10 May Good Psychotherapists and Good Athletic Coaches: What Might They Have in Common?

Posted at 10:07 am in Individual Therapy by jlbworks

By Philip Chanin, Ed.D., ABPP, CGP

Board Certified Clinical Psychologist

Assistant Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry

Vanderbilt University Medical Center



Let me begin with a story, from the 2018 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament. The #1 seeded team in the South regional bracket was the University of Virginia Cavaliers. They were also the top seeded team in the entire tournament of 68 teams. They were playing a college basketball game against the #16 seeded team in the South regional bracket, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) Retrievers, who were ranked as the 168th best team in the nation.

At the start of this game, on March 16th, NCAA Tournament #16 seeds were 0-135 all-time against #1 seeds since the tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Virginia entered this game as 20.5 point favorites. UMBC had only been able to qualify for the NCAA tournament when, 6 days earlier, they made a 3-point shot with 0.6 seconds left to defeat top-seeded Vermont in their conference championship game.

Virginia, on the other hand, won the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) regular season championship outright,by four games, over pre-season AP #1 Duke, finishing 17-1 in conference play. They had then defeated the University of North Carolina in the ACC Tournament championship, finishing the regular season 31-2.

The game between Virginia and UMBC was a defensive struggle in the first half, which ended in a 16-16 tie. In the second half, the UMBC Retrievers put together several runs, giving them an 11-point lead, which they never relinquished. The final score in favor of the Retrievers was 74-54. Thus, the Cavaliers were outscored by 20 points in the 2nd half. It was their largest deficit of the entire season, and the only time all season that they allowed an opponent to score at least 70 points.

The Virginia team and its entire fan base were devastated by the loss. It was a defeat of such magnitude that it had never happened before in the previous 33 years of the Tournament. Virginia coach Tony Bennett was gracious in defeat, stating in the moments after the game,
“This is life. It can’t define you. You enjoyed the good times and you’ve got to be able to take the bad times. When you step into the arena…the consequences can be historic losses, tough losses, great wins, and you have to deal with it. And that’s the job.” The reaction by Tony Bennett after the game was featured in a national magazine as a lesson in emotional intelligence and leadership.

The Cavaliers spent the entire next year waiting for the chance to atone for their unprecedented early exit from the 2018 NCAA Tournament. A New York Times story quoted Coach Bennett as saying, “That will always be part of our story.” The Cavaliers were a team, “who recognize their place in infamy but, at Bennett’s urging, have regrouped from it. Together, they watched a video of a TED Talk in which the speaker, discussing his own personal grief, said, according to Bennett, that ‘if you learn to use it right, it can buy you a ticket to a place that you couldn’t have gone any other way.’”

A year later, in March of 2019, Virginia again entered the NCAA Tournament as a #1 seed. In the opening game, they again trailed by as many as 14 points to #16 seed Gardner-Webb in the first half, and still trailed by 6 at halftime. Virginia managed to play much better in the 2nd half and escaped without another gut-wrenching loss. Then they proceeded to win their next five games of the tournament, often in dramatic come-from-behind fashion in the final seconds, to claim Virginia’s first ever NCAA Tournament Championship. ESPN called Virginia’s 2018-2019 championship run “the most redemptive season in the history of college basketball.” NBC Sports called the Cavalier’s NCAA title the “greatest redemption story in the history of sports.”

So, the reader may here be asking, “What does this have to do with psychotherapy?” Let me suggest some parallels:

1)Both psychotherapists and athletic coaches share the goal of removing blocks and obstacles to success. Fellow Nashville psychologist Tom Neilson, Psy.D., has written insightfully about why patients come for psychotherapy. He states that patients “come to us with maps of the world that make their lives difficult. Their maps are narrow, out of date, and inaccurate, and they cause suffering.

The most common map that brings people to therapy is one that represents the (patient) as flawed, deficient, and inadequate. Other problematic maps include those that see the world as a fundamentally unsafe or uncaring place, and those that view others as untrustworthy and uncaring. (Some patients) come to us with narcissistic maps that represent the self as superior and others as inferior.” We all develop our particular maps, or character structure, in order to survive childhood. Then, as adults, our maps interfere with our ability to develop fulfilling lives, satisfying relationships, and peace of mind.

Consider, then, the sports perspective on removing blocks and obstacles to success. This is one of the main roles athletic coaches fulfill, along with personal trainers. We see the Virginia Cavaliers, who could so easily have sulked and given up on the possibility of ever succeeding, given their embarrassment on such a national stage. Yet Coach Tony Bennett clearly used every motivational strategy he could find to create in his players’ minds the belief that they could succeed, despite failing so spectacularly one year earlier.

Another coach who has utilized positive motivational strategies is Daria Abramowicz, a

former competitive sailor for Poland who now works as a mental health and psychology coach. Last year she began working with 19-year-old Polish tennis player Iga Swiatek. A New York Times article, on 2/8/2021, describes how Swiatek, utilizing what she was learning in working with Abramowitz, “stunned the tennis world” this past October when, despite being ranked only #54 in the world, “she came out of nowhere to win the French Open singles championship without losing a set in seven matches.”

According to the article, Abramowicz and Swiatek “talk for hours on end about Swiatek’s fears and dreams. They work to deepen her relationships with relatives and friends, the people who can provide emotional stability—‘the human anchor,’ Abramowicz calls it…Abramowicz says that self-confidence and close relationships built on trust are crucial to supporting attributes like motivation, stress management, and communication that drive athletic success.”

The article continues, “’It is impossible to become a champion when you don’t have a fundamental joy and your needs fulfilled and satisfied as a human being,’ Abramowicz says. Swiatek adds, ‘It is important to have peace so you can focus on working. It is not only true for tennis players but for any person who wants to succeed and is doing extraordinary things.’” Like a good psychotherapist, it is clear that Abramowicz is trying in every way she knows to remove the blocks and obstacles to Swiatek’s success

2)Both good psychotherapy and good sports coaching acknowledge the downsides of perfectionism. Many patients grew up with parents who communicated that only superior performance was acceptable. These parents would say, for example, “You got a 98 on that test—why didn’t you get 100?!” Alternatively, other patients grew up with very neglectful parents, and the children learned that the only self-esteem available to them was for outstanding academic or athletic performance.

When children from dysfunctional families grow up, the strong tendency is to treat oneself the way one was treated by one’s parents. If a parent approached the child with excessive expectations, then this child grows up to be an adult who expects the same excessive things of him/herself. Whenever performance is not spectacular, this adult punishes him or herself for falling short.

The myth of perfectionism is that unless I hold myself to excessively high standards, then I will just be “a blob” and will accomplish very little in my life. However, the reality is that everyone has a drive to accomplish things and be successful. I can learn to do my best without the guilt and shame than accompany perfectionism.

Nashville psychologist Jamie Kyne, Ph.D, wrote an article in the Fall, 2015, edition of NPI Reflects, the newsletter of the Nashville Psychotherapy Institute. The title of Dr. Kyne’s article is “Aspirations for a Longer Term Psychotherapy.” Among his “Aspirations for Psychotherapy Outcomes” is the following: “Developing a more effective inner coach/conscience. Being more inclined to learn from what’s done wrong, poorly, or by mistake than to punish what’s done wrong, poorly, or by mistake. Learning how to best use guilt and shame so as not to be tyrannized by them.”

The New York Times article about Abramowicz and Swiatek speaks to the problem with perfectionism as well. The article states, “Abramowicz also takes a counterintuitive approach of prioritizing gratitude, human relationships, and personal growth as a path to winning. ‘We talk a lot about positive and destructive passions,’ Abramowicx said in an interview. ‘Perfectionism is not so helpful, so we tried to create positive passion, determination, and grit. You embrace your potential in pursuit of excellence. You go for the best, but at the end of the day you are human and you have other aspects to your life, and it doesn’t mean when you lose your match, you are less worthy as a human being.’”

The article concludes: “Through her work with Abramowicz, Swiatek has been changing from a player motivated solely by results—a common trait, especially among young players—into someone who, as she put it, can ‘be happy even when you are not winning.’”

3)Good psychotherapy, spiritual practice, and good sports coaching all teach the importance of being able to lose with grace, and of using one’s losses and grief as the impetus to move forward, persist, and not give up. In a good psychotherapy, the patient is helped to see, in the words of famous psychotherapist Sheldon Kopp, in his seminal book If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him, that “there is no good reason that you lost out on some things.” Group therapy is of particular benefit in this regard, as group members get to experience how every member struggles, often with similar problems.

Coach Tony Bennett’s approach with his team is a beautiful example of a coach who helps his team recover from the ashes of defeat. As quoted above, he doesn’t ever deny how devastating their loss was, stating “That will always be part of our story.” He encourages his team, regarding their grief, “If you use it right, it can buy you a ticket to a place that you couldn’t have gone any other way.” Several years ago, the tennis player Stan Wawrinka reached #3 in the world. As he was climbing the rankings, he got a tattoo on his arm with words by the Irish writer Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

4)Good psychotherapy and good sports coaching both encourage each individual to view his/her situation with a wider lens, seeing how one’s current difficulties and challenges don’t indicate that one is inevitably the victim of circumstances and it’s hopeless to persevere. I often talk with patients about utilizing an “internal locus of control” approach, versus “external locus of control,” which posits that circumstances are going to be stronger than my ability to cope with them.

As I work with patients to help them see their situation from a multi-generational perspective, I often share a quote, attributed to the philosopher Hannah Arendt, “All pain can be born if I can put it into a story.” Jack Kornfield, in his wonderful book A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life, writes of the importance of seeing life’s inevitable difficulties as the path to greater balance, wisdom, and compassion. “Without this spiritual perspective,” Kornfield states, “we simply bear our sufferings, like an ox or a foot soldier, under a heavy load.”

Every good psychotherapist, and every good sports coach, is always working with his or her vision of each patient’s or player’s potential. One of the most satisfying and fulfilling aspects of working with a patient in a long psychotherapy, sometimes of many years, is assisting the patient in growing into the person that they have the potential to become, if the obstacles to that growth can be removed.

Elan Golomb, Ph.D., in her wrenching book Trapped in the Mirror: Adult Children of Narcissists in their Struggle for Self, articulates the condition of many patients who present for psychotherapy: “To improve a self (that’s been) mangled by rejection and improper use, we have to experiment with being. We need situations in which to practice the reality of a self, places where we can behave in a way that shows who we really are and what we feel…We are like bonsai plants with prior years of confinements, suppression, and reshaping. What is our natural shape? It takes years to uncover, as we revert by degrees to growing. (pp. 186 & 148)

In closing, I am thinking about how the good psychotherapist and the good athletic coach both approach their patient or player with a growth mindset, hoping to instill an enthusiasm for reaching one’s potential, in life or in a sport. In a New York Times article, the #1 tennis player in the world, Novak Djokovic, articulates this growth mindset well: “How can I really optimize everything and be in a balanced state of mind, body, and soul every season for the rest of my career and really be able to peak when I need to? I think the No. 1 requirement is constant desire and open-mindedness to master and improve and evolve yourself in every aspect. I know Roger Federer has been talking about it, and it’s something I feel most top athletes of all sports agree on. Stagnation is regression.”