The record crowd of 16,019 grew quiet as All-American gymnast Georgia Dabritz approached the uneven parallel bars. The No. 4 University of Utah gymnastics team was squaring off against No. 5 Michigan in the Utes’ last home meet for 2015. In Section L, Row 7 on the aisle in the Huntsman Center was U sports psychology consultant Nicole Detling, who just days earlier had met with the team to help them mentally prepare for the Michigan meet and beyond. Dabritz had just finished eighth in vault, but when it was her turn at the bars, she smiled and acknowledged the standing-room-only crowd cheering her in her last year competing on the team. She took a deep breath and then went to work. In less than a minute, her routine was complete. A few minutes later, the crowd roared as the judges posted a perfect 10, her third on the bars for the 2015 season.
Detling PhD’07, despite having a pass that allows her quick access to the floor at any moment during a meet, watched from the stands as the Utah team went on to beat Michigan. But what Detling did for Dabritz—and others on the team—prior to the meet with Michigan had an impact on that evening’s results, by dealing with the psychological aspects of their athletic performance. “She really helped me with my mental toughness,” Dabritz says. “We’ve noticed a huge difference in our team over the last few years she’s been here.”
College athletics programs and pro sports teams across the country have increasingly turned to applied sports psychology consultants to give their athletes a mental edge through tools that help them have the extra focus they need when the pressure is on, or the coping skills in the heat of battle when even the smallest setbacks threaten to derail months of preparation. About 80 percent of U athletes across all sports now use sports psychology services provided by the private consulting practices of Detling, who is a full-time U assistant professor of exercise and sport science, and by Keith Henschen, who led the U’s sports psychology efforts for decades and still contracts with the men’s basketball team. The U also offers degree programs to educate people to take on the role that, for the athletes they serve, falls somewhere between Zen master and someone to just talk to about life.
About 60 to 75 percent of major colleges nationwide now use mental skills coaches for their athletes, and more than 100 institutions, including the University of Utah, offer courses in sports psychology, Henschen says. The number of consultants across the country who have been certified through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology has grown from about 50 in 1992 to more than 500 today. They apply their mental skills coaching not only to athletes but to people working in fields such as medicine, music, the military, law, and business, helping them with their mental focus, confidence, concentration, and attitude.
Among NCAA Division I universities, about half provide their athletes with sports psychology resources, according to an NCAA study by Ian Connole, director of sports psychology at Kansas State University. The offerings include clinical services provided by a psychologist as well as the mental skills coaching that certified consultants such as Detling use to sharpen an athlete’s performance.
Detling began her role with the U Athletics Department in 2013, after Henschen, who had initiated sports psychology work with U teams, retired. Henschen says clinical psychologists were the first to apply the knowledge they had developed for coaching people in the workplace to helping athletes with their performance. Applied sports psychology began to take hold in the late 1960s and early ’70s with bigger universities that were able to afford hiring mental skills coaches. “It just grew since then,” says Henschen, who taught for 39 years at the U, with an expertise in the psychological aspects of sports performance.
Henschen, who has also been the sport psychology consultant for the NBA’s Utah Jazz for the past 32 years, still helps the U men’s basketball team, which under Head Coach Larry Krystkowiak this year reached the NCAA Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2005. For both teams, Henschen says he administers tests to athletes that he uses to develop competitive and learning style profiles that help coaches gain insight into why an athlete prefers to avoid failure, how not to overload a team member, or what type of anxiety issues a player might be facing.
“He has been very helpful to our program and players over the years,” says Tommy Connor BS’90, the U’s assistant head coach for men’s basketball. “He has unbelievable credentials, and our coaching staff and team have great respect for him.” Connor says the team plans to work more this year with Henschen on mental imagery, and individuals will continue working with him on confidence issues and implementing positive self-communication practices. “We talk a lot about breathing and relaxation prior to games and while shooting free throws,” Connor says. “In our practices, we try to create drills and situations that improve mental toughness.”
For about 35 years, Henschen also helped gymnasts at Utah improve their mental skills. Co-head gymnastics coach Megan Marsden BS’84 says Henschen was a big part of her success back in 1981 when she first competed as a gymnast at the U, and he advised the team to use a sort of mental “choreography,” a blend of mental imagery and focus to keep gymnasts from overthinking their routines.
Her husband, outgoing co-head coach Greg Marsden (who in April announced his retirement), at one point worked on a doctorate in sports psychology, studying under Henschen, and also has an acute understanding of where it fits in with gymnastics performance. “Without the mental training part, a big piece of the puzzle would be missing,” he says. “At the very top level for almost all sports, it becomes a mental game—who can handle the anxiety and stress and still compete at their top level when everyone else around you is kind of panicked and losing it.”
His point is one Detling pushed in a team meeting a week prior to the Michigan meet this past March. “You should be at a point now where you know what you need before you compete,” she told the gymnasts. “You know what mindset you need. You know what feeling in your body you need in order to compete at your best.”
As part of the coaching leading up to the meet, Detling taught Dabritz to clear her mind for the bars, which Dabritz says is an “easier” event for her, and to use mental imagery to help with focus when performing on the more difficult beam routines. “I tried a few things in previous years like singing and counting,” Dabritz says about being on the beam. “This year, it’s deep breaths. I tell myself to be strong and calm. I’ll take a deep breath and say the word ‘calm’ on the exhale.”
U Athletics Director Chris Hill MEd’74 PhD’82 recognizes that the scope of sports psychology goes beyond wins and losses. “This was and continues to be a critical part of our program,” he says. The sports psychology model led by Henschen introduced the need to look at other support systems, he notes, and his department in the mid-1990s formed a Wellness Team to help student athletes with psychological and nutritional issues, as well as returning to play after injuries. “This is a very comprehensive program,” Hill says.
Henschen was the reason Detling, a native of tiny Barnesville, Ohio, chose to study sports psychology at the University of Utah back in 2000. She received her doctorate in 2007, and in 2008 she went to work as an assistant professor (lecturer) at the U in Exercise and Sports Science, with an emphasis in sports psychology. In her private practice, she helped the U.S. Ski and Speedskating teams during the Winter Olympics in Sochi and Vancouver, and she also has worked with pro athletes in nearly every sport. Since she started her sports psychology consulting for the U Athletics Department in 2013, the number of U athletes taking advantage of mental skills coaching has grown by about 30 percent. The athletes who have worked with her office say that when it’s game time, most of what determines success and failure in their sport comes down to mental mettle.
Several members of the U’s golf team noted in a spring team meeting that the game is 90 percent or more a matter of mental skills, once competition starts. They credit Detling with being key when Utah tied for second place this past February at the Loyal Golf Invitational in Arizona. “A few weeks before, we did team sessions, and in Arizona, we were talking with her almost every night,” says golfer Brandon Kida, who shot a four under par and tied for fifth individually in that tournament. “After rounds, we would talk about what we were doing on the course and what we were thinking,” he says. “It’s something our team definitely needs to keep doing. It’s helping everyone as individuals and as a team.”
The use of a mental skills coach is a relatively new development for the golf team. “It took us a while to get to the realization that with golf, being as mental of a game as it is, it’s crazy not to use the resources we have up here,” says Andrew Mecham BFA’94, the golf team’s assistant coach. “Most of these kids can hit the shots—they have the physical tools, or they wouldn’t be here in the first place. I feel like if they can have some help thinking around the golf course, it helps them a lot.”
Detling educates athletes about their body’s physiological responses to frustration, anger, and negative thoughts—including chemicals released and muscles tightening—versus what happens when athletes use techniques such as repeating positive sayings to themselves. “Finding those positive moments actually releases serotonin, which is the happy hormone, and serotonin and cortical hormones fight each other,” she told the golf team in that spring meeting. “So, if you’re having that cortical stress reaction, that causes tension, and if you talk positively to yourself, that releases serotonin.”
Like Henschen before her, Detling has taught students who have gone on to accomplished careers in sports psychology. Justin Su’a MS’11 was a pitcher on Brigham Young University’s baseball team and received an undergraduate degree in broadcast journalism. “I realized I wanted to help athletes, not report on them,” Su’a says. So he enrolled in in the U’s sports psychology program, studying under Detling. After getting his master’s degree, he established a private practice. Last December, he was hired to be a mental skills coach with Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox. “The players are responding really well,” he says. “It comes down to language. There might be some bosses or coaches who say you messed up and to go see a mental skills coach. Now they say, ‘We want to take you to the next level.’ ”
The U baseball and football programs also recently have warmed up to using sports psychology to help their athletes. “It’s huge in baseball right now,” says U baseball head coach Bill Kinneberg. “It really helps players get ready to play.” In baseball, he notes, it’s about helping players be ready for the next pitch, and Detling’s office is helping his players be at their ready best for that.
In football, it’s about getting to the next down. “We’re just now starting to explore the benefits of sports psychology,” says U Head Coach Kyle Whittingham. “We’re starting to integrate Detling slowly into what we’re doing. We’re looking for that edge. Anything that can give us a bit of an advantage, we’re going to explore.” The mental part of football is “huge,” he says, and he believes Detling might be able to help his players deal better with adversity. “A defensive back, for example, is going to get beat a certain amount of the time, and the way they react to that is crucial,” Whittingham says. “I have a lot of confidence that she can help us.”
Senior wide receiver Tyler Cooperwood says Detling is a “great listener” who has helped him with life on and off the gridiron. “She gives me tools on how to stay positive,” he says. “In football, she’s helped me with focusing for that moment. A play is usually no longer than six seconds. So for that six seconds, the focus has to be in that moment and doing the best I can in that moment.”
For baseball players Hunter Simmons and Kody Davis, distance runners Jessica Sams and Nicole Rietz, and tennis players Luisa Gerstner Da Rosa and Tereza Bekerova, Detling has introduced a multitude of mental coping tools that range from simply being with their breath to choosing a focal point—Davis uses a foul pole—on which to concentrate and regroup during a stressful moment in competition.
U women’s track coach Kyle Kepler last year watched Detling work with an injury-plagued senior on pole vault and help her toward an “amazing” season. “Her ability to catch a student athlete in the moment is unbelievable,” Kepler says.
Every athlete who works with Detling hears the acronym WIN, or “what’s important now,” and she coaches them to quietly repeat it to themselves. “It just brings you back to the moment,” Davis says. “It’s another phrase, reminding you to be where you need to be, when you need to be there. It gets you away from thinking about the past or worrying about the future.”
Dabritz, who plans to graduate next year with two bachelor’s degrees, believes the lessons she has learned from Detling will help her in pursuing a career in health promotion and education. “As I move on from competitive gymnastics, I think there are many techniques that I have learned from Nicole that I can use in job interviews and, from there, as I continue into the workforce,” she says. “One thing we as a team have worked on a lot this year is self-confidence, and that not only applies to gymnastics and competition, but will help us excel in whatever we choose to do after our gymnastics careers are over.”
—Stephen Speckman is a Salt Lake City-based writer and photographer and a frequent contributor to Continuum.
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