Sports psychology helps competitors skate to a win
In the film The Natural, unknown 35-year-old rookie Roy Hobbs crushes pitch after pitch deep into the stands during his first batting practice with the New York Knights. Coach Red Blow exults, "better late than never," causing club manager Pop Fisher to retort, "Red, this is practice!"
Despite the axiom "practice makes perfect," baseball has long had its share of "5 o’clock heroes"’guys who consistently clout the long ball in batting practice, but when the game rolls around, are more likely to strike out or pop up in a critical situation. The national pastime also has a term to describe a player who performs his best when the contest is on the line: "gamer."
Sports psychologist Harald Barkhoff calls 5 o’clock heroes "training champions," and he is building a reputation for turning them into "competitor types," his term for gamers.
Barkhoff is an assistant professor of health and physical education at UH Hilo and a former national-class artistic roller skater in his native Germany. The German Artistic Roller Skating Federation tapped him to help two skaters on the German national team prepare for the November Artistic Roller Skating World Championships in Fresno, Calif.
Both skaters became world champions. "It’s the first time in I don’t know how many years that both of the world champions, female and male, were German," says Barkhoff. "That was pretty exciting."
Intervention for success
Working with UH Mānoa; psychologist Elaine M. Heiby, Barkhoff used a technique he calls "psychological intervention" with skaters Frank Albiez and Nathalie Heinz. They described the methodology in the March 2004 issue of Athletic Insight: The Online Journal of Sports Psychology, examining differences in self-concept and mood between training champions and competitor types.
"Our approach is to first observe that phenomenon and then try to modify that behavior with the proper program," he says. "We tried a very simple thing—find out what kind of things annoy them in training, such as noise, and let them work under these harder circumstances."
After dealing with extra obstacles in practice, athletes are better able to cope with the pressures of a world championship. "We adjust the circumstances so they have to find a way to cope with mental obstacles. They work very hard on that.,quot; he says.
To obtain daily input from their subjects on training and other factors, Barkhoff and Heiby turned to a technology indispensable to most young people, cell phones. "Every night, they received a text message questionnaire to complete about how their training went—including how their mood was, how they got along with their friends and with their coach," Barkhoff explains.
"In itself, that is kind of an intervention, because you are forced to reflect on your day."
Barkhoff directed undergraduate students in analyzing such data. "We found, for example, that highly correlated were factors like performance and mood." Developing a profile of the athletes’ optimal emotional states gives a coach meaningful information to help them get into that state before competition.
Unfortunately, the optimal emotional state varies from athlete to athlete.
"Everyone is different," Barkoff explains. "Some need to be totally rested. Some need to be almost over-aroused. There are very individual differences, and we have to find them out, which takes a long time and a lot of data. We made our findings after a year or two and incorporated them into this program. And I think, to some degree, it worked. At least the results are pretty good."
For Albiez, 25, who had an unfortunate reputation for being a training champion, the intervention likely was crucial. "He is a great talent," Barkhoff says. "When he was a junior, he won everything in Europe at every level. But he always performed a little below the actual level of his capabilities." Good enough to make the team or the European championships or the world championships, he had never before won a world title.
Heinz, 21, had a different obstacle to overcome—the psychological aftermath of an uncharacteristic fall during a previous world championship. "What I like about her is that she was always so consistent," Barkhoff says. "Then she felt the pressure in her first world championships and made this huge mistake. So she said, ’OK, something’s going wrong here. I want to repair it.’ That makes it very easy as a sports psychologist, because the person really wants to work with you."
The Hawaiʻi experience
Barkhoff received his PhD from the University of Stuttgart. He came to Hilo by way of a visiting professorship at Mānoa, where he met and first collaborated with Heiby.
"She is the most incredible mentor anyone could ever ask for," Barkhoff says. "She embodies what, for me, is aloha. Her mentality is work hard, play hard. I’d come in and she would ask, ’Did you get enough surf today?’ I’d say, ’That’s not important. Let’s work on the project.’ She’d say, ’It is important because when you’re happy, you work hard.’"
Hawai’i fosters a spirit of collaboration, he observes. "People work together, get something done, are serious about their jobs-and at the same time, they’re just so happy that they’re here. They accept that everybody has different interests and that they live differently. This is so different from Germany, I tell you."