Dr. Itzik Zur has established himself as a performance expert and has worked extensively with soccer teams, fencers, and martial arts athletes for the past nine years. Most recently, Itzik has been researching how a fencer’s mental state can influence his or her performance. More specifically, he is exploring how a fencer’s mental state affects his or her response time, accuracy, power, and muscle engagement while attacking a target. The athlete produces an actual fencing attack on a target and Itzik measures the athlete’s muscle tension, stress level, accuracy, and response time to understand changes in performance in different states. Itzik is a pioneer in the sports performance field as he uses a combination of real-life simulation and individualized biofeedback results to understand how an athlete performs in different mental states.

Thus far, Itzik has found that for elite fencers, anger is correlated with poor performance and that, in general, anger is associated with lower accuracy. However, anger also seems to be connected to great force during the attack.

Itzik has already begun to use his technique with athletes to boost their performance. As his results have shown, different mental states can improve or impair an athlete’s performance. Itzik helps athletes increase their awareness of when they are at their best by measuring performance outcomes in different mental states. After the data is collected and analyzed, Itzik can determine a personalized ideal mindset for the athlete. From there, Itzik designs a particular intervention for athletes to regulate their emotions and learn how to put themselves in that state during competition. More specifically, athletes can learn how to control their muscles better, improve response time under stressful conditions, and have a plan to counter pre-competition anxiety.

A SMART goal is a goal that is:

Your goal should be as specific as possible.  Ambiguity in our goals makes it easier to ‘slack off’ when we are pursuing them.  For example, saying your goal is to “lose weight” is unclear and allows for wiggle room in the effort you put towards achieving it.  Instead, set your goal to “exercise three times a week for 45 minutes each.“  The more vivid our description of the goal, the more likely we are to achieve it.

You should be able to objectively measure your goal.  Referring to the example above, you will know you hit your goal if you in fact exercised for 45 minutes at the frequency you wanted throughout the week.   Additionally, pick how much weight you want to lose and at what frequency (e.g. two pounds a week) If your goal is too vague, it will be difficult for you to measure it.

Describe your goal with action verbs.  Referring to the example above, it is better to describe your goal as, “I will exercise three times a week” rather than, “I want to be in better shape.”  Further, outline the steps it will take for you to accomplish your goal.  Figure out what short-term goals you will have to achieve along the way to hitting your long-term goal.  For example, maybe you have to get a gym membership first, and map out a schedule of when you will exercise before you get into your routine.

A good goal should be difficult to achieve but not too difficult that it is impossible.  Because you will be setting a difficult goal, it is important that you be able to adjust it along the way.  If you find yourself falling short of what you set to achieve, check-in and see if you need to adjust your goal downward or increase the amount of effort you are putting forth.

Pick a date when you would like to accomplish this goal by.  Once you have picked an end date for your goal, you can map out some of the short-term goals you need to accomplish along the way.

SMART goal setting works because it directs your attention to the most important behaviors you need to execute (e.g. losing weight feels less overwhelming when your attention is re-directed to exercising three times a week).  Good goal setting can help mobilize your effort and prolong your persistence (e.g. you hit your two pound loss for the month, which inspires you to work at it for another month).  Lastly, it can foster the development of new strategies you come up with to accomplish your goal (e.g. trying out a new exercise class or routine).

It is easy to get discouraged or distracted when pursuing goals, so makes sure you keep in mind what you want to achieve at the end of all your work, why you want to achieve it, and how you are going to achieve it.

Laura Kirschner M.Ed.

There has been a drastic increase in the instance of sports injury.  This increase is partially due to an increase in participation, but there is also an increase in the proportion of athletes that are getting injured.1 As a result, there has been a lot of research about the physical and psychological factors that influence an athlete’s successful return to sport.  The return to sports model suggests that an athlete’s ability to pass successfully from one stage to the next in their return to competition is contingent upon physical elements, such as the injury healing and physical conditioning, as well as psychological rehabilitation.

What does mental recovery look like for an injured athlete?  The research suggests that are several critical psychological factors that are affected during recovery.  First and foremost, injury is usually a very stressful emotional experience and it is common for athletes to experience feelings of deep sadness, anxiety, confusion, tension, hostility, tiredness, and, sometimes, persisting sadness that reach levels of clinical depression.2 The notion that depression is fairly prevalent in athletes post-injury is supported by many studies, which generally show that approximately 10% to 20% of injured athletes experience extreme responses to injury, particularly depression, at intensities that surpass levels usually recommended for clinical referral.3

Second, an athlete’s identity is at risk after an injury.  Imagine that a person who is used to identifying as an ‘athlete’ and participating in sports/exercise on a daily basis is suddenly labeled ‘injured’ and unable to exercise for weeks or months. Disturbances to identity can also affect an athlete’s feelings of self-worth.  Self-worth is usually attained through three basic needs: (1) the need to feel competent, (2) the need to experience achievements, and (3) the need to feel accepted.4 An injury prevents athletes from feeling confident, experiencing success in sports, and feeling connected and accepted by their teams.

Finally, it is common that an athlete experiences fear of re-injury; 13% think about it during rehabilitation, and 40% upon return to sport. Fear of re-injury can present itself in flashbacks to the occasion on which the injury occurred or when an athlete believes that re-injury is likely to happen upon returning to the sport. Alternatively, this fear can manifest itself in feelings of anxiety surrounding the sports experience.  Fear of re-injury is often a reason why many athletes never return to their sport.5

It is important to note that although several factors play into the psychological recovery experience, an athlete’s cognitive appraisal (or interpretation) of the injury and rehabilitation experience have a huge impact on the emotional and behavioral response to the injury and recovery.  Psychological intervention, like counseling, can decrease the distress throughout recovery as well as facilitate a healthy and fruitful return to sport.

By Laura Kirschner M.Ed.

Earlier this month, myself and Dr. Rob Udewitz worked with talented equestrian athletes at the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF).  We got to visit the USET Foundation in Gladstone, New Jersey, meet the coaches involved in training, and tour the beautiful facility.  During the workshop, we introduced several talented athletes, their families, and coaches to a few different sport psychology topics relevant to their sport.

We talked about how sport psychology skills such as visual imagery, mindfulness, self-regulation, and pre-competition routines can influence performance. The athletes talked a lot about how the intense stress and pressure of competition can make them forget about details of their execution they have rehearsed in the barn.  We talked about how imagery can help to make the transition from practice to competition smoother. Specifically, imagery can help emotionally (practicing feeling how you want to feel at that moment) and cognitively (eventually, you are no longer thinking about what you have to do next because it is automatic).

At the end of our workshop, we even hooked up some athletes to our biofeedback equipment. The athletes enjoyed seeing how breathing, attention, and stress all interact to produce physiological changes in their body.  Some coaches even opted to test their arousal-regulation skills!   Contact BTNY to learn more about the relationship between sports psychology and performance.

Dr. Rob Udewitz has been working with New York Road Runners’ Team for Kids program for the last ten years, providing performance consulting for the athletes involved.  Team for Kids is made up of a group of adult runners from around the world who raise funds for NYRR’s Youth and Community Services programs while training for endurance events.  The funding provides support for kids such as free or low-cost health and fitness programs to kids who would not usually have access to them.

For many of the amateur athletes, it is not just about giving back to the community, but also about maximizing their performance.  Rob’s personal experience with running (he ran his first NYC marathon at the age of 17) let him bring his professional and personal insights about running a marathon. Rob works with the athletes to help them understand their discomforts and pain thresholds, and how much can you negotiate with that discomfort to perform your best.

In his lectures, Rob helps runner become more aware of their fears as well as share those concerns with others.  Some common themes that come up are focusing on the result of finishing the race, pacing, breathing, and maintaining energy.  Rob emphasizes the importance of an emphasis on the process.  He explains how important it is to cultivate a “beginner’s mind” where you have the spirit of excitement and adventure.  He says this ‘let’s see’ attitude helps us balance the critical mind with the learning mind, and cultivate peak performance.

Find one of Rob’s talks with New York Road Runners’ Team for Kids here.

By Laura Kirschner M.Ed.

“Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated; it satisfies the soul and frustrates the intellect. It is at the same time rewarding and maddening – and it is without a doubt the greatest game mankind has ever invented.” – Arnold Palmer

Sport and Performance Psychology of New York now offers a Golf particular Biofeedback program for golfers looking to improve both their mental and physical approaches to the game. The program works for golfers just starting out and wanting to develop a strong foundation on which to build their games; it works just as efficiently for the experienced golfer looking to fine-tune and enhance specific, nuanced elements of the sport.

Description of the ProGolf Suite from the Biofeedback Foundation of Europe

“In this suite, training protocols progress from simple to complex skills development and are executed in parallel with Jane Arave’s Mental Game of Golf program. The mind learns calm focus while the body memorizes its optimal relaxed state, and athletic performance is enhanced as a result. The ProGolf suite includes a stress assessment and an upper trapezius evaluation along with excel reports, notes for quick data interpretation, and useful training tips. It uses a variety of data input levels: respiration, two EEG sensors, two EMG sensors, skin conductance, temperature, and a BVP or EKG sensor It is beneficial to pros as well as amateur golfers, and can also be used as a standalone stress assessment program.”

From one week to the next and from one game to the next, sports clubs (the professional teams, parents and players) live on an emotional roller-coaster. After a win – self-confidence rises and everyone feels great until the next game. After a loss – self-confidence decreases and is joined by a feeling of disappointment that is gradually replaced by an expectation to win the next game. Itzhak Zur, Sports Psychologist, discusses the ways to improve and maintain high self-confidence even in teams that do not experience wins every week.

We won 🙂 This is awesome! We were great! – We lost 🙁 Bummer, we weren’t good enough again…

Everybody loves to win. Winning is fun. Wins are accompanied by various feelings of elation, euphoria, solidarity, unity, high self-esteem and optimism. Research shows that even testosterone levels in the body rise after a victory – which positively affects the players’ physical abilities.

And yet, as we know, most teams do not experience winning consistently. Moreover, a team that is positioned somewhere in the middle of the chart (not a bad place to be at all) will lose on average half of all matches every season. Should players in teams from the middle of the chart and below feel second-best for more than half the season? The answer is not necessarily, and necessarily not!

The way to avoid a decrease in the self-confidence and self-esteem of players is by setting different kinds of goals. One goal of course is winning the next game – this is something we strive for regardless. Only it is important to remember that this is not a goal that depends solely on us, but also on the team we are up against, so we do not have complete control over it. The second kind of goals are those that relate to our personal process of improvement, which we do have complete control over and does not depend on others – whether on a personal or on a team level.

On a team level, the goal of the team for the upcoming game might be, for example: “play more aggressively”, or, “apply a particular game method we have been practicing this week.” On a personal level, each player will set themselves a specific goal that relates to their own improvement, for example: “perform 6 sprints on the line instead of 4”, or, “go into defense quicker.”

Setting personal and team goals that focus on improving abilities that we have complete control over, gives the players a sense of accomplishment and progress. A player who has met their own goals will go home after the game feeling accomplished and with an increased self-confidence, even if they had lost. Fulfilling one personal goal creates a safety net for the disappointment that accompanies defeat.

A team who has set the goal of improving their defense, and indeed displayed better defense abilities in the game, will come out feeling accomplished and successful even if they had lost.

It is interesting to note that research consistently shows that teams and players who focus on goals that relate to the improvement process itself (which they have complete control over), also bring themselves to more victories and success in the future. This is mainly due to the fact that a sense of high self-confidence and capability are extremely important.

By Itzik Zur, Ph.D.