Soapbox is an occasional Education World feature that gives educators a chance to express their views.
To Mitch Lyons, an assistant coach of the Lasell College (Newton, Massachusetts) men's basketball team, high school and college sports are about much more than winning. Educating student-athletes about the psychology of sports produces life skills that benefit the student and the community. As a bonus, teaching the "science of sport" often leads to victory on the playing field or court.
Mitch Lyons is an assistant coach of the Lasell College (Newton, Massachusetts) men's basketball team. He is also the president and founder of GetPsychedSports.org, a non-profit corporation dedicated to changing the subject matter of youth and school sports to promote better mental health in student-athletes.
By Mitch Lyons
If you are administering an interscholastic athletic program, you know that the desire to win is important to your team, your players, your program, and your school. The reality is that, in most cases, the coaches you hire have winning on their minds when they accepted their coaching positions.
Even though winning is important, most school athletic coaches still care about the kind of education their student-athletes are getting. They understand that winning and educating are not mutually exclusive. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The more players know about how to think to succeed, the better they will become. That is not a viewpoint or theory, it is a science.
While we know what winning entails, what is the subject matter that we are teaching in sports? How are we educating our student-athletes on a daily basis in both practices and games? Today, sports is played in an entirely different arena than it was just a few years ago; educating our players for a successful life is as high a priority as winning is.
Here in Newton, Massachusetts, the Lasell College men's basketball program, coached by Chris Harvey, has adopted a Massachusetts high school initiative that implements a written curriculum and text to be read and studied by both players and coaches. The curriculum is based on the mental skills of sport psychology. "Our team focused on effort before we started reading and applying the curriculum," said Harvey, who has led his team to back-to-back, Division 3 NCAA tournament bids, adding, "but now we are focusing on understanding what the team vision of effort is, how it feels, how it looks, how to attain it, and how to prolong it. The kids see this kind of understanding as the game within the game."
A NEW "SCIENCE OF WINNING" METHODOLOGY
Teaching basketball hasn't changed at all, but the players are learning new ideas about how to think and they are applying those ideas. By reading about it and listening, student-athletes are coming to understand the science of winning.
Currently, most coaching methodology is passed down orally from one generation to the next. The current model of the sports team is one in which athletes focus on sport-specific skills and some ambiguous life skill messages are taught as opportunities develop. Today, in most instances, the subject matter studied in sport is as varied as the number of coaches there are in the school. In addition, the starters and the bench might be learning completely different mental skills.
"Not using sports psychology as a tool is like teaching geography without maps."
-- Mitch Lyons
A NEW MODEL
A new sports-team model -- one being piloted in high schools in Massachusetts, Ohio, and Maryland -- is one in which athletes learn from a structured, science-based, written curriculum and text. In this model, the bench and the starters are learning and practicing exactly the same skills. Players read, learn, and then practice mental skills each day. They use sports as a vehicle for learning how to think to be successful on and off the field. The biggest bonus is that most players who participate in these activities actually play better.
Sports psychology is precisely about what we -- coaches and players -- do. Not using sports psychology as a tool is like teaching geography without maps.
Writing down what we want to teach through sport is an educationally sound approach -- a much better way of teaching than simply relying on each coach to "re-invent the wheel" as situations arise. More important, in following a prescribed curriculum of mental exercises and then following through by coaching those skills daily, we focus on the process more than on the winning. And when we concentrate on the process, a win is more likely. By focusing themselves on their thoughts, and by changing those that are not helpful, student-athletes learn to control their behaviors; as a result, they develop more confidence and are more satisfied with their team experience.
"We emphasize skills that teach our players to be good thinkers after they leave the school and our team."
-- Coach Chris Harvey
As a bonus, the mental skills taught in this curriculum -- and learned and practiced daily -- are transferable to students' schoolwork and to their involvement in the community. The next time they write a paper, they are more likely to actually think about what they write instead of simply wanting to finish the assignment.
Hard work, helping others, and achieving goals are the goals of our team. They also happen to be our community's values. It is in our national interest to teach those values to our country's future leaders.
Finally, the skills taught through this curriculum support the common-sense belief that people feel better about themselves as they perform better in anything they do. You don't have to have a handful of degrees to understand that education and winning are not mutually exclusive. Our curriculum teaches proven principles that apply in sports and in life. The curriculum provides core exercises to improve self-worth and to build the following skills and concepts:
At Lasell College, Coach Harvey is pleased with what has happened on his team since implementing a sport psychology curriculum. "Our team has a definite idea of what we want to do because we think about it a lot," he says. "We emphasize skills that teach our players to be good thinkers after they leave the school and our team."
"I find that personally satisfying, and I feel we have reached a higher level earlier than in seasons' past," Harvey added. "Of course I want to see us get a third straight bid to the NCAA tournament but, more important, I want our kids to focus on the very next possession. Getting that bid is more likely when we consciously think like that. Our players understand how it all works in their minds, and they practice it daily."