The Psychology Department at George Mason University not only encourages graduate students to study hard, but also to forge a path that will maximize success in their chosen field. This can mean working with a seasoned professor or researcher. But as research in the department is diverse, so are the interests of our students. Such is the case with Jim Doorley, a Ph.D. student who is studying Sports Psychology. He is interested in applying his knowledge of clinical psychological science to help performers achieve success and maintain psychological health in high-pressure, high-stakes environments. In the summer of 2018, this interest landed Jim in the new role of graduate sports psychology consultant for George Mason’s Men’s Basketball team.
Since August, Doorley has been working with the team Graduate Professional Assistant, meeting with the team and applying the concepts he’s researching to help them reach their maximum potential. He started this past summer meeting with about 8 students 30 minutes a week, and now he’s still helping, giving talks large groups and meeting with 3 to 4 students regularly. His job is to help the students improve their performance by thinking about what is happening on the court before it even happens, mentally “gaming out each play” and trying to get past the mental blocks that might detract from a performance. They spend hours training their bodies, reviewing film, and focusing on nutrition and sleep, but for many athletes, one crucial element is missing: The mental side.
“Mentally rehearsing each play helps to reduce anxiety,” Doorley explains. “Think of it like this: if you’re about to give a speech and you think you might mess up, you’re more prone to making those mistakes.” His research looks into how to reduce those mistakes by thinking through anything, something that can be applied to any area, but his focus continues to be on sports.
Doorley points out that while anxiety is natural, it means that you care deeply about the outcome. A lot of the younger players might not necessarily understand that, so he helps them overcome this, through visualization and familiarity. This familiarity can lead to improvement among players, or anyone who is trying to accomplish an important task.
One example he gives is of Michael Phelps as he prepares to swim in a new pool. Not only does Phelps study the pool, the water, the lanes, but also the stadium and how it’s going to sound with everyone in it. Doorley points out that through this visualization it gives him a sense of familiarity, which allows him to focus on the race itself. In Phelps’s case, he can even count the number of strokes he’s taken, and how it matches up with the number of strokes he visualizes that he’s going to take.
“But most of the time, it all boils down to a few core fears,” Doorley explains, “and this tends to hold true for all of us – fears of performing poorly, fears of negative judgment for not measuring up, fears of everything out of our control.” Time and again, he notes, it is important to help players focus on what they can control, which tends to be their effort and their behavior – not what the other team does, not winning and losing, not even making shots. “If players could fully control shots going in, they would never miss.” Further, it’s important to help the players understand that anxiety doesn’t need to be bad. “It’s universal. We all experience anxiety before a performance, provided we actually care about the outcome.” Doorley believes that framing anxiety as non-threatening, and perhaps even helpful for performance, can make a big impact on players’ confidence. “The best performers in the world get anxious before big moments, but they welcome that feeling. They aren’t threatened by it. They know they can harness anxiety to zone in, slow things down, and stay energized.”
Sport psychology is a nascent field compared to other subfields in psychology. It wasn’t until the late 1970’s that peer-reviewed research on mental skills training in sports began to surface. Since then, the field has developed rapidly. A growing number of professional sports teams employ at least one sport psychologist. Mental skills training has been a mainstay at U.S. Olympic training centers for some time. Now, a number of major universities employ sport psychologists to enhance student-athletes’ performance, but also support their psychological well-being. “The field is moving toward a more holistic approach,” Doorley describes. “You can’t just teach mental skills, you need to be able to work with an athlete as a whole person.” Doorley aspires to work not only with athletes, but musicians, performing artists, business people, and other high performers looking to sharpen their mental tools and perform at the highest level.