Sports: Winning the mind game

Duke's director of sport psychology helps athletes manage the mental side of competition.
Writer: 
Images: 
October 21, 2016

Tonight, coming off a loss, the Duke women’s team is tasting the sick humor that makes soccer a sometimes infuriating game—at halftime, they’ve outshot their opponents twenty to one, but they hold just a one-nil lead.

Twelve rows up from the penalty area on Koskinen Stadium’s north side, with a clear view to the field and the Blue Devil bench, Greg Dale looks on. Dale, Duke’s director of sport psychology and leadership programs, is hunting for signs of the team’s and the individual players’ mindsets—both in the run of play and everywhere else. On-field substitutions reveal how players respond to being replaced: How’s their body language on the sideline? Goals illuminate the team’s dynamic: Does everyone celebrate together, or is the jubilation splintered? (Even a halftime jumbotron video, in which players say what animal best describes them, gets scrutinized by Dale, albeit with a chuckle.)

Dale, who has been at Duke since 2000, is filling a role oft-neglected in sports. While skill-training and strength-and-conditioning work are accepted aspects of athletics, the importance of the mental side is undersold, especially for college players.

“They’re kids, and they’re humans, and they have a lot going on,” Dale says, highlighting that the transition from being, say, an All-American in high school to a backup in college can be disruptive. “They’re not just chess pieces you can put out there. You have to deal with their emotional state.”

The brain causes problems for athletes in two main ways: They can overthink, a huge problem in sports with ample downtime like tennis or golf; and they can self-criticize and compound their mistakes, rather than quickly recover from them. Essentially, Dale tries to free players from their psyches and, as he says, enable athletes to “go out in a championship moment and perform the way they’ve trained themselves to do,” without their minds complicating things.

Needless to say, that’s a tall task, requiring a tailored solution. Dale works with athletes one-on-one, meeting with them frequently throughout the year to help develop a mental game plan.

A session might start with Dale, using his office whiteboard, asking players to describe what it feels like both when they’re playing well and poorly. Invariably, there are corollaries—players are confident when thriving and insecure when struggling.

By visualizing the differences, the athletes realize “they can flip it,” Dale says, and focus on always being calm and confident—even when things aren’t going well—in order to play better.

From there, the pair develop “homework” assignments, key principles to mentally emphasize while playing, which the athlete will complete during practices or games and refine throughout the season. Developing this mental capacity requires both repetition and focus, and gains aren’t always immediately realized: Perhaps Dale’s most-cited phrase is “trust the process.” But the long-term goal is for the players to develop self-sufficiency and thrive even beyond Duke. “I want to try to give them the skill set,” Dale says. “I don’t want them to think I have to be there to play well.”

Dale works with about a dozen women’s soccer players, and he assists team captains in solving the age-old leadership puzzle of challenging teammates who are also friends. (Unsurprisingly, Dale is heavily sought-after on the corporate seminar circuit.) In 2015, the squad—despite mediocre results in the regular season—played best during the high stakes of the postseason, winning five straight in the NCAA tournament before succumbing in the final.

“I thought we grew as much last year from a mental standpoint as we’ve ever grown,” says Robbie Church, the team’s longtime coach. A firm believer in Dale’s work, Church will often leave the room after bringing Dale in to engage the team, ceding control to the sports psychologist.

Such meetings are about fostering a healthy team culture and having the players accept being vulnerable with each other. For instance, Dale may provide them with 300 black-and-white photos and instruct them to choose four of personal importance to share with the team. The exercise helps players build connections with each other, but mostly it facilitates what Dale calls “authentic conversations”— honest talks teams need to have early on to hold everyone accountable in pressure situations.

More and more, the players are embracing Dale’s approach.

“They like Greg—his personality’s great, number one. And with a lot of Duke kids, if they think you’re reading it out of a book, you’re done,” Church says. “But they know that he genuinely cares. We wouldn’t have had nearly the success we’ve had, especially over the past six years, without Greg.”

At Koskinen, Duke has continued its onslaught—the Blue Devils will end up outshooting their opponent thirty- nine to five. But for most of the second half, it remains a one-goal game. Dale gazes, alert for any minor dissent on the field, the sideline.

Finally, a crafty combination yields a second Duke goal to put the game out of reach. On the field, ten players hug en masse in a return to their side of the pitch. In the stands, Dale smiles.

  • Lucas Hubbard '14 is the Clay Felker Fellow staff writer at Duke Magazine.