North Texas Daily

Sport psychology program reaching into psyche of Denton athletes

Sport psychology program reaching into psyche of Denton athletes

April 21
00:45 2016

Alex Lessard | Associate Sports Editor


When evaluating how much mental strength it takes to be successful in sports, MLB Hall of Famer Yogi Berra made things simple.

“Baseball is 90 percent mental,” Berra famously said. “The other half is physical.”

His math may have been a tad off, but his point was clear. Having the physical tools to perform at a high level is crucial for all athletes, but preparing the mind is often overlooked.

As a result, North Texas is one of over a dozen universities to offer a doctorate sport psychology program.

“Everybody has stress. Everybody has things to handle,” sport pedagogy doctorate student Alan Chu said. “Athletes are people too.”

The program has been around since 1998 and gives students a chance to learn ways to provide consultations to athletes. Its students have done research in a variety of areas, taking their knowledge in the basics of psychology into the world of sports. 

“In sport psychology, it really ranges,” North Texas sport psychology center director Matt Atkins said. “All the way down from team cohesion [and] team dynamics to motivation, leadership and more specific clinical issues that tend to come up in athletic populations such as muscle dysmorphia, eating disorders and performance anxiety.”

Many of the program’s students arrive at North Texas with college degrees looking to gain advanced knowledge in the field. Most used to play sports as well and are seeking an opportunity to get hands-on experience as a consultant to both Mean Green and local athletes.

North Texas currently has a group of 15 consultants working towards sport psychology specialization. No matter how different their backgrounds are, they have one thing in common – a curiosity for how emotions affect an athlete’s motivation.

“During the time I was studying in high school, lots of my friends dropped out from table tennis,” Chu said. “I really wanted to know why they lost the motivation. I was just intrigued by those psychological factors.”

Whether it’s finding a better strategy to relax before games or forming a brand new workout routine, clients can benefit from a wide range of help from sport psychologists. The specifics of what psychologists work on with athletes, however, is kept confidential to maintain the integrity of their methods.

Atkins did say one of the most common areas of need is mentally recovering from a serious injury.

“With a lot of the athletes we work with, so much of their identity and coping is really tied into their ability to play their sport,” Atkins said. “When that’s taken away, it can take a lot of time [to recover].”

But players aren’t the only people who consultants help. Spreading awareness to coaches has been just as big of a priority.

Understanding how to communicate with players and how to reinforce training habits are just two of the many focuses that coaches are trained in, and North Texas’ sport psychology program has done extensive work with Mean Green coaches over the years.

“We’ve had an ongoing contract with Mean Green athletics,” Atkins said. “There are doctoral students paired up with the majority of the teams and all sort of there to supplement the mental health and performance enhancement issues with the athletes and coaches.”

When a student starts off in the program, they can have anywhere from one to five individual clients at once, meeting with them for an hour on a weekly or biweekly basis. Additionally, students are paired up with a specific team at North Texas over the span of multiple years, allowing them to establish a deeper understanding of their needs.

“Spending one year with a team, you’ll be able to develop somewhat of a good relationship. But being able to spend two or three years really forms that connection,” doctorate counseling psychology student Brian Yu said. “You get the buy-in from the coaches and atheletes, and they begin to feel safe around you as someone they can talk to.”

Research is a big part of the program’s overall mission. While health and performance factors are evaluated the most, students have the freedom to dive into any area of interest.

Yu and Atkins will both present some of their research at a regional conference for the Association for Advanced Sport Psychology hosted at North Texas April 22-23 in room 170 of the Business Leadership Building. Yu has narrowed his focus to multicultural issues in sport psychology and will be speaking on the topic of “The Jeremy Lin Effect” at 2 p.m. Saturday.

He said Asian-Americans sometimes don’t have as much confidence as their peers due to false stereotypes, which inspired him to look into the effects those have on consultants as well.

“We wondered a little bit if our race had something to do with maybe some difficulties building relationships with coaches and athletes, particularly with stereotypes of Asian-Americans,” Yu said.

Moving forward, Yu and the rest of the program’s doctoral students will look to continue forming relationships with North Texas athletics and youth sports in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. In the meantime, Atkins said consistency is the biggest goal.

“It’s such a unique program,” Atkins said. “Simply maintaining the caliber of training we have right now is a big priority.”

Featured Image: Courtesy | UNT Sports Psychology

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