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Finding The Mental Edge

In this 1:1 interview, Dr. Linda Sterling of Sterling Sports Mindset discusses the many factors and situations that athletes cope with in a day-to-day structure

Life as an athlete can be just as troubling as it is rewarding. While you can be shining in the spotlight, you are just as capable of hiding in the shadows. The upsetting part is that most people fail to see the hidden intangibles that lead to the collapse of even some of the greatest athletes.

Webster’s Dictionary defines “Mentality” as, “Of or relating to the total emotional and intellectual response of an individual to external reality.” In the most simple way, mentality is the way you perceive the world and how you respond to those affecting your state of mind.

In a recent conversation with Dr. Linda Sterling of Sterling Sports Mindset, we discussed the many factors and situations that athletes cope with in a day-to-day structure.

A little bit of background on what sent Dr. Sterling down this career path— It can be chalked up to a couple of scenarios of her own. Once a collegiate softball player, Dr. Sterling found herself in multiple unsettling situations. Competing amongst top-end softball talent, Dr. Sterling was assigned the lead-off batter of her team. After opening the season with a .000 batting average going 0 for 8, she, like many others, found herself looking for answers.

Knowing well what she was capable of on the diamond, she reached out to an external source to find solutions. Dr.Sterling noted, “My psych professor happened to have a sports psychology background so I went and talked to her, and she gave me these techniques about visualization and self-talk, and I used those. I was like, ‘This stuff is magic.’”

Then came the alternate factor, facing adversity while nursing an injury. Linda was also a casualty of the injury bug. Finding herself on the outside looking in was a new perspective, and she stated, “You see the game from a different side when you have to sit in the dugout instead of being out on the field.”

Dr. Sterling’s passion for sports psychology and willingness to help others grew into something bigger. After facing adversity and responding to both, she continued along her path receiving a master’s in counseling while collecting a Ph.D. in Sports Psychology. Opening her career as a professor, she has been successfully running her own practice for the past six years where she has helped many athletes from the youngest to even those who compete professionally. As for where she is at now and what she sees today, Let’s dive in!

Every sport has its mental side of things, all of them have different aspects and can be perceived higher or lower on the spectrum. In a prior article (More Than A Wrestler), I discussed life as a wrestler, mentioning the many alternate factors it takes to dig deep beyond your talents. Dr. Sterling was quick to note, “I’ve worked with a few wrestlers at the college level and high school level, too... so it definitely (has) a mental side. It’s a demanding sport.”

As for why she believes sports mentality is just as important as its physical traits, she said, “It’s important because that is the ‘edge’. When everything else is kind of equal, the mindset is what makes the difference and the mindset helps you when you prepare, too. It helps you practice harder and in a more intentional way and everything, but also to have that confidence and intensity that you need going into competition helps with all of that. We talk about confidence, concentration, and composure as being those key things. And people talk about wanting to get in the flow or to get in that place where everything seems to be going right. All of those have to be there for that to happen so that’s a lot of the work we do is like how do we put together that complete mentality.”

To me, the idea of the ‘Three C’s’ so to speak stood out. Confidence, is one’s self-belief, Concentration, is to bring or draw to a common center and Composure, is a self-controlled state of mind.

Progressing further into the mind, we began to dig deeper into what can break one down. What can be going on internally that those on the outside continue to perceive as just, “Sucking” so to speak? One pressing point noted was the Fear of Failure. Not only the lack of reaching your own goals, but the possibility of letting down those around you: coaches, teammates, and fans (among many others). These are aspects that can turn your mind into a trap door where you get stuck inside your own thoughts with nowhere to go.

“(Failure) is a big thing,” Dr. Sterling noted. “Even athletes who can shake something off for themselves, if they think that they let the team down or you know put the team in a bad spot that is harder to come back from.”

She continued on to explain how they can rework these thoughts and feelings into something positive to open that door, stating, “(Athletes) need to look at how do we reframe, how do we take that love for your team, and desire to do well and channel it into something that helps you do well.”

She mentioned many athletes looking for a ‘Go-To Technique’ or ways to find that proper state of mind. Not only did she mention re-channeling thoughts but finding a way into a constant routine to better prepare yourself as well. This theory, in turn, reverted back to me in my days competing on the mats.

She asked me, “How about you (wrestling-wise)? On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 was super hyped and 1 was really chill, where were you before you would wrestle?”

I explained how my pre-match warm-up consisted mainly of a setlist of four to five songs with a mix of light activity, and that was my main source of preparation prior to any contest I was about to compete in. I tried not to overdo it or lose all my energy before I set foot on the mat. I would just try not to get too excited about the prospect of wrestling.

Settling into a routine, Dr. Sterling reminded me, can keep you, ‘dialed in.’ She clarified. “Routines are a big one, either before you compete or when you need to reset during a competition. We like them to have three parts. Something you do physically, whether that’s wipe something off or undo your batting gloves, something you look at (visual cues), and something you say to yourself. We find that intensity level that you like to compete at.”

She continued to explain how to get these athletes to their numbers, not only before a competition but also during and even into post-contests. “You find a way to get them ready as they show up, as they’re getting ready, and then as they’re competing. It’s a step-by-step process of how I can control myself. We talk about a green zone, that’s like everything leading up to performance, and the gold zone is when it counts. So how do we do that? And then we even talk about afterward, because you talk about flipping a switch, but no one talks about like, okay, when you ‘un-switch’ your switch afterward.”

Rounding out the discussion, there was one last thing that had me interested, Is the term ‘Burnout’ a real thing? Can people really have too much of one thing that causes them to slow down or even step away? In what was a well-summed-up answer, Dr. Sterling explained, “You know, I don’t see as much burnout because usually people are just so dedicated to their sport. We may see periods of burnout, but sometimes when maybe you’ve overtrained or life has become a lot... It’s not so much burnout and I’m done; it’s more about how do we handle this overwhelming time.”

So does mentality have a place at the table when discussing athletes and how they tick? 100%. The day-to-day stress of physical exhaustion is one thing but being able to find that inner self and build a stable mind is a pivotal piece to thriving not only as an athlete but as a human being and life itself.