Psychotherapy and Athletes: When Your Head’s in the Game

A growing, though rarely discussed, trend in professional baseball is the use of psychotherapy to address the mental health elements of the game. Recently, the Minneapolis Star Tribune spoke with minor league players whose team is integrating mental health exercises into their regular practice routine. Experts say that with any competitive sport, the psychological stresses on athletes are many. Expectations from fans, teammates and coaches join with media scrutiny to create high pressure to perform. And during a game, there are often thousands of people watching and anticipating a player’s every move. Plus, the physical rigors of high level performance can be psychologically taxing and mentally distracting during a game.

But the self-imposed pressures are perhaps the highest of all. Baseball, like many sports, is a game of the mind as much as it is one of the body. Players expect the most of themselves, and have a tendency toward self-critical internal monologues. Doubt, worry, and criticism are always ready to surface during games and practices, say players. Incorporating a few basic practices—breathing exercises, positive self-talk, and sometimes talk therapy with a sports psychologist—into a team’s routine can alter the mental landscape of the game. It’s hard to prove that team psychotherapy influences scores and statistics, but players report one significant benefit: learning to let go of small disappointments and failures, rather than letting them trigger a mental domino affect that clouds the whole game.

These lessons work very well for non-athletes, too. Often, we are our own worst critics, and most could benefit from more positive mental health habits. Self-positive internal monologues paired with breathing exercises and occasional talk therapy sessions can do wonders to keep our mental lives on track for every day activities, social pressures, and work stresses. Incorporating elements of psychotherapy into every day life, or even into workplaces outside the diamond, can encourage positive thinking and better mental health for all.

© Copyright 2010 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • wendy benson

    wendy benson

    August 5th, 2010 at 9:53 AM

    I have seen that a lot of athletes talk to themselves before their performance.Why,I remember talking to myself before every game of soccer that I played back in high school.

  • Olivia


    August 5th, 2010 at 10:52 AM

    I think any exercise that teaches baseball players to be less self-critical is a good thing. Most of us are lucky enough that we don’t have to make our mistakes in the public eye! It must be very stressful.

  • mike


    August 5th, 2010 at 1:08 PM

    Oh man… why don’t you shut the stadium doors if you’re going to turn our stars into crybabies? I don’t want to pay money to see that. It’s sport. Some days you suck and some days you don’t. Take it like a man.

  • Craig H.

    Craig H.

    August 5th, 2010 at 2:57 PM

    Will there be a couch on the pitcher’s mound now? :)

  • Darryl


    August 5th, 2010 at 7:14 PM

    Mike, this has been the way longer than you realize. Sports psychotherapy may only now be experiencing a renewed interest but it’s not a new technique. All the top athletes have undergone or practiced some form of sports psychotherapy technique in their career. They are smart enough to get that your mindset is critical to winning. I’d wager your favorite baseball player’s had therapy to get where they are today. Physical prowess alone doesn’t cut it.

  • NATE


    August 5th, 2010 at 7:20 PM

    As long as it does not alter the game and gives a chance for players to be relieved and free from tension, thereby letting them perform better, is a welcome move and I am happy that such a thing is being implemented.



    August 6th, 2010 at 4:04 AM

    these sportspersons need a lot more of mental health help than they presently recieve because playing at a high level not only requires physical strength but also a lot of mental strength.

  • Brandon


    August 6th, 2010 at 4:35 AM

    Now if we can just get all of the parents on board with this then I think you are on to something. I see way too many games where the parents are more beside themselves over losing than the athletes are and that really does shed such a negative light on the whole game.

  • JIm Brackin

    JIm Brackin

    August 6th, 2010 at 6:56 AM

    I’ve noticed that an increasing number of sports people use anchors – those clenched fist gestures and the like to change their emotional state at crucial moments.

  • Roger


    August 6th, 2010 at 1:44 PM

    If you don’t believe you can, you won’t. Visualization is a fantastic therapy tool and not just for sportsmen and women. Anything you want to succeed at can be incorporated in a visualization. Dump the negative self-talk and fill the gaps (and they will be big gaps) with visualization.

  • Cameron


    August 6th, 2010 at 8:35 PM

    In sports, just like life, you have to be able to handle a bad day. College coaches could take a leaf out of the sports psychotherapist’s book and realize screaming at your team in the locker room isn’t motivational. That doesn’t teach you how to deal with failure.

  • janice r

    janice r

    August 6th, 2010 at 9:46 PM

    I am a former college athlete and I can’t tell you how many of my matches I probably lost just because I let that little bit of self doubt creep in. It could stem from a bad practice or even a word from the coach but at that time in my life I was quite susceptible to letting even the smallest things get me down. I am grateful for my college career and ultimately feel like I learned a lot from engaging in that type of competition but at that level if your mind is not focused and really in the game then you can chalk up a loss for sure.

  • phyllis


    August 7th, 2010 at 12:37 PM

    Ray Charles credits the power of visualization for his success. He once explained how “regardless how bad things got on the outside, I kept a clear picture in my head. I saw myself as a recording star.” It works.

  • eliza


    August 9th, 2010 at 6:46 AM

    For the real athlete it is essential that you have your head in the game at all times. You have to be focused on being the best and that means to not give up and to continually work to do and be your best.

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Title   Content   Author is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptom or medical condition. Never disregard professional psychological or medical advice nor delay in seeking professional advice or treatment because of something you have read on