The most popular and effective forms of psychotherapy today are grounded in cognitive-behavioral philosophies and techniques. Cognitive-behavioral psychologists help clients improve both their irrational thinking as well as their maladaptive behaviors. For example, someone battling obesity might benefit from learning ways to stop looking at food as a healthy coping mechanism to stress (cognitive), as well as make sure he doesn’t bring certain foods home that will tempt him to over-eat (behavior). As you can see, both thinking and behaviors interact with each other very closely, leaving it up to each individual to determine where to start when developing plans for improved future habits.
In sports, cognitive-behavioral approaches work quite well, as it is not uncommon for athletes to get caught up in irrational thinking and self-defeating behaviors. Take for example a Little Leaguer low in mental toughness who is afraid of being hit by a pitch (a common problem for baseball players at this age). In the scared batter’s mind, he has equated the pain associated with being hit by a pitched ball to that of being the worst pain of his life — and as a result regularly steps out (or “in the bucket” as baseball coaches say) to avoid every pitch that comes his way. The reality is that baseball helmets protect against the most dangerous problems of being hit by a ball in the head, and even when a player is hit in the body the pain associated with the errant throw might sting slightly, but is rarely bone-breaking pain. A counselor (or coach) using a cognitive perspective would likely talk to the kid about how being hit with a ball really isn’t that painful, and how he has made it out to be a far scarier experience than it really is.
Using the same example from a behavioral perspective, one might focus on using a physical technique that prevents the kid from actually stepping away from the plate. Perhaps the coach might hold the player by the ankles during batting practice so that he cannot move his feet when the pitch heads his way. Notice, from this perspective there is no emphasis on the irrational thinking, but instead a focus on the actual physical behaviors (in this case, making sure the kid’s feet don’t step away from the plate when the pitch comes in). In theory, after holding his feet enough times the child will become less anxious and more used to standing in during pitches (muscle memory), and if he is still eventually hit by a pitch will quickly realize that it really wasn’t the end of the world!
Cognitive-behavioral approaches can be used by parents, coaches, and anyone else involved in sports. Keep in mind that our thoughts and actions are very intertwined, and each does not usually happen without the other. For this reason it is important to think creatively when helping athletes with their anxieties and sport phobias. Is it an irrational way of thinking that is bogging the kid down? Or is a behavior that can be directly addressed that will help improve the situation? In most cases there are both cognitive and behavioral solutions that can be implemented to help with the situation.