Mind games to banish fear, doubt

Once the reigning ‘Queen of the Greens’ in India, Ms. Irina Brar-Singh had her golfing career prematurely disrupted by injury. Never one to lie low, she fought her bad luck by arming herself with specialisation in applied sports psychology to become the country’s only Certified Consultant from AASP. In an interview with bodyLIFE, she says she must give back to Indian sports what she sorely missed in her heyday.

Irina-Main

You were born to sports, and you represented Punjab in figure skating before your age touched double digits! How did golf grab your undivided attention?

My family had many avid golfers, but I only got bitten by the golf bug after watching a PGA event in the US in 1995. Winning prizes in my first tournament spurred me on, and I soon fell in love with the game.

I took up the game in mid-1995 and was India’s No. 1 Lady Amateur golfer and represented India in the Womens World Cup of Golf in 2008.

I realised the importance of the mental side while I was playing competitively. Unfortunately, there were no applied sports psychologists in India and so I read up every sports psychology book to help myself. That is when I decided to pursue sports psychology once my golfing career was done.

How did the absence of sports conditioning professionals and psychologists impact your golfing career?

My golfing career had to come to an end due to lack of sports medicine experts. My discipline, commitment and work ethic held me in good stead and gave me the confidence to bounce back from injuries unscathed. I worked harder than any of my peers despite being on top of the rankings.

You studied psychology in Chandigarh. What made you go abroad for further studies?

I completed my under-graduate degree in psychology while playing amateur golf. I was keen to pursue sports psychology, but was also playing professional golf, so I decided to get a Master’s degree in that from Panjab University as well.

Unfortunately, the degree was theory-based, and so once I retired from professional golf, I decided to go to the US for another Master’s degree in Applied Sports Psychology. It was a great learning experience which included over 1,000 hours of internship with certified sports psychologists.

So what exactly is sports psychology all about? How does it impact an athlete’s performance? How does it contribute to achieving his/her goals?

Sports psychology deals with the psychological factors that influence performance. At the elite level, all athletes possess the technical and physical skills but the winner has the mental advantage.

Most athletes are unaware of the improvements in performance that a qualified sports psychologist can bring about. In India, many athletes don’t realise that applied sport psychologists are just like coaches – instead of refining technique, we fine-tune their thoughts so that they can perform to their full potential.

What are the psychological skills and/or techniques that a psychologist imparts to enhance an athlete’s successful performance?

Some of the psychological skills that sports psychologists work on are goal setting, imagery, anxiety management, attention control, emotion regulation, stress reduction, concentration, self-confidence, motivation, and pre- and post-performance routines.

What are the areas of concern that you need to address with your athletes?

Initially, I learn about the client’s history in his/her sport and the presenting problems s/he has. I try and understand the mental skills being employed by the athlete and what s/he needs to change or learn.

There is no one-size-fits all solution: the mental skills I need to teach can differ according to the individual. The number of sessions needed depends on where they are in terms of mental skills: it varies from as little as five sessions to 50 sessions. I use cognitive-behavioral therapy as my theoretical foundation; it is widely researched as an excellent therapy for sportspersons.

Are there any issues peculiar to Indian athletes?

Unfortunately, many athletes in India (especially in team sports) find it difficult to come to terms with ad hoc team selection processes, where the most deserving may not be selected but other considerations come in. I have had this happen to me when I was not selected for the Asian Games in 2006 despite being No. 1 for 5 years before that!

Athletes need counselling after these unfair jolts to their already hard career choice. I try and help them come to terms with the fact that all they can control is their performance. I help them deal with the heartbreak and get them to learn to love their sport again.

How can one measure the impact of a sports psychologist’s contribution to an athlete’s performance?

There is no real way to measure the impact, but the athlete’s results will speak for themselves. If my clients have reasonable technical and physical proficiency, and are motivated to improve, I guarantee that their performance will improve after counselling. If performances don’t improve, an athlete has every right to hold his/her sport psychologist responsible.

Mental preparedness is as important as physical conditioning, technical skills and a tactical plan in every competition. How true is this? Why?

This is 100% true. In every sport, all athletes train hard physically to get stronger, and with their coaches to become technically proficient and tactically sound. Coaches and trainers feel their work with the athlete is vital and that if the athlete has trained well, the player will perform.

But that doesn’t always happen. Athletes are human – they have emotions like doubt and fear that come in the way under pressure and lead to choking or freezing or going blank. A sports psychologist helps the athlete learn to recognise these feelings and deal with them so they don’t affect performance.

Motivation and intensity are good, but an excess of both can lead to intense pressure and burnout. Applied sports psychologists help athletes with goal setting, pre- and post-performance routines, anxiety management, attention control, imagery, self-talk and strategies to increase confidence and self-esteem.

Eventually, the mentally prepared athlete will certainly have an edge over other athletes – that is all it takes to win. The knowledge that you are better than everyone else, and that you have done whatever it takes (physically, technically, tactically and mentally) to improve helps in this.

How and when did Sport Psych India happen? What are the sports disciplines you consult on?

I gave up my golfing career in 2008. While playing competitive golf, I was mentally very strong; yet I felt I could have been better. I tried seeking out sport psychologists in India but no one seemed to know what they were really talking about!

I decided then that Indian athletes deserve better and that I was going to be the best sports psychologist around. That’s when I decided to get all the degrees and certifications needed to be able to help our top athletes achieve their potential. I completed my Master’s degree from the US in 2010, got AASP certification in 2011 and started Sport Psych India in 2011.

I work with golfers, tennis and squash players, cricketers, swimmers, shooters, track and field athletes, cue sports, table tennis players and many more. I love being able to make a positive difference in their lives. Their wins are my wins; their losses leave me heartbroken too!

 

Can you name some medal-winning sportspersons who have benefitted from your inputs?

I promise all my clients confidentiality so, unfortunately, I will not be able to name anyone. I have worked with the Indian Golf Union from 2013-2015 with the national squads.

How was AASP training and your internships in the US different from what you see in India?

Even after completing my Master’s in Psychology with a specialisation in sports I felt completely ill-equipped to consult with athletes. I found a Master’s programme in Applied Sport Psychology at a university in Arizona, as their degree was tailored towards certification from AASP (Association for Applied Sport Psychology). It is the world’s largest organisation responsible for certifying applied sport psychologists (www.appliedsportpsych.org).

I loved my programme in Phoenix: besides stringent examinations and client case studies, where I had to prove the validity of my theoretical foundations, I completed more than 1,500 hours of internship. My internship was supervised by an AASP-certified consultant where I worked with members of two college golf teams and members of a tennis academy for elite players in Scottsdale, Arizona.

I was the first graduate of my Master’s programme to become an AASP certified consultant in 2011, the only such consultant in India. AASP re-certifies consultants every 5 years, provided they attend at least 3 AASP conferences in the US every year and attend continuing education workshops to maintain current knowledge of developments in the field. This is completely different in India, where anyone can become a sports psychologist.

How would differentiate a sports psychologist from the rest?

There are many types of sports psychologists: research-based sports psychologists are the ones who add to the body of research in the field; educational sports psychologists are the ones who teach people about sports psychology; clinical sports psychologists help athletes deal with mental health issues such as eating disorders, substance abuse, personality disorders, severe depression, etc.

Finally, there are applied sports psychologists. We help athletes perform better by teaching them mental skills necessary to perform to their potential in training and competition. It is imperative to check the education your sports psychologist has had, and whether s/he is currently certified in applied sport psychology by an international organisation responsible for certification.

How would an athlete determine which sports psychologist to trust?

Athletes who need to improve their performance must meet qualified applied sports psychologists only. If they make do with any other type of sports psychologists, it is like visiting an ENT (ear-nose-throat) specialist for a skin problem! Both are doctors, but you need to have the relevant specialist by your side.

Since there is so little education about the field of sports psychology, neither athletes nor coaches or institutes know these differences. As a result the Sports Authority of India tends to hire predominantly research-based sports psychologists who may have done research, but are not the right people to work on performance enhancement.

What is the scope for sports psychologists in India? How does an aspirant go about becoming one?

There is great scope for sports psychologists in India. Athletes are desperate to improve and need trained support staff to help them achieve their potential. However, to become an applied sports psychologist, one would need to study overseas. In India, the degrees in sports psychology are theoretical and do not help to train a professional who is ultimately responsible for an athlete delivering his/her best performance.

Would you consider setting up training and certification infrastructure in India?

Absolutely! As an AASP-certified consultant, I can help sports psychologists earn AASP certification through supervision of their internships, provided they have completed all the necessary course work. Some day, I hope to help build a team of qualified sports psychologists who specialise in different disciplines, so that no Indian athlete ever has to look overseas for a sports psychologist again.

(Check out www.sportpsychindia.com)

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