Sports Psychology Provides Mental Edge For Student-Athletes

OLEMISSSPORTSDOTCOM Josie Nicholson visits football practice.
OLEMISSSPORTSDOTCOM
Josie Nicholson visits football practice.
OLEMISSSPORTSDOTCOM

Aug 14, 2013

This is the second in a series of stories related to the Health and Sports Performance Division of Ole Miss Athletics.

Part 1: New Facility, Staffing For Ole Miss Athletics Nutrition

By Austin Miller, OleMissSports.com

OXFORD, Miss. — Ole Miss is one of just three Southeastern Conference athletic departments with a full-time clinical or counseling sports psychologist on staff, along with Vanderbilt and LSU, and one of less than 25 Division I programs in the nation.

Josie Nicholson, Ph.D., is the department's sports psychologist. A native of Oxford, Miss., she joined the University Counseling Center staff in 2011 and began her work with student-athletes at Ole Miss.

In 2013, she transitioned into a full-time role within the athletic department as part of the Health and Sport Performance area and is now housed in the FedEx Academic Support Center, where she is better integrated into the department and more accessible to student-athletes.

"Josie is not only a certified sport psychologist, but she is also a counseling psychologist, which means that she can help screen and assess our athletes who have anxiety and depression, as well as issues that may be affecting them on the field, or on the court," said Shannon Singletary, Senior Associate Athletics Director for Health and Sports Performance.

"In her day-to-day, she participates in team functions and does team-building and leadership exercises. For example, she takes our rifle team and teaches them breathing and mental focusing. She takes our individual-sport athletes and she works with them from a mental standpoint of how to block out the crowd and block out everything you are thinking about, so you can focus on your sport."

Nicholson has a master’s and doctorate in counseling psychology and completed a post-doctoral fellowship in Sport Psychology with the University of Florida Athletics Department. A licensed counseling and sports psychologist, Nicholson said it was important to be trained clinically as a generalist because student-athletes come in with a wide variety of issues and then benefit from her specialty in sport performance.

Nicholson is also a Certified Consultant through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology and is on the USOC (United States Olympic Committee) Registry of sport psychologists approved to work with Olympic athletes and national teams.

Her specialty training also includes EMDR, a specialized psychotherapy treatment developed for post-traumatic stress, and clinical hypnosis.

Although much of Nicholson’s work with athletes focuses on performance enhancement, many student-athletes also seek support for other concerns. For Nicholson, her function as both a clinical psychologist and sports psychologist are not separate.

"If you have something going on in your life, it's going to affect you on the field," Nicholson said. "If you are dedicated to your sport and that's not going well, it's going to affect you personally, so the two go hand in hand."

Nicholson said two of the biggest things she encounters in her work with student-athletes are depression and anxiety, as well as mixing up aspirations with goals, which Nicholson said can lead to anxiety.

"An aspiration is something someone wants," Nicholson said. "A goal is something that's within your control. These are things that are measurable. These are things that are obtainable. These are things that are within your control. Making all-conference is not within your control. Doing everything that you can so that you're a candidate for all-conference is: that’s a goal.

"I think that because they mix them up, there's self-blame, there's pressure, there's performance anxiety. Typically, if they're having performance anxiety on the field, they're also having anxiety over tests and more anxiety in other situations as well. And that comes from a lot of pressure, a lot of displaced pressure."

Nicholson said one of the unique mental challenges is for individual-sport athletes, such as golf, rifle and tennis, because they grow up competing in their sport individually. Then when they come to Ole Miss, there’s a sense of team and community, and there’s an added pressure, compared to team-sport athletes who are better acclimated to dealing with that pressure.

“It's so internal compared to the external,” Nicholson said of the pressure for individual-sport athletes. “At this level, for golf, for tennis, for rifle, the mental game becomes the ‘make-it or break-it.’ That's the same for all of the sports, but it's more pronounced for the individual sports.

“There's a lot of concentration. In those sports, the coach is not necessarily in their ear their whole time. The other thing is, they may go to a tournament by themselves. That creates an internal pressure, where there's no diffusion of responsibility. Everyone is looking at you. That's a different kind of pressure”

Women’s soccer is a team sport Nicholson works closely with, helping players with performance enhancement, team dynamics, injury recovery, and personal concerns such as handling stress, whether it’s academic, athletic or personal.

“Josie has been a huge addition to our program,” head coach Matt Mott said. “She spends a lot of time with our team. She travels with us at times. She is a great resource for the girls, from a psychology standpoint.

“She has done a lot of team bonding stuff with us. When she's on the road, she has individual meetings with players. Her ability to comfort and relate to players has been fantastic. She understands the psyche of the athlete.”

As she moves into her new office, Nicholson’s professional charge remains the same: the overall well being of the student-athlete, on and off the field.

“I was born a Rebel, and this is my hometown. I’m proud to be part of this amazing program, working with some of the best athletic staff in the nation, supporting some of the most amazing athletes in the country,” Nicholson said. “It’s all about helping student-athletes be the best possible versions of themselves, on and off the field.” 

Austin Miller is a writer and blogger for OleMissSports.com. He joined the staff in June 2013 after serving as sports editor of the Daily Mississippian. Follow him on Twitter @austinkmiller

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