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onCampus--Ohio State's faculty/staff news

Vol. 38, No. 18

By: Julia Harris

Helping student-athletes get psyched up

OSU Sport Psychology Services opens doors to, for athletes

The couch, the décor and the Kleenex boxes in Jennifer Carter’s workplace are standard fare for your average psychologist’s office. But her clientele, which consists primarily of Ohio State’s 900-plus varsity student-athletes, makes her far from average.

Carter is the director of OSU Sport Psychology Services, a division within the Sports Medicine Center on Kenny Road. A licensed psychologist who also is a competitive swimmer, Carter and her colleague, Sam Maniar, provide individual counseling services to Ohio State athletes.

The psychologists also focus on mental skills training, team building and goal setting for teams, coaches and athletics staff.

“To have people at university athletic departments who are licensed psychologists is a relatively recent trend,” Carter says.

“College administrators are recognizing that to get peak performance from their athletes, they need them to be functioning optimally, developing good relationships and coping with strong feelings,” she adds. “It’s another way to get that ‘edge.’”

While sport psychology is relatively new to the United States, Maniar said many Eastern European countries have been making use of such training for roughly 50 years. And in professional sports, more teams are beginning to employ sport psychologists, as are individual athletes such as golfers or tennis players. The U.S. Olympic Committee retains the services of four sport psychologists.

Last year, Maniar and Carter saw 150 of the 900 athletes individually, and they also conducted a number of consultations with coaches, medical staffs and entire teams. They attend the occasional practice — Carter’s been known to drop in on early-morning rowing practice at the boathouse on Griggs Reservoir — to interact more informally with athletes and to increase their visibility.

“The more access we’re able to have to the student-athletes, to attend practices and talk to the coaches, the more we’ll be used,” Carter says. “We find that when coaches have us in to do mental skills training sessions with their teams, the athletes on those teams are much more likely to come in for individual counseling because they know us and the coaches have given their stamp of approval.”

Carter gives her own stamp of approval to Athletics Director Gene Smith for how he has handled the issue of drug and alcohol abuse among student-athletes. After noting how many reports of bad behavior by Ohio State athletes appeared in the media, Carter recalls, Smith instituted mandatory substance abuse education for all incoming first-year athletes.

“It’s a program called Choices that we help coordinate with the Student Wellness Center, and I think it’s had a huge impact,” Carter says.

While substance abuse is probably the most common issue presented by student-athletes, others include depression, anxiety, relationship issues and eating disorders. Students can come for counseling as long and as often as they need to — Carter said she’s worked with several athletes off and on for more than four years.

In addition to individual counseling sessions, Carter and Maniar offer training on skills like energy management, which involves helping student-athletes get into their ideal energy zone where they’re not too “pumped” or too “chilled.” They teach imagery, relaxation skills and motivation strategies. Another area they address is self-talk, the critical inner coach that tends to generate crippling negative thoughts.

These are skills that can be applied outside the arena of competition, Maniar said.

“There’s a strong connection between mind and body. Imagery and relaxation can be used to speed up wound healing, and motivation theories can be applied to the workplace, as can team dynamics and goal setting,” he adds.

The overall impact of OSU’s Sport Psychology Services is harder and trickier to measure. Because there are so many factors that contribute to a successful athletic performance — strength and conditioning, tactics and technique, nutrition and psychology — it’s almost impossible, Carter said, to nail down the single most contributing factor.

Still, she’s pleased to note how well Ohio State athletes are performing both on and off the field.

“I’d say that the athletes at Ohio State are very elite compared to other universities, and while I’m not going to claim credit for that, this sport psychology program has been known as the premiere program because we’ve had it so long and it’s been well established,” she says.

What makes a good athlete?
Jennifer Carter, director of OSU’s Sport Psychology Services, sees many common personality traits in elite student-athletes:
• Hard-working, good at persevering.
• Trained to be stoic and tough.
• Goal-oriented.
• Compliant, willing to do what demanding coaches tell them.
• Energetic and enthusiastic.
• Risk-takers, which may explain why student-athletes tend to binge drink more than non-athletes.

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