personal progress. With a written curriculum, coaches who tend to be negative will eventually have to conform to a basic tenet of the written curriculum, for example, "people perform and learn better in a positive environment."

The mental skills taught are simple and reflect most of the mistakes people make in sport. More importantly, they are transferable skills that mirror our community values. A sports team offers a place to practice these skills (in high school on a daily basis). As a result, the athletic program becomes an applied mental training program, using sports as a fun way to learn. Lastly, the skills support the common-sense belief that people who feel good about themselves as people perform better in anything they do. Students are given specific exercises to improve the following self-worth building skills.

It is a skill to:

  • Work hard as you can because you feel good about yourself when you do.
  • Be positive with others because people perform and learn better in a positive environment.
  • Actively help others to feel good about yourself as a person.
  • Be positive with yourself as what you are thinking generally affects your behavior or performance.
  • Recognize harmful or distracting thoughts and change them to helpful ones so our chance of success is better.
  • Set proper goals that assist in attaining success daily to build your self-worth.
  • Concentrate on the details of a task, not the outcome, for better results.
  • Visualize successfully completing a task to improve chances of success.
  • Meditate to relax, control your thoughts, feelings and actions.

In the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology ("Conceptualizing Excellence: Past, Present, Future," September 2002), authors Patricia S. Miller and Gretchen A. Kerr, offer an "Athlete-Centered Sports Model." Advocates of this model maintain that "performance excellence is thus made possible only through personal excellence." They continue, "performance goals are only one of a myriad of important objectives. In this way, athletes develop as athletes, but also as contributing members of society."

Nationally, there is estimated to be between 29 and 40 million children playing organized sports annually. Practice visualization now by seeing a day when all those millions of children are growing up practicing the mental skills that can make people more successful and satisfied in their lives. We can make the choice right now. Aren't these skills what we want children to learn?

Mitch Lyons is a president and founder of GetPsychedSports.org, Inc., a nonprofit Massachusetts corporation (www.getpsychedsports.org). He is not a psychiatrist or psychologist but a coach of youth, school and college sports for more than 17 years. Currently an assistant coach for the Lasell College men's basketball team in Newton, Mass., he practiced law for 26 years before retiring to bring positive change to youth and school sports. The Curriculum & Text, Players Edition, and the Coaches Strategy and Assessment Supplement, authored by Lyons, have been approved by the director of Northeastern University's School Psychology Program in Boston.

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