I once sat across from my college coach and said the two words that, as an athlete, you're never supposed to say -- never even supposed to think:
I dropped those words into the space between us like a couple of packed bags. My coach began swiveling back and forth in her chair, scanning my face to see if there was any glimmer of hope, any chance she might change my mind. She asked why I was quitting. I fought back tears and poured out every last detail: I was scared, the game wasn't fun, I was a failure, I didn't love basketball anymore.
No, it was more than that. I hated basketball.
The year was 2000, and I was a redshirt freshman at the University of Colorado. I was broken and lonely, afraid of the game I had once played joyfully. I was so anxious that I would pace in my dorm room, thinking of what minor injury or sickness might save me from practicing. I was sure this meant I was weak, not cut out for the college game.
I told my coach all of this, but she must have seen something in me I didn't see in myself because she asked me to give her two more weeks. Two weeks during which she would begin learning how she could better coach me. Two weeks during which I would begin seeing a sports psychologist. If, after that time, I still wanted to quit, my coach would understand.
I decided against quitting and went on to enjoy playing college basketball again.
Fast forward to the 2012 Women's Final Four in Denver. I received a call from Lindsey Wilson, a former All-American point guard at Iowa State whose playing career in the Big 12 conference (1999-2003) had overlapped with mine. Wilson mentioned she had started a consulting firm focused on high-level mental training for athletes. My interest was piqued. I thought back to those painful few months when the game felt more like a curse than a blessing. The reality is, not enough attention is paid to mental training in college sports. Lip service? Yeah, there's plenty of that.
While talking through the topic with Wilson, I realized how important her work is. She's trying to get college coaches to think less about sprints and power cleans and more about the minds that are charged with executing those runs and lifts. It's a daunting task; college athletics is overwhelmingly old-fashioned, a place where change is incremental, and each coach looks at what other coaches are doing, making sure they're not straying too far from the herd.
"We're a bunch of copycats," said University of Albany women's basketball coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson. "Coaches won't really start paying attention to what Lindsey is doing until one of them wins the title and says out loud, 'Oh, and we used Lindsey Wilson this year.'"
I try to make players aware about the mental aspect of sports, about the things you can do to improve your mind and therefore your game. This is not a substitute for physical training, because without that, you're going nowhere.” -- Lindsey Wilson on her approach with players through her company, Positive Performance Consulting
Wilson played professionally for eight years in Europe and the Middle East. Along the way, she discovered a tool that elevated her game, and it wasn't a jump rope or weights. It was mental training -- a regimen, like getting into the gym every day to shoot -- that helped sharpen her athletic mind. A few minutes of visualization before a game. An understanding of what motivated her. Listening to a short tape of positive reinforcement.
Wilson had experienced what often happens when we continue playing the game after childhood. The pressure mounts. Each miss is a sign of failure, each poorly played game a knock to our self-worth. It becomes so bad that athletes leave the arena holding that night's box score, believing those disappointing numbers define them.
And so Wilson launched her own company in 2009: Positive Performance Consulting. Harnessing the power of the mind added dimension to her game, and the positive reinforcement helped her continually find joy in playing. That's a message worth spreading.
College can be a challenging environment for student-athletes, but too few people are willing to talk about it. When teenagers arrive on campus after leaving behind the security of family and friends, they are immediately expected to train like adults. But they are seldom given the tools to think like adults. Many are stripped of their motivation and identity because they've gone from big fish to little fish, and the pond has become an ocean. Before, they were stars; now, they're just trying to keep their head above water.
"The player who comes to college is not just a body," said Dr. James Hollingsworth, who worked with Wilson. "They have a mind, too. And the great coaches will look at a player and say, 'We need to build this body, physically, and then we develop the college athletic mind.'"
So why don't more coaches do this? Because coaches, like everyone else, possess a fear of the unknown. They'll happily run their teams through end-of-practice sprints because conditioning means stronger legs at game's end. They'll gleefully schedule an early-morning lifting session because bigger muscles mean more power on the playing field. But ask them about mental training, about ensuring the mental health of their players, and it's like you've asked them if they own a Ouija board.
"I've never been a huge fan of that kind of help, so to speak," said Gonzaga women's basketball coach Kelly Graves. "I think when kids explore their emotions and feelings a lot, it becomes too fluffy. It's just not me."
And yet Graves was open-minded enough to hire Wilson for a one-day session before the 2011-12 season. "Obviously, I realize there is a mental component that's as equally as important as the physical one," he said. "And I had a new team, a new leadership core, so I thought it was something that might benefit that specific group."
Graves was out of town the day Wilson worked with his players, but he read all of her notes. The session certainly didn't hurt, as the Zags had an excellent season (28-6).
Of course, Graves' initial reaction also reminds us of the stigma that exists around mental training, one Wilson is working to debunk. "I try to make players aware about the mental aspect of sports, about the things you can do to improve your mind and therefore your game," she said. "This is not a substitute for physical training, because without that, you're going nowhere."
Defining what "mental training" is may seem slippery to some, but not to Wilson. She'll ask players she works with to think back to the games in which they've played well and then rank their "hyped-ness" before the game on a scale of 1 to 10. For Wilson herself, she played best when she was a 7 on the scale. She once got hit with a ball before a game at Iowa State, then played out of her mind. "I play best when I'm a little pissed," she said. "But not over-the-top, because then I'll go out and foul somebody in the first few minutes."
A lot of coaches never take the time to understand what motivates their players, but some do. Before last season, Wilson traveled to work extensively with Abrahamson-Henderson's team at Albany. Wilson conducted sit-down interviews with each player, provided extensive notes to the coaching staff about how to coach each player and created a short tape filled with positive affirmations that the team would listen to before each game. She also made a tape for Abrahamson-Henderson, who listened to it before walking out to the bench. As a result, the Great Danes began taking exactly one minute of silence after stretching and before practice to mentally prepare themselves for the work ahead.
Last year, Albany won the America East title and earned an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament. Abrahamson-Henderson, who was an assistant at Iowa State during Wilson's career, isn't shy about crediting some of her team's success to Wilson.
"Sometimes my players will be having an issue and they'll say, 'I'm just going to call Lindsey to talk through it,'" Abrahamson-Henderson said. "And I tell them to go right ahead. I can't claim to have all of the answers for them. I just need to provide the tools to help them find the answer."