Welcome to Sidelines, a blog by Karl Miran, Athletic Director, who provides insight into how sports are an integral part of the educational experience.
The Mind of the Athlete
The world-class athlete has just made a sensational play to win the game, and the TV interviewer asks him or her, “What were you thinking when you…..?” The athlete’s answer is less-than-Nobel-Prize-worthy; in fact, it is usually much less profound than the results of the fruit-fly research in Dr. Zusman’s class. Yet, there is a great deal of mental processing as athletes play their sport, and W + H coaches spend a great deal of time working to develop and train the mental habits that foster championship performances.
It has been calculated that Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt maxed out at 27 miles per hour, (Australian physiologist Jeremy Richmond - https://www.runnersworld.com/newswire/ultimate-100-meter-time-927-seconds)
but the athlete’s mind moves much faster. Depending on the needs of the sport, the sort of thinking can vary:
- Middle School soccer coach Lee Nicholls explains that when players are off the ball, they need to process multiple possible scenarios, preparing to react most effectively when the ball comes to them.
- Jim Howard reminds his golfers that they need to properly analyze their environment, to feed the right data into their analysis: “If I normally hit a 7-iron 160 yards, will it be enough club on this uphill, 145-yard shot into a moderate wind?”
- Cross Country coach Rick Riepl spends a great deal of the season teaching his runners how to develop a strategy that is appropriate for their ability and to run a “smart race.”
- Rick’s Middle School assistant coach, Tim Head, explains further the depth of analysis undertaken by the coaching staff to develop meaningful strategic goals and to create practice routines that develop appropriate mental toughness for each runner.
- A baseball player who realizes that the opposing pitcher “always throws fastball on a 3-2 count, because he is scared of a walk” is demonstrating some degree of Theory of Mind, the awareness of the thinking and desires of others that underlies empathy and emotional intelligence.
- Other coaches prefer to focus on the mental state they try to develop in their athletes, which they call concentration, or awareness. Whatever they call it, such an attitude always involves ignoring certain stimuli, and focusing on others.
While every student’s athletic experience is unique, we can assert that this element of athletics may be the most valuable in later life. In spite of the fact that “real life” as a doctor, lawyer, husband, wife, businessperson, or novelist will demand different types of thinking than sports, the athlete’s memory of what they achieved on the athletic field can help them in those very different arenas. Perhaps the most applicable lesson that an athlete learns is that the proper mental approach is necessary for success in a competitive field. Further, acknowledging the value of guidance from an experienced coach in developing one’s mental tools is a great template for future success. That may be what a former president of Amherst College meant when he labelled athletics “the sweatiest of the liberal arts.”
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