Monday, July 16, 2018

Developing a Champion's Mindset - A Guest Post by Dr. Harold Shinitzky

This month, Fabulous Florida Writers is pleased to welcome guest blogger Dr. Harold Shinitzky. Dr. Shinitzky is a licensed psychologist and former Director of Preventive Services at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine's Department of Pediatrics. He has been the mental health correspondent for Animal Planet, Radio Disney, ABC and Fox Television in Tampa. He is also the co-author of "Your Mind - An Owner's Manual for a Better Life" and "Take Control of Your Anxiety - A Drug-Free Approach to Living a Happy, Healthy Life." His latest book, "A Champion's Mindset - 15 Mental Conditioning Steps to Becoming a Champion Athlete," will be released on July 27, 2018. Dr. Shinitzky was our featured writer on January 17, 2012.

Imagine your most intense moment in life.  Remember back to that time when you felt your heart pounding, muscles tightening and worst fears staring you in the face.  It could have been when you asked your now spouse out on the very first date.  It could have been when you were standing up in front of the board of directors pitching your strategy. For the individuals I consult with, it could have been when they were confronted with a long putt for the Masters Tournament in golf, throwing a pass to win the Super Bowl or landing a triple twisting jump on the ice during the winter Olympics.  
For nearly thirty years, I have been consulting with elite athletes and people just like you who are dealing with their own version of a championship moment.  Throughout nearly three decades, I have been asked to share the secrets top athletes use to manage their stress.  Over the past few years I have synthesized the techniques I utilize with champion athletes into a user-friendly book which could invariably help you manage your own challenges.  The same skills, strategies and techniques employed by my top athletes can now be yours. 
One of my golfers who qualified for a Pro-Am tournament would uncharacteristically begin to putt poorly when he was playing on the final holes for the title.  During the competition he would question everything he did.  Self-doubt would creep in.  Suddenly, this gifted athlete felt the pressure of the situation. In reality, he possessed the necessary skills to be successful.  However, his mindset became his nemesis.  

You can probably relate to what he was going through.  You go from being on top of the world to crumbling like a Jenga structure.  You become consumed with the gravity of the moment.  You start focusing on everything external to the task at hand.  Performance anxiety kicks in.  You start talking negatively to yourself.  “Don’t miss this putt.” “I can’t tell if it will roll to the left or to the right.” “Don’t choke in front of everyone!”

Here is a fun mental exercise to attempt. Try not to think of a big purple elephant. Ok, now what are you thinking about? Yup, that’s right - a large mulberry pachyderm. Your brain will focus on exactly what you focus on even if it is negative.  I tell my elite golfers, “You CANNOT tell your brain what NOT to focus on.”  Champion athletes deactivate their brains just before they engage in any competitive action.  Helping pros and amateurs alike to quiet their internal chatter is vital to taking their game to the next level.

I grew up in an athletic family in a suburb of Chicago, Illinois.  My father was a talented swimmer and football and basketball player.  In my mind, he possessed the talent only gods on Olympus could master.  We lived up the street from my elementary school which had a massive open field area.  That stretch of green became the foundation for all my childhood championship fantasies.  I had caught the go-ahead pass in football when diving over a muddy patch of grass, hit the winning home run on the dirt baseball field of my imaginary world series and perfected my free throws at my “stadium” school parking lot.  I loved sports and could not get enough of them.  My great uncle Manny Schwartz was the director of parks and rec for the Chicago Park District (parenthetically, he helped start the special Olympics).  He got me sideline access to watch the Chicago Bears compete against their vaunted enemies, the iconic coach Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers with Bart Starr and Paul Hornung and the “Purple People Eaters” Minnesota Vikings coached by Bud Grant with Fran Tarkenton and Alan Page.  Watching the Chicago Cubs play in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field and always giving it their best effort only to come up perennially short led to the eventual refrain, “Wait till next year.”  Eventually, I tasted victories with the Bobby Hull Blackhawks in hockey and the Michael Jordan Bulls in basketball.  

Playing sports with my buddies was a common after-school activity.  There was a group of young studs waiting for their turn to shine on a black top playing hoops or an open field playing football.  We learned about leadership, communication and teamwork.  We learned how to handle defeat gracefully and victory with humility.  The lessons acquired in these pick-up games would last a lifetime.  

Though I loved competing in all sports, tennis was my claim to fame.  I was fortunate to be a teaching pro in Chicago. Later, after earning my doctorate in clinical psychology and while on the faculty at the Johns Hopkins University, School of Medicine, I was the captain of their competitive tennis team.  I was also the director of Prevention Services in the Department of Pediatrics. I created Project Champions Youth Resilience and Prevention Program.  My goal was to help keep kids out of trouble.  I was able to use these same prevention skills from Project Champions with athletes, teams, coaches and the athletes’ parents.  It was common to hear the request for my presentations when I spoke to college teams.  When I conduct corporate training and peak performance with executives they often ask if I have published the training materials.

Parents are frequently asking me for tips to help their budding future champion.  Sometimes the parents tell me their child gets too emotional. Other times parents want to know the secrets champions have developed. There are several things as a parent you can do to help your kids become their best. I shared some of these when I conducted the keynote address at the Madeira Beach Recreational Center for their inaugural baseball and softball leagues. First, if you are a parent who has been kicked out of a game because you became too emotional, you might want to consider looking in the mirror.  We all know at least one parent at every game who is screaming, yelling and over-reacting.  If this describes you, you are role modelling the very behavior you wish your child would control.  As I said during the keynote, “Remember, the players are kids, the coaches are volunteers, the umpires are human, and you probably don’t play for the Yankees.” 

If you want to help your child become their best, you need to consider role modelling sportsmanship, teamwork, work ethic, having fun, doing your best and maintaining perspective.  While your child develops the sport specific skills, physical capabilities and mindset, you should provide the 4 A’s of Love: Attention, Affection, Acceptance and Approval.  Spend quality time with your child, let them know how much you cherish and love them, celebrate their individuality and support the dreams and long-term goals. Start with the 4 A’s of Love and the rest will come. If your child is already at a highly competitive amateur level, there are two vital steps to help continue their progress: Improve their skills, and decrease their errors.  As an amateur, the athlete who commits the fewest errors usually wins. Also, making too many errors prevents elite athletes from reaching the pinnacle of their sport.

It has been a joy and pleasure to organize my clinical interventions, educational materials and share these key points with entertaining real-life stories from the athletes I have coached into my latest book, A Champion’s Mindset: 15 Mental Conditioning Steps to Becoming a Champion Athlete.  There was so much material I had to cut over 150 pages out. My goal for A Champion’s Mindset was to focus on the steps leading up to becoming an elite athlete. I have all my athletes practice and rehearse the fifteen mental conditioning steps as part of our work together.  

Most frustrated athletes become overwhelmed during local pick-up games.  Even competitive amateur club champions realize there is another level of skill that separates them from the top professional competitors.  Yet, surprisingly, amateur athletes can benefit from these same mental conditioning steps to help them on and off the field of play. Parents of elite athletes constantly tell me in sessions with their children, “I wish I would have been taught these things when I was their age.”  As a Sports Psychologist I have learned the earlier someone learns these steps in their growth as an athlete, the more successful they will be in their competitive career.

When I conduct corporate training, one of the most requested series of presentations I offer is titled, “The Millionaire Mindset.”  This four-part series addresses evidence-based business strategies that have proven bottom-line economic benefits.  I conducted this series at Morgan Stanley Wealth Management and the results were statistically significant in changing knowledge and attitude of their advisors.  We take traditional corporate training and spin it with sports examples, stories and skill development exercises. I have been told this is a much more fun and entertaining way to receive corporate training.

My hope is for athletes, coaches and parents of future hall of famers to learn these key mental skills that professional and Olympic athletes have developed and begin to use them both on and off the field of play.

For a copy of A Champion’s Mindset: 15 Mental Conditioning Steps to Becoming a Champion Athlete, go to for a paperback, eBook or audio version.
If you would like more information about Dr. Harold Shinitzky go to his website, or call him at 727-560-2697.

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