Staying on the Ball with Mental Skills
Just nine minutes into the first soccer game of her junior year, Zena Tracey ’12, ’15 M.A., was facing off against an opponent headed down the field. The player cut the ball to the left, and when Tracey turned to follow, she heard her right knee pop and felt it buckle.
As she walked off the field, Tracey knew something was wrong. She wasn’t in pain, but her knee felt loose.
At half-time, her coach asked, “Do you think you can go back in?”
“I don’t think I can,” Tracey replied.
“I was never the player who got hurt,” she later reflected. “I never even sprained an ankle. I was 20 and had experienced my first real injury.”
It was not until she had an MRI and met with an orthopedist that the reality of that injury set in. Tracey had torn her anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL. This type of injury is a common one, especially among female athletes, and usually requires surgical repair and several months of physical therapy.
“I’m going to be honest: hearing those words that I was out for the season was one of the hardest things I ever had to deal with,” Tracey admitted. “I was devastated! I couldn’t imagine not being able to play as my teammates continued to practice and play in games.”
That season, Immaculata’s women’s soccer team made it to the Colonial States Athletic Conference championship for the first time in program history. In the semi-finals, Tracey spent a suspenseful two hours on the sidelines watching her team battle the number one seed in the conference. After 13 rounds of penalty kicks, the Mighty Macs won the game.
In the finals, Immaculata ended up losing, but the team played well. “No one had expected us to get there, but we did it!” Tracey said, with more enthusiasm than you might expect from a sidelined player.
“I would have loved to have played more of a role in my team’s success that season, but I don’t regret being on the sidelines for one minute,” she said. “Every player on a team has a role. No, I wasn’t the one out there scoring goals that season, but whenever a teammate stepped off the field frustrated or upset about a mistake, I was there to talk them through it and encourage them to keep going!”
Learning to support her teammates in this way, along with taking a sports psychology class that year with former IU psychology professor Peter Rondinaro, Ph.D., eventually led Tracey into her current role as Immaculata’s head women’s soccer coach.
“One topic that will always stand out to me from Rondinaro’s sports psychology class is effort,” said Tracey. “You need to be able to focus on the things you can control, and at the time, the amount of effort I was putting into my rehab was in my full control.”
The recovery process was not an easy one. But Tracey threw herself into it full throttle, working through the prescribed physical therapy exercises to regain the range of motion in her knee and rebuild her muscles.
“I have never been in so much pain in my life as when the athletic trainers were trying to get my knee to 90 degrees,” Tracey recalled, “but I was not going to let the pain deter me from playing again. My goal was to be back by our spring season, and six months after surgery, I was back on the field playing again.”
Rondinaro helped Tracey get an internship at a local sports club, helping young athletes develop both physical and mental skills. The mental and psychological aspects of sports intrigued Tracey, so she earned a second degree from Immaculata, an M.A. in Counseling Psychology. She knew she wanted to continue her career in athletics, rather than shifting to mental health, so David Martinson, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, helped her tailor the program to her interests. She now uses her psychology training as a coach and as the new instructor of the sports psychology class that had enlightened her when she took it with Rondinaro.
Tracey says one of her favorite topics to discuss in the course is injury and its psychological effects on athletes. She shares personal anecdotes about tearing her ACL when she was a student-athlete, and then re-injuring it more recently while she was coaching—a big disappointment, since she will have to undergo surgery and an even longer rehabilitation this time.
Tracey points out to her class that injuries and the pain they cause not only inhibit physical activity, but they distract athletes from focusing solely on the game. Injuries can cause stress, lowering confidence and creating anxiety about re-injury. Tracey advises her students, many of whom are exercise science majors, to pay attention to the varied emotional responses athletes may have to an injury. Athletes may feel shocked, agitated, disappointed, or frustrated. Empathize with them, Tracey tells her students. Recognize the loss of identity athletes may experience if they have defined themselves by their sport and their abilities. Help them accept the injury and learn some helpful coping skills—positive self-talk, guided imagery, and relaxation techniques.
These skills are important for all athletes, not just those who have suffered an injury. Tracey emphasizes mental skills with both the students in her class and the student-athletes on her soccer team. “You need to learn how to focus on the things that are in your own control. So you cannot control what a coach thinks about you. You can’t control what your teammates think about you. But you can control your attitude, the effort that you put into it, your motivation,” she says.
The M.A. in Counseling Psychology helped Tracey learn the importance of getting athletes to “buy in” to what a coach wants to teach them, similar to the way a counselor would work with clients to inspire them to change their thinking or behavior. “You as a counselor need to be able to keep a client/athlete motivated and focused throughout your time with them,” Tracey says. “If they are motivated and want to get better and make changes, they will put the effort into the process.”
“The sports psychology field is definitely growing,” Tracey added, mentioning that more professional athletes are talking openly about working with sports psychologists. The social stigma of seeing a psychologist is gradually decreasing, and athletes are realizing how much the mental skills they learn can improve their confidence and their performance on the field.
Tracey emphasizes to her students that mental skills can also improve their performance in the workplace. If student-athletes can calm their anxiety and build up their confidence to play well during a high-pressure game, they can use the same strategies to prepare to give a presentation to business executives, for example.
Whether her students are athletes or not, and whether they go into health care or a completely different field, “I think that this course can be beneficial,” Tracey said. “I hope that they apply it to their lives after they get out of here.”