Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Sports Psychology for Runners-- An Interview with Dr. Jerry Lynch

Dr. Jerry Lynch
We recently talked to Dr. Jerry Lynch, author and one of the pioneers in the field of applied sports psychology about his latest work in sports psychology—using relaxation, visualization and mental toughness for success in sports and in life, particularly for runners. A life long runner, Dr. Lynch is considered by many elite coaches and athletes to be the leading authority in the field of sports psychology. Besides his books, Dr. Lynch has been published in a number of running magazines. I started reading Dr. Lynch’s books in the early 80’s and they struck a chord with me I have found much benefit in his writings as both an athlete and coach. Since the Gloucester Catholic cross country program shares much of the same philosophy and principles he writes so clearly about I was grateful for the opportunity to talk to Dr. Lynch, a father of four, about his views on sports psychology and youth sports.

Doctor Lynch, where is your office located?In Santa Cruz California. In the summer we go to Boulder Colorado (at altitude)-- two great places to work!

How long have you been working with Sports Psychology?It’s been over 30 years-- close to 35.

Who are some of the athletes/teams you have worked with?I’ve worked with 30 National Championship teams, and numerous Olympians (like Bob Kennedy) at the US Olympic Training Center. I’ve worked with teams at Duke, Stanford, Maryland and Colorado.

What is your definition of mental toughness?
Mental Toughness is having courage to take a chance—to risk failure. It’s having courage and heart and having integrity. Integrity is doing what you say you will do. Courage means the willingness to take a chance—to risk failure. Through mental toughness you take a chance to be something more than you were. Through mental toughness you can be tenacious and fearless in that moment when others are tensing.

What are the steps of Visualization or Guided Imagery?First, relaxation and meditation. Once you have cleared your mind through meditation, you begin to feel images. For example, “feel” yourself running up a hill with as much detail as possible. By “feeling” the images with as much detail as possible instead of just visualizing them , you marinate your nervous system so that you will be able to bring back that feeling again with a deep breath. Then you finish with positive affirmations. “I feel fast. I feel light. I feel smooth. I love to run. I feel like a champion. ”

How can sports psychology help a runner’s confidence?Control brings confidence. You can only control what you know. Through these mental mechanics you can control the little things. You will run with your heart, not just your head so you will run with courage and won’t hold back. You will be prepared and with preparation comes less unknown. Just like the difference between preparing for a test—being prepared for the questions on a test is a lot less stressful than being unprepared.
You minimize the nervousness before your race by being positive and controlling what you know. These are tools that can protect the purity of your running and that enable you to “be in the moment.”

What are some of the problems or hindrances that you’ve encountered in the sports psychology field?
Some coaches and well meaning parents damage the self-esteem of the children they are supervising by putting too much pressure on them to win. Their obsession with winning is burning kids out and turning them off when they should just be getting started. There are over 35 million kids age 6-15 participating in sports in the US.
By the age of 16 over 75% of them have dropped out of sports. Now some of them may have been selected for a higher level team because of ability, but most of them have just stopped competing because it is no longer fun. That’s over 26 million kids dropping out of sports primarily because of an over-emphasis on winning. Coaches or parents who are obsessed with winning or who have unrealistic expectations that create pressure turn competition into a negative—revenge on your opponents, constant criticism etc. On the other hand, a positive attitude from a coach or parent is infectious—it can help create an environment of champions.
I know there are some high school coaches and athletic directors who believe in trying to make elite programs by focusing only on the top kids on the team and ignoring everyone else. Do you think this is a contributing factor to the number of people getting turned off to what should be a lifetime sport?
Yes. Coaches who are concerned about "their program" and their coaching record but are not concerned with the future development of the kids and whether or not they continue to run after high school. What they don't realize is the whole team flourishes by encouraging and working with everyone on the team. Every runner on the team has a contribution to make to the team. The slower runners make contributions that benefit everyone on the team including the top runners.

What has your own running taught you?Just about everything I’ve learned about life I’ve learned through running. Running is a metaphor for life. Running teaches you to “become something other than ordinary”. Running teaches you accountability— Running Within by Dr. Lynch“Thou shall do the right thing”-- which is something that is missing from a lot of areas of our society. Running teaches you to see your competitors as partners helping you to achieve. Competitors help you to become something more than you were—to go further than you would have without them.
That’s why I believe in sincerely thanking other runners other the race for their help in helping you reach your potential.

Your latest book “Way of Champions has an Eastern influence. Does Eastern Philosophy compliment this mental toughness and way of thinking?Yes. Eastern Philosophy talks about “being in the present”.
The Eastern Way is “We lose and in this we win.”
The Western Way is “We lose and in this we fail.” The West has this obsession with winning that ends up burning a lot of people out.
In my current book “The Way of Champions” we discuss the whole concept of “Softer yet Stronger” which is an Eastern way of thinking.
The whole idea of feeling pain, or “fire” and coming out the other end stronger is prevalent in Eastern Thought. You go through the pain, you change and because of this you then have the ability to be something more than you were. The Chinese do not have a character for Warrior but do have one for Hero Warrior. The warrior is a hero because of what he has overcome. Also, the idea of our competitors being partners who help us to bring out the change best in ourselves through competition.

What makes a Champion?To sum up:
One Goal: To do the best you can today to be the best you can be to position yourself for personal and collective victory. and
One Rule: Do the right thing.
A guide to know if you are doing the right thing—is to do things that start with Thou shall. Doing the right thing usually doesn’t start with “Thou shall not.”
Champions commit to doing the right thing and living the life of a champion by taking personal accountability and having integrity—doing what you say you are going to do. So the sports psychology and peak performance strategies we are discussing will help you win in sport and in life. By taking a chance you are able to move on to something other than ordinary.
Ray Bradbury wrote about this, about being on the edge of a cliff and having to decide whether to walk away or to jump. If you back up and walk away you get nothing. But if you take the risk and jump you are able to fly to something great. Each time you jump you are able to develop your wings a little more and flying gets a little easier and it all starts by taking a chance.

How do you measure success?
The success of my work will be measured 15 to 20 years down the road in the hearts and lives of the people I have worked with. That’s what motivates me now. I’m sure it’s the same for you coaching the Gloucester Catholic Cross Country boys and girls. We are lucky to have the opportunity to help people get in touch with their own greatness as they develop their spiritual values of courage and heart.

Note: Dr Lynch’s books-- especially his latest book “Way of Champions”-- are worth seeking out for anyone seeking to maximize their own potential in a positive environment.
For more information, his website is:


Paul said...

I like what the Dr. says about kid's self esteem. What ever happened to letting kids just be kids? Affirmations for Kids will help build them allow them to keep things 'fun'. This message needs to be preached. Kids need & just want to have fun. After all you're only a kid once!

Michael said...

The good Doc's Way of the Champion video series is awesome - he's more spiritual than a lot of psychs and his delivery is very practical and easy to relate to and implement.