Sports more than just a physical challenge

By Ivana Susic

Sports are a universal activity. With options from rugby to synchronized swimming, there is something for everyone. Not only can you physically benefit from playing, but the mental exercise is just as important.

A three-year research project whose results were published in several journals worldwide in early April, compared the physiological, sociological and psychological aspects of running and playing soccer. The studies, involving seven countries and 50 researchers, showed that participants who played soccer were more committed to the activity, had more fun and reported less stress than the runners.

Many people underestimate the role emotions play in sports, and this is where sports psychology comes in, said Mitch Abrams, sports psychologist and founder of Learned Excellence for Athletes, located in New Jersey.

Abrams said it’s important people know being a sports fan and a psychologist does not make someone a sports psychologist. Special certification is required and needed.

“Athletes are a subpopulation of the general population and you need to know the culture to be a sports psychologist,”Abrams said.

Edmund O’Connor, sports psychologist at the Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Center in Grand Rapids, Mich., explained that one goal is to improve a person’s participation and involvement in sports. This involves teaching players how to focus and stay motivated.

“You don’t do anything without your thoughts and emotions … no one teaches you to harness it,” O’Connor said. “[You learn to] work your mental muscles, so to speak.”

One important aspect is teaching that everyone on the team is valuable, O’Connor said. Even players who stay on the bench are necessary because they provide support to their teammates.

“Not everyone can be a superstar,” he said. “The high scorer is going to get all the adulation … but they couldn’t get it without the other [teammates].”

Annika Olofsson, a German-based sports psychologist for sportsDrive, a Web site geared toward athletic development designed by sports psychologists, also spoke of the need for cohesion and working together  for success.

“The whole team is serving each other,” Olofsson said.

It’s important to pick a sport suitable to one’s personality. If one cannot handle the challenges of team sports, then no amount of talent can make them a successful player, she said.

“You can have all the talent, all the body… they all have it,” Olofsson said. “But the thing is to actually show the performance.

So many people choke under pressure. Every sport is part mental, [some say] 90 percent.”

Abrams said another advantage to playing sports is they help one develop communication skills, confidence and learning more about oneself.

“Mental doesn’t mean just cognitive; it’s emotional,” he said.

It’s been proven that people work harder and  longer  when involved  in  groups, he added. This comes from developing a feeling of team identity.

“If you feel a part of something, you’re more inclined to help,” Abrams said.

The closeness that develops between teammates also improves performance because teams begin to learn how each individual plays and reacts.

“It’s almost uncanny,” Abrams said. “It’s like [the teammates] have walkie-talkies [when they play].”

While sports are competitive by nature, the majority of people play because they enjoy it and gain satisfaction from it.

“One of the beautiful things about sports is that they’re fun,” Abrams said.