Interview With Renowned Sports Psychologist, Dr. Caroline Silby

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Dr. Caroline Silby is a nationally-recognized expert on the development of young female athletes.  She has worked on an individual basis with numerous Olympians and national competitors.  A former athlete herself, she was a member of the National Figure Skating Team and later served on the board of various sports councils.  She teaches  at  American University and University of Delaware and is the author of "Games Girls Play".

You earned your bones in figure skating but have also had many clients in Summer Olympics sports. Which ones have you worked in and who were the clients?  Gymnastics, swimming, diving, archery, soccer, shooting, TKD, fencing, pole vaulting and the list goes on.  As far as who my clients were, I would have to kill you.

Is there a different approach for each sport?  There are a common set of concepts and mental strengths that elite athletes need to develop in order to manage the intense pressure inherent in Olympic sports. Distinct differences have been found between highly successful performers (i.e. Olympic medalists) and performers who failed to achieve the level expected of them with regards to focus, commitment, simulation, imagery, recovery and planning. The way in which these skills are developed and strengthened are applicable across most sports.  With that said, every sport and team have their own language, culture, dynamics and mental training objectives. These differences inform and drive the approach.

Are there measurable results?  Get ready as I’m going to give you the dreaded psychology answer, it depends!  Truly, measurables depend upon how the objective is defined. The goal of my work is to help athletes use their sport experiences to develop into happy, healthy and empowered people who also have sport outcomes that match capabilities. Outcomes related to health, happiness and empowerment can be self-reported informally or through tracking tools. They can also be measured using formal assessments such as “Profile of Mood States” or “Trait Sports Confidence Inventory” (TSCI). When it comes to outcomes, if an athlete performs more consistently or at a higher level, people infer that the mental training has had a positive impact. Unfortunately, if an athlete feels more in-control of performance or is better able to manage their anxiety but those measures don’t translate into better performance, you are very likely going to be looking for a new job.

Overall, do you deal with an individual sport like archery differently than one on a basketball team?  In an individual sport, we are working to assist athletes to engage their personal greatness. In a team sport, you not only need to help engage an athlete’s personal greatness but ensure they know how to engage the greatness of those around them, specifically their teammates. There tend to be a set of common factors impacting performance – be it an individual or team sport. However, how that factor plays out may change depending upon the setting and team or individual sport. For example, communication amongst team members is commonly a factor that can impact performance positively and negatively. Communication is typically not neutral. In an individual sport, we might work on communication in relation to the dynamic amongst the athlete, parent and coach while in a team sport the work may focus on communication amongst teammates.

What about the different positions on a team, such as a point guard on basketball as opposed to the center?  There are really two things that primarily impact performance. The personality of an athlete and the environment in which that athlete trains. These are both critical to achievement. The position an athlete plays impacts that athlete’s perspective and responses in the game. Those perspectives, thoughts and responses in turn inform the mental training approach. With that said, the specific position or skill an athlete is working on may impact how a strategy is able to be implemented. For example, managing one’s arousal before a game for an archer may be much more about quieting one’s mind while an offensive lineman in football may want to energize and pump up before a game. In terms of position within a sport, managing anxiety around free-throw shooting may require an athlete to practice mindfulness while managing anxiety over going to the basket might require an athlete to use a directional cue / visual/external focus point.

Is there any position that would be the most demanding due to the leadership responsibilities, obviously thinking of a quarterback in football?   Any position that requires an athlete to be the “emotional pulse” of the team is the most demanding. This person needs to assess emotional demands of the situation and ensure that the team meet those demands. Typically, great leaders regardless of position will willingly invest their time and effort to engage in behaviors that positively impact the team. They are consistently and with intensity displaying resilience, positivity, love of their sport, determination, open communication and as such building strong relationships, keeping their team on track and enhancing their own credibility.

Your father is a neurologist who worked with the US Olympic skating team. Has there ever been any crossover in your work? There has been crossover in the sense that he got involved in figure skating when he was serving as a chaperone of me to my many skating competitions. He exposed me to the field of sport psychology to enhance my own performance which in turn set the stage for my work in the field. We were able to work with some of the same athletes, albeit in different capacities with him addressing the physical and my role pertaining to the mind.

eSports is booming and could soon be part of the Olympics. How would the approach differ for one who excels at video games?  I will let you know very soon as an E-Sports coach from the U.K. just reached out to me to discuss some of his “athletes” and how mental training can be useful to them and to him as a coach. Stay tuned.

Lance Armstrong once said that endurance athletes like bikers and runners don't race for the pleasure, they race for the pain. As a medical professional, how do you interpret that statement? Endurance athletes commonly reframe pain as desirable. Pushing your limits is a requirement of endurance sports and to this end they view pain as a sign to increase intensity, look fear and doubt in the eye and push right past it. The pleasure comes from one’s ability to beat the pain.

Aristotle, the wisest of the philosophers, said we close on to pure contemplation, the highest level of human activity, when we are engaged in sports. Do you agree or disagree?  I have no clue what this means.

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