Training your mind for your sport is just as important as training your body. But many athletes overlook the mental side when they’re preparing to play or compete. Here, sports psychologist Dr. Jim Bauman, who has helped dozens of Olympic athletes and Navy SEALS adopt stronger mental strategies so they can endure some of the most mentally challenging and physically demanding situations in the world, shares how to overcome any mental hurdle so that you can stay at the top of your game.
Excelle Sports: If you could give one advice on sports psychology to all athletes, what would it be?
Jim Bauman: First of all, I am not in the business of giving advice—giving advice assumes I know others better than they know themselves and further assumes that my solutions are the best ones for them. Instead, my job is to help athletes create strategies that help them move toward their own aspirations. Finding the way is as important as finding the end result. Remember in elementary math classes when you were told to “show your work?” If you showed your work, your got partial credit, even if you didn’t get the answer right. In other words, from very early on, we are subtly conditioned to be solution-oriented, but to also pay attention to how you get that solution. Math, in those early elementary years, is meant to present a problem and teach students how to solve the problem. Similarly, the best guidance I can give is be solution-oriented rather than problem-oriented and to pay attention to the process by which you solve your problems. Solution-oriented processes can be great templates to solve many other problems in life and sport. Our social system has devolved into an environment where others often fix our problems or we can Google the answer. Because of that, we are losing the skill sets to solve our own problems. That is a trend that we must turn around and sport provides us with that opportunity.
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ES: What are some of the biggest mistakes that athletes make during training and preparation?
JB: Common issues with athletes include 1) appropriate levels of support by parents, 2) finding good coaches, 3) getting “caught up” in social noise like media, social media and unrealistic expectations of others, 4) balancing sport demands with other life demands, 5) an “all or nothing” kind of thinking, 6) perfectionism, 7) remembering that although you create a sport identity, there is more to you than being an athlete, 8) financing sport participation throughout a sport career and 9) not sticking with your sport long enough or, for some, sticking with it for too long—that is, when to move on to the next phase of life.
ES: What similarities do you see between the Olympic-level athletes and Navy SEALs you work with?
JB: Olympians and SEALS have both successfully undergone amazing trials and tribulations of arduous training over a long period of time to have attained the title of Olympian or SEAL. Both are highly driven, committed, can endure both mental and physical pain, are in it for the long haul and never take their eyes off the prize. The great ones care as much, or even more about their teammates than they do themselves. Both know they have a job to do, but that job is part of a bigger effort of many and what they are doing is bigger than they are.
There is also a comparison between athletes who are striving to become Olympians and those Navy personnel training to become SEALs. Both are still in that no man’s zone of training without the guarantee of becoming an Olympian or a SEAL. Some may be questioning whether or not they can actually become an Olympian or SEAL. Some struggle through the preparation process and pay more attention to the possibility of not making it rather than focusing more on the never-ending, highly personal commitment you need to make it, regardless of pain, discomfort or time it takes.
ES: How important is training the mind compared to training the body, especially when it comes to preparing for important competitions or events?
JB: I have often compared elite athletic performance to our modern-day computer systems—it’s similar in terms of hardware, software and disk operating system (DOS). Hardware is your body below the chin, software is your body above the chin, or your brain, and your DOS is the operating system that makes your body and brain work together. All three components are necessary for the system to work at maximum potential. All three need to be at increasing higher levels to keep up with the industry, whether that’s the field of computers or human performance. Athletes who work on and improve their hardware, software and operating systems will far outperform athletes who focus on just one system.
ES: What has been the biggest eye-opening experience during your career working with the elite athletes, both male and female?
JB: This is a tough one! Just when I think I have seen it all, another amazing situation, whether performance or personal awareness, hits me in the face. But to narrow it down, since Title IX became federal law in 1972, equality in sports has changed for the better. We still have a long way to go, but we are making progress. That progress is particularly evident at the junior, university, Olympic and professional level. In the early years, Title IX seemed to focus mostly on creating equal opportunities in sports. As a result, more girls and women were able to participate in sport due to more scholarships for female student-athletes and the creation of more women’s sports programs and teams. At first, it didn’t seem that many administrators or coaches were interested in the actual performance of female athletes—instead, most seemed to just want to satisfy the federal mandate to avoid penalties. But what I’ve seen over the past 25 years is a quantum leap in attention to the actual performance of female athletes. It’s still about equal opportunity, but the emphasis has changed to expecting female athletes to perform at much higher levels—and they are answering the call. Every year we see more amazing female athlete performances. We are seeing some females even challenge their male counterparts. In other words, the biggest eye-opener is how female athletes have taken their place on the performance stage. And they will continue to claim more of that spotlight.
Excelle Sports lifestyle editor Kim Vandenberg is an Olympic bronze medalist, Pan American gold medalist, World Championship silver medalist and three-time U.S. national champion and French national champion in swimming. She’s also a member of Excelle’s Athletes Council.