Understanding the Mind of An Athlete, with Dr. James Glynn

What You Will Learn:

  • What is sports psychology
  • The truth about anxiety
  • How to cultivate peak performance
  • How control can work for us or hurt us
  • Methods to develop mental toughness and confidence

About James Glynn

Dr. Glynn specializes in sport and exercise psychology, substance abuse treatment and weight loss issues.

Dr. Glynn consults with athletes, teams, and coaches regarding performance issues, end of career transitions, and injury rehabilitation. His experience as a former player and coach gives him a unique insight into what is needed to be successful.

Dr. Glynn has served as an adjunct professor at Ramapo College of New Jersey, teaching classes in abnormal psychology and addiction. Dr. Glynn is an ex-pat from England, having moved to the US 16 years ago. He is married and has an eight year old daughter. He is an avid sport enthusiast and having grown up in England particularly loves soccer, rugby, and cricket. Prior to becoming a psychologist Dr. Glynn was a professional soccer player in England.​


[00:00:00] Welcome to the podcast that’s focused on everything you need to know to drive your athletic career. Welcome to Eye on the Prize with Dr. Todd Schragen.

[00:00:09] Dr Schragen: I’m so excited to have Dr. James Glynn on this morning. He is a sports psychologist who’s worked with individual athletes from the high school level, college and professional level. He has a specialization in sports and exercise psychology, and not only that, Dr. Glynn is a former professional athlete and coach, which he really understands how to keep your eye on the prize. Dr. Glynn, good morning.

[00:00:33] Dr. Glynn: Thank you. Good morning. Thanks for having me.

[00:00:35] Dr Schragen: I’m psyched. So, what does a sports psychologist do?

[00:00:40] Dr. Glynn: A lot of people don’t really understand or know much about it because it’s, even though it’s been around probably 35–40 years as a specialization, and really only in the last, I would say five to 10 years, it’s started to become a little bit more widespread and known. Sports psychologically really addresses anything sport related that is impacted by your mind. When I give talks to people and stuff like that, I start by asking people: “If you think about your best ever sports performance, your best ever performance ever, how much of that is down to your ability and how much is that down to your mental focus during the thing?” Most people will say, listen, what I’ve played my best performance ever, I’m focused; I’m a hundred percent dialed in. So I would be like it’s 90/10, you know, and then I ask people: “So, when you’re practicing, how much of your time do you spend on the techniques and the physical side, but on the mental side?” And most people are faced the other way around. It’s 90/10. So my sort of selling point for sports psychology is the idea that if you’re saying something, when you plan at your absolute best, I’ve dialed in. It’s 90% mental and only 10% of what you can actually do. Why are you when you’re practicing, flipping it the other way round we’re spending only 10% of your time on this thing that really gives you the most edge when you’re playing And so ideally that’s what we do. We just work with helping people understand how the brain impacts performance.

[00:02:13] Dr Schragen: Interesting. So, in the topic of performance anxiety, can you explain what performance anxiety is, like, physiologically?

[00:02:23] Dr. Glynn: Yeah, so normally when I talk about anxiety, the first thing I always try to stress to people is anxiety gets a really bad rap, right? Everyone assumes if you get anxiety, it must mean it’s a bad thing. Anxiety is actually a very necessary thing for us all to experience. We need anxiety. In real world application terms, anxiety is what gets you to study for your test. Anxiety is what gets you to go to practice every day, so it does have a very positive impact from it. But, when it becomes problematic and it becomes in this idea of impacting your performance, it’s typically because it’s gone from what is a positive thing like what gets you up in the morning, gets you going to practice, gets turning up the games on time, gets you doing your warm up routine and all that.

[00:03:10] And it turns into more of a hindrance, right. And there’s that very fine line that I talk about. I don’t know if anybody’s ever heard of this, but the inverted U hypothesis, right. So the inverted U hypothesis is basically that he drew a graph and he got the U going upside down, so it’s an inverted U. And the idea behind it is too little anxiety impacts you in a negative way, too much anxiety impacts you in a negative way.

[00:03:44] So the idea is you have to operate in that little sweet spot, okay. So what we try to do is try to understand what that sweet spot is. Now, as another example I give to people is when it comes to performance anxiety if you talk about any sport you play, and I normally use basketball as an example, right. So free throws, okay, is the best example. Now free throws is probably one of the most anxiety-producing thing a basketball player can have, because it’s just you, it’s just a basket, and everybody’s watching your every move, even everyone’s just stood around watching. So it’s if there’s in that particular sport, if there’s an anxiety producing moment, that’s it.

[00:04:25] Dr Schragen: It’s giving me anxiety just thinking about it.

[00:04:27] Dr. Glynn: Right? It’s the sort of thing that if basketball players have nightmares, that’s the thing they have nightmares about: starting on the free throw line. Everyone watching you and missing the free throw, right?

[00:04:37] Dr Schragen: Wait a minute on that. Let me interrupt. So, there’s people who do have nightmares, but then there’s also someone like a Michael Jordan who thrives in that moment. How do you, is there, if I may go down the road and answer that, but—

[00:04:51] Dr. Glynn: Yeah, no, absolutely. And that kind of ties in. Essentially, the reason Michael Jordan thrived in that moment was because he had the attitude of this idea that if you don’t buy tickets for the lottery, you can’t win the lottery.

[00:05:10] So if I don’t take the shot on, I can’t score, but to take the shot on, I have to acknowledge that I might miss. So what, when it becomes problematic is basically in terms of when you end up focusing solely on the outcome. Performance anxiety becomes problematic when you’re focusing on the outcome, because when you’re focusing on the outcome, you’ll focus in too far ahead of where you actually are.

[00:05:34] So in terms of performance anxiety, and what Michael Jordan would do and what anybody who thrives in that position, they don’t focus on the outcome. They understand that the outcome is the outcome, the outcomes, whatever it’s going to be. So if I don’t take the shot, I don’t even participate in the game.

[00:05:51] So what I do is I take the shot. And if it goes in, great. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. And what people don’t realize is for Michael Jordan, if you watch Michael Jordan for every, like, last minute game-winning three pointer he scored, even if it’s 30 or 40 of them, but people don’t remember those. I remember the ones he scored. But he didn’t let that bother him either. Every time he missed, it didn’t matter ’cause the next one could go in. And so what you have to do is you have to focus on not the outcome of it; you focus on the technique of it. So in terms of like basketball, free throws, whenever I’m working on people and trying to get their performance, sort of, anxiety under control, what you say to people is: “listen, you can’t control whether that ball is gonna go in once it leaves your hand, but what you can do is you can control everything before it leaves your head, right? So what you do is you focus on the technique part of it because I know if your technique is right, the outcome takes care of itself. But if you were focused on the outcome, I guarantee you’re going to miss something in your technique as you’re doing it, which is going to impact the outcome negatively.”

[00:06:59] Dr Schragen: You can’t control the outcome except the technique.

[00:07:01] Dr. Glynn: And so that’s what anxiety is. So anxiety is essentially when we start to spend more of our time focusing on the stuff we can’t control versus the stuff that we can control. And whether it’s in sport, whether it’s even real life, if you think about any time in which you felt anxious, it’s because you are worried about stuff you can’t control.

[00:07:20] When you can control it, it’s not anxiety ’cause you just do it. You just deal with it. So that’s what anxiety is and that’s what performance anxiety is; it’s spending too much time, or the majority of your time, focusing on things that are out of your control rather than focusing on things that are in your control.

[00:07:37] Dr Schragen: So then you can, I was going to ask then, what are the techniques to overcome it?

[00:07:43] Dr. Glynn: So the techniques to overcome it is exactly that. There’s two things. There’s two, two types of goals that we set, two types of approaches that you do. There’s long-term outcome performance and there’s process performance.

[00:07:56] Now what you do is you focus on the process. So if I use my example with basketball, right. You take it, you throw it right back to the technique. What are the elements of a good free throw? So it’s making sure you’re figuring the right position, it’s making sure you balance your knees, bend your wrist in the right position. You make the right follow-through.

[00:08:14] Now, if you do all of those things, Your chances of that ball going in the basket are really high, right? But if you are focused on the fact that, whether the ball is going to go in the basket, and you’re not focused on those things, then you’re more likely to maybe have your wrist in the wrong position, not be relaxed, not have your knees bent, not have your feet.

[00:08:35] And if those things are going to impact the outcome, but those things are things that are under your control. Like I said, once the ball leaves your hand, what happens to it next? Like a bird could fly and whack into it? Like those are all things that are out of your control. If you’re talking about American football, you’re talking about field goal kicker, right?

[00:08:54] The wind, the conditions, are not in your control whatsoever. But what is in your control is the actual technique. And that’s why when people are really good, they just practice the technique over and over. When they’re going, they’re focused. They don’t focus on the crowd—crowd is just white noise—they focus on the technique a hundred percent because I understand if I get the technique right, the outcome takes care of itself. It’s the same deal as like, in real world, if you’re taking a math test, you can’t control what questions are on the math test. The only person who controls that is the professor.

[00:09:28] But what you can control is studying the material. So you know, if I study the material well, then it doesn’t matter what goes on this out of my control. I know that my chances of passing that test are really, really high because I’ve taken care of the thing that I can control, which is studying the material.

[00:09:44] I can’t take it. I’ve got no control of what is on that sheet of paper in front of me. And that’s what you do. But if you spend your whole evening worrying about what questions might be on the test, you’re probably going to be wrong, but you spend all that time worrying about something that you can’t control, instead of spending the time worried about something you can control.

[00:10:02] Dr Schragen: This is preparation and practice or focus.

[00:10:06] Dr. Glynn: Preparation, practice, and focus, and focusing on the right things. The other thing about performance anxiety and anxiety is you try, also try to do is you try to get people to be consistent, right? Our brain is all south about triggers. When you get a trigger, your brain automatically does something. So if you think about—I don’t know if a lot of this is aimed towards younger kids—if you think of an example of driving a car, as an example, and if anyone’s going to parents. You’ll drive in a car, you go to a stoplight. Now you don’t actively think, ’cause you could be engaged in a conversation or anything. You don’t actively think that you have to acknowledge the stoplight, take your foot off the gas, put your foot on the brake and gently apply. You’re not don’t even aware that you’re doing half of that stuff.

[00:10:51] But what’s happened over years and years and years of practicing and driving a car and seeing a stoplight, your brain has been triggered. So as soon as it sees the stoplight, it just automatically does those things, which is why you don’t have to pay attention to it. You can continue a conversation, you continue singing to the songs on the radio, do whatever, because your brain is automatically going to be triggered.

[00:11:09] That stimulus equals that reaction. And it’s exactly the same thing as sport, if you’re consistent in, and we talk about consistency of preparation, so if your routine pre-performance is consistent, what you’re doing is you will signal in and trigger in your brain what happens next and it does the thing.

[00:11:29] And then the other idea is you talk about keywords, and I’m a big one on keywords, so when everyone’s going to do anything, especially something like, as an example, we go back to the free throw of basketball. Whenever you go on a free throw line, I work on people with keywords.

[00:11:43] What are those keywords that you can say to yourself that now trigger your brain to focus on what you’re supposed to be doing and not getting pulled off on what’s going on around you. So one thing might be just something as simple as take a breath. And as soon as I say, take a breath, that means all of these various things, get your feet planted, relax your body, get your wrists in the right position. It might be anything, it could be sandwiches. It doesn’t really matter what it is, but whatever it is that word then triggers and signals your brain to say, “all right. I know it’s supposed to happen next.” And that’s how you do that consistency. And the more repetition you do it, your brain actually changes, your brain actually starts to create mental shortcuts.

[00:12:22] That automatically A happens and then B happens and it happens all throughout our day. If you’re talking about an athlete, let’s say someone, chucks an athlete, a tennis ball, and a tennis ball comes and that athlete’s just going to catch it. That’s just, that’s not active thought process ’cause that ball’s moving too quickly for you to actively go, “oh shit, a ball’s coming towards me. I need to go and catch it.” That’s just like I catch it. And because what’s happened is your brain has been trained anytime, an object flies at you, you catch it. I do exactly the same as a former soccer player. And it gets me into all kinds of trouble. Anytime, any object falls towards the ground, I stick my foot out to catch it.

[00:12:59] It doesn’t matter whether it’s a sharp object, a soft object, or whatever. And I have broken my foot plenty of times because I’m in the kitchen, I’ve dropped something and I’ll stick my foot out. And it went from the top of your foot, because it’s just ingrained. It’s the training, as soon as your brain gets that trigger, your body reacts, and it’s exactly the same and everything. The more consistent you can be, the more your brain starts to change in how it interprets things. And it gets those signals to do that, to do whatever it is. So it’s just, it’s consistency. It’s repetition. It’s like doing the same thing over and over again.

[00:13:32] Dr Schragen: Is that the concept of neuroplasticity or–?

[00:13:35] Dr. Glynn: Yes, which is really good when we are younger, which is really, which is why it’s really good. So in young, into teenage years, you start to develop this stuff ’cause your neuroplasticity is much greater. As we get older, it’s just like everything on our body, it’s got to crap out on us. So as we get older, we get less and less flexible in our thinking. So anytime you’re trying to introduce something new, it’s harder and harder for your brain to accept it.

[00:13:59] It does eventually, but it just takes longer. But when you’re younger, a teenager, these sorts of things are easier, much easier for you to get on board with them, your brain to accept. So it’s, especially as a young adult or teenager, those are the best times to start to work on this stuff because your brain is much more willing to accept the information and change.

[00:14:20] Dr Schragen: That’s so interesting. So when people do, when athletes are talking about being in the zone, what is happening physiologically and are there ways to train your brain to get in the zone?

[00:14:34] Dr. Glynn: Yeah, so physiologically, that’s a really good question. So physiologically basically what happens in your body when you’re in that zone, it’s your body is on, essentially is on autopilot and that’s what people often talk about. So when people, you talk to people about when they’re in the zone, they just they’re like, it just, it’s just natural. It’s just happening. It just, everything just flows beautifully. And it’s because, mostly it’s because you’re relaxed. And the reason you’re relaxed is because your brain is not focusing on all this external stuff that you can’t do anything about. So it all comes back to your brain. If your brain is tuned in, then your body follows, right. The body doesn’t lead the brain and the brain leads the body.

[00:15:21] So if the body, if the brain is tuned in and the brain is again talking about all the stuff that you’re supposed to be focusing on, you’re focusing on all of the, sort of the processes. That’s when you start to get in the zone because you’re no longer you’re, everything is peripheral. Everything outside of you doesn’t exist.

[00:15:38] Dr Schragen: So it’s all tied together. It’s the same thing as the performance anxiety. It’s all—

[00:15:45] Dr. Glynn: Yeah. It’s all about, anytime you talk about performance in any performance, essentially, and you’re talking about anxiety or whatever, essentially you’re talking about, am I focusing on the things that I can control versus the things that I can’t control. And just in general, as a life lesson, if you think about any time in which things aren’t going your way, it’s normally because you’re not focusing on the stuff that you can control, because if you can control it, you can impact the outcome of it. So it would go your way.

[00:16:15] The only reason it’s not going your way is, you might be having, as an adult, you might be having an issue at work where someone’s not pulling their weight on a project, an example, and then you’ll get really frustrated and you’re getting annoyed about the fact that they’re not pulling their weight. And then that annoyance is causing you to then start to make mistakes on what you’re doing all because you’re focused; you can’t control what your coworker’s doing. Your coworker’s your coworker. If there was a way to control the external stuff around us, and I figured it out, I’d be a billionaire because it would fix most of the problems.

[00:16:47] But there isn’t that; you can’t control what’s outside of you. All you control is you, yourself, and I, and that’s all you can do. So when you focus on what’s under your control, that is when, in anything, your peak performance is going to happen because you are just focusing on what you can do.

[00:17:04] And then once it leaves you, you have to relax a little bit and chill out and just say, listen, whatever is going to be is going to be, because I can only do up until a certain point. If I’m playing soccer and I pass the ball to someone, once that believes my foot is now up to the other person. I’ve got nothing to do with that, but all I can do is make sure when I pass the ball, my technique’s good so the ball makes it where it’s supposed to go. Same thing, tennis shot; if I’m playing tennis and I hit a shot, I can’t control how my put my opponent is going to return that shot. All I can do is make sure that my shot is the best shot I can make.

[00:17:35] And then I deal with what comes back and then I deal with that. And then, and it’s the same thing. So you’re just constantly focused on yourself and what you can control. Once you start to get outside of yourself, then you start to have problems.

[00:17:45] Dr Schragen: When you would explain it, it almost feels like I can relax. It simplifies it, when you just…

[00:17:54] Dr. Glynn: Sports is a really simple thing. Any, most of the things we do, they’re very conceptually they’re very simple. Like sport is a very simple concept. Football, basketball, tennis. It’s a very simple concept, right? You actually talk about tennis: it’s a racket and a ball. You’re going to hit the ball over the net. Make sure it lands in, in, in bounds, right? That’s the concept of sport. It’s a very simple thing. What starts to happen is when we start to overcomplicate it, because we start to worry about all these things that are outside of us, we start to worry about what the umpire is going to do or when we’re planning, we start to worry about what the referees are going to do. These are things you can’t control, but sport is a very basic level. It’s a very simplified thing. It’s a very few set of rules that you apply, you work by, very few concepts that you have to stay inside.

[00:18:40] Everything outside of that is out of your control, but we overcomplicate it because we start to control the uncontrollable. That’s when it starts to become a problem.

[00:18:52] Dr Schragen: It’s literally like, so I’m having this conversation. I’m literally asking you questions that I want to hear answers to as well.

[00:18:59] So it’s just so interesting that it, how simplified it really is and all these different concepts, meaning the anxiety, getting in the zone. And now I’m going to ask you about mental toughness and confidence. And I would imagine it has a similar answer, but I don’t want to fill it in for you. So with mental toughness and confidence, is there ways to develop mental toughness and confidence?

[00:19:22] Dr. Glynn: Yes. So again, so if you talk about mental toughness, right? So it’s again, mental toughness is basically dealing with how do you deal with adversity, right? And that’s what mental toughness is. The people who are the most mentally tough, they deal with adversity the best.

[00:19:42] I sound like a broken record. The reason they deal with diversity the best is because they work out what they can do something about and what they can’t and what they can’t do something about, they just let go, because that’s what you do. And confidence is exactly the same thing. Our confidence is directly impacted by our performance.

[00:20:03] Now, again, if you focus on the stuff that you know to be true, normally our confidence, so when does that confidence start to hit? Our confidence starts to hit if you’re talking about a baseball player, right? If we’re talking about a baseball player, if we’re talking about a pitcher whose confidence is shot because they’re throwing pitches all over the place.

[00:20:23] And nothing’s landed in the zone and nothing’s there. Why does that confidence go down and what do they do as a result of that? Normally, typically, what everyone does is when their performance starts to go down, they try harder. That’s just what you, a natural thing. So if I’m a pitcher or if I’m a batter and I’m like, I just keep missing the pitch. What do I do? I swing harder. I just keep swinging harder and harder and harder. So say, we talk about a golfer. If a golfer keeps shanking the ball into the woods, what do they do? They just start hitting the ball harder. And what does that do? That tenses you up. So what’s that more likely to do? Cause you to keep shanking it.

[00:21:07] So the idea again is it’s just, the idea is you always want to get back to the basics. What are the basics of any sport I’m playing? And the basics of any sport I’m playing is if my technique is good, then the outcome takes care of itself. So if you can consistently, and again your technique could be perfect, if you’re playing an opponent and they’re just better than you or they just have a better day than you, then you, your technique could still be perfect. You could still lose, but at least you walk out of there not focusing on the outcome of it. You say to yourself, listen, I did the best I possibly could on that particular day. On another day, it might go different as long as I focus on my technique.

[00:21:44] So it’s all about, it’s all about just focusing on what are the basics of whatever sport I’m playing and people like to overcomplicate their role. And you ask them to start with what’s the role of a sports psychologist, a role of a sports psychologist or any mental health professional is to simplify the complicated.

[00:22:01] That’s what we do. We simplify the complicated because the complicated is what gets you walking through the door and simplifying it gets you walking out the door doing okay. And that’s what it is. We just, we overcomplicate it as a reaction to what happens to us. Instead of saying, hang on a second.

[00:22:21] So what can I control about what’s just happened to me? I can control my techniques. So if I’m a batter. So what can I control about whether I’m hitting the pitch or not? I know that, as a batter, if my technique is good, if I swing correctly, if I see it is in the right position, if I’m relaxed as I’m doing it, if I focus on the ball in the right way, as I’m supposed to then my technique is good. Which would mean I have a higher than average chance of hitting the ball. But if I start to just say to myself, “alright this is crazy. I’m just gonna, I need to hit the ball harder. I need to hit the ball harder. I need to get harder,” Your technique is going to suffer, which gives you a lower than average chance of being successful.

[00:23:00] So again, it’s like sport and life and everything is when you think about it, it’s very simple. Human beings just over complicate it and it’s our nature. We overcomplicate it. But when we do start to overcomplicate it, that’s when we start to run into trouble.

[00:23:14] Dr Schragen: Sure. Oh, I love it, Dr. Glynn, this has been fantastic. What’s so nice is it really is simple and I’d love to have you back on follow up with this stuff as well.

[00:23:28] Dr. Glynn: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And the other part is that just always remembering that sometimes the simplest thing is the hardest thing to do.

[00:23:36] Dr Schragen: Now, excuse me, let me ask you, are there any resources for the people listening that they could go to, like a book or anything that you would say is a good resource, a website, anything?

[00:23:48] Dr. Glynn: There’s a book that was written by, he’s a sports psychiatrist in England, and if you read it, you’re gonna think I’m nuts, but it is essentially, it’s called The Chimp Paradox. And it’s short, it’s a very short paperback book. He breaks it down into his idea that essentially, right, your brain is comprised of two things. It’s comprised of a very rational section of your brain and then the other part of your brain is just like a wild monkey. Essentially, and the idea that when the monkey gets out of control, you get out of control, right? Because the monkey is only focused on self gratification, getting stuff done quickly, all of that kind of stuff. And you learn how, you learn how to tame your monkey, essentially.

[00:24:47] Dr Schragen: It’s great. I love it. It’s a great analogy.

[00:24:50] Dr. Glynn: Oh yeah. It is. It’s a great way to read about it in a way that is not, it’s not technical at all. And he breaks it down into all kinds of things, moons, and planets, and all kinds of stuff. But when you read it, it’s actually the science and the logic behind it, the science behind it, and it actually follows exactly what I talk about, but it’s just, it’s a way of putting it that it’s easy to read, easy to read. The Chimp paradox, you can get it on Amazon. I’ve got my copy off Amazon. He’s a nice guy. I met him. I met him a couple of times. But yeah, it’s a good book. I would recommend that one ’cause it’s just a very light way of talking about it. It’s not technical at all.

[00:25:32] Dr Schragen: Perfect. Again, thank you so much.

[00:25:34] Dr. Glynn: You’re welcome. All right.

[00:25:37] Thank you for listening to another episode of Eye on the Prize. Your feedback is how we grow so please leave us a rating and review on your favorite platform. And if you want to know even more great information, go to eyeontheprize.com.