Recently I spoke with Dr. Caroline Silby, Ph.D., who is a sought after expert on the development of young female athletes. She has appeared on numerous television programs including Oprah Winfrey, CNN, ABC-Wide World of Sports, and Oxygen Television.
Dr. Silby is an author, adjunct Faculty member at American University and has worked on an individual basis with two Olympic Gold Medalists, ten Olympians, three World Champions, eleven National Champions and over fifty National Competitors.
Can You Learn Mental Toughness?
The conversation began with the term “mental toughness”. According to Wikipedia, Mental Toughness is defined as a measure of individual resilience and confidence that may predict success in sport, education and the workplace.
I have long believed that building confidence leads to mental toughness. Dr. Silby agrees. According to her, if you ask athletes how much their attitude impacts performance, they typically say 50-100%. While athletes understand the impact attitude, they don’t work on their mentality as they don’t know how.
In Dr. Silby’s work with clients, she asks them to tell her about a time when their performance was exceptional. After they recall it, she asks about the athlete’s focus. Each athlete often had a hard time figuring defining their focus.
I related by mentioning my three “Ah-ha” moments as a college-wrestling career.
- First: learning how to deal with negative thoughts.
- Second: watching world level athletes and how they carried themselves before big competitions.
- Third: meditation and the ability to use it on competition day to relax and not get overstressed.
Dr. Silby commented that when we are in a stressful situation, our minds look for information to decide if the situation you are entering is dangerous.… In this instance, you can learn to control where to put your focus. It’s absolutely normal, human nature to fear a situation. Learning to respond appropriately to a situation is learning how to be mentally tough.
She goes on to say what works for one person may not work for another. Each athlete needs to be open in the moment, to create calm, while being preparing the body to be explosive pre-competition.
According to her, it’s inside of them. She said, “Right now this is where I’m at, and so therefore here is the action that I’m going to choose. The mistake that sometimes I think athletes make, is that they do a lot of thinking about how they are feeling and kind of what they are thinking before they perform as opposed to taking ACTION. It’s less about what you do, and sometimes more about just making that commitment and that choice…”
This is a very “action-oriented” plan and the Elite Athletes tap into the strength of getting things done and build momentum that way.
Sports, Meditation & Mindfulness:
Dr. Silby says that research on meditation and mindfulness as it relates to performance is very strong. It helps you to see challenges with clarity. She says in those critical moments, our minds get pretty “noisy”. There are a lot of thoughts coming through, but 90% of those thoughts are unimportant information. Dr. Silby calls them “TBUs”: True, But Useless information. She says being able to filter through that information is super important. Mindfulness training through meditation helps people to practice.
In our culture, lots of people are doing yoga, which incorporates meditation, mindfulness training and listening to our bodies. Technology helps with apps for mediations. They coach you to to train yourself to have the thoughts , but let them pass. Every thought that comes to mind doesn’t need a reaction. Many athletes have emotional thoughts right before competition and they get confused thinking they NEED to react.
I also stated that the meditation really helped me, but that I held off on teaching to it to his wrestlers when I became a coach because he thought the kids wouldn’t go for it and think it was ‘goofy’. When I did introduce it, the kids started ASKING for it… “Hey Coach, turn the lights off and put us through that meditation drill!”
According to Dr. Silby, when people practice meditation they want to meditate more. The idea of taking 20 minutes out of your day to calm yourself can be hard for action-oriented people on the go. It’s uncomfortable for elite, high achieving people because their minds are thinking they don’t have time or that they need to be doing something else. Yet, if they can meditate consistently, they start to see real benefit.
You can use mindfulness and meditation not only for sport performance, but also recovery. A lot of Olympic athletes worry about making the team and realizing the goals and objectives they’ve set for themselves. Using mindfulness as a tool for recovery, they quiet their mind and give themselves permission to not think about sports.
Pressure & Youth Sports:
Dr. Silby mentions an example client who was a cross country athlete that was “knocking it out of the park.” During her middle school years she started to experience a lot of pressure. When they diagnosed the problem, the young girl’s anxiety came down. She has tools to deal with the feelings and pressures that come with the sport.
It’s hugely important to focus on what you can control vs. winning. When kids start experiencing performance anxiety, they are focusing too much on winning rather than the things they can control.. You must redefine success as growth rather than solely winning.
It’s also key for family members to help make connections between their children’s actions and positive results. As adults l, we have different definitions of success. In sports, we are taught that winning is everything. . So it’s good to revisit “why” kids participate. The reasons for participating are different at the age of 15 vs. the age of 7. It can sometimes be scary, because they think if they revisit the reasons for success, the kids will drop out, but it’s actually the opposite. When they revisit reasons for success, it usually gives the kids reasons to stay in the sport longer.
Coaches and parents should have a consistent message of the life benefits of showing up everyday, setting realistic expectations, letting them know that they will have bad days, and that they will stumble upon the way.
This is just a small sample of the insights that Dr. Silby shared with me. The entire interview is hosted in the Youth Athlete Academy.
For more about Dr. Silby and what she can do for you or your athletes, visit her website www.drsilby.com
About Dr. Caroline Silby:
Caroline Silby, Ph.D holds a Doctorate and Master Degree of Sports Psychology from the University of Virginia. She is a nationally recognized expert on the development of young female athletes, author of, Games Girls Play: Understanding and Guiding Young Female Athletes (St. Martin’s Press) and Adjunct Faculty member at American University. Dr. Silby has worked on an individual basis with two Olympic Gold Medalists, ten Olympians, three World Champions, eleven National Champions and over fifty National Competitors.
Dr. Silby is a sought after expert and has appeared on numerous television programs including Oprah Winfery, CNN, ABC-Wide World of Sports, and Oxygen Television. She resides in Maryland where she has an active national practice.