Athletes, says Dr. Harold Shinitzky, Psy. D., are often their own worst enemies – stress and anxiety affect performance. And, of course, the prospect of performance can cause stress and anxiety. Achieving a balance between the physiological and the cognitive, he believes, is imperative.
A Clearwater-based sports psychologist, Shinitzky has worked for well over 25 years with Olympians, pros, collegiate athletes, weekend warriors, middle school kids and every other conceivable stripe of sports participant.
“I oftentimes get referrals from coaches who say ‘Doc, I don’t want you to make him a better athlete; I want you to make him a better person,’” Shinitzky says. “And by making him a better person, he becomes a better athlete.
“Some of my athletes are surprised that I’ll go beyond the singular focus of sports psychology, and actually address all different life domains. And they realize that this is a safe environment where they can talk about things they would have otherwise covered up or denied. And these are significant because they will affect, eventually, their performance.”
Shinitzky’s third book, A Champion’s Mindset: 15 Mental Conditioning Steps to Becoming a Champion Athlete, will be published in July. It’s directed at athletes, coaches and parents – although its life lessons are universal, and can be easily applied to the infinitely stressful business world (he is also a well-regarded motivational speaker).
“My job,” he explains, “is to make sure athletes are calm, cool and collected.” And sometimes that involves digging deep into psychological issues.
Other times, it’s a matter of teaching them how to stay focused. To even out the high highs and the low lows; to filter out what’s not important.
“The reality is, the laws of physics never change,” Shinitzky says. “So if I trust my experience, if I trust my coaching, if I trust my ability and I trust my teammates to engage and execute and doing exactly what they need to … we’ve practiced this thousands of times.
“We talk about being able to let go of the past. What you can do with the past is learn from it. But a lot of people dwell on it – if you sliced a ball into the rough, or you don’t land a triple triple at the Olympics. Problem is, there’s a ‘next’ ready to happen. And if I’m stuck in the past, I’m not going to perform at my best at the ‘next now.’ I can make bad worse.”
For optimum performance, the directive is simple: Learn how to live in the moment.
“When a scratch golfer, the pro, reads a putt they’re not thinking ‘This is for the championship,’ which then changes the whole dynamic. They’re focusing on the undulation of the green, the distance away, the grip that they’re going to have on the club. The ability to read the singular line from ball to hole. And then they quiet themselves. There’s a de-activation in the brain.
“The amateur is saying “Wait a minute! Did I read this right? Have I taken it back far enough?’ Now we have an activation in the brain. Which changes the physiological response that’s going to take place.”
He also teaches athletes to relax their muscles and control their breathing. “Some individuals tighten up physically,” Shinitzky explains. “Some of them have a racing heart rate, or a shortened respiratory rate. We call that panic. But it’s all induced by your perception and your thoughts.”
Shinitzky, who moved to Pinellas County in 2000, was the Director of Prevention Services in the Department of Pediatrics while at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institution in Baltimore. Before that, back home in Chicago and before college, he was a tennis player and a teaching pro. He’d set his sights on as career in psychology at an early age.
“A lot of people said I worked well with my students, and my competitors, because I would do what I do in my own profession now. I assessed my opponent – my student – I diagnosed what they needed to either be addressed or worked on, and then I intervened.
“Which is exactly what I do today with my patients. I assess, diagnose and treat.”
A Champion’s Mindset is available via Amazon; publication date for both the printed edition and Kindle version is July 27. Shinitzky has an offer you can’t refuse: Pre-order the Kindle book now for 99 cents (you’ll receive it on the day of publication).
For more information on Dr. Harold Shinitzky, click here.