The Harbinger Online

Brains Before Brawn


For senior Mitchell Tyler, maintaining mental toughness every Friday night for a football game was just as important as being physically ready to play. If he made a mistake during the game, he would be mentally strong enough to move on to the next play and not dwell on it.

He trusted the words of his coach, Dustin Delaney: “Play until you can’t move.” Delaney promised to personally carry exhausted players off of the field if they were playing at 110%.

East athletes, like Tyler, practice psychological preparedness often taught by their coaches. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the way in which Delaney and other East coaches choose to motivate their athletes is known as applied sports psychology.

“A sign of a good coach is how motivation tactics are going to be used,” Delaney said. “Some motivational things and sports psychology things work and some things don’t but you have to constantly adjust as a coach.”

Tyler feels that Delaney’s balance of being personable while still being aggressive in his motivational tactics translated into the confidence the players played with.

“Delaney is really confident and he instilled that [confidence] in all of us,” Tyler said. “We weren’t always the best team on the field, but we always trusted Delaney’s game plan.”

Dr. Andrew Jacobs, a sports psychologist based in Kansas City, evaluates issues such as stress, lack of confidence as well as overall team chemistry. Jacobs then creates an individualized training plan to help athletes eliminate barriers to success and regain focus. Jacobs believes issues arise on sports teams when there isn’t positive communication between coaches and players.

“[My job] doesn’t just deal with how to concentrate when you’re shooting a free throw or how to deal with pain when you have an injury,” Jacobs said. “ [It’s] how to deal with life off the field as well.”

Jacobs works with a wide range of athletes, from youth to Major League and Olympic competitors. He believes teaching players to have a greater sense of confidence and mental toughness when playing sports leads to greater success.

“You can have two athletes of equal skill and physical ability, but the one with the stronger mind will be the one who comes out on top,” Jacobs said.

According to soccer coach Jamie Kelly, his encouraging coaching style and his desire to build close relationships with his players demonstrate the effects that applied sports psychology can have on a team.

“My style generates well with kids because I’m not the screaming, yelling coach,” Kelly said. “It’s about knowing how to motivate your players without crushing them mentally.”

Kelly realizes there are successful teams with coaches that take a more aggressive psychological approach, however he sees his choice not to yell at players as more effective.

“[Players] get yelled at by teachers, friends and parents,” Kelly said. “Maybe [they’ll] listen if I’m the one person who doesn’t yell.”

Kelly coaches both girls and boys soccer at the varsity level and says his motivational tactics can vary depending on whether he’s coaching boys or girls. He says he sometimes has to be more conscious of the sensitivity of his female athletes.

However, regardless of the team he is coaching, Kelly makes it a point to communicate effectively with his players when they are called off for substitutions.

“I try to let them know that they’re either being called off to rest or they need to come off until they understand what they need to fix,” Kelly said. “Part of [communicating] is figuring out how to motivate them to play at their highest level.”

Senior Kelly Pidcoe has played soccer for Kelly since she was nine years old. She remembers how Kelly made her feel when she had the opportunity to play with varsity during the Blue Black Scrimmage her freshman year.

“I asked [Kelly] for any last minute tips before I went in,” Pidcoe said. “He just smiled and said ‘don’t screw up.’ His joking attitude made me a little more relaxed, but at the same time motivated me to want to make him proud.”

Pidcoe believes she has continued to play soccer for as long as she has because of Kelly. She says he is always honest with her when she asks him what she can improve upon as a player. Pidcoe thinks that Kelly’s balance of positive and negative comments keeps her and her teammates confident, but always looking to make improvements.

Jacobs says that typically issues between coaches and athletes occur if a coach has an over-inflated ego. He believes that this can result in the athletes not trusting the coach. Pidcoe says that Kelly differs from this as a coach because he truly cares about his players.

“He forms relationships with his players and makes them feel comfortable,” Pidcoe said. “People want to play well for him. He makes people really enjoy the sport, not just winning and losing.”

Cross country coach Tricia Beaham agrees with Kelly that communicating in an unintimidating way is the most successful form of coaching.

“I’m not a command-style coach,” Beaham said. “I’m definitely more of a coach that likes to work with their athletes by gaining their trust and guiding them from there.”

Beaham considers the sport of cross-country to be mentally straining to begin with. She believes it’s her job as a coach to prepare her runners for the mental perseverance of a non-stop 4K or 5K race.

“You have to have the mental stamina to be able to endure the pain threshold when you’re out there running a three mile race,” Beaham said. “Other sports, you have time-outs and substitutions, you can’t do that in a cross country race.”

Friday afternoon practices begin with the athletes congregated in the hallway or on the track, discussing the race they will face the following morning.

“We do a lot of mental rehearsing before races,” Beaham said. “We look at copies of the course map and make sure [the runners are] aware of what each mile looks like. The visualization every week helps them relax.”

Jacobs says coaches who are willing to learn and adapt their coaching style are the most  successful in demonstrating sports psychology tactics.

Delaney agrees that coaches must constantly adapt the message they relay to their team. However, he says there is no singular, universal coaching style that ultimately leads to a teams’ success.

“There’s not really a manual for how to coach,” Delaney said.  “It’s just being around the kids and getting a feel for what you think they need. My job is to get the kids to play well on Friday nights and if they don’t, it’s on me. I just have to get them both physically and mentally ready.”

Jacobs doesn’t measure the work he does as a sports psychologist with the wins and losses of teams he works with. He feels true success is and should be the improvement of how athletes feel about their personal performance and the team as a whole.

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