Today’s a fun episode—we have renowned sports psychologist Dr. Pete Temple talking about his new book, Playing in the Box. A practical guide for helping athletes develop their mental game. You don’t have to be a huge sports fan to be influenced by sports culture these days, it’s absolutely everywhere.
Pete deals with athletes who work hard in practice, put in that time and that grind, but when it comes to game time, sometimes miss the mark. Pete writes that physical training is only one part of any athlete’s game. The mental game is just as important. Yet, in young athletes, mindset is almost never a focus in development and practice—and it’s costing them results.
Here is Dr. Pete Temple talking with us about Playing in the Box.
Pete Temple: I think my journey was actually the merging of three important aspects of my life. I was a kid who grew into the adult that I am now that just had a passion for sports like lots of people. I loved sports, I loved playing them, I played a wide variety of sports. We played whatever was in season, and we played more in the backyard, on the playgrounds. That passion for sports is alive and well in me now.
I continue to love to actually work with athletes, to watch sports and cheer for my teams and coach.
The other road that I put myself on was the decision to become a psychologist—to have that be what I did as a profession and to build a practice where I would have the opportunity to work with athletes among other types of clients.
Then the third row that kind of merged in would be the good fortune, the blessing that I had of becoming a dad, becoming a parent. Not surprisingly, my daughter and my son also seemed to develop a love for sports and wanted to play just like I did. That gave me the chance to become a coach for their teams and to be a youth coach. It was I think, when I started doing that, that I became so aware of how much things had changed from when I was their age.
The amount of training was really amazing to me.
We were practicing and playing multiple games and just really doing everything at a much higher level and with much more intensity.
When I was 10 playing baseball, my coach was a high school kid that had a summer job at the park district. We played maybe 15 games, and when the season was over, that was it. We went on summer vacation and got ready to go to school.
My son also played little league baseball and when he was 10, I was one of five coaches for that team. Their schedule was not 12 to 15 games, it was 50 or more. They started training in January. He had indoor facility, we had a batting cage that somebody that we put together and a warehouse that one of the dads had so that they could take extra batting practices.
So the intensity of that training—and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing—I probably would have loved to have done more when I was 10, but we were really focusing on the training, the conditioning and the skill development, the practicing.
What wasn’t in place, what I wasn’t seeing was really any efforts to talk about and coach and develop the mental side of being an athlete.
I think that was creating some challenges. They’re working so hard putting in so much time that there’s kind of pressure to perform and high expectations. I would see these kids, you know, 10, 11, 12, and they would just be getting so upset about events that are part of any baseball game. They just felt so tense and tight.
I saw athletes that were struggling because they were so fixated on the outcome they wanted. I have to get a hit or I have to do this that, created pressure and was impacting their performance and their enjoyment. I just knew that we could address that part too because I was doing some of that in my practice but I wasn’t seeing it anywhere with all the youth sports that were going on.
One experience that kind of crystalized that for me was actually at a baseball game of my son’s. I was sitting on the bench with the other coach and one of our players, actually one of our best players was batting.
He had been struggling, he hadn’t been hitting very well for the last couple of games, and you could see it. He was tense, I could see the tension in his body, but I could also see the tension and the coach sitting next to me—because that coach was this kid’s dad.
He continued to struggle, he struck out, and he kind of threw his bat, had kind of a mini meltdown, and his dad turned and he asked me a question. He said, “Hey doc, can you fix him?” It kind of hit me like a lightning bolt, I’m like, that’s the problem. That’s the misconception of the mental game—we’re trying to fix things, and it’s not how it should be. We ought to be training the mental game.
“It’s not about fixing it, it’s about developing it.”
That got me thinking about the clients that I was seeing in my practice. A lot of those were coming to me I think with the idea that they needed to be fixed and that was because nobody had helped them understand the mental game and develop it. When they struggle, they just work harder and harder at the physical and the technical aspects and that wasn’t getting results because that wasn’t the issue.
They became discouraged and I think they actually did think of themselves as a bit broken and came to me to say, “Hey, if you can put me back together again, I would appreciate it.” That’s not what developing the mental game should be. It should be about looking at it as the third gear.
Every athlete has three gears: their physical, their technical, and their mental gear.
I say gears because they work together, they’re not just three aspects of an athlete. I specifically think of them as gears because of the ability of one gear to turn the next.
The development of athletes should involve working at all three of those gears. I think that’s where it kind of crystalized for me as a guy that loves sports, as a psychologist in a support parent that we needed to do better and we could do better in the of shoot of that was you know, really focusing my practice more on working with athletes, creating my Mind’s Eye Sports performance practice, where the focus was being proactive.
We’re not fixing kids, we’re training them.
That’s kind of how I came to do what I’m doing now, that I love, and the work from that is ultimately inspired me to write this book.
Balancing Before Burnout
Rae Williams: Do you see a lot of that pressure on kids leading to burnout as adults?
Pete Temple: Yeah, I think it can. I certainly have seen burnout in athletes. I kind of know what that looks like. The importance there is to recognize burnout because burnout can actually be easy to address. A burnout is, “I’m not going to play a tournament this weekend, I’m going to take a step back.”
There was a time when professional athletes cut off seasons, you know? Baseball players didn’t play until spring. I think that’s important, that kind of rebooting. So sometimes when we’re playing year round, that can make an athlete a little crispy and they start to burn out a little bit. You just need help and recognize that and talk to them about some things that they can do.
I think it’s different for every athlete.
There are some athletes that you give them as much as you can and they want more, right? I don’t think we’re, just as a rule, putting too much pressure on kids. I think youth sports is great, I think what sports can do in terms of teaching life lessons and gaining confidence can be phenomenal.
I do agree that sometimes it can be too much. Sometimes it can be the well-meaning parent that just feels like if we’re not doing everything we can then I’m not doing my job to try and help my daughter and my son accomplish their goals.
Sometimes it’s misguided too. Parents and coaches sometimes have their own agenda for what they want and can result in pushing kids harder than they want to be pushed, you know? Some kids want to play that 12 to 15 game schedule in the summer and then move on to something else. If you say, “Well, you need to play travel,” that will wear them down a little bit. It is a concern.
But by and large, I think the changes in youth sports from when I was playing to now are really wonderful things. There are certainly aspects of that that we have to be aware of and address when we see it.
The Three Gears
Rae Williams: If you could offer one big idea or one story from the book that a parent of a child in sports could take action on today, what would that be?
Pete Temple: I’m going to tell this story, and it’s not a kind of this happened once, it’s a story that happens over and over again. I think it does a good job of really highlighting the dilemma that we put athletes in when it comes to the mental game and knowing how to develop that. The story is this.
I frequently speak to groups of athletes to teams, whether it’s a high school team or a club team. When I do, I always begin by seeing if we can establish a common notion or a common conceptualization of what an athlete is. I will tell them about my view that I see an athlete as a machine with three gears, and I’ll explore that with them.
I’ll ask them, “Do you think that the physical part of being an athlete is important to your success?”
Of course their hands shoot up in the air and they kind of look at each other like that’s kind of a silly question to ask. But then I ask them the second question, which is, “Do you think that the technical part of being an athlete, working at the skills that you need in your sport—is that important to success?” and again hands are quickly into the air.
And then the third question I ask is, “Do you think the mental part of your support is important to having success,” and you know what Rey, their hands go up just as quickly with that question. There is no hesitation, their hands go straight in the air, “Yes. We think that the mental part of the game is very important to success.” That’s because they hear it all the time.
“We do a great job of talking about it.”
We use terms like mental toughness and we point out teams that were mentally tough and coaches want their team, the players to be mentally tough so they know it’s important and they hear it and they see it and the athletes they follow on social media.
They’ll raise their hands quickly, but what happens is when I circle back to those three areas, which I do by asking them questions like, “If I gave you an hour and said, it doesn’t matter to me what you do, but go work at your physical gear, go do something to get that gear turning more quickly, would you have trouble figuring out what to do?”
They all shake their head, “No, it would be easy, I could do something for an hour, no problem.”
Then I say, “What if I gave you an hour and this time I said, I want you to work at your technical gear. Get those skills sharpened, get that gear spinning more quickly, will that be hard for you to figure out what to do for an hour?”
Same answer. “Not hard at all. I could find lots of things to do.”
It’s when I ask them, “Well what if I said, take an hour and go work on your mental game, go do whatever you want that will help you develop your mental game. Would that be hard for you to figure out some things to do?” With that, their hands just stay in their laps and they just kind of look at each other and their answer is, “No, I wouldn’t.”
There’s the dilemma. We tell them all the time it’s important, but we’re not explaining to them what it is, what the fundamentals of the mental game are and how to develop it. How to turn those fundamentals into solid mental mechanics. That’s what I think we need to do, we can certainly do a better job of that.
Working Your Mental Gears
Rae Williams: What would be your first step in getting those mental mechanics together?
Pete Temple: There are other ways that are certainly less involved, but we do an assessment and we want to see where those athletes are as far as those important mental skills, which we collectively talk about as in sports as intangibles.
We can identify some of those targets. But really, it’s about, more fundamentally the answer is to be able to answer that question. We’ll talk for instance about, my confidence just isn’t where it needs to be, it isn’t where I want it to be, but they don’t understand what confidence is and how it works.
I think there’s five mental fundamentals that with development become mental mechanics, that every athlete needs to understand what they are, why they’re important and then know how to develop.
What I would tell them is it’s understanding how to manage your confidence, right? The confidence has everything to do with how you think and what you do.
We focus on the feeling. If a coach says, “How are we feeling?” We say, “We feel good coach.”
“But the question really ought to be, ‘How are we thinking?'”
Because that’s where confidence comes from. They need to understand how to set and direct and settle their thinking. Cognitive psychology is really what sports psychology is, and when an athlete understands that they can train themselves to think certain ways at certain times and certain situations, they get that fundamental of game.
Another fundamental is the capacity, the ability to manage and regulate your emotions. For so many athletes, their emotions pull them out of the box, they’re going along find and then they hit a shot or they make a mistake and they either go gas on, which means they get angry and frustrated and they press or they go gas on, which means they let their emotions take them out of the box.
They become tentative and frightened and they just worry about making more mistakes.
The fourth mental mechanic is resilience. Every athlete needs to have that bounce, whether that’s the immediate bounce from this this play or the next play, no time to think about it whether it was good or bad or whether it’s the bounce that has to happen after a rough inning or a tough first half.
We’ve got to understand when that box is full of things that don’t belong there, and how to clear it out so that we can have a good, clean mindset.
Then the last thing I’d want them to understand is the way our mental gear can impact very positively and powerfully.
The other two, athletes work extremely hard at their physicality and their technical skills, and knowing how to turn that mental gear in their knowing how to use great goal setting and the difference between just practicing and practicing intentionally can make a huge difference. That’s kind of a long answer, but I think the place to start is understanding how you work at something you don’t get.
How can you hit a target you can’t see? That’s where I would always start.
What Doesn’t Work
Rae Williams: What’s kind of the worst you’ve seen from an athlete, kind of spiraling or not in charge of their mental game?
Pete Temple: Well, I suppose if you want to think in terms of worst case scenario, you can have like you talked about that burnout where there’s so much frustration that you know, one of the saddest things for me is when I see this kind of love/hate relationship develop where these kids have loved their support since they were little and they’re really good at it and they’ve played it for a long time and they work hard at it.
But then, there’s an element of it now that they just don’t enjoy it all and often, that’s because they’re not playing at the level, they know what they’re capable of or they’re doing good things in practice but it’s not transferring in the games. That can wear them out and that can certainly damage confidence and sometimes, the answer to that is they just decide it’s just not worth it. That’s a sad outcome that I certainly hate to see.
Another outcome that you see sometimes that can be unfortunate is kind of that sad story of unrealized potential, you know, what could have been? This young lad had such phenomenal ability. What happened?
Was it that she didn’t work hard It wasn’t that she wasn’t skilled, it was maybe that nobody helped her understand that that third gear is really what can free up those other two gears to do what they need to do when she is competing but short of that, it is not necessarily tragic outcome if we don’t develop the mental game but it just can minimize what we do and what we see and the gains that we can make. If we’re just focusing on the physical and the technical part, that’s what we do.
Sometimes the team is struggling and the mistakes they’re making are mental, but the response is, “Let’s spend an extra hour in practice working on drills,” or “Let’s run sprints.” Well, wind sprints and extra drills don’t help with the mental game.
So when we are just working on the physical and the technical, we are working at two of the three gears, which means we are training at two thirds capacity and we’re playing at two thirds capacity.
So the subtle impact is that athletes if they are it this level could potentially be at this level if we get all three gears working. That’s what we talk about as a complete athlete or a balanced athlete where all three gears are understood, all three gears are trained and all three gears are turning in unison. When one of them has been neglected, it is going to affect the other two and it is going to affect that in terms of performance and commonly that the enjoyment athletes should be getting from the sports they love isn’t there like it can be.
Working with Pete Temple
Rae Williams: Okay, so give us a few of your favorite success stories—people who have learned something from your book or something from your practice that’s detailed in your book that is phenomenal to you.
Pete Temple: Okay, I’ll give you two, and the reason I’m giving two is really because I want to talk about one that really was targeted more at a parent and then of one an athlete.
So the story about the parent was, I was working with a wrestler. A great kid, a really good athlete, and his dad brought him to me and his dad was really a nice guy who wanted nothing but the best for his son.
“He wanted his son to succeed and be happy, and he was proud of him.”
He wanted to do whatever he could to foster his development. So his son was working with personal trainers, he was getting private instruction. His dad was doing everything he could, and now he was going to bring him to me. He was going to add that mental component. So we started working, and what I found in the athlete was that was getting in the way was kind of that emotional gear and the pressure that came from some expectations.
That was occurring honestly through his dad’s love and encouragement and enthusiasm. His dad would talk to him all the time about being the best wrestler in the state, you are the best wrestler in the state. You are going to win state and you are going to go to nationals.
When we went to tournament, he was all the way in the car, “You are going to win this tournament. You are going to dominate this tournament,” and that sounds great.
And certainly there is nothing wrong with that kind of positive thinking—except here’s the thing, his son knew he wasn’t. He was good, very good, but he wasn’t the best wrestler in the state. He wasn’t going to win nationals, so he worried excessively about disappointing his dad. “You are going to dominate this tournament” created a worry. What if I don’t?
“You are the best wrestler in the state” what if I’m not?
“‘My dad does all this stuff for me, I don’t want to let him down.'”
I knew that is not the position his dad wanted to put him and his dad was wanting to help him. So we talked to dad and we helped him understand a little bit about how the mental game works and that when we’re focusing on outcomes like you are going to be a state champion, that creates an immediate pressure as opposed to talking about and focusing on process. Just go out there and wrestle, just wrestle your match, do your thing.
That, I can do. Win every time, not.
So when you started talking about more process and focus more on qualities in his son that were repeatable and controllable, like his work ethic and his effort and his tenacity. It changed the way his son experienced that. It took pressure off his son and freed him up, loosened that metal gear so that then he could wrestle to his full potentially. He not surprisingly started wrestling better, and he did quite well.
He didn’t go to the state championship, but he did great, and really, both father and son reported to me that they found that going to tournaments and the rides there and back were just more pleasant.
So that felt great to see that parent’s understanding of the way an athlete’s mental game works can be helpful. I found that very gratifying.
The story about an athlete that comes to mind is a golfer that I work with just this past summer. He was in home, he had just completed his first year in college. He was a collegiate golfer, and that season didn’t go the way he wanted it to.
He was a bit disappointed about it, and he knew he worked his tail off. He knew he spent plenty of time in the course and with his coach. So he thought, “Maybe some work on my mental game would be helpful,” so we did that.
We started working, and his concern, what he said to me was that he would have lots of stretches where he was playing great. Just the way he knew he could, but then he would have these—he described to them as lapses, where he said, “I just lost focus, and these lapses might cost me two, three, maybe even four holes before I can work my way out of it. At the level I am playing at now, I can’t afford to give away two or three or four holes” so that was the target he wanted us to work on and so when we spend some time together, it became clear to me that his struggle from a mental standpoint was in managing his emotions.
Having some good resiliency skills or skills we talked about as far as emptying the box, just clearing it out of whatever happened because the only shot he can make is that the one that he is about to hit now and his emotions would get in the way. So these lapses, we discovered occurred almost universally, almost 100% of the time after a bad shot. So he’d hit a bad shot, he’d hit a ball into the water hazard, and he would immediately start beating himself up, right?
“What was I thinking? Why would I hit that club? Man, you are awful!”
He would just beat himself up. He was kind of a gas on guy, meaning when he made a mistake, he just floored the accelerator and just felt like “I just know I am going to press and make it right.” So what that did was it kept that one shot. It was only one shot, but it kept it alive and it kept it kind of sticky, and it was with him for the next shot and the next hole. That bad shot is a distraction, and it is something that stirred him up emotionally.
It impacted next shots, so that is where he would go into this funk and start hitting several rough shots in a row and lose those two or three holes.
“He wasn’t settling himself down after a shot.”
He didn’t have a process to work through a bad shot. Every golfer, every athlete needs to have a process to let go of a bad event, a bad shot, a strike out, a bad call—because if you don’t, then that stays with you and it impacts the only play you can control, which is whatever happens next.
So we worked on that, and we helped him develop a post-shot routine. Every golfer, serious golfer I have ever worked with has a pre-shot routine, and they can tell it in great detail. The pre-shot routine is very important because it is meant to enhance consistency. I do this pre-shot routine before every shot, and I do it the same way so I am starting each shot consistently. It’s also meant to help focus and calm and get to be ready to hit that shot.
A post-shot routine could have some of the same impact. If it is important to start a shot the same way, then it is probably also important to end it the same way. So we developed a post-shot routine that would help him that was controlling his emotions and his resilience.
It was pretty simple. If it was a good first shot or a good shot, he would simply just take a breath, smile, think to himself, say to himself, “Great shot,” and put the club away.
But we wanted to tie something to that club. We wanted that club to almost be kind of Pavlovian. So when he put the club away, as it slipped into the bag, that was the official ending of that shot and it was time to get ready to go hit the next shot.
We made some tweaks in this routine for that rough shot, the one that can get him into that kind of a lapse that he described. So when he hit a bad shot, which is again just one shot, it’s a golf shot, what he would do—because he was this intense competitor and kind of a gas on guy as far as his emotions—was we had to build in a release. When you do something that you don’t want to do, you are going to be upset. So it is important to get it out right but get it out in a way that doesn’t let an opponent think they can get into your head or get you tossed from a game. But you need to have a physical release to get that frustration out. He certainly did. So what he did was he would squeeze the grip on his club and literally try to squeeze it to melt it.
He put everything he could into squeezing the grip, and in his head be saying whatever he wanted to say to let that frustration out, right? Something he might not even want to say out loud but he would get that frustration out but then he would have to be done with it. That was his problem, he let that stick around.
“After the release he needs to regroup.”
That is the second R in this technique that we talked about, the five R’s.
So he’d loosen his grip and take a breath and say to himself, “Okay, you’re good,” and that would be that’s it. The emotion is out of the way and then he moves into the part of the routine where he fixes it, right? He has played a ton of golf, he knows what happens. The brain just wants to understand. You know if we hit a bad shot, the brain just wants to understand so it can adjust. The brain doesn’t say, “You’re awful, you have ruined this round.” That’s emotion, which is why we get it out of the way.
So you fix it, what happened?
“I should have hit the 8th iron.” At that moment, the brain is satisfied to continue to beat yourself up or think about is a waste of energy and focus. So fix it, identify what happened, take a practice swing to fix it, feel it, there it is, there is the shot I’ll hit—and then you move on. His next step goes into the rest of his routine. Take a breath, slip the club away, and when that club goes into the bag the shot ends. For him, he found that to be really powerful because it gave him something very concrete and specific to do.
He knew that if he hits a bad shot he gets upset. So as soon as he hit a shot that wasn’t to his liking, he immediately went into his routine and that helped him work through it very efficiently and by the time he got up to the ball to his next shot, he was good to go.
Examples of a Strong Mental Game
Rae Williams: Is there anyone that we can look at that does a good job about that that maybe we might all be able to identify?
Pete Temple: One of the things we have to understand is everybody is different, and somebody’s solid mental game is going to look different than somebody else’s. Sometimes I use the example of two players that I think even though they are not playing anymore everybody immediately can bring to mind or had really strong mental games but they were just different.
So one was a guy, obviously being in Chicago and I loved watching him, that’s MJ. Michael Jordan is mentally one of the toughest athletes that you will ever see, but his strong mental game looked tenacious. We think all the time about the importance of speed for athletes, but I think one of the things that’s most important can be how quickly can you move from this play to the next play, how quickly after something bad happens can you get to the next play without letting that emotion or thought distract you.
That is what you would see from Michael Jordan.
It was his ability, his focus to just be in the moment and react and play and play freely. For him that was the intensity of the ball. If he turned the ball over—there’s a classic clip of him in one of their championship runs where he makes a basket and he steals the pass and then that’s stolen and each time one of those things happened, he is immediately into the next play. He is not thinking, he is reacting.
“That’s a strong mental game that looks really intense.”
But sometimes the thing that I see especially younger athletes is they think, “Okay that’s what it needs to look like,” but maybe not for the. Because another hall of fame basketball player named Tim Duncan had an extraordinarily strong mental game, but it looked completely different. He was the smooth pond. He was in control, he played a measured game, he didn’t get too high, too low.
If he made an outstanding play, you are not going to see a big fist pump from him. He just knew how to stay in his box, and his box was different. He came out consistently and played the same way game after game. If you watched him, you couldn’t tell if he was playing phenomenally well or having a rough game because he really understood how to just stay in the moment, but it looked differently. I think it is great to look at athletes and not just look, as most kids do, and admire their game.
You want to dress like them and play like them, but look and see what do they do when they make a mistake, how do they handle that, what do they do in pressure moments? Do you see them take a deep breath and gather themselves? It can be helpful to emulate that too, but you want to find something that’s consistent with who you are. If you are a real intense competitor and you try to look like Tim Duncan that is not going to work well.
If you are more of a laid back kind of a calm player and you think, “Well I’ve got to play with the ferocity of MJ,” that is also not going to work well.
So work at your mental game but develop it in a manner that is consistent with who you are because that’s when it is going to work well.
Setting Your Priorities
Rae Williams: Okay, so as we come to a close, what else do you think is important for people to know about just sports psychology, your book, you?
Pete Temple: I guess the message that I am trying to convey today hopefully is this idea that athletes are equal parts, the best ones have a balance. They develop their physicality, they’re strong, they’re explosive, they realize they need to work at that, and they do. They develop their technical skills. They practice and they practice and they practice and they know they’ve got to do that if they want to perform well and they understand that their mental game is just as important.
When you think about it, the brain runs the show. I mean it really does.
All of the amazing things we see executed by athletes, the plays they make, whether it is on the Friday night field in your high school or your flat screen TV in your basement, that all of those things come to the brain. The brain gives the marching orders for everything we do, so I think it is understanding that, developing the brain, and training the way we think makes just as much sense as going to the gym and shooting free throws in the driveway.
So that would be the takeaways to think about the mental game differently. It is not this vague thing that we just say, “Well, you know it’s important.” It is a set of skills and fundamentals and mechanics that we can understand and develop and maybe take the same test yourself that I talked about earlier when I talk to athletes.
“Ask yourself, ‘Do I think the physical part of being an athlete is important?'”
Do I think the technical part of being an athlete is important? Do I think the mental part is important? You are probably going to say yes to all of those but follow them up with the same questions that I follow up with the athletes that I address: Do I know how to develop the physical part of my game? And if I am a parent or a coach, do I know how to help an athlete develop that? Do I know how to develop the technical part of my game?
If I am an athlete or if I am a parent of a coach, do I know how to help my athlete with that and then the last question, do I know how to develop the mental part of my game or if I am a parent or a coach, do I know how to help my athlete develop the mental part of the game?
If the answer to that question is no, don’t feel bad, because in my experience has been that’s pretty common. We know it’s important but we really don’t know enough about it to do anything about it.
I would say if the answer is no, challenge yourself to do something about it and reading the book could be a great place to start.
Rae Williams: How can our listeners and your readers reach you?
Pete Temple: They can if you are interested in learning more about the book and getting some materials and things that are available, some worksheets and things like that that are part of the book, you can do that at www.playinginthebox.com.
If somebody is interested in learning more about my practice, Mind’s Eye Sports Performance, they can learn a lot more about that by going to www.mindseyesports.com
And if they are interested in following me on Twitter, they can do that @mindseyesports.
Irrational Loyalty: Deb Gabor