Sports: Mind Game

August 1, 2007
Get your head in the game: Dale encourages athletes to focus on mental conditioning

Get your head in the game: Dale encourages athletes to focus on mental conditioning. Megan Morr

When Greg Dale attends Duke sporting events, he doesn't tell anyone that he's coming. The Texas native finds a seat—sometimes behind the Duke bench, sometimes in the stands on the opposite sideline—just the way any fan would. The difference is, he's not there to watch the match; he's there to observe the reactions—of players, coaches, and even parents—to the action on the field.

Dale, a sports psychologist who works with all of Duke's men's and women's teams except basketball, makes his presence known on non-game days at formal, scheduled sessions he holds to help teams and individuals discover how to improve their responses in game situations. He has a favorite series of questions that he likes to ask everyone who comes to his office for help. "What percentage of your sport do you give to the mental part of it, as opposed to the physical part?" he begins. The answer, he says, is invariably "more than 50 percent." Then he follows up with, "Well, then how much time do you spend developing your mental game?"

The importance of psychological conditioning, Dale says, rises dramatically for athletes at the Division I level, who were accustomed to being able to use their physical gifts to dominate their competition in high school. But at Duke and other highly competitive schools, where everyone is highly talented, the game "becomes much more mental," he says.

To train athletes' minds, he uses a variety of techniques, ranging from tried-and-true standards, such as teaching individual players how to visualize success, to the bizarre—instructing a team to attach their coach to the wall with duct tape. (Players take turns applying strips of the tape; the goal is to keep the coach taped to the wall for as long as possible. Deciding where to place the strips of tape is thought to improve communication and teamwork.)

For game situations, however, Dale's mental exercises are aimed at preventing players from overanalyzing their performance, which can cause them to underperform because they are worrying about past mistakes. When match time comes, learning to tune out negative thought patterns can be just as important as developing positive ones, says Dale.

"Some people think my job is to make athletes think more about what they're doing," he says. "My job is really to make them think less."

On a Tuesday afternoon last semester, the team-building exercise that Dale chose for the Duke women's soccer team didn't involve any duct tape. Instead, he decided to have them take online personality surveys to help them understand the different attitudes of their teammates and their competitors. After answering a series of questions that asked each team member to rank how comfortable she feels in certain situations ("expressing yourself to others" or "taking charge in a group," for example), each player was presented with a graph showing the relative levels of different components of her personality, such as dominance, extroversion, and conformity.

Later, Dale presented the overall results to the team. As a whole, 46.2 percent of the players preferred a lifestyle with a "high pace," while 92.3 percent of them "were likely to make strong decisions based on their instincts."

"That's so true," the women exclaimed repeatedly, as Dale read the results.

Athletes aren't the only ones who have something to gain from Dale's expertise. It may be somewhat counterintuitive, he says, but parents actually become more involved with their child's sports in college, and teaching parents how to accept their new roles and teaching coaches how to deal with overbearing moms and dads and underachieving players is also an important part of his work.

For that, Dale created a model of what he calls "credible coaches," described in his book The Secrets of Successful Coaching, by examining practices of coaches such as the Indianapolis Colts' Tony Dungy and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, who lead through inspiration rather than coercion. The book, like his incognito attendance at games, is really just another entry in Dale's overall mission: giving the people who surround college athletes the knowledge they need to help them while giving the athletes the mental guidance they need to help themselves.