Winning mindset: Sports psych & the athlete

September 26th, 2016

For pro athletes like players on the Washington Nationals, keeping the body in top physical form is undeniably important. But there's also more to baseball than muscles and reflexes. In many ways, baseball is a mind game.

"It's been estimated for baseball that mental factors determine as much as 80 percent of the fluctuations in day-to-day performance," said Melissa Womble, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist with the Inova Sports Medicine group, the official hospital network and sports medicine partner of the Washington Nationals. The Inova Sports Medicine team offers comprehensive, personalized care for athletes at every age and activity level, with a focus on injury prevention, recovery and performance. Athletes can access this care all in one convenient location in Fairfax, Va.

Despite the importance of mental factors, amateur athletes and their coaches are often much more likely to focus on physical skills. Womble added, "Unfortunately, sport psychology services are underutilized mostly due to lack of knowledge."

Luckily, Womble and other sport psychologists are experts in preparing athletes -- both pros and amateurs -- for competitive success as well as overcoming psychological obstacles that may be detrimental to their performance.

Mental toughness

Picture a player in the last inning of a long, tough game. He or she might be mentally counting statistics, experiencing negative thoughts or watching what the coach is doing. He or she might also be worried about disappointing teammates or fans, or dwelling on a mistake made a few minutes before. On top of that, there's the fatigue, especially after a long, draining baseball season.

"Sport psychologists can teach skills to help players stay in the moment," Womble said. "We commonly work on maintaining concentration, enhancing confidence and maintaining composure -- that mental toughness piece that refers to an athlete's ability to play at or close to their best regardless of internal or external circumstances."

But seeing a sport psychologist doesn't mean the athlete isn't tough enough. Rather, sport psychology is designed to give athletes better skills to perform consistently and ultimately succeed.

"We all know that physical skills need to be regularly practiced and refined. But psychological skills also have to be worked on regularly," Womble said.

Tools for success

Sport psychologists such as Womble teach athletes concrete skills and techniques to improve their games. Those skills cover a range of areas, including:

The healthcare professionals at Inova Sports Medicine are dedicated to helping athletes at any level improve their game.