Does sports psychology really work?

The stadium scene.
July 28 2006 5:43 PM

Shrinks in the Dugout

Sports psychology is more popular than ever. But does it really work?

New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez. Click image to expand.
New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez

Last weekend, it seemed like Alex Rodriguez had lost his mind. "He is spooked," wrote ESPN.com's Buster Olney after a dreadful stretch in which A-Rod made five throwing errors and went hitless in 10 straight at-bats. Rodriguez insisted that everything was fine: "That's life, we're human beings," he said. "I wish we were perfect. But I feel very comfortable and very confident." His daily affirmation seemed to do the trick. He had two base hits on Monday, another two on Wednesday, and he's been flawless in the field all week.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber
Daniel Engber is a regular contributor to Slate. He can be reached at danengber@yahoo.com.

This wasn't the first time we'd heard therapy-speak from A-Rod. Last May, he declared that professional psychology helped him overcome a tough first season in New York. "It's helped in baseball, for one, in terms of my approach to everything," he said. While some of A-Rod's therapy has focused on abandonment issues and childhood trauma, his professional colleagues have grown increasingly enamored of sport-focused "mental training" regimens that promise optimized performance and easier entry into a "flow state." A psychological-skills coach will teach a slumping player to use mental imagery to visualize success. Or he'll suggest various methods of arousal control, like affirmative "self-talk" that can help him psych up for crucial situations, stuff like, "Stay on target!" and, "I can do this!"

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Can sports psychologists really help the best players in the game play even better? Nobody really knows. Despite all the scientific-sounding rhetoric, applied sport psychology remains a qualitative science—more of an art form than a rigorous clinical practice. It's not clear if mental training improves performance on the field; what evidence we do have relies more on personal anecdotes than hard data.

The fact that baseball shrinks can't back up their work with numbers is at odds with the trend toward rational decision-making among baseball managers. Egghead GMs like Billy Beane and Theo Epstein have revolutionized the sport by using objective measures to build their teams. You might expect this new breed of executives to demand the same rigor from their psychologists.

In fact, a mental-skills coach can build a baseball career from a few dramatic success stories rather than worrying about consistent statistical results. Jack Llewellyn became a famous baseball shrink by getting credit for turning around a young John Smoltz. The pitcher started the 1991 season 2-11; after working with Llewellyn, he went 12-2. Since then, Llewellyn has had steady employment with the Braves, and the team has made the playoffs 14 straight times. Llewellyn has had success with other players, but he can't prove that his interventions always work—some clients boost their stats, and others don't. Besides, manager Bobby Cox and pitching coach Leo Mazzone were around for those playoff appearances, too. Could Llewellyn simply have been at the right place at the right time?

Prominent sports psychologists get praised for their successes and don't get grief for their failures. Harvey Dorfman made his career by helping out the Oakland A's during their 1980s glory years. But Dorfman couldn't save the career of Rick Ankiel, the Cardinals phenom who stopped throwing strikes after his rookie season. The self-trained hypnotist Harvey Misel assembled a roster of 200 major-league clients thanks to his work with Hall of Famer Rod Carew. But Misel couldn't do much for Jim Eisenreich: "He helped me relax while I was sitting in a chair, but that has nothing to do with playing ball."

Misel has a simple explanation for these less-impressive case studies. "We're only as good as the people we work with," he told the Los Angeles Times. "The talent has to be there." Other sports psychologists chalk up failure to players who won't stick with the program. It's a reasonable premise—you can't expect to see results if your client lacks ability or motivation. But from a scientific perspective, it's a sham. If you just write off negative results, how do you know your intervention does anything at all?

University researchers have made this point for years. Back in 1989, leading sports psychologist Ronald Smith argued that his field had entered an "age of accountability," in which objective measures of success should guide clinical practice. Seventeen years later, little progress has been made. A few recent papers are typical of the current state of research: Five college students improved their three-point shooting after hypnosis training, four amateur golfers improved their chip shots with imagery practice, and a couple of girls improved their soccer shooting with "self-talk." According to Robert Weinberg, longtime editor of the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, there are plenty of studies showing some correlation between psychological interventions and improved performance, but relatively few that demonstrate a convincing causal link.

Practicing mental trainers claim that it's almost impossible to measure success using on-field statistics. A batter could take four good swings, they argue, and still go 0 for 4. A pitcher who lowers his ERA might have benefited from "mental reps," or he might have fixed his delivery thanks to conventional coaching. Instead, they argue, success should be measured by the players themselves. (The academics call this a "qualitative analysis.") If John Smoltz says Llewellyn turned his career around, then Llewellyn turned his career around. Why shouldn't we believe A-Rod when he says therapy helps him through his slumps?

In fact, we have every reason to doubt the testimony of professional athletes. Baseball players in particular are notorious for ascribing their success to inane rituals, astrological signs, and other hokum. Wade Boggs used to eat chicken before every game. If Boggs says that eating drumsticks helped him get hits, should we believe him, too?

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