S1 Episode 45: How Elite Athletes Handle Pressure

How do elite athletes, some barely out of their teens, manage life in a fishbowl? Dr. Lani Lawrence, sports psychologist for the New York Giants, explains how the pros learn to cope with social media and news pressures and still find their way into “the zone” where they can excel.

Dr. Philip Stieg: In the best of times, it takes good coaches and sports psychologists to help players keep their performance, discipline, and morale at the highest levels. There are important lessons we can learn from amateur and elite athletes and how they cope with the constant pressure to succeed and how to deal with setbacks and defeat. To provide insights on what these top performers do to manage in difficult circumstances is my guest, Dr. Lani Lawrence. Lani is a sports psychologist and director of wellness and clinical services for the New York Giants. Prior to that position, she was a Clinical and Sports Psychologist at the University of Southern California and Lead Sports Psychologist for USA Track and Field. Lani, it’s great to have you with us today. 

Dr. Lani Lawrence: Thank you so much for having me. 

Dr. Stieg: I really don’t think that a lot of fans appreciate the pressures that premiere athletes have to withstand on a day in and day out basis, aside from just being a premier athlete and staying at that level. 

Dr. Lawrence: 
You know, I certainly think that elite athletes feel like they’re living in a fishbowl. I know a lot of people are looking at the Michael Jordan documentary and, you know, coming to light the Rodman story and these different stories. And it’s amazing because we never heard of it, right, but it’s Jordan or Rodman we’re playing nowadays, all of these stories would be made public immediately before they even got to bed or before they even got back to their hotel. And so elite athletes nowadays, are in a constant fishbowl by the media, by fans. Access to the athlete also is challenging that fans can access them through just DM-ing them and Instagram or finding them on Twitter. Athletes don’t really have time or space to sometimes properly respond. Again, just going back to Jordan, the times that he would talk is maybe after a game he showered and then he might go speak to the media. 

Dr. Lawrence: 
He has a lot of time to process what he’s going to say to reduce any negative emotions that he has. But now immediately after a game, or God forbid, even during a game, an athlete can send a tweet and immediately just share something that they may not want to share if they had waited 10 minutes or a day, it’s so immediate. They’re very young. Their brains are still developing and it could be very rash to make a rash decision, to tweet or to share something or to say something there’s not a lot of wiggle room to not make a mistake. And so not only are they dealing with more exposure, but they’re also all of their mistakes are really overexposed to whenever that happens.

Dr. Stieg: Personally, you’ve had to make an adjustment, I assume, coming from now, USC has an incredible athletic program, but it’s still college. What’s that transition been like going from elite college now to a, you know, a major pro environment and particularly in New York City?

Dr. Lawrence: You know I’m fortunate that I was in the Los Angeles media. And I certainly think that there’s a lot more pressure on organizations and major media markets on, on the athletes to perform. That there’s a greater expectation from their fans. And they’ll hear it if they don’t in a way that smaller markets may not experience. I think one of the biggest differences I’ve experienced is just the pace. It’s very quick with getting to know the coaches, the organization, the staff, the adjustments that need to happen at a moment’s notice. Me coming in, in January, it was during the off season and the majority of players were gone. So I was able to really connect with some of our injured athletes, which was, which was fabulous. And, but some of the employees, just the general organizational staff with the Giants. But now that COVID-19 has taken over the New York Metro area, all of that has, has had to shift remotely. And so you still carry those high expectations to perform, and there’s no excuses. So whether or not we’re meeting in person or not both for the, for the athletes, the coaches and the staff, you’re still expected to perform at a very high level consistently. You’re at this level, you’re expected to be a professional. 

Dr. Stieg: Yeah. What I marvel at is, you know, when you go into the locker room and there’s just this, this time board, you know, five minutes, boom, you’re here next five minutes., you’re there. Life is very regimental, which for a kid from college and all of a sudden they’re in this big professional scheme, it’s gotta be a major adjustment for them. 

Dr. Lawrence: Well, so what’s funny is that they’re both over-scheduled and under scheduled. So once they’re in the building, even with the remote learning, there’s a tight schedule that they’re expected to be at on time, ready to go immediately. And I’m sure when they come back and they start practicing in person, they’re expected to be in shape, ready to go, ready to play hard immediately. And at the same time, again, comparing to the, to their college years, they were overwhelmed, over-scheduled, they had tutors, they had classes, they had practices, they had film. They had every moment of their day over-scheduled and when they become a pro, they have a lot more free time. And I truly believe how athletes utilize that free time makes the difference between how long they stay in the league. Some guys may not know how to really use that unstructured time, but others will use that to their advantage. And so it’s this balance of knowing what to do with free time while also knowing how to navigate the structured time with their coaches and staff. 

Dr. Stieg: Do you help them with that? 

Dr. Lawrence: Absolutely. You know, I’m very fortunate that the Giants really appreciate and understand the services of a sports psychologist. Prior to me, I believe they’ve had a sports psychologist for at least 10 years working with the athletes. And that’s very different than any other team in the NFL. I think the Giants are very forward thinking in utilizing sports psychology, getting me in front of the team and making sure I’m successful. But by putting me in positions to make connections with the athletes, even me being on the sideline, the athletes see me out there in the elements when it’s snowing and raining outside with them, makes a difference between me being with them on the sideline or up in a suite, right, where I’m not, I’m not facing the same kind of elements that they are. And so the Giants, I truly believe in again, I might be biased are really smart and how they not only want to incorporate sports psychology, but really utilizing it so that the athletes can take advantage of it. 

Dr. Stieg: Well, I think we have to emphasize that this is really, I mean, people have talked about it for a long time, but it, it really is kind of a new element in professional sports. 

Dr. Lawrence: It is. 

Dr. Stieg: So let me ask you this, you know, for hackers like me to get on the golf course and, to play tennis versus the pro athlete, you know, we all have stressors. What tips can you give to manage those stressors? How can we perform at our highest level on any given day? 

Dr. Lawrence: You know, I’m a big proponent of mindfulness. And I know that sounds silly. I think people have different images that come up with what mindfulness is, but it’s something that I speak to all of my athletes about the biggest proponent of mindfulness is that yes, it helps you relax so that if you have that putt and your hands are shaking, you can take a deep breath and focus a little bit more, but it really helps not only reduce anxiety or stress, it really helps increase attention and concentration so that if you have negative self talk, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re able to let go of those negative thoughts and come back to the task at hand. I think there’s a lot of little things that even the average athlete can take from sports psych to really improve their performance and reduce anxiety. A good example would be when I was at USC, I worked with a thrower who could not make it past the regional rounds. 

Dr. Lawrence: And I realized that he was so overwhelmed with anxiety. It was preventing his actual ability from coming out in the moments that he needed it the most. And so we created a visualization script. We visualized what he would do the day before the national championship. We would have him write down what time you would wake up, what he would have for breakfast, what his warmup routine would be. And during that whole script, we incorporate words of encouragement, of strength, of power, of confidence. And while we were creating that script, we also had him learn different areas of meditation. So learning how to take a deep breath, learning how to refocus. And so we ultimately were able to create a script that was maybe three to five minutes long. I read it out loud into his phone and he would listen to that almost every night before he would go to bed. 

Dr. Lawrence: And what was great was that he was priming his brain on how to perform well at the national championship. And you could see the improvement of his anxiety going down and his focus being very strong during each competition, it would get better and better. And so he’s a prime example of how an athlete who is struggling in a certain area to perform on a consistent level, can take something like a visualization script, incorporate it into their daily life, and then, and then be able to translate that into an actual performance. And what was amazing was that he was ultimately able to become an All-American that following year after working. I think he’s a prime example of, of how well using mental skills can improve your performance. 

Dr. Stieg: Also there’s a state of mind, you know, maybe like you said, mindfulness might be good for one person who is angry, is anger good for another one? 

Dr. Lawrence: And so anxiety, there’s a couple of things that you can easily get out of that anxiety state. If you’re feeling overwhelmed before a performance, and you probably see this with a lot of athletes, one is anger. Sometimes when people are feeling overwhelmed, getting locked in and pumped to play can be the best antidote to reduce that anxiety. And you’ll see this with Michael Phelps, there’s this famous picture of him being really angry and upset before one of his Olympic performances. You might see it and maybe linebackers getting really angry and pumped before they go into a game. But the other way to combat anxiety is actually comedy joking around and laughing. And so you’ll also see this maybe with basketball players, they’re very loose and joking. And you know, sometimes coaches think that the athletes are being focused, but that’s them releasing this pent-up anxiety before a big performance. And so sometimes you have to kind of read yourself or, as a coach, read your athlete to really understand, do they need to be locked in, drilled in and focus in order to perform or do they need to be a little loose and let out some of that energy before they perform as well. And again, some teams approach this differently, but it’s certainly a way to combat anxiety in that immediate moment. 

Dr. Stieg: I’m so glad to hear you say that because there are times in the operating room or something unexpected happens, you know, which could be catastrophic. And I’ll, I’ll say something flippant as a way to relax myself and calm my hands down so I can do the right thing, you know? 

Dr. Stieg: I want to change directions here a little bit and talk a little bit about being in the zone. One of my favorite movies is where Kevin Costner is an aging pitcher and they really kind of depict the fact that the crowd, everybody just is gone and he sees the catcher’s mitt and he sees the ball and he sees the batter. And, you know, he obviously is successful in the movie. Does that exist? And if it does, how do you, how can you help me get there? 

Dr. Lawrence: Yeah, it certainly exists. And I think it’s something that you see in really elite athletes. Again, Kobe, Michael Jordan, LeBron, just to pick on some NBA players do an excellent job getting into the zone consistently when they play. And one of the things that we teach our athletes is that there’s this concept of the inverted “U” of performance, but basically what it stresses is that in order to be elite and to get into that zone, you need a combination of a couple of things. One is a high skill level, right? That you, that you’re wanting to work on your skill to work on your performance, to, have the technique down, to play pretty well. The other piece, which is surprising is stress that you actually need to have a little bit of pressure to feel as though you’re in the zone. So some athletes don’t want anyone to yell at them, don’t want to feel any pressure at all. And that actually doesn’t help you lock in. What you want to do is to have some expectation, to have something to focus on. And then when that expectation meets with your skillset, you get into this area called the optimal zone of performance. And that that’s where athletes really, um, kind of hit their bread and butter and performing really well. But you don’t want to be overly stressed. You don’t necessarily want somebody yelling at you when you’re trying to finish a putt, right? Uh, but you may want someone yelling at you if you’re trying to lift a heavy weight or you’re trying to get a, a world record and some kind of powerlifting example. So depending on the type of person you are, and depending on the type of skill you’re trying to perform, that zone of performance is going to vary. 

Dr. Lawrence: So again, if you’re a football player, if you’re a defensive lineman, you’re going to want to have a high energy, high performance, a focus, even though the skillset might be a little bit different, it may not be as challenging. Again with golf, you don’t want that high level of energy. You want it to be focused, concentrated, and paying attention to the skill, right? And so your, so that golfer zone might be a little bit less than again, a football player. And so I would encourage anyone who’s playing a sport, whether you’re an elite athlete or not, you can enter it, but you need to figure out what is the right energy you need to perform at your best. Is it high? Is it low? And you may need to experiment to figure that out. 

Dr. Stieg: I would suspect that your job right now is particularly difficult. The, the athletes aren’t able to live their lives. They’re certainly in New York, the COVID crisis is devastating. It’s altering everybody’s lifestyle. What are you doing with the athletes to kind of help them stay focused on their physical wellbeing, their emotional and intellectual wellbeing, and kind of getting ready for the season, whatever, whenever it may start? 

Dr. Lawrence: I think now more than ever, routine is really important. And I’ve been working directly with the coaching staff to establish routine meetings with, with the athletes. And every meeting has a focus on their wellbeing. What they can do to maximize their time away from the facility. Ways that they can focus on nutrition, strength conditioning, and even their mental health. We have different guest speakers come in and talk about ways that they can improve their performance. And I think that consistent contact with the coaches, with the staff and one another actually helps build that team dynamic. I truly believe that the teams that have been able to really take advantage of remote learning during this time during this off season will be at a better advantage when all the athletes hopefully come zin in July. And so it’s really been trying to create that team atmosphere together, even if it’s through Zoom that we would have if we were in the building. 

Dr. Lawrence: And so that, that to me would be the biggest, the biggest focus that the Giants have had and including myself. We don’t know really when they’re going to return. We don’t know what the facilities are going to be like. We don’t know how many fans we’re going to be playing in front of. And those are all things that we can’t control. The only thing that we really have control and is what we’re doing today with one another and making sure that that team cohesion is strong. And so I certainly think that there will be a discussion, the more information that we have about what it’s going to be like to play in front of an empty crowd, but we’re only going to have that discussion when we have the facts. 

Dr. Stieg: Dr. Lani Lawrence, I can’t express my appreciation to you enough for spending time and giving us insight into the minds of professional athletes. But even equally importantly, is how you may have helped the nonprofessional athlete in performing at a higher level. Thanks so much for being with me. And I look forward to having you on the podcast. Again, 

Dr. Lawrence:Thank you so much for having me. I’ve really enjoyed this. Thank you.