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HAVE YOU CONSIDERED A SPORTS PSYCHOLOGIST?

HAVE YOU CONSIDERED A SPORTS PSYCHOLOGIST?

Angel Piccirillo / May 11, 2020

“Isn’t it awkward??”
“Do you feel like it’s actually effective?”
“….but really, is it awkward?”

Those are the questions asked most frequently when I tell people that I have been an active tele-therapy user for the last year and a half. So for starters, it’s not awkward…well, at first it’s maybe a little awkward. I have never met my sports psychologist in person, as we were connected through a mutual friend who was working with him at the time. I was frustrated with my US Nationals performance in 2018 when I didn’t advance out of the first round in the 800m. I knew that performance was not reflective of my fitness, and something was missing. I had reached my breaking point and knew I needed to make a change.

It still took about 3 to 4 months for me to get in the right headspace to reach out and explain my situation. I think my first email correspondence stated something along the lines of: “I have been struggling with my mental approach and it has been a pretty big hindrance…this shortcoming has been detrimental and I have found that I need more help than I have at the moment.” At the time, I was feeling pretty down and felt like my back was against the wall; I was training as hard as ever, but my races were not reflecting that. I’m sure we’ve all been there, banging your head against the wall, not sure what else to do.

Throughout my experience with sports growing up, I was a textbook over-thinker. I had issues with getting in my own head and causing self-doubt. I participated in a number of sports in school, including gymnastics, swimming, cheerleading, basketball, and volleyball.

. . . as my desire to achieve more increased, so did my need for support.

I loved all of these sports, and I particularly loved the team aspect. Although it was a huge motivator for me, it was a double edged sword, as I would let the pressure of not wanting to let my teammates down hinder me. It was important for me to feel connected to teammates, and/or my coach. Through those connections I would be able to get through some of my hardest moments in sport. This is something I took for granted early in my athletic career but I would come to learn that, as a professional, I needed it more than ever. Finding my sports psychologist gave me that connection. I have amazing training partners and friends and our connection is deep and fulfilling, but as my desire to achieve more increased, so did my need for support. Up until that point, there was so much I didn’t realize that I had been struggling with. Through our sessions I have found that, although some occurrences from my past will have lasting, unforeseeable impacts on my life and athletic career, change is always possible.

I can now say that those first few sessions were an adjustment. Partly because it was my first time partaking in any kind of therapy, and partly because I was realizing that I would be sharing the most personal details of my life with a stranger, via webcam. However, I cannot say how proud and grateful I am that I did. When I transitioned from a college athlete to a professional athlete, one of the major differences I noticed was the structure. By the time I graduated from Villanova I had a coach I not only adored but also had a close relationship with, a system I knew well (the NCAA), classes that kept me on a consistent and regular schedule, and lots of early season races with lower stakes to work out the kinks. Now I was working with a new coach, less school structure, and a totally different (at times complicated and unclear) system to learn compared to the NCAA. My sports psych helped me SO much with finding my bearings within this new system: adjusting to a new coach, a new program, and the ever-frustrating results that did not correlate to “practice fitness”.

I was the queen of doing the little things at the time; always getting my sleep, stretching, doing my core and strength work, completing every double run, and not a drop of alcohol for upwards of 12 months. I thought all of this would contribute to success, however it created a life with no balance. I wasn’t performing like myself on the track and was unsure of how a stranger was going to help me get there. But he’s a professional, and was quickly able to pick up on a lot of the things that I was subconsciously assuming to be truths, or the fact that my mental preparation before races was inadequate.

In my head I was simplifying it to keep it doable, but in reality, I was leaving myself high and dry. . .

For example, I would go into a race with a plan for the first three quarters of the race, and then the last 500m my plan always consisted of, “just kick.” Now in my head that made total sense. There isn’t much to do after that point work-wise or positioning-wise, so what else do I need to tell myself? But that’s exactly how I was racing. I would execute the first three quarters of the race perfectly, position myself well, and be right where I needed to be, but then with 500m to go I would fall apart. At the time I just assumed the start of the race was my “strong suit”, so of course I could execute that, but the really “hard” part that takes guts, bravery, and talent, I simply wasn’t good enough to do. The dual benefit of just saying all of that out loud and having someone tell me that was flawed, was more beneficial than I can say. His response to this was: “Well of course you feel like you fall apart the last 500m, you give yourself a detailed, involved, “if this, then that,” type of plan for the first 1,000m of the race, and then when it’s the most painful and you really need to recruit your mind, you leave yourself with, ‘just kick.’”

In my head I was simplifying it to keep it doable, but in reality, I was leaving myself high and dry to then live a self-fulfilling prophecy. I believed I was bad at finishing, and the plan was no help, so I was bad at finishing. This connection is one that, in hindsight, is wrong, but I was going in circles trying to come up with something I could change and would end up empty handed. With my sports psych’s assistance, I was able to come up with something much more concrete that could actually HELP me. Now in the last 500m of a race I think of how well I executed the messier, longer part of the race, and how I was waiting for the moment when things get hard because I know that means I’m close to my goal. “This is supposed to be hard right now so don’t panic” I tell myself, and every 100m I re-engage mentally and physically. The last 150m I try to envision myself flying home at the track we practice at for every workout, and channel chasing my training partners to get me to the finish line. Besides, there are not many speedier girls to chase than Ajee’ Wilson, Raevyn Rogers, Kendra Chambers and Charlene Lipsey.

When things get awkward or uncomfortable, lean in.

I have certainly not figured everything out and I consistently Zoom call (before it was cool haha!) with him about once every three weeks or whenever I need his help. It is a particularly important part of my routine. My biggest pieces of advice for anyone looking into teletherapy:

Be honest

Be brave with the information you share

Don’t fear judgement

Keep showing up

BE HONEST!!

And finally, when things get awkward or uncomfortable, lean in. I tend to be more of a private person by nature and I had never done anything like this before and hadn’t discussed a lot of these things with anyone besides my fiancé, best friends, and family, but that’s the only way to make real changes.

I’ve been reading Untamed by Glennon Doyle (recommended by Tami Mask, superwoman Volée) and a few quotes from the book have really spoken to me, especially on this topic, that I try to keep in mind. I’ll share them here in case anyone appreciates mantras and quotes as much as I do:

“We can do hard things.”

“I can use pain to become. I am here to keep becoming truer, more beautiful versions of myself again and again forever.”

“I did not know that I was supposed to feel everything. I thought I was supposed to feel happy.”

“That’s true confidence, which means loyalty to self.”

“StopMovingStopTalkingStopSearchingStopPanickingStopFlailing.”

“The truest, most beautiful life never promises to be an easy one. We need to let go of the lie that it’s supposed to be.”

“Be careful with the stories you tell yourself.”

1 comment

  • Anna Summitt: May 27, 2020

    Great post. Great advice. Enjoyed your story and even though I am just an everyday runner, it’s always good to hear about other women’s struggles and triumphs!

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