What is Sports Psychology? with Dr. Harold Shinitzky | EDB 193

Dr. Harold Shinitzky covers the basics of sport psychology

(28 minutes) Harold E. Shinitzky Psy. D. in a Licensed Psychologist with offices in Clearwater and St. Petersburg, Florida. He has been helping to make a difference in the lives of others for nearly 25 years. He specializes in Sport Psychology and is a highly acclaimed and sought after Motivational Speaker. Dr. Shinitzky works with nationally ranked junior, collegiate, Olympic and professional athletes from every major association (PGA, NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL). He is also an author, and his latest book is A Champion’s Mindset: 15 Mental Conditioning Steps to Becoming a Champion Athlete.

For more about Dr. Shinitzky: drshinitzky.com



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Meeting Dr. Harold Shinitzky

HACKIE REITMAN (HR): Hi, I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman, welcome to another episode of Exploring Different Brains. Andoday, we have the pleasure of talking with one of the world’s, if not the world’s foremost sports psychology authority, Dr. Harold Shinitzky. Harold, welcome!

DR. HAROLD SHINITZKY (HS): Thank you very much, it’s an honor to be here.

HR: And I won’t hold your first name against you.

HS: (laughs) Ditto, thank you.

HR: Now, sport’s psychology is something that’s really, really come into its own prominence in the past several years.

HS: Yes.

HR: Explain to our audience how you got into this field.

HS: Well, I tell you, to say I was on the other side of the coin, I was actually an athlete. A tennis player, and we had a sport psychologist that work with our team. I’m a Midwestern boy, so my whole way of going through life is “can’t we just get along?” Well in sports, that didn’t quite help out when it came to competitive. So for me, the specific work was the work on the kill instinct, the ability to be laser-focused that it is a commitment to the task at hand and it really helped me to be able to kind of push through for the task which was when I was ahead to feel confident, competent, and comfortable in that position and runs through the finish line. So sports psychology was introduced to me as a player. And I was majoring in psychology. I got up to Johns Hopkins at the School of Medicine and I was doing my training there and I was the director of Prevention Services in Pediatrics. Through prevention work, I was introduced to a number of athletes who were making bad decisions. That opened up me working with numerous teams in the area. The Dunbar Poets, and we won the state championship, the DeMatha Stags in DC and won the national championship. And that’s how it started to expand. I began using my clinical work and sport side for performance enhancement with athletes.

The Basics of Sports Psychology

HR: What role does mindfulness play in all of this?

HS: I probably say about 100%. All athletes as you move forward from beginning, intermediate, to the elite level, have to be able to be in the moment. I was talking about how we all we wake up everyday with a limited or a finite amount of energy. You can expand it well wisely or poorly. And individuals who are not mindful, who are not in the moment, tend to waste their energy. And there are three ways to waste your energy. And that’s wishing, worrying, and whining. Wishing the past was different, worrying about the future that has yet to occur, or whining about things outside of our control. And so individuals who dwell on the past, you often times hear them talk about being in a slump because they’re still focusing on the past, rather than being in the moment. Worrying about the future, well, that’s an outcome after I take care of the process. So if I’m focused on that, and I have taken care of the here and now. And then whining about things outside of my control, we always try to help athletes control the controllables. So being mindful when being in the moment is an absolute must at all levels in particular once you reach the highest level.

HR: And I guess that can apply to life in general?

HS: Absolutely, yeah. I do a lot of corporate training, and it’s stunning that the individuals will create these monsters in their head. I just did a four-part series with the financial advisement group in one of the large investment companies. And there were many of the financial advisors who actually talk themselves out of doing things. They would sabotage themselves out of the fear of what might occur. And because of that, they were now focused on the future creating these obstacles that didn’t exist and so they actually needed to be brought back to this reality of, “All right, what can you do to increase your probabilities of success?” “There are no guarantees but what can you do to increase your probability of success?”  

HR: Do you have a favorite sport or athlete you like to treat, or no?

HS: Oh, gosh, depends on what the subject is. Baseball players have the most superstitions. They’re really, really enjoyable to talk with, to help them get empowered again, versus some of these really bizarre behaviors that they engage in. Everyone wants to have a routine but some of them get kind of ritualistic. I really, personally enjoy working with tennis, since that was a love of mine–I love the details in it–pair up figure skaters for the Olympic team–I loved working with them, they’re an incredible group when you have to work with the two to become one–and then also golfers because the only thing that is occurring is the ball’s not moving and you have to hit it. You’re not reacting to anything around you. And it’s stunning to watch those individuals improve once they start understanding these principles.  

Anxiety in sports

HR: The anxiety in all sports, I would imagine, is that the number one thing you treat? Or how would you say it?  

HS: It’s probably the number one thing I treat but I want to clarify before all your listeners, and this is always a blast to share especially as a psychologist, when it comes to the sports that we’re talking about, whether it’s golf or tennis or anything of that nature that people play, I always like to point out that there is no such thing as stress. I like being provocative and getting a reaction. So what i talk about is what makes you stressed doesn’t necessarily make me stressed, and what makes me stressed doesn’t necessarily make you stressed. So the situation itself is actually neutral. It’s based on your perception of the situation. And that’s the definition of life. Your perception of a situation, your self-talk and how you manage it. I don’t know if you’ve ever jumped out of a perfectly good airplane, but there are people that do it for fun. If you think there’s a tiger outside your door, you’re gonna be really nervous. Doesn’t matter that there is a tiger, your emotions are not based on reality. Your emotions are based on perceptions of reality. And helping athletes as early as possible understand that I possess the experience, the skill, the coaching, that’s all I’m focused on it this moment. I try to encourage as young as possible, it doesn’t matter the name of an event, the number of people watching or the potential trophy that you could win. The name of the event doesn’t change the laws of physics. Gravity is still gravity, magnetism is still there. In golf, it’s still a ball, club, and the laws of physics. The name of the event isn’t what i’m focusing on, it’s the event of the task. The number of people, doesn’t matter if there’s 22 people or 22 million. None of them touch you. If I’m focusing on them, I’m not focusing on the task at hand. And the potential award, whether it’s a gold medal in the olympics or a trophy at the local club, that’s an aftermath. That is an outcome. What I want everyone to do is focus on the process, so I try as early as possible now to help them understand the concept to liberate them from this idea of stress.  

HR: Boy, I could see you hoo-rah, that was good!  

HS: Ah, i’ve done this for a while.  

HR: Oh, boy. I was once, at age 21 in my first year of medical school and won the New England Heavyweight Golden Glove, and I was out in Las Vegas where my Uncle Mo used to work at Caesar’s and he was like a nobody that everybody loved. Sinatra would say hello, Joey, all those people. And his friend, who I still talk to, Lynn Banker, who’s about 95 now, was the most powerful guy out there. And through him, I used to get to hang out with celebrities. So I’m out there, I’m 21, I’m walking around Ceasar’s Palace with one of the greatest heavyweights of all time Joe Lewis.  

HS: Yeah.  

HR: And we’re talking, and I said, “Champ, I gotta’ confession to make.” He said, “what?” I said, “Well, every time I have a fight, I get really scared before the fight and get sick the week before and I wanna chicken out and the day of the fight i’m a basket case. And then I get in the ring and I do what I gotta’ do.” And Joe Lewis puts his arm around me and he says, “Doc, we all take fear in the ring with us. it’s what you do with it that makes you a champion.” Now mind you, this guy, lost to Max Schmeling, when into the rematch for the championship–i think it was 1939–but with Adolph Hitler in the audience. That’s pressure!  

HS: Well you bring up a beautiful, beautiful statement. And I like to share this. It’s a simple but elegant equation. Investment + perceived threat, real or imagined = anxiety. So Max was fighting, and everyone is out there with this mindset of, “Oh, my life is on the line, I’m representing my country and look good and be triumphant. I’m highly invested.” There is a perceived threat. Like I said, it could be real, it could be imagined. This guy is trying to knock my head off. I could be embarrassed, change the course of history. Investment plus perceived threat, that’s when you start experiencing this anxiety as we call it or arousal to the system. And if you understand that, then it makes more sense. So if you are not invested in something but there is a perceived threat, you don’t care. Kid who doesn’t want to go to school, the administrator says “I’m going to suspend you.” It’s like “hey, cool thanks.” They’re not invested.

And if you are invested but you don’t perceive the threat, “I’m ready for the exam, I think I studied enough,” and you might actually fail, as long as those two things exist, investment plus perceived threat real or imagined equals anxiety. And then the fun thing like you were just talking about it in there. Anxiety, most people just talk about it as, “you know, I have anxiety.” The body doesn’t know anxiety. The body doesn’t know pressure. The body doesn’t know tension. The body doesn’t know those things. The body only knows that there is a release of certain chemicals in the body and the body becomes aroused. So adrenaline, norepinephrine, cortisol, and the body reacts, rearouses, because of some perception thought or feeling that we have. And so I always like to ask my athletes–when you talk about anxiety, which comes in one of three forms, it could be all of them together but there’s three different ways. There’s physical anxiety, where muscle tightness, your heart races, you start changing you breathing pattern, galvanic skin response. The whole nine yards. So physiological, you could talk about it as cognitive. I start speaking negatively to myself, worse-case scenarios, feelings, worries, dreads. So I always talk to the athletes, “So what are you experiencing? Could it be all three, could it be two of them, could it be one? Because we could address each one of those three independently.”  

A Champion’s Mindset

HR: Let’s talk about your book “A Champion’s Mindset: Fifteen Mental Conditioning Steps to Becoming a Champion Athlete,” that could help anyone really. Give our audience one tool from there. Like one tool that they could apply not only to sports but in life.  

HS: Let’s just open up any of these in here. Oh, this is fun. Alright, so I’m just going to pick one out of there. Increase your probability of success. Just that simple concept right there. Too many individuals who try their best to control things outside of their control and they will anticipate and expect things based on their belief system which is fine and nice because you’re striving for a goal. But there are never any guarantees in life. The only two that I know of, and we all know what those two are, death and taxes. But besides that, there are no guarantees. You could study your hardest, it doesn’t guarantee an A. You could prep for the sale, but it doesn’t mean that the customer is going to go with it. You could plan for a fight, etc. The only thing you could ever do is increase your probability of success. So I always like to talk with the individuals, whether they are a student in school, and they get good grades, corporations where they’re talking about trying to set goals to sales, or in sports. What are the incremental steps that will increase your probability of success? You don’t have to do them all everyday, but if you are doing that, they are are moving you in the direction, the trajectory of the ultimate goal, you can apply this in any situation. The book like you were saying, has universal truths. They’re just all the examples are sports examples. And so people who read the book can find it does apply to your life. So I always like to say, there are no guarantees in life. The only things you ever can do is increase your probability of success.  

HR: Playing the numbers, increasing one’s odds.  

HS: Yep! I had a young guy in one of the major SEC schools down here. And for some reason, he decided that he wanted to keep his grades around a 2.0, which is a minimum that he could keep to play in the NCAA. And he got sick, missed a quiz, dropped below it, went on suspension, couldn’t play. His coach referred him to me and we were chatting. And he was a bright enough young man but he never applied himself academically. So I said “what’s your goal? To get good grades, better grades.” And I said, “How are you going to do that?” He said, “Well, I’m going to try harder.” And I said, “I don’t know what that means. I’m sure trying is really nice, but let’s break it into strictly behavioral steps.” And he said, “Well I can do my homework.” I said, “Yeah, you can do your homework, but do you know there’s also something called studying.” Now he never learned the difference between those two. homework is an assignment, studying is acquiring the information. So he talked about that. And I said, “Well, go to class.” And he said, “Maybe I can go to a study group before an exam,” and i said, “Well you can go to the teacher’s office hours.” And we went back and forth on all these behavior steps that increase the probability of success. Two weeks later I saw him, I asked him how things are going, and he said, “You know, doc, that going to class helps.”  

HR: What a novel idea! (laughs)

HS: So yes. So it’s interesting, in the beginning of the book, I talk about the sports psychology triangle. So it’s behavior and cognitive, and then feelings affect, physiological it could be. But behavioral stuff, I always ask, “Are you always doing everything you could or should in order to be the best that you can be?” And in this case, when it obviously came to getting grades, he wasn’t doing everything he could or should in order to become his optimal student. I do that with athletics, I do it with sales, “are you doing everything you could or should?” And in that case, I pointed out to him, we needed to look at strictly the basic behaviors. And that’s applying to everybody too.  

Neurodiversity in sports

HR: Many attributes that our high-functioning autistic population, let’s call it Asperger’s, many of their traits are beneficial to those who want to be a champion tennis player or golfer or other sport. Focus and obsession if you will, or hyper-focus and everything. Without giving any names or anything, have you worked with some of our neurodiverse individuals? Because I’ll take it a step forward, I think in order to be champion, your brain has to be a little bit different.  

HS: Well, I talk about 25 different characteristics of elite athletes. And one of them is you have to be physiologically a freak of nature. You have to be the anomaly, you are the outlier. And so the capacity to function physically and cognitively is different. So there are strengths and weaknesses, and there are some people no matter how hard they try or work they won’t make it to the most elite level. And yes, I have worked with individuals who are on the spectrum. I were fortunate way back, and I hate to admit this, back in 1980, during undergrad. I had the opportunity during a rotation for autism on the spectrum, individuals in the community where I was at at the University of Iowa. And it was just great working with these individuals.

When I got to Hopkins in ’88, we started working with this group of young adults who are on the spectrum. But they were slightly different than the traditional autistic individual. And they were later on in 1994, when the diagnosis came to the states, they were identified as Asperger’s. And I love working with these young adults. Usually, bright, usually 135 or higher IQ. Real followers, incredibly nice individuals, concrete in the way they think, details, they miss out on the non-verbal cues. Abstractions are lost on them. They are desperately trying to get along and be accepted. But they don’t understand the unwritten rules that everyone seems to know that no one teaches. And help these individuals to be able to understand, and I always like to talk about it as “Well these are just developmental milestones.” It’s not that you’re damaged or broken or something like that, but I set it up as almost an intellectual or scientific way. “Well it’s a developmental milestone.” I always like to say, “In real estate, the three most important factors are location, location location.” If you’re on the spectrum, your most important factors are practice, practice, practice. So you want to work on sort of developing the associative cortex of the brain. Practice the behaviors so we can increase the neural pathways of the brain for that behavior. So as one of the young adults said to me, “why do I have to show my teeth and grab onto somebody’s hand when I say hello?” Why do we have to? I mean as a predator, I could see showing the teeth, grasping hand for power, but I said, “You’re right. You’re noticing in our society to increase your probability of socially connecting, people show their teeth and grasp each other’s hands.” So it may not make sense to you, in terms of a natural sort of an emotional experience that I’m bonded, but intellectually. “Oh, I get it, I’m supposed to do this. ‘Hi, how are you doing?'”

So I love working with these individuals because they are detail focused. They’re known as little professors. They become the world’s expert on eventually some inane topics, and some incredibly detailed topics. The capacity to go and pursue those as a degree can be fantastic. You don’t have to become the world’s experts on a subject, but you do have to find areas that are personally rewarding, and help those individuals flourish, is something that I have personally, or professionally find very rewarding.  

HR: I have never heard that put so eloquently as you just did. That was amazing, really.  

HS: I get lucky once in a while.  

Working with Olympic athletes

HR: Wow. What a clip that is. Tell us about your history working with Olympic athletes.  

HS: Now a days, i have the opportunity to work with pairs olympic figure skaters. We have a skating down here in Florida, of all places. Some people find that kind of odd. But in Florida, we have a couple of them now that are kind of phenomenal facilities, fantastic coaches. The southwest facility down here, the skating rink. Fantastic coaches, from around the world, who have an opportunity to work with pairs figure skaters, to be able to move from the junior ranks, the novice levels, all the way up to national champions and on the way to the olympics. So part of my role is to be able to help with performance enhancement. How to be laser focused. How to be able to let go of the past. To be in the moment, mindfulness. The capacity to not be distracted by externals. To have a consistent self-confidence.

I always like to say to athletes, “You should never ride your highest highs, you should never ride your lowest lows. You’re not as good as your favorite fa says, and you’re not as bad as your worst critic says.” So based on what’s your average, let’s use basketball for example. If i can shoot 80% free throws, and that’s my average, that doesn’t mean I’m always hitting 80%. It just means it’s a range, and on average it’s 80%. So that’s my self-confidence. I always talk about what’s your average. Today I might be shooting better, tonight I might not be shooting better, but I don’t let my self-confidence flow on the situational outcome. But rather, what’s my average. So the question is what’s your average, and is it improving? So with my olympic athletes, whether they’re figure skaters, a crew member on the crew team, divers, sail boat racers, for any of them, bi-athletes at the winter olympics, the capacity to be in the moment, going back to that mindfulness. When it comes to the singular event that they have been training for years, how not to get caught up in the moment. And what’s rather interesting in that statement, and I’ll say this for all the viewers and listeners: you cannot tell your brain what not to focus on. Your brain will only focus on what you tell it to focus on.

So if I’m a golfer and i’m trying to drive a ball 300 yards, but at 75 yards there’s a small creek, and I think to myself “water hole, alright, here. Let me get my scuffed golf ball.” And then I got up to the tee box, and I start saying to myself, “Don’t hit it in the water.” the only thing my brain is focused on is the water. It’s not focusing on the form that I would normally use to hit a ball 300 yards. So if i’m telling myself “don’t do something,” like right now. If I ask your listeners, “Don’t think of a big purple elephant, especially the one with pink polkadots,” even if you’re successful, you’re still reminding yourself, “now I’m thinking about it.” So it’s not “don’t focus on something,” it’s “no, no, what do you want to focus on?” And so we repeat that over and over. What is it that I want to focus on? So is it horizontal and I have to move to a vertical maneuver in ice skating, I have to be able to take my energy and lift. Well what’s my proper positioning? Where does my arm go when I lift it vertically? How do I spot my landing ahead of time? I focus on what I need to, and I do it so frequently it becomes automatic. I’m not overthinking. i’m not paralysis through analysis, it becomes automatic at this point. So it’s not “don’t focus on that,” it’s “what do I want to focus on?” And that’s probably one of the greatest things I can do with the elite athletes.  

HR: Well said. This is good stuff! Good stuff.  

HS: Hey, it’s all in the book, I’m telling you.  

HR: How can people learn more about you?  

HS: Well I got some friends if they talk to. (laughs) I have a website, and i’m on social media. My website is www.doctorshinitzky– d-o-c-t-o-r-s-h-i-n-i-t-z-k-y–.com. And also, Facebook, my professional page. Twitter, YouTube channel, i have a couple of videos up there. I do an awful lot of presentation, so if someone wanted to reach out and call me, they can certainly reach out and call me directly. I can give that number without any problem. I enjoy working with communities. Again, when I was at Hopkins, I was the Director of Prevention Services, so my whole thing is to get the information out to the masses, which is why I wrote a book. It’s my third book now. So I’m at 727-560-2697. I would love to be able to share this information with anybody who’s interested. And I’m always grateful for the feedback that I get from the attendees at my presentations.  

HR: Well, Dr. Howard Shinitzky, it’s been a pleasure! Thanks so much for joining us here for another episode of Exploring Different Brains!  

HS: It has been my honor! Thank you!