Sports Psychology Interview with Dr. John F Murray – Psychology Today – By Marty Nemko – April 30, 2016 – After conducting today’s The Eminents interview with sports psychologist John F. Murray, I’ve come away feeling that his advice applies not just to athletes but to most people who want to improve their mental performance.
Murray has helped NFL quarterbacks overcome slumps, coached tennis at Wimbledon, trained athletes at the Summer Olympics and even at the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Tennis Week called him, “The Roger Federer of Sports Psychologists,” The Washington Post called him “The Freud of Football, and USA Today called him “one of the best in the business.”
MN: The classic sports psychology book, The Inner Game of Tennis, argued that key to success is not concentration but relaxation: Quiet the mind and let it happen. Do you agree?
JM: Yes but the science of mental performance has since developed many other good practices. For example, rather than just passively allowing performance to happen by the athletes getting out of their own way,” sports psychologists develop training protocols.
MN: Okay, let talk about those. How do you help athletes improve their concentration?
JM: It often helps if the athlete creates or refines a pre-shot or pre-performance routine. In fact, the time between points in tennis, shots in golf, or plays in football, may be as important to master as the playing time. The pre-action ritual replaces distracted thinking with something constructive.
MN: What’s your advice for an athlete in a slump or who cracks under pressure?
JM: Such athletes often are trying too hard or focusing too much on the outcome. S/he must focus on what’s controllable: Winning is not, mental skills are: confidence, focus, emotional control. For example, in working with a slumping NFL quarterback, we created imagery scripts loaded with pressure-packed moments, often more extreme even than what they’ll face in the game. Eventually his self-talk improved. he stopped worrying about uncontrollables, began loving even adverse situations, and pulled out of the slump.
MN: Some athletes are too competitive, for example, the football player who deliberately tackles a player by yanking his face mask. Any advice?
JM: Let’s not confuse competitive with stupid. A high level of competitiveness without cheating is usually a clear plus while deliberately fouling is stupid. I like to have my clients imagine all the possible scenarios that can lead to a severe penalty. Then I train them to picture themselves behaving constructively, for example, walking away from a fight.
MN: Conversely, some athletes are too laid back.
JM: The biggest challenge is when an athlete lacks drive. That’s very hard to change—The best chance is with traditional counseling to try to get at the root of the problem. Occasionally though, the problem can be addressed symptomatically. For example, a soccer player who needs more intensity might benefit from listening to fast dance music before a game, watching video of their favorite player scoring goals, or even jumping rope.
MN: Many athletic coaches wish they could motivate players better. Any not-obvious tips?
JM: First, as I just implied, the athlete is best motivated from within. Motivation is not like an outboard motor attached to the player’s outside. The motor must reside deep within.
Having said that, good coach behavior can help.:
Be relatively tough but not overtrain athletes.
Make the effort to relate humanly to players, include pre-season bonding sessions far from the training center.
Keep practice interesting, for example, by varying routines.
Let players have input into practices’ structure and even in decision-making during a game. But the coach must have final say. Anarchy rarely leads to success.
MN: There are psychological issues in recovering from an injury. What can help?
JM: Injured athletes in team sports are often ignored and isolated from the team. That isolation on top of the physical pain can make the injured athlete feel sad, anxious, and even abuse substances. The athlete and team members and, if available, a sports psychologist, should stay close and listen well to what the injured athlete is feeling. Relaxation with imagery can also help with pain and attitude. Short-term goals often keep things moving along smoothly.
MN: Especially as they get older, many athletes (and of course non-athletes) gain weight. How do you try to address that?
JM: I use athletes’ own psychology by turning weight control into a sport with a daily challenge.
MN: Many college and pro athletes must do media interviews. Any tips?
JM: Without scripting, they should play-out their answers to likely questions and think about the kind of impression they want to make. It’s always safe to think team-first and to give earned praise to coaches and teammates. Try to be natural and have a little sense of humor—but just a little.
MN: You yourself have done many print and TV interviews. Tips?
JM: Rather than thinking that a million people are in the audience, I just focus on the interviewer and the question. Another thing: Don’t over-prepare. Sure, if you need to bone up on content, fine. But overall, it’s better to pretend you just met the interviewer in a coffee shop and roll with the interview.
MN: You developed a system for rating mental performance in football. What are its key items?
JM: There are about a dozen factors but key is how they perform at critical moments, like 3rd or 4th downs, how they respond after a bad play, and how rarely they make mental errors such as a careless penalty.
MN: What’s next for John Murray?
JM: Continuing to refine that Mental Performance Index for use in predicting a game’s winner. I’d also love to help an NFL team or two win a Super Bowl. That would be the icing on a cake I’m already grateful for.
Marty Nemko’s bio is in Wikipedia. His new book, his 8th, is The Best of Marty Nemko. I hope you have enjoyed this special feature from Psychology Today and the world of sports psychology.