Interview with sport psychologist Mike Margolies
Lack of Self-confidence? Difficulty to focus? Pre-event anxiety? Sounds familiar? Of course it does. Every one of us has gone through phases where the mind was restricting the body to perform at his best. Well, giving the fact that many coaches pay attention only to the machine (the body) and not to what’s controlling it (the mind), it is no surprise that athletes are often lost when they encounter psychological boundaries. Even with the best physical, technical and tactical training, a player can feel negative impulses before a game, limiting his performance on the field. There was a time when athletes could rely only on their coaches experience to help them transform anxiety into positive stress. Today, Sport psychology is a well-researched science and Mind-Specialists are here to give every athlete the opportunity to perform at their best.
We asked Mike Margolies, a professional sports psychologist, to give us some answers about the role of a mental coach and the positive effects of his work on the athlete’s performances. Mr. Margolies has such a tremendous experience that every information he gives us is extremely valuable. In addition to his expertise in the field that is interesting us today, he played and coached soccer for 35 years. He’s also the author of the book The athlete within you- a mental approach to sports & business.
- Mr, Margolies, since when is Sport psychology a recognized science in the field of Sport Performance? As a field of study most would suggest that SP as a field began in the 1920’s in Europe, followed a little later in North America. The work in North America was limited through the 1960’s. A greater emphasis was on motor learning (skill acquisition). I’ve read reports that the Soviets and East Germans brought Sports Psychologists to the Olympic Games as early as the 1950’s. Many in North America credit Bruce Ogilvie, a Canadian Psychologist trained in both the US and in the UK as the modern father of applied sports psychology. I’ll go with that as Bruce was one of my first mentors (along with his best friend Marv Clein) and friend. I met Bruce in 1976 as I began my Masters Program with Marv Clein. The field of applied sport psychology has grown ever since. I was part of one of the first conferences on Stress Management in Sports around 1978 or 79. It’s been an interesting journey. I would like to tell you that sport psychology and mental training is completely accepted, but that would not be true. If you check this link I’ve written some posts for hockey talking about the role of sport psychology. http://bit.ly/zdjSpw
- I suppose coaches have used this discipline since the beginning without really knowing it… This is absolutely true. In fact, one of the early researchers studied coaches and athletes (Coleman Griffith). Often in sport psychology elite athletes are used as a model. I did some of my own research at the US Olympic Training Center which focused on Imagery Ability of Elite Figure Skaters. Now if we are being honest and wanted to look at early uses of sport psychology we would perhaps look at several non traditional sources including both eastern and western religious practices. We would also study military and the martial arts as mental practice is certainly prevalent. Much of our use of relaxation comes from understanding meditation and practices such as yoga. Exploring martial arts to understand focus and use of mental skills is obvious too. We can go back further when we observe what some aboriginal cultures do to help warriors / hunters prepare to be in the zone fighting for survival. Sport psychology is not new, only the terminology. I want to think we have also gotten better at looking at comprehensive programs that are perhaps better adapted to meeting more needs than in the past. We have better technology to discover what works, but just as in all fields, things change. Ten years ago or so we didn’t talk about Emotional Intelligence or EQ. Today it’s cutting-edge in business and sports.
- A lot of athletes start to worry only when they already have a problem. Is your work made of single interventions when things are already going the wrong way or do you also help athletes with a preventive method? Luka- you are right on both points. Usually I am asked to help when an athlete experiences failure or finds that they have reached a plateau and can no longer play at their expected levels. My preference of course is to educate players with regard to mental skills training so that they do not have a need for an intervention. Most of my work with individuals and teams falls into this area. This does not mean that when I am working to prevent issues from happening, that I don’t hear things like “Oh now I know what has been holding me back”. Statements like that I hear every day.
- Is a mental trainer here to allow an athlete to perform at his best or can he also make him perform better, in terms of decision making for example? I guess that is relative to what their best actually is. A person that can life xKG but lifts 10xKG to lift a car off someone due to adrenalin rush do we say that their best performance is xKG or 10X. when the mind functions with the body I’ve seen some pretty amazing performances. I worked with one of the top 3 decathletes in the world. One of his poorer scoring events due to size was the discus. He consistently through 144 feel. Acceptable for a 5’9” decathlete at the time. It scored him reasonable points. Six weeks or so after we started working together out of the blue he started throwing 175+. Which was the real decathlete. After the US withdrew from the 1980 Olympics and he no longer focused on mental training his performance fell back in the discus to the 150’s. I have a lot of examples. In football (soccer) one of the things I see change is touch. Players able to control the ball and then make better decisions based on better control. Every aspect of sports performance is integrated. Those that attempt to separate them out will not do as well as those trying to integrate mind and body.
- If we talk about soccer, are there any specific problems that players or teams encounter through the season? This question could talk about all day. Let me answer by saying I often break a season down by pre season, season and post season. This makes more sense in the US perhaps than in Europe, but if you consider championships it makes sense. We can also add in things like tryouts for teams and clubs that can be very stressful on players. Another area to look at is how adaptable is a player to coming off the bench or not starting. How do they deal with referees. An important area psychologically as well as physically has to do with periodization. What is the relationship between fatigue and mental alertness or focus during different parts of the season. Players react differently to situations and anxiety based at times on fatigue levels. Later in the season could determine how a player reacts to additional stress. Where a team is in the Table can be a huge influence. Some teams do well as front runners others do better charging from behind.
- Do you always work with a particular player or can you help a whole team altogether? We know that the needs of every single player are different so I suppose it isn’t so effective to work with 25 athletes at the same time…I often do both. I just finished working with a hockey team. I’ve conducted group sessions with them and worked with individuals when needed. Just made a proposal to a professional team that included group assessment, group sessions, individual sessions, lectures, and coaches meetings. I’ve worked for teams where all we did was team meetings. I believe it works better when I am part of the staff providing group and individual sessions as required.
- In your opinion, should professional teams use the full-time services of a sport psychologist? Obviously I’m going to say yes and my number is (425)…(laugh). I think that a sport psychology consultant on staff is important to professional teams (I work with many amateur teams, but the services are less because of financial restrictions). A major reason is that it demonstrates commitment to the team that the mental side of the picture is just as important. If you are going to take care of an athlete’s body because it is important and perhaps criticize a player for not concentrating then lets provide support in this area as well. I’ve worked with a good number of athletes that have been professional or elite. Some have won world championships. They have all (or so they have told me) benefitted from what they learned. If athletes who are the best at their profession can gain something important at their level, I believe most other professional or high level athletes can do the same.
- As a former player and soccer coach, do you think coaching and/or sports participation at some level is important for a sports psychologist? I’ll give that a qualified yes. There are always exceptions. I think knowledge of human movement is critical. I don’t think you can communicate effectively with an athlete if you have not competed in something physical at least at some point in your life. I also believe an understanding of physiology, biomechanics, nutrition etc. is very important. Understanding sports terminology and being able to not perform a movement, but to see it makes a huge difference. I once had a conversation with another sport psychologist. He said he lectured a coach on pushing a young athlete to hard because the conditioning was unreasonable. He knew little of exercise physiology. If he did he would have understood that the workout was moderate and he needed to spend time teaching his client various aspects of what might be termed mental toughness. All of this can be learned without having been a competitor or a background in physical education, but it is harder.
- Additional thoughts…I usually see clients (not patients) two weeks to twelve. I have worked with elite athletes for longer periods of time in preparations for the world championships, but for the most part educational / applied sports psychology is short term. As I told the young equestrian rider tonight, I can’t ride your horse with you on jumps, so you better catch on quick. If I were working with you as a professional player, I need to be able to help you relatively quickly or you could be looking for a new job.As with coaching I think failure is important. I’m not sure that I’m not better at working with athletes than others because even though I competed at the college/professional level, I was a failed athlete. I just failed at the next level all of the time. I think it gives me a perspective that I understand now how to overcome failure. If I had always been successful in sport I’m not sure I could do that. Most of the great coaches I have known were not superstar athletes. They may have played professionally, but great coaches it seems to me are like the phoenix. They raise from the ashes to bring greatness out of others.The only other thing you might want to explore is sports hypnosis. Some sports psychologists believe this is sacrilege. I am a certified hypnotist. Makes me a rare person, I suspect. Experience has taught me that sport psychology is both cognitive oriented (majority of sport psychology falls here) and also involves the unconscious.