From positivity to proactivity – the sports psychological breakthrough


Top BYU men’s tennis player Sean Hill faced a serious dilemma at the beginning of 2018 — his left wrist grew weak with tendonitis, and then his right wrist followed suit. It took him nine months of recovery before he could play to the best of his ability. 

Hill said while the physical obstacle affected his performance, in the end, it was the mental barrier he had to overcome that affected his game more than his disadvantaged wrists. 

“I feel like it’s underestimated, the mental aspect of the game,” Hill said. 

Hill is not the first one to recognize the importance of a strong mentality. 

As early as the first Olympics in 776 B.C., athletes have correlated training both their bodies and minds for the largest physical competition in the world. In order to perform at the arduous level required, the contestants understood the need to be in balance with both their minds and bodies to be considered a laudable competition.  

BYU sports psychologist and human performance consultant Craig Manning agrees with the idea that great performance requires a strong mentality, but takes it a step further. He advises his various clients — BYU sports teams, the Milwaukee Bucks and more — to look beyond upholding a positive mentality in adversity and instead focus on learning how to endure through hardship with a new mental tactic: proactive thinking.  

While Manning was an excellent athlete in the late 1980s, he said when it came time for a competition, he would get in the way of himself and not meet his expectations. 

“If I look back, I was mentally weak in a sense. I wasn’t really in control of my mind. I was such a deep thinker; I was always overthinking everything,” Manning said. 

After his professional tennis career, Manning went on to receive his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology, as well as earning his doctorate in sports psychology. He said his desire to obtain a further education came from his fascination for understanding the secret to an athlete’s success and that it was during this time that his passion for understanding the physical effects of the internal thoughts in an athlete evolved. 

With enhanced technology and better knowledge of the complex human brain, Manning found the difference between mediocre athletes and great athletes, and said it has little to do with maintaining a positive state of mind through the process. 

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
BYU tight end Moroni Laulu-Pututau is helped up after he went down with an injury during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Washington, Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Manning said while he practiced under this type of thinking, fallacious optimism is actually the downfall of most athletes, as the body and mind undergo cognitive dissonance or a contradiction within the mind that causes chaos and mental discomfort. 

The past belief of neglecting feelings such as panic, stress or disappointment, Manning said, seemed to be harming players, rather than helping them. 

“When you lie to yourself, your mind is kind of searching for answers in the moment and creating stress. Instead of being positive, we want to be proactive,” Manning said.

He added that a proactive mindset differs from positive thinking as it is actively engaged with the situation at hand and helps alleviate the stress factor by problem-solving and encountering a solution. Instead of allowing for a perpetuating “spiral of lies,” Manning said proactivity will help athletes fully move forward.

Former 1978-84 NBA player Jeff Judkins said he has seen a dramatic increase in the emphasis of a strong mentality within the athletic field. While the mental aspect of the game was rarely talked about during his time as a professional athlete, Judkins is convinced that the illumination of the subject is a “very, very positive thing.” 

As the current head women’s basketball coach at BYU, Judkins said identifying mental obstacles before the season begins helps promote confidence within the players and gives them the resources to help maintain a strong mental game. 

Judkins said before the 2019-20 season, each of the women on the basketball team met with their team psychologist to talk about the potential stressors that weigh heavily on an athlete’s mind. While the topic affecting them may be sports-related (such as an injury or lack of confidence during a game) this could also include academic struggles, relationship conflicts or lack of emotional support. 

These in-depth conversations with a psychologist present an opportunity for the athletes to create a proactive approach to their personal mental barrier.

With new data confirming the essential part a strong mentality holds in athletic performances, Judkins said he can foresee a greater need for psychologists in a more intimate manner.

“When I came to BYU, there was one sports psychologist and he was part-time,” Judkins said. “Now there’s three full-time, and I think this generation is more into talking about the mental part of the game.”

Judkins said while we are still in the premature stages of fully understanding the capability the mental game can have on an athlete’s performance, he believes there will soon be a need to have a coach with a background in psychology that is regularly with the team. The coach’s primary responsibility would be to help the teammates retain a proactive state of mind. 

“I didn’t go to school to learn it, and so as a coach, I have to push that off to somebody else,” Judkins said. “Like I didn’t go into weights, I didn’t go into training, so now it’s becoming another coach that can help the athletes out.”

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