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Sports psychology

Legal News Reporter

Published: September 17, 2012

Athletes famously undergo uncountable hours of rigorous training to get to the top of their sport, as the recent London Olympics continually reminded us.

But there is another side to athletic training, which may be the difference between success and something less than success on the playing field: the mental attitude of the athlete.

Sports psychology is a very small and relatively new area of psychotherapy, but two of the leading lights in this field practice in northeast Ohio: Dr. Jack Lesyk, who is the current president of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology and founder of the Ohio Center for Sport Psychology in Beachwood, and Dr. Charles Maher, who teaches at Princeton and is the in-house psychologist for the Cleveland Indians (he also works with the Cavaliers).

Maher is the author of The Complete Mental Game of Baseball: Taking Charge of the Process, On and Off the Field, which he published in July, 2011.

Lesyk works primarily with amateur athletes, from the age of 13 (or younger) through high school and college, and primarily with high school-age athletes. Maher works primarily with professional athletes, especially throughout the entire Indians minor and major league systems.

But they both use the same basic methods, and call their work with these athletes much more “mind training” than formal “therapy.”

How much does the athlete’s mental side affect his or her performance on the field? The answer may be surprising.

“When I ask young athletes how much their mental attitude affects their play on a percentage basis,” said Lesyk, “they usually say ‘in the 90’s.’ That figure is not accurate, and the real process is much more subtle than that.”

Lesyk, who became interested in the psychology of sports when he began training as a marathon runner in the 1980s, said that the real effect of an athlete’s psychology is as a part of the balance that an athlete needs to perform at a high level. Therefore, the answer to that question will be different for each athlete.

When Lesyk started top become interested in the psychology of sports performance, he was virtually alone in his endeavors. Although there were numerous phrases attached to the mental side of sports, no one had really investigated this area , and there were no “sports psychologists” as such. Even now, say Lesyk and Maher, the area is home to very few practitioners, even fewer of whom have certification in the area.

Both caution that only licensed psychotherapists who have separate certification in this area can call themselves “sports psychologists,” even though, like in law, there are numerous pretenders who seem to be practicing in this area without a license.

One key phrase that Lesyk started working with when he was developing his ideas about the psychology of athletic competition in the 1980’s was “mental toughness.”

“That was a phrase that we heard all the time in relation to sports, but there was no real definition of the term,” he said. “So I started thinking about what mental toughness in athletics might be.”

The result of these mental exercises was Lesyk’s formulation of “nine mental skills” needed for success on the playing field—one of the first direct analyses of competitive athlete’s states of mind.

According to Lesyk’s formulation, successful athletes choose and maintain a positive attitude; maintain a high level of self-motivation; set high, realistic goals; deal effectively with people; use positive self-talk; use positive mental imagery; manage anxiety effectively; manage their emotions effectively and maintain concentration.

Although these ideas do not seem revolutionary now, at the time, they were.

Even now, said both Lesyk and Maher, research in the area of sports psychology is limited.

But there is no arena where the difference between success and failure on the playing field is narrower than in professional sports, where Maher was a pioneer in the application of mind training to the field, starting with his seminal and pioneering introduction of those ideas into the Cleveland Indians organization in 1995.

He was one of the first, if not the first, psychotherapist to hold a salaried position with a professional sports team in order to work with the mental attitude that the players bring with them onto the playing field. All of the other teams which have done this, he said, are following the lead of the Indians organization.

His work with the Indians goes much deeper than just trying to get the players to perform better on the field, and it also touches numerous ethical and other sensitive areas that attorneys will be very familiar with.

To begin with, Maher and his team work with every level of the organization, including both the minor and major league players, and the on-field and off-field staff at every level of the organization.

“We deal with the total person,” said Maher, who added, like Lesyk, that balance is the key.

Professional players have stresses that most of us do not, he pointed out, and Maher’s team deals with getting traded, adjusting to new teams and compatriots, getting sent down to the minor leagues, failing on the field in front of millions of people, and so on.

While he has no connection with contract negotiations themselves, for instance, he may be working with a player’s stresses about that process.

And Maher always has to balance his own approach in knowing his own limits that may be constrained by professional ethics, particularly in matters of confidentiality.

“The whole world sees what a player does on the field, so there is no right of confidentiality there,” he said. And direct, one-on-one therapeutical work is obviously confidential

But there are other areas where there may be close calls, and Maher and his team need to be aware of when to and when not to talk to organizational higher-ups about players’ states of mind.

If the thought occurs to someone that being the Indians’ psychologist and traveling with the team all over the country is a pretty good gig, that would be correct. Maher’s recent statement to the Psychiatric Times can pretty much sum up his work with the team:

“I enjoy helping players not to get caught up in other peoples’ expectations of them and to focus on their own path rather than to compare themselves to other players. I also really enjoy helping players balance baseball and life. I tell players, ‘Baseball is what you do, but it is not who you are.’ When a player says, ‘Charlie, you have really helped me,’ that is very rewarding.”