Hitting Their Stride

January 29, 2015
At Columbia University, student-athletes are focused and finishing strong, thanks to a new performance-enhancement program emphasizing both body and mind.
By Dr. Brent Walker

Brent Walker, PhD, is the Associate Athletics Director for Championship Performance at Columbia University. In addition to serving on the Executive Board of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, he has worked with the U.S. Soccer Federation and provided mental training services to NFL, NBA, and MLB players. He can be reached at: [email protected].


Everyone in an athletic department wants to see athletes achieve success. From the director of athletics to the strength and conditioning intern, we're all working toward more victories, both large and small.

But sometimes we operate in silos, unable to see the big picture and develop plans that would help student-athletes reach their full potential. For example, a strength coach may focus on comparative gains to motivate two athletes with similar injuries, yet the athletic training staff has put them on completely different rehabilitation schedules. At the same time, a nutritionist may be providing a meal plan that does not mesh with the athletes' rehabilitation goals.

Here at Columbia University, we have implemented a new program to avoid such communication breakdowns. It's called the Championship Performance Initiative, and it incorporates a unique combination of performance-enhancing techniques used at organizations such as the IMG Academies and the Army Center for Enhanced Performance.

The aim of the program is to empower our athletes to make the most of their athletic and academic careers by connecting the valuable resources currently at their disposal and adding ones that are sometimes missing from a traditional athletic department. We've also put systems in place to ensure all staff members involved in student-athlete development follow the same game plan.

The impetus for the program came from our Director of Intercollegiate Athletics and Physical Education, Dr. Dianne Murphy. Along with defining its parameters, she organized a major fundraising campaign to support the idea and allow us to construct the Campbell Sports Center, a 48,000 square-foot multipurpose facility, which houses a new strength and conditioning space, coaches' offices, a theater-style meeting space, a hospitality suite, and a student-athlete study area and lounge.

THE PIECES
The Championship Performance Initiative is made up of five components: mental preparation, sports nutrition, the First-Year Transition Program, the Leaders for Life Program, and the Career Development Four-Year Action Plan. Each component plays a vital role in enhancing the student-athlete experience. Some were in place previously, but now they work in synergy with the efforts of our sport coaches, strength coaches, athletic trainers, and other staff members.

Mental preparation: Many of the greatest barriers to maximizing athletic potential are psychological in nature, yet most athletes lack the formal training to overcome them. To help our athletes reach their potential, we use confidence building, goal-setting, attention control, visualization, and stress-management techniques.

Nutrition: Sports nutrition is a critical part of any athlete's success. Columbia offers student-athletes and coaches access to a registered dietician for services such as group nutrition consultations, diet assessment and analysis, menu planning, eating on the road, and supplement information and education. Student-athletes can also schedule individual sessions with the dietician to cover topics such as eating for injury prevention, nutrition and hydration for performance enhancement, and the difficulties of maintaining a healthy diet in one of the most expensive cities in America.

First-Year Transition Program: This initiative was created to help new Columbia student-athletes acclimate to the fast pace of New York City and their academic, athletic, and life commitments. The program is required for all first-year athletes, and it includes a series of semester-long, interactive workshops that focus on academic and social development, including topics such as academic integrity, drugs and alcohol, and diversity and inclusion.

Leaders for Life Program: This is a year-long program for student-athlete upperclassmen designed to identify and cultivate leaders in Columbia athletics, the university community, and beyond. Leaders identified from the university's athletic teams are invited to participate in small-group learning, self-assessments, and peer-to-peer and peer-to-coach interactions. It gives our leading student-athletes a forum to identify and manage specific team needs and gain a deeper understanding of the skill sets needed to become effective leaders.

Career Development Four-Year Action Plan: Ivy League student-athletes value their educational experience and the career possibilities created by their high-caliber undergraduate environment. The Career Development Four-Year Action Plan is a progressive, year-long program that involves a series of business etiquette, interviewing, and networking activities. The plan is aimed at helping top-level student-athletes establish skills that will prove valuable when they're striving to achieve their career goals.

Athletes learn about the Championship Performance Initiative in a variety of ways. For starters, coaches have been an invaluable referral source. The program has become part of their recruiting vernacular, so many student-athletes are already familiar with the program when they arrive on campus. In addition, coaches often refer a student-athlete for mental training or a nutritional consult when they notice it is needed.

However, the best referral source for the Championship Performance Initiative has been the student-athletes themselves. When they experience success with the program, they share their stories with teammates and contribute to effective grassroots recruitment.

WINNING MENTALITY
While the Championship Performance Initiative is designed to leverage the benefits of all five of its components, mental preparation has received the greatest attention. Mental preparation can lift student-athletes on the brink of success to the next level and help underachieving teams develop legitimate expectations of success. Part of my role in directing the Initiative is to also manage mental preparation. I teach athletes skills that empower them to develop a championship mindset and remain focused and emotionally in control during stressful competitive situations.

However, meeting the psychological needs of more than 700 student-athletes on 31 varsity teams is a balancing act, so I devised a five-pronged approach comprised of individual sessions, workshops, team meetings, coaches' meetings, and self-guided resources to efficiently serve their needs. The goal is to reach every athlete, team, and coach through at least one tactic.

Individual Sessions: In most situations, the best way I can positively impact a student-athlete's performance is by meeting with them one-on-one. These individual sessions range from traditional 45-minute conversations in my office to short discussions on the sideline during a team practice. The most common reasons athletes seek out individual sessions are confidence issues, performance anxiety, and motivational difficulties.

Confidence issues can impact anyone and are often tied to flawed definitions of success and failure. To help athletes gain confidence, I teach them to restructure their thinking to focus on factors that are within their control, such as their attitude, effort, preparation, and response to adversity.

Performance anxiety can be tied to a lack of confidence. Treating it involves a combination of cognitive restructuring--turning the mind from worrisome to positive thoughts--and relaxation training in the form of breathing exercises, progressive relaxation aimed at the muscles, or biofeedback.

Motivational difficulties are especially common in physically demanding, repetitive endurance sports like rowing, cross country, and swimming. For example, when the weather is bad at the beginning of the spring semester, our crew team might practice on ergometers for weeks at a time without ever seeing the water. Staying motivated when competitive action is a long way off is a difficult challenge for even the most driven athletes and I provide strategies to overcome this.

Workshops: Each semester I present a series of workshops for our student-athletes on topics such as mental toughness, focus, managing competitive pressure, and confidence building. These workshops allow me to supply a baseline level of information to our entire student-athlete population. They include a number of interactive exercises to help the athletes identify their mental strengths and weaknesses, and they allow athletes to explore mental training without the fear of being stigmatized.

Team Meetings: Usually requested by coaches, team meetings cover topics ranging from assessing the current team climate and developing camaraderie to exploring topics such as resiliency, communication, leadership, and focus. Meetings that focus on a specific mental issue are similar to my mental training workshops, only with a contextualized focus on the specific needs of the team.

Coaches' Meetings: I meet with the coaches following a team meeting to discuss ways in which they can help reinforce mental training. For instance, if a team lacks confidence, I might recommend the coach limit showing video of a successful upcoming opponent or address specific ways to contain their strengths. In other cases, a coach and I might discuss a pre-game message aimed at inspiring a team without putting additional pressure on the players.

Since mental skills require regular, deliberate practice--just like physical skills--I spend time helping coaches incorporate mental preparation into their practices. For example, we might use mental-skills training to improve basketball players' free-throw shooting. After helping the players develop and hone their free throw routines, we might incorporate a follow-up practice into an intra-squad scrimmage. If a player fails to follow his routine during the game, play is momentarily stopped and the mistake is brought to his attention.

Many coaches want to focus on adversity training, which can take many forms. One is to manufacture games where athletes have to succeed without using their strengths. For instance, coaches might implement a rule where a right-footed soccer player can only score using her left foot. Or an offensive unit has to face a defensive unit with extra players. We might ask an official to make a series of poor calls during an intra-squad scrimmage. Although the student-athletes tend not to enjoy adversity training initially, they quickly learn the point of the exercises and understand the importance of effectively coping with the challenges of their sport.

Self-Guided Resources: To make mental training accessible to our student-athletes on their own time, I created a performance and stress-management resource center that includes iPad stations, EEG and heart rate biofeedback equipment, a vision board, and an egg chair.

Each iPad station features audio visualization and relaxation programs as well as EEG and heart rate biofeedback activities that can help athletes manage stress and improve focus during competition. Using the instant feedback viewable on the iPad, student-athletes can practice controlling their heart rate and concentration levels through different relaxation and focusing exercises.

Our vision board is a state-of-the-art interactive system designed to promote and enhance visual function, hand-eye coordination, and neuromotor abilities, which then improves an athlete's reaction times and decision-making skills. The board also provides an excellent opportunity for adversity training because an athlete is highly unlikely to master all the programs.

Shaped like a pod and designed to reduce distractions, the egg chair uses noise-cancelling foam to create an excellent environment for relaxation and visualization exercises. The chair is connected to a computer with audio files and computer software similar to the iPad stations. It can be used as a stress-management tool to temporarily block out the mental clutter of a busy day, or as a performance enhancement device where an athlete can train attention skills without any outside distractions.

Although the Championship Performance Initiative is only in its second year, I'm excited about the direction it's heading. One of the biggest challenges ahead is meeting the needs of interested student-athletes across the department--requests for services during September and October of 2013 were more than double those in the same two months of 2012. To help, we hope to add at least one intern within the next year, and our five-year plan includes hiring a second expert in mental preparation. Ideally, the Championship Performance Initiative will establish Columbia as a dominant athletic force and show other athletic departments how to provide unified support to their student-athletes, pushing everyone to higher levels of success.


Sidebar: AXING ANXIETY
One huge way mental preparation can help athletes is through teaching them to conquer performance anxiety. I once worked with a runner who got so nervous during races that she was unable to perform anywhere near her training capabilities.

Our initial discussions revealed that she would start to doubt herself and panic when she sensed the pack making a move late in the race. At that point, she would fall back and run a much slower pace.

We turned that point in the race into a cue and changed her thinking about it. First, heart rate biofeedback was used, which provides immediate feedback when negative or stressful thoughts are experienced. She learned to understand when anxiety was beginning and then used focused breathing to calm herself physically and mentally.

Next, she played a jet ski video game in which her performance was judged by her ability to remain calm. If she wasn't calm, the jet ski would slow down and fail to clear ramps, dark clouds and fog would roll in, and she would fall behind in the race.

To help her overcome the poor performance spot in the jet ski race, she returned to her calmness training and eventually started to get through the race with less and less "bad weather." We replicated the training with EEG biofeedback, teaching her to maintain her attention with a clear mind.

We then transferred the mental training to her running by instructing her to visualize the race up to the point where she started to worry about being passed by other runners. When she first visualized this, a negative response could be seen in her heart-rate patterns. At that point, she was instructed to return to a calm mental state. Through this continued process, she was able to transcend the negative feelings and stress surrounding the scenario and perform to her full potential.


Sidebar: IN ACTION
How does the Championship Performance Initiative work on a day-to-day basis? One of its most powerful aspects is the way in which different disciplines work together to support our student-athletes. For example, when an athlete suffers a season-ending injury, there is communication and overlap among many people.

As part of the rehab process, the team's athletic trainer may refer the athlete to the nutritionist to discuss whether any dietary changes are necessary to facilitate recovery. Our dietitian may prescribe a diet higher in protein but lower in calories as the athlete adjusts to the rehab program.

The athletic trainer may also direct the athlete to me for mental training so I can help create recovery goals and offer psychological support. This can help greatly in figuring out the best path for the particular athlete. For instance, if an athlete feels it will be very difficult to be around the team when she can't compete, she may choose to rehab in the athletic training room exclusively and spend the semester focusing on her studies. Another athlete may rehab best by remaining actively engaged with the team on a daily basis, doing rehab work on the practice field and traveling to away competitions.

In each case, we work as a team to help the athletes find the right solution. Through regular discussions between myself and the athletic trainers, coaches, and nutritionist, we devise a strategy that will put the athlete in the best position to fully recover, both physically and psychologically.
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