Published February 27, 2017
The Dual Role of Athlete and Activist
The arena of sport and performance is often regarded as a utopian space where, unlike other facets of society, equity and cultural acceptance are assumed to be the norm. However prevailing or idealistic this notion may be, in truth, this does not reflect the reality for some athletes. Throughout history and in recent times, athletes have faced social and cultural injustices within their sport while simultaneously navigating similar challenges within the larger society. Black athletes have frequently served in the dual roles of athlete and activist, balancing both the expectations to “just play” and attain performance excellence while also exercising their right to speak up about systems, policies, and unspoken practices that create an uneven playing field, or on a larger scale, a biased and unjust society. Therefore, in honor of Black History Month, we wanted to pause and reflect on the ways in which Black athletes have navigated the intersections between race, sport, and social justice, highlight some of the accomplishments they achieved while doing so, and provide steps we can take to follow in their footsteps
The Black Athlete-Activist
In order to better understand the nexus of Black athlete-activist, we should note a few athletes and historical incidents that helped to define it. After winning gold and bronze medals in the 200m race at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic games, USA track and field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised a gloved-fist to symbolize the struggle for human rights in a year marked tragically by the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy. Both were ostracized and berated for their actions upon their return home. In 2010, Hall of Fame basketball player Bill Russell received the Medal of Freedom for his work on civil rights. Russell participated in the 1963 March on Washington, conducted integrated basketball clinics in Jackson, Mississippi, and was an outspoken critic of segregation. The death of Muhammad Ali in 2016 re-ignited a critical imagination of a time when Black men were expected to fight for country while being denied civility and civil rights at home. Ali’s refusal to serve in the Vietnam War became a defining historical moment for the Black athlete-advocate. Other athletes like Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens, Althea Gibson, Wilma Rudolph, and Jackie Robinson faced racism and discrimination in sport and were silenced. Despite this, their courage and resilience opened doors for Black athletes to speak out against social injustice today. The photograph of the Miami Heat in hoodies, NBA players wearing “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts, and Kaepernick’s taking a knee during the national anthem represent some of the modern ways Black athletes have used their respective platforms in sport to draw attention to the cultural illusion of meritocracy in America.
Call to Action
As members of the sport and performance community, we have to do more than intellectualize the possibility of bringing about social justice. We have to work for sport to be(come) a space where equity and equality co-exist. The future of sport (and society) cannot afford for us to be paralyzed. Yet, we may wonder, “what can I do” or “where can I begin?” Collective advocacy always begins with us. It can have far reaching influence - even with small steps. Here are three simple strategies for moving towards social justice in sport:
Regardless of our own personal and social identities, we all benefit from better educating ourselves on historic and present-day racism in sport. Doing so provides us with the knowledge and language necessary for action. Consider reading the following:
- 40 Million Dollar Slaves: The rise, fall and redemption of the black athlete (2006)
- Days of Grace: A memoir (1994)
- Sport and the Color Line: Black athletes and race relations in 20th century America (2004)
- Sport, Racism and Social Media (2014)
- The Importance of Athlete Activists (2015)
- There's No Race on the Playing Field: Perceptions of racial discrimination among white and black athletes (2003)
Examine your personal values, prejudices, and biases about sport. Making sport more equitable means rethinking our daily practices. We might start by reflecting on how we view athletes of various races, genders, abilities, and socioeconomic statuses in the context of competition and performance. How might our values, biases, and prejudices lead to discriminatory or exclusionary practices that limit opportunity or access to sport?
3) Speak up.
Have you ever heard a derogatory comment directed towards an athlete of color or any marginalized member of society and not acknowledged it? Decide to say something, engage in difficult dialogues (Souza, 2012), and challenge inequality. Speak with athletes, coaches, colleagues, and clients about racism. Acknowledge that it exists and influences our daily experiences.
In honor of the courageous Black athletes who fought for the right to compete, overcame taunts and threats of violence, as well as risked their careers and lives for social issues and equality, commit yourself (at minimum) to reading, reflecting, and speaking up. Think of Arthur Ashe’s statement of “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” as calls to action, because whatever you do, know that each act (and inaction) matters to the future of sport and society.
Abdul-Jabar, K. (2015). The Importance of Athlete Activists. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/4114002/kareem-abdul-jabbar-athlete-activists/.
Ashe, A. and Rampersad, A. (1994). Days of Grace: A memoir. New York: Random House, Inc.
Brown, T.N., Jackson, J.S., Brown, K.T., Sellers, R.M., Keiper, S. and Manuel, W.J. (2003). There's no race on the playing field: Perceptions of racial discrimination among white and black athletes. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 27(2), 162-183.
Farrington, N., Hall, L., Kilvington, D., Price, J. and Saeed, A. (2014). Sport, racism and social media. New York: Routledge.
Miller, P., and Wiggins, D. (2004). Sport and the color line: Black athletes and race relations in twentieth-century America. New York: Routledge.
Rhoden, W. (2006). Forty million dollar slaves: The rise, fall and redemption of the black athlete. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Souza, T.J. (2012).Facilitating difficult dialogues in the classroom [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from http://www2.humboldt.edu/diversity/sites/default/files/Difficult_Dialogues_Souza_Presentation_Slides.pdf.
For more information about AASP’s diversity initiatives and resources, please check out our website.
Published January 31, 2017
High-performing teams are high in cohesiveness, shared understanding, and a sense of team confidence or collective efficacy. In other words, even teams full of star players (e.g., national teams, all-star teams such as the NFL Pro Bowl) need to bond, establish coordination mechanisms and develop a collective belief of the unit’s potential to be successful. Results from research conducted with college soccer teams showed that high-performance in team settings starts with the establishment of task cohesion and positive social relations (social cohesion) among teammates (Filho, Gershgoren, Basevitch, & Tenenbaum, 2014; Filho, Tenenbaum, & Yang, 2015). After establishing a sound foundation, activities promoting team mental models and a belief in the team’s capability to accomplish outcomes are necessary to further the development of performance. In a nutshell, cohesion, team mental models, and team confidence are inter-related processes (see Figure 1), similar to what social psychologist Albert Bandura (1997) described as “reciprocal determinism”. That is, improving any of these team processes will likely influence the other team processes as well as team performance in sports.
Here are some general guidelines for those interested in learning how sport psychology concepts can be applied to the development of expertise in team sports.
Task Cohesion. Working groups only become teams when they share a sense of purpose and clearly defined collective goals. Accordingly, the first step towards developing team excellence pertains to the establishment of quality (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely) team goals. In addition, coaches and practitioners must assign specific task responsibilities to each team member so that all players feel motivated to contribute to the team.
Social Cohesion. The establishment of social bonds is essential to develop a sense of trust and mutual support necessary for high-performing teams. Teammates should offer genuine support and complement the positive aspects of one’s persona and performance to foster the development of social cohesion. Coaches and team leaders should also promote social activities outside the sport environment (e.g., team building activities), thus offering teammates a chance to connect at a personal level and limiting the likelihood of social cliques.
Once cohesiveness is established, other team processes discussed below can be developed.
Improving Coordination Links. Coordination links represent synchronized actions or efforts among teammates and may be either explicit or implicit in nature. Explicit coordination refers to verbal communication aimed at facilitating performance within the team. Research with successful sport teams has suggested that communication exchanges between players should carry instructional content and be framed in a positive tone (Lausic, Tennebaum, Eccles, Jeong, & Johnson, 2009). Implicit coordination pertains to the ability of teammates to articulate team-level actions without the need for verbal communication. These implicit heuristics, crucial elements in team sports (e.g., hand signals in volleyball, set pieces in soccer), should be extensively rehearsed until conducted automatically by all team members.
Enhancing Resource Sharing. Resource sharing seems to be a characteristic of high-performing teams across domains of human activity. For instance, team building exercises help to create a positive working atmosphere that allows for learning conversations and productive knowledge exchange. Likewise, coaches should strive to establish a positive motivational climate wherein personal improvement, effort, and learning are encouraged, and thereby teammates feel safe to discuss their roles within the team, and the team’s strategy as a whole. Where available, coaches should also incorporate resources from other domains (e.g., biomechanics, physiotherapy) in their practice and performance analysis, as such additional knowledge might be the difference maker in high-stakes competition.
Skill Mastery. Both self-confidence and team confidence are primarily based on skill mastery and successful experiences. For instance, Barcelona, a premier European soccer team, exudes confidence in every match because of its highly skilled players, such as Iniesta and Messi, and past accomplishments, such as winning the UEFA Champions League. Consequently, coaches should recruit the most skilled players available (or ensure that each team member has the skills required for his/her position). However, it is rare to find a team that possesses all required skills needed to succeed at the early and middle stages of development. Accordingly, coaches and practitioners should be able to identify what skills need to be developed to meet the team’s goals for the season, while promoting a mastery involving climate by recognizing each teammate’s unique contributions, effort and personal improvement.
Team Preparation. For any athlete worried about an upcoming competition, proper training periodization is essential to diminish anxiety, instill confidence, and decrease the likelihood of overtraining. Likewise, successful teams need sufficient time to prepare to ensure superior performance. Coaches must encourage the players on their team to work together, discuss team strategies and tactics, and brainstorm new ideas in order to evolve a strong sense of collective competence. As Aristotle famously stated, “excellence is not an act but a habit”.
High-performing teams depend on many interdependent components. As is often said, a “chain is only as strong as its weakest links”. As such, to develop high-performing teams, coaches and practitioners should view team dynamics in a systemic fashion, by considering the interrelationship among different team processes, including cohesion, team mental models and team confidence.
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York, NY: W. H. Freeman.
Filho, E., Gershgoren, L., Basevitch, I., & Tenenbaum, G. (2014). Profile of high-performing college soccer teams: An exploratory multi-level analysis. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 15, 559-568.
Filho, E., Tenenbaum, G., & Yang, Y. (2015). Cohesion, team mental models, and collective efficacy: Towards an integrated model of team dynamics in sport. Journal of Sports Sciences, 33, 641-653.
Lausic, D., Tennebaum, G., Eccles, D., Jeong, A., & Johnson, T. (2009). Intrateam communication and performance in doubles tennis. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 80, 281-290.
Published January 17, 2017
You know you are in deep trouble; so you face the brutal facts of the challenge you’re facing. But at the same time you feel deeply that you will prevail.
This quote comes from James Stockdale, a prisoner of war for over seven years in Vietnam. Stockdale's perspective on acknowledging the reality of your adversity while still holding to the belief that things will work out became known as the Stockdale Paradox, a central takeaway from research done by Dr. Dennis Charney. Dr. Charney studied a variety of people who had survived adversity in its most extreme forms and yet somehow came out of it without the depression, PTSD, and harmful emotional scar tissue one would expect. He compiled a list of characteristics that set these people apart, and the #1 characteristic was a simple yet misunderstood quality - optimism.
To understand optimism, let's begin with what it's not. Optimism is not a naive assumption that everything is always going to be fine - the Pollyanna who views the world constantly through rose-colored glasses and never worries a day in their life.
Optimism is a mindset, characterized by maintaining positive expectations for important future outcomes. It is the stories you tell yourself, and the way you interpret the circumstances and events of your life. And optimism has some eye-opening benefits:
- Optimism is the most powerful predictor of resilience (our ability to recover quickly from adversity)
- Optimism, and the anticipation that comes with it, makes us happy! Think about this - when surveyed about their favorite day of the week, people choose Saturday. But second place goes to Friday (a work day), not Sunday. We love the anticipation of what's to come.
- Positive emotions can undo the effects of negative experiences.
- Optimistic people, while experiencing the same levels of anxiety and frustration when faced with adversity, are able to more quickly let go of negativity, worry less, and shift their attention to what is positive.
- Optimists tend to give more effort over a longer period of time.
If that list doesn't win you over, you may have a dangerously pessimistic style of thinking, which ultimately shapes your mindset - but not to worry, let's finish with some practical takeaways.
Here are 3 ways you can grow your optimism:
- Stop listening to yourself and talk to yourself.
Our mindset is determined by the stories we tell ourselves. And all too often, we settle into a bad habit of negative, pessimistic inner dialogue, using consistent and absolute language “things are always going to be this way, they will never change for the better”. We develop an expectation for negative things in our lives, maybe without noticing, which can lead to helplessness and hopelessness. Stop listening to yourself, and start talking to yourself with intention and purpose. Learn to take the lessons from difficult circumstances and push forward, expecting better things to come. The best is yet to come...
- Interpretation is more important than preparation.
This isn't to discount your planning and preparation in life - those things have plenty of value. My point here is, when the inevitable adversity comes (the kind you weren't prepared for), an optimistic person will have a healthier and more beneficial interpretation of what happened and how to move forward. This is what's known as your explanatory style. Adversity will come your way - grow your ability to lean into it, pull out the lessons that will help you grow, and push forward.
- BUT...bring an umbrella.
We all have an optimism bias of which we must be aware. There's a fine line between healthy optimism and naiveté (the person who ignores the weather report that calls for a rain storm and ventures out without an umbrella). To paraphrase Stockdale, acknowledge the challenge ahead but believe deeply that you will prevail.
How would you rate yourself when it comes to dealing with adversity? We all have a ton of growing still to do.
But the best is yet to come.
Published September 20, 2016
Athletes as a Special Population
Mental illness affects approximately 61.5 million Americans each year; despite this, mental health continues to carry negative stigma that interferes with proper treatment and effective care (National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2013). This is especially true for athlete populations. Athletic culture and a self-help mentality lead athletes to seek treatment less often and reject treatments at higher rates than non-athletes (Watson, 2005). Oftentimes, mental illness in athletes goes underdiagnosed. Thus, athletes should be considered a special population with needs unique from non-athlete counterparts (Beauchemin, 2014; Etzel & Watson, 2007).
Burnout VS. Depression
Depression in athletes is specifically underdiagnosed. Part of this issue stems from the similarities between Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and Burnout. Major Depressive Disorder involves either depressed mood or loss of interest/pleasure in nearly all activities for a period of at least 2 weeks; this also involves other symptoms like changes in sleep, appetite, energy, and concentration (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Overtraining or burnout in athletes can involve almost identical symptoms. These similarities provide difficulties for practitioners working with athletes; awareness of these similarities is vital for appropriate referrals, care, and competence in treatment.
Common Symptoms of BOTH Depression and Burnout
- Lack of motivation/energy
- Feeling discouraged
- Difficulty sleeping
- Difficulty maintaining responsibilities
- Denial or avoidance to seek treatment
- Inadequate or reduced coping skills
Differences in Depression and Burnout
- Role Dysfunction: Inability to fulfill designated roles in work, school, or sport
- Burnout involves role dysfunction in athletic performance
- Depression involves role dysfunction of social, cognitive, and work settings
- For athletes, role dysfunction may occur in all domains
- Burnout: Anywhere from 1 week onward
- Typically resolved with rest
- MDD: Minimum of 2 weeks
- Not resolved with rest
- Burnout: Anywhere from 1 week onward
Awareness and insight into this issue among professionals is crucial to ensure comprehensive and ethical care of athletes. AASP Certified Consultants are encouraged to develop a vast and comprehensive referral network, including physicians, psychologists, athletic trainers, and coaches. Further, programs that adapt interventions to consider athlete culture are essential to meet the current needs of athletes regarding both mental health and performance programming. These discussions are vitally important to the promotion of athlete health and well-being.
National Institute of Mental Health http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/depression-easy-to-read/index.shtml
American Psychological Association Division 12; Find therapists in your area http://www.div12.org/
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-V)
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Beauchemin, J. (2014). College student-athlete wellness: An integrative outreach model. College Student Journal, 48(2), 268-280.
Etzel, E., & Watson, J. C. (2007). Ethical challenges for psychological consultations in intercollegiate athletics. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 1, 304-317.
National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2013). Mental illness facts and numbers. Retrieved from http://www2.nami.org/factsheets/mentalillness_factsheet.pdf
Reardon, C. L., & Factor, R. M. (2010). Sport psychiatry: A systematic review of diagnosis and medical treatment of mental illness in athletes. Sports Medicine, 40(11), 961-980.
Schwenk, T. L. (2000). The stigmatization and denial of mental illness in athletes. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 34(1), 4-5.
Watson, J. C. (2005). College student-athletes’ attitudes toward help-seeking behavior and expectations of counseling services. Journal of College Student Development, 46(4), 442-449.
Published September 6, 2016
There is no construct of human psychology and functioning more prevalent in sport than emotion. Mood, emotions, and general affect can influence every movement in every sport. Consider a typical 45 second shift in ice hockey. Within those brief 45 seconds, the player might begin the shift with high confidence (“I’m going to have a strong shift!”), receive the puck and skate in on the opposing goal with high excitement (“I’m going to shoot high glove side and score!”), get poke-checked by an opposing player inducing feelings of frustration (“That was a missed opportunity”) and guilt (“I could have really helped out my team”), back-check and makes a good defensive play which raises the player’s pride (“I helped my team by showing hustle and foiling the opposition”), and finally, end in a scrum in front of the net where there is much shoving with opposing players where the player takes a spear to the midsection that the referee misses inducing anger (“I can’t stand that creep!”). Six different emotions within 45 seconds and each emotion will have the potential to help or hinder the player’s performance.
Effectively managing emotions then becomes an important skillset for every athlete. Emotion regulation means the use of strategies to initiate, maintain, modify, or display emotions (Gross & Thompson, 2007). This means that any attempt to change how long an emotion lasts, how intensely you feel the emotion, or what you are actually feeling is an attempt at emotion regulation. Further, emotion regulation isn’t just about changing how you feel, but can also involve changing the emotion’s action response (i.e., avoidance or confrontation) and physiological responses (e.g., facial expression or breathing patterns).
Emotion regulation: A family affair
There are literally hundreds of different emotion regulation strategies. James Gross (1998) has identified five families of emotion regulation. Each can be used in sport:
- Situation Selection: An athlete can modify their emotions by selecting which situation to engage in. For example, a skier who is nervous about re-aggravating an injury might choose to skip a race in order to calm themselves. Goal-setting can act as a type of “situation selection” in that it can help ensure the athlete remains in desired and intended situations.
- Situation Modification: Once dedicated to the situation, the athlete can change some aspect of it to manage their emotions. For example, a figure skater who is nervous about a specific element might perform a modified version of the element at a lower difficulty in order to feel more confident about the whole performance. Consistently doing performance debriefs can help an athlete reflect on what potential tactics are available based on anticipated situations.
- Attentional Deployment: An athlete can also choose what aspect of the situation to focus on (and/or ignore). For example, a volleyball player worried about the impending outcome of the game might choose to focus on specific aspects of the next serve-receive to shut out distracting thoughts about the outcome. Focus strategies that have primed the athlete about what is in, and out of, the athlete’s control can be an effective tool here.
- Cognitive Change: An athlete can choose what meaning or perspective to have about any situation. For example, a basketball player who is happy with her performance in the first half of a game might remind herself that “there’s still another half to play” in order to maintain a high and focused intensity. Given the strong link between appraisals and emotions, self-talk (that is, the things we say to ourselves either out loud or in our head) is an essential tool for effective cognitive change.
- Response Modulation (Suppression): After an athlete has experienced an emotion, he or she can try to alter the emotional response (behavioral, physical, or physiological). For example, a baseball player who strikes out can hide feelings of frustration by resisting the urge to curse or toss the bat. Having visualized potential “if-then” plans to employ based on anticipated emotional responses can be an effective tool in this circumstance.
Each emotion has the potential to either help or hinder performance. Identifying which emotions do what in any given circumstance is the first step to learning how to manage emotions. Once this has been accomplished, athletes can begin to identify and practice emotion regulation strategies that are both effective and are likely to be employed based on the athlete’s ability and personality as well as the confines of the sport.
Gross, J. J. (1998). The emerging field of emotion regulation: an integrative review. Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 271-299. doi:10.1037/1089-2622.214.171.1241
Gross, J. J., & Thompson, R. A. (2007). Emotion regulation: Conceptual foundations. In J. J. Gross (Ed.), Handbook of emotion regulation (pp.3–24). New York, NY: Guilford Press.