It's all in the mind

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson -

For any sports psychologist, the challenge is being able to relate to an athlete so there is something positive that can be done to enhance performance. Because athletes are often pressed for time to practice and get ready for a game or an event, it’s not easy to schedule a session where they’re able to unwind in quality minutes with a “shrink.”

Realistically, athletes don’t prioritize meetings with a counselor. They seem to think they’re being put in a box and dissected. The notion is if you confer with a “shrink,” there must be something wrong with your marbles. Of course, that’s not so. An athlete may be mentally in the pink of health and could still benefit from a session with a sports psychologist whose perspective is to inspire an attitude, not expose a disorder.

Dr. Tedi Villasor, 35, says when he attends to an athlete, it’s usually a “catch-as-you-can” encounter. “I understand the work-driven schedule of athletes where they spend long hours in training or practice or preparing for a game,” he notes. “I know I have to sometimes go out there on the field or on the court to get a few minutes in. It could take anywhere between 15 minutes to an hour. A catch-as-you-can encounter could take two to five minutes only. But the idea is to develop a close relationship and establish rapport. It’s also access to a service.”

Dr. Villasor has extensive experience with athletes in basketball, golf, swimming and tennis. He has worked with individuals and teams alike. “I don’t advise, I suggest,” he explains. “I think there is a genuine need to provide athletes with support from a sports psychologist. Any sport can benefit from it. How important is mental balance to an athlete? Think of a three-legged stool. One leg is the spiritual base. The second leg is the physical base. And the third leg is the mental base. You remove any one of those legs and the stool collapses. A stool is strong only if those three legs are upright. You take away one and you take away the balance.”

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Dr. Villasor, a bachelor, comes from a professional family background. His father Edwin, a lawyer, is the deputy administrator of the Supreme Court and his mother Dr. Teresa is a well-known clinical psychologist. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration, major in computer applications, at St. Benilde in 1998 then finished with a master’s degree in guidance and counseling at La Salle in 2002. Dr. Villasor went on to become a doctor in counseling psychology with his La Salle dissertation focused on help-seeking behavior of male basketball players. He has a certificate in sports counseling from San Diego University and is working on a second doctorate in sports psychology. Dr. Villasor is presently connected with the Makati Medical Center active staff.

“My preference is working with basketball players,” says Dr. Villasor who was with the professional staff of the Toyota Otis Sparks during the 2008-09 PBL PG Flex Linoleum Cup. “Sometimes, a player goes to his coach to consult on an issue that isn’t directly basketball-related. A coach is usually a non-mental health practitioner so the issue is passed on to a sports psychologist who is in the support staff. As a sports psychologist, my job is to make sure athletes are mentally focused. My goal isn’t to deliver a title or a trophy – they would be bi-products of the effort to enhance performance and create rapport.”

Dr. Villasor says Fil-foreign athletes often need counseling particularly during the acclimatization period. “The ability to adapt to a new environment is crucial,” he points out. “Anybody needs help in different ways. Some athletes have a tendency for tough-guy support. In the context of a team, the priority is the team as a whole and personal needs of an individual athlete are secondary. I remember working with a player once who got hurt on a daredevil drive, slipped on the court and hurt his lower back.  My role was to reassure the player, explain the importance of rest and motivate him to work his way back.”

Dr. Villasor cites the case of guard Bobby Hurley, the NCAA’s all-time assist leader who led Duke University to back-to-back championships. Hurley suffered life-threatening injuries in a vehicular accident during his NBA rookie season in 1993-94. He miraculously recovered after a year and went on to play five seasons in the pros. 

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 “In the NBA, rookies are given pointers on attitude during a pre-season orientation,” says Dr. Villasor. “They’re told how to relate with hordes of media and how to prepare for life after sports. As you will note, the accent is attitude or mental well-being. Of course, they’re also advised on financial investments because it’s like they just won the lottery with their big contracts. My San Diego University thesis adviser Dr. Cristina Versari of Brazil has experience with NBA players.  I recall she mentioned once that the quiet players are centers and the guards are usually vocal. I’m also told that the Boston Celtics administers psychological tests with their rookies. Coach Phil Jackson took psychology subjects to be better able to connect with his players. Obviously, sports psychologists must be well-versed in sports so they can counsel on career transitions.”

When a team or a player is on a slump, a sports psychologist may be able to help in arresting the skid. “It takes time to build a championship team, sometimes with luck and lots of talent,” he says. “A sports psychologist could contribute in creating a positive or winning atmosphere. In golf, focus is essential. You play against the course and against yourself. A golfer with a day job often doesn’t talk to others in the office and can get upset over little things. If he’s out of his elements, he could experience some kind of shock.”

Dr. Villasor says there are basic psychological types of athletes and a sports psychologist must be prepared to take the right approach in order to develop a relationship based on trust. “For instance, a Jordan type wants to be an expert in his craft, wants to be the best, wants to have fun being the best, doesn’t consider basketball a job, takes chances, lets his game speak for itself, is loyal to his teammates and friends and is fairly insubordinate in that he sees rules as confining,” he notes. “It’s key for a sports psychologist to understand an athlete’s type if he falls into any classification at all. Being sensitive to the athlete is vital.” 

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