Athletes get help with their mind

The University has adopted the use of sports psychologists in recent years.

Gophers head coach John Anderson co-authored a book on sports psychology. He has coached Minnesota's baseball team since 1981.

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Gophers head coach John Anderson co-authored a book on sports psychology. He has coached Minnesota’s baseball team since 1981.

Samuel Gordon

Gophers head baseball coach John Anderson was on the brink of quitting his job.

Mired in stagnancy and unsure of his coaching potential, Anderson questioned himself and questioned his profession.

He needed some answers.

And then he met sports psychologist Rick Aberman.

“I just wanted Rick to come here and make my guys play better,” Anderson said. “He said, ‘Wait a minute, we’re going to start with you.’ I’m not sure if I’d have lasted this long in the profession if I hadn’t met him.”

That was more than 20 years ago.

Anderson is now in his 33rd year on the job, and Aberman still consults with Gophers baseball. The duo was ahead of its time, but the rest of the University has since caught on.

Now, the University contracts Justin Anderson and his team of sports psychologists to work with Gophers athletes.

Justin Anderson owns a private practice, but he’s worked at Minnesota since 2011. He counsels athletes on a wide range of mental components that are directly linked to in-game performance.

“That can be everything from performance enhancement, working on the mental skills of the game,” he said, “to helping student-athletes overcome a lot of the stressors that may be causing anxiety and depression.”

Justin Anderson said athletes don’t seek help as much as the general population.

“A high-profile athlete doesn’t want to be in a counseling room where other students [who] may know them might be,” he said.

Hence the need for sports psychology — a discipline that has been around for nearly a century but has only recently turned into a common practice.

Aberman was one of the first sports psychologists hired by a college when Wisconsin brought him onboard in 1986.

Aberman has a private practice in the Twin Cities now. He’s worked with Gophers football, the Minnesota Vikings and the Minnesota Twins.

His role remains the same, college or pro.

“The role is to help [athletes] understand how their thoughts and their emotions impact their behavior,” Aberman said. “All the research that we know of indicates that emotional intelligence is more than twice as important as physical and technical ability alone.”

Aberman said an athlete’s emotional intelligence quotient plays a key role in his or her performance.

EQ measures an individual’s ability to control and evaluate his or her emotions — an important skill for high-performing athlete.

“One’s emotional intelligence will allow them access to [the physical] talent,” he said.

In order to combat extraneous circumstances, sports psychologists teach self-awareness using techniques like visualization and goal-setting.

Case and point: Tuesday evening.

Before baseball practice, Gophers players laid on their backs at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex — limbs limp, some with their hats covering their faces.

Gophers pitching coach Todd Oakes weaved in between players.

“Focus,” he’d repeat.

Still, easier said than done.

Justin Anderson said when athletes focus on the outcome more than the process, the results tend to be more negative.

“No matter what the situation is, how do they hold their attention and focus on the things that matter most?” he said. “That can be a really hard thing to do.”

Gophers men’s golf coach John Carlson said his team discusses mental factors of the sport on a regular basis.

“We don’t necessarily frame it as a sports psychology session,” Carlson said. “The mental side of the game is involved in every single play.”

Every year, Carlson said, a few golfers spend 15 hours with sports psychologists — typically the maximum time budgeted during the year.

Though sports psychology is more popular now than ever, “some people still see it at a luxury versus a necessity,” Aberman said.

John Anderson — one of the longest-tenured coaches at Minnesota — said he’d like to see additional emphasis on the sports sciences.

“People always tell you 90 percent of the game is mental,” he said. “Well, if 90 percent of the game is mental, you better spend some time on that. I agree with that.”