Psychologist gives student-athletes a new perspective

by Matt Case / Beacon Staff • February 3, 2016

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Dr. Joel Fish spoke to Emerson athletes about succeeding under pressure.
Dr. Joel Fish spoke to Emerson athletes about succeeding under pressure.

Nationally recognized sport psychologist Dr. Joel Fish spoke to Emerson student-athletes, coaches, and administrators last week about the mental difficulties of competition and how to succeed under pressure. 

The Emerson College Athletic Trust Fund sponsored the hourlong seminar at the Semel Theater. Fish gave advice to players on overcoming their in-game fears using activities, and referenced professionals with whom he had worked. 

Fish, the director of The Center For Sport Psychology in Philadelphia, introduced his presentation by naming the five mental skills of competition: confidence, composure, concentration, communication, and cohesion.

He requested that everyone in attendance describe the earliest competitive memory they could recall to the person sitting next to them. He said his expectation was that most would remember an event that occurred before they were 10 years old. 

By the show of hands, he was right: The outcome of that experience, whether positive or negative, determines someone’s fear of failure for the rest of their life, according to Fish.   

To remedy that seemingly hopeless mindset, Fish said athletes should give themselves the same encouragement as they would to a teammate and to be honest about what fears they may have during competition to be able to calm down in close-game situations. 

“I think he provided the students with something they don’t think of very often with performance under pressure, stress, and anxiety,” softball head coach Phil McElroy said. “It’s something we as coaches talk about a little bit at practices, but we probably don’t spend enough time on it.”

Fish also discussed his encounters with notable players like Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, and members of the United States women’s national soccer team. He said they all love the competition and embrace the pressure they face, but approach it differently. While one soccer competitor did repetitions of tightening her body and then relaxing it while lying in bed, the Black Mamba utters to himself, “Bend my knees, release, follow through,” before taking free throws. 

“I draw on the pro examples to let the athletes here know they’re not alone,” Fish said afterward in an interview. “We’re talking about the same thing here as in the pros; it’s not magic.” 

Fish ended the evening by having a volunteer balance a baseball bat on their palm for 15 seconds, seeing if they could overcome the stress of performing in front of an audience. 

With the first trial lasting no more than five seconds, Fish told the volunteer, a student-athlete, to look at the top of the bat instead of at his hand. After earning 14 seconds his second time, the bat hardly moved on his third and final run, easily completing the task. 

After the activity, Fish said that listening and being open to feedback can have beneficial results.

“Any formula for being the best you can involves perseverance,” Fish said. “If we just make one small change, good things can happen.”    

Fish said afterward that he sees a lot of similarities between competition levels of the NCAA and, having graduated from Clark University, understands the conference that the Lions participate in, too. The Cougars play in the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference with the Lions. 

“I’ve found that there’s more overlap for the different audiences I speak to in college with Division I, Division II, and Division III,” Fish said. “The examples I used here communicate that I understand the level that they’re in and that I know the NEWMAC.”

In addition to his current position, Fish spent time as a sport psychologist consultant for multiple professional teams based out of Philadelphia, including the 76ers, Phillies, and Flyers. He has spoken at over 200 institutions nationwide and has made appearances on NBC’s Today, HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,and ESPN's SportsCenter

Athletic director Patricia Nicol said she found the psychologist on the NCAA Health Safety Approved Speakers List. Nicol said she’d like to make these types of seminars an annual event and worked closely with the Athletic Trust Fund to get Fish to Boston.   

“I think it’s part of the department’s responsibility to bring in presenters or have workshops that really enhance the student-athlete welfare,” Nicol said. “This year we wanted to do something that was a bit more relevant to athletic performance.”

In their third year in the NEWMAC, with the exception of men’s volleyball, which plays in the Great Northeast Athletic Conference, Emerson squads are still trying to adjust to tougher competition. Nicol said she believes the Lions are making progress in the conference, but need that mental aspect of the game to finish the puzzle. 

“Confidence, the ability to manage pressure. All those things are going to help us change from playing not to lose to playing to win, and to keep playing in the manner that got us ahead in the first place,” Nicol said. “That’s why Dr. Fish’s presentation was so relevant because that’s where we are with some of our programs. We’re right there.”