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018: An Athletes Pit Crew: Examining Sports Psychology and Performance Excellence - with Dr. Barbara Meyer
Meet Dr. Barbara Meyer
Dr. Meyer is a professor and director of the Laboratory for Sports Psychology and Performance Excellence at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. On top of that, she is also a Sports Psychology Coach who works with professional and Olympic athletes on the mental side of their game. She has trained athletes at every Winter Olympics since 2002 and has worked with athletes across various sports, including freestyle skiing, speed skating, and hockey, among many others.
Are there ways you can monitor and evaluate someone’s mindset in school?
If you were to enroll in one of my classes in particular at UWM I teach an undergrad Sport and Exercise psychology class. I've been teaching that class as long as I've been at UWM. The first day of class, I ask everybody to do a show of hands and I say, "Would you rather learn a lot in class and earn the grade of a B, or not learn very much, it's an easy class, you can memorize things and forget it tomorrow, but you earn the grade of an A, which would you rather have?" We can tell a lot about your motivation by how you answer that question and we can ask athletes the same thing. Would you rather let's say in an Olympic sport, finish fourth, but have a personal best, or would you because of whatever reason, not performed very well, but you end up first. Maybe everybody else fell down or nobody else had a good performance and so your bad performance was better than everybody else's bad performance. But those questions really get at some psychological characteristics that people have about their motivation and we can apply that to everything we do and we can learn a lot about people.
So I'm going to make an assumption. My assumption would be that most of your students, and for the most part, most of your athletes are going to sacrifice the learning and the personal bests in order to get the A and to get first. Would that be correct?
Yes, or they're going to try to balance it out a little bit. Most think that they should say, learning, they think that they should say personal best. But most competitive performers aren't there to do their best. They are, but really they want to win, they want to end up on the podium. So really, what we have to often do is deconstruct it and build up enough trust and enough evidence to say yeah. But the best way to get on that podium, the best way to win is to take a step back, and focus on the process, and focus on getting better. If you can get better at something in your performance domain, whatever you do, if you can get a little bit better at something every day, you're increasing your chances of getting the desired outcome. Sometimes it might be getting a little bit better at your nutrition, sometimes it might be getting a little bit better at your recovery or your rest. But if you can focus on getting a little bit better at something every day, you maximize your chances of getting that desired outcome.
How do you help either your students or your athletes make that mindset change quickly?
Yeah, and let me before I answer that, let me also go back and say that once you can make that connection, that I am getting smarter, I am improving, I am getting better at something. If you can realize that and really come to appreciate that, when the time comes if you don't get your desired outcome, at least you don't have any regrets. At least hopefully, on the morning of that loss is we can move on faster because you know you did everything you can and on that particular day, that wasn't good enough. So in addition to helping you maximize your chances of getting that desired outcome, knowing that you've done the work, you have no regrets helps you to manage it when you haven't achieved that. Now, to your question, how do we fast forward people's ability to get that. So oftentimes athletes that I've worked with for a really long time will come and stay at our house here in Milwaukee and on a couple of occasions, my husband has had to come to our backyard and ask us, an athlete and I who are having a session on the patio to quiet down because we're using our outdoor voices, and our neighbors can hear us. One of the athletes I'm thinking about, in particular, we were talking about outcome versus process, we were talking about the best way to get you to win is to back up and focus on the controllables and focus on the process. So how do you do that? You ask people to experiment in low-stakes ways. So for you as a student, I'm not going to ask you to do that as a student, because you might not trust me and the stakes are too high. But I'm going to ask you to do that in a different area of your life. So that's going to be some of your at-home exercises, or some of your homework is to practice that process-oriented approach or practice those controllables in a different area of your life. You will if you do that consistently, and you debrief honestly with me, you will make progress at that. Eventually, your curiosity will probably be piqued and you're like, "Hmm, I wonder what happens if I do this in school or I try this and another higher stakes?" So we build up trust and rapport in our relationship. I might have you watch a documentary, maybe you're a big Formula One fan so I have watched a documentary on Formula One, which is about process orientation and controlling the controllables. Or I might have you watch some YouTube videos or what have you, to give you some additional evidence that maybe this is worth trying. Then over time, you will start to understand it, you will start to believe it and hopefully, in no time, you're like, "Duh, I can't imagine I was ever anything else."
How does ego play a role in our inability to want to advance that process?
So most of the time when someone emails me or calls me to do performance-based work, it's not usually because everything is going great. So there's a little bit of desperation and usually, they have done everything else, they have a technical coach, they have a physical preparation coach, they have a nutritionist, they have a financial planner, so they have all of the other boxes ticked. They want it to be often everything else but a head problem. So I always say, when people call me I usually know something's going wrong with them. Like I'm stepping on the Titanic, instead of The Love Boat. I'd say, 30% of the time, someone reaches out and says, "I think everything's good, but I just want to make sure," The other times, the wheels are falling off and this is a desperate cry for help. So in some ways, I've got their attention because I know they've tried everything else and it hasn't worked to the extent they want it to work. So I've got a little bit more of a captive audience now and they're willing to put themselves out there, they're willing to be uncomfortable, because your brain muscle, and I always refer to it as a muscle and neuroscience teaches us now that there's neural plasticity. So with training, we can change the way our brain functions. But I often say that they're desperate. Just like if I asked you to change the way you throw darts, right? And I'm like, "You know what Will? I really think you can get 5% extra if you just change the grip on the dart." You'd probably respond by saying you have been throwing it this way for 25 years and it's going to be uncomfortable. You're probably going to get a little bit worse before that new grip on the Dart becomes your habit. The same thing goes with the brain muscle. We're changing the way your brain thinks and it's gonna be uncomfortable because you have your habits. Your habit is to think about winning, your habit is to think about what people are going to say about you in the media, or what somebody's going to tweet about you so we have to get you past that. It's going to be uncomfortable before it becomes more comfortable. You could get a little bit worse at this before you start to see consistent progress forward. Usually, they're desperate by the time they get to the mental side of it, and they're a little bit more willing to take a risk.
So you said in one of your recent interviews back in 2018 that sports psychology is one of the last areas of expertise or disciplines that has gained wide acceptance. So we are three years removed from that, have you seen that shift begin to change anymore? Also as it does shift, do you think that number of 30% that are coming in just to make sure everything is good will increase?
That's the hope. In some of the sports organizations that I've worked at over the years have been on the forefront like 10-15 years ago, where along with a nutritionist and the physical preparation coach and the athletic trainer, the physical therapist, the physio, whoever, they've had a mental performance coach on staff. So just as you would, let's say, in an elite sports draft where you go to the combine, and we see how much you can squat and everything, you go talk to someone who tries to do a little bit of an assessment of where you are mentally. So some organizations have already put that in place to try to normalize and just make it that this is one of the other things that we take care of in this organization.
What have you seen in this capacity and how would you describe the current landscape on how we can advance these conversations?
So, one of the things that they do, or they have done in the past, I don't know if they're still doing this, but Canada was at the forefront of a lot of this. They did mental skills training as part of the elementary school curriculum. So in addition to all of your academic subjects, they wove into the curriculum, stress reduction. So some breathing, they did things with regard to self-talk and confidence, communication and teamwork. I have colleagues in other disciplines whose partners are school teachers, elementary school teachers here in the US, and they try to do things like practicing mindfulness and working on communication skills, and those sorts of things within their classes, not as part of a formalized curriculum. But those are certainly things that we can do. We can do that with our nieces and nephews. Again, you're playing board games as a family, these are lessons that you can learn and just nuggets you can drop throughout for anybody. So weaving that into just how we are as human beings, I remember years ago, and this colleague is no longer at UWM. But I had a professor colleague at UWM and I happen to be at his house for a barbecue and one of his children had come home from the elementary school track meet. The first question he asked his daughter was, Did you win?" Okay, so I like to win, right? I like to win more than anybody else, probably, but that's not the question you want to ask that child. It should be, "How did you do? Tell me what you remember about your track meet. Did you have fun?" So you want to ask those sorts of things to try to reinforce that process, that improvement, that getting better. Because again, we're coming back to the fact that the more you get better, the more you focus on the process and the controllables, the greater your chance of getting the outcome that you want is.
So you work with the Australian Winter Olympic team, how the heck did that happen?
At the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, I was accredited with several countries' teams and literally would do sort of like the Superwoman change in the phone booth from one team gear to the other team gear. My husband made a joke and said that I should have Velcro letters and that way I could turn the AUS for Australia into the USA when I went from skiing to hockey and I was like, "h, wow, I knew I had you around for a reason, that's a great idea." So I was working with freestyle skiing in the US and I was working with a development athlete at the USA development ski team member. In the work that I do, I try to work with the coaches and everybody else on the team. That particular coach and I were working closely with the US athlete, and then that coach got hired away by an athlete in Australia. Australia has done some really great work in talent, transfer, and talent identification. So if you've ever heard of the book, The Sports Gene, by David Epstein, he goes into some of the stories about how the Australians because they're not a winter sport country, and they don't have very many people, have to find different ways to develop talent. So one of the things that they've done in a couple of their premier sports is they worked on transferring talent from gymnastics, diving, acrobatics into winter sport. So they took her primarily gymnast taught them how to ski and developed a dynasty in freestyle aerial skiing, similarly in mogul skiing, and more recently in snowboard. So they have a lot of really good results in World Cups, World Championships, and Olympics over the past couple of decades, particularly in those sports due to talent transfer. So this coach was hired away by one of the Australian freestyle skiers named Alisa Camplin, who felt that she wasn't getting the attention she deserved from her national institute because one of her teammates was a reigning world champion and she was kind of an up and comer. She sort of did this little bit of a split from the Australian team so that she could get attention going into the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake. So I got a call from this coach that I knew and he said, "Look, I'm not with the USA anymore. In fact, I've been hired by this one athlete in Australia. I'm going to be working on the technical side of her performance and I think she would benefit from some mental training. We can't pay you. I know you really like winter sport, you're interested in this, would you be willing to work with us?" I said, "Yeah, of course," and met her for the first time, like three or four months later, where she was training in Canada. Then in February of 2002, she won a gold medal. So from there, I've stayed affiliated with the Australians and now serve as their lead sports psychologist, providing oversight to the other staff in that area. So I have an administrative role in addition to working with various athletes and teams on the winter side there.
So what would you say are aerial skiers' biggest roadblocks with regards to fear?
Many of them have come from acrobatic sports so they've got some strategies to deal with that. Occasionally, the weather conditions are windy. Just like in golf, where unless it's lightning, you keep golfing in inclement weather. In these sports, unless the visibility is so bad, you just keep going. So it could be foggy, it can be snowing, the wind can be coming sideways and so there are weather conditions that make things interesting. Fear is a part of it, but they want to get it like they want to have consistent performance. I think that's one of the biggest things is developing consistency and what they do, again, whether it's golf or baseball, whatever, you just want to be consistent.
So why do you think athletes can get it right sometimes, and still mess up other times?
The inputs into your system aren't consistent. Physically, mentally, tactically, technically.
So I want to talk about a moment that we had discussed before the recording started. I believe it was back in 2018. Again, you've been working with these athletes for a long period of time, and they have a really tough Olympics. One thing that you talked about was the toll that took on you, and how you needed to focus on your own mental capacity before because you're going through it, your athletes are going through it, you're the coaches are going through it, the association is going through it. It's like, "I can't even get to my athletes," because it affected your own mental capacity so much.
Yeah. That's something that I never learned in graduate school. There's a lot of things I never learned in graduate school and I try to impart that knowledge to my students. Yeah, the Australian aerial ski team has this history and they've been dominant in the world for decades. At the Pyeong Chang Winter Olympics in 2018, they had four or five legit medal chances in aerial skiing and came away with no medals. Got a top-five and top five is amazing, especially from a southern hemisphere country and all of these sorts of things, but that's not their expectation. Their key performance indicator was one if not more metals in the aerial ski. So that was the first time I'd ever been to a Winter Olympics and they hadn't won a medal. So that was new territory for me, and so needing to take care of them if you will, and work with the athletes and try to debrief that and make that okay for them, the close staff of that program, and then the whole staff of the organization. So there were several layers of the onion that professionally needed my attention before I could try to understand what that meant for me. So I had to really just push that aside. I have a really good support system where people are like, "How are you doing, are you okay?" Because my support system knows that this has been a really successful program and on paper, the program didn't meet the goals that they had set out for this Olympics. So that was a new and interesting experience.
And so much more...
Please take a look at the amazing work Dr. Meyer is doing at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee: https://sites.uwm.edu/lab-sppe/