Athletic Insight - The Online Journal of Sport Psychology


Still Changing The Paradigm Of Sports Teams
From Verbal To Written In High Schools

Mitch Lyons

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“In the United States, approximately 7 million children between the ages of 5 through 17 participate in school athletic programs; 22 million more children and adolescents are involved in organized athletic programs; and yet another 14 million are involved in less structured sports (e.g. weekend skiing or kickball). In short, virtually all children have some experience with sports.” Lewis (1998), p. 697

      There is little question that the place to meet a large number of high school students outside the classroom is on a sports team. Here there is an existing infrastructure where children want to learn., Inc. (GPS), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, has as its mission the implementation of a written sport psychology curriculum for every high school sports team to teach and practice transferable life-long mental skills. It is contended that as a consequence of this adoption of a curriculum by high schools, youth leagues will similarly adopt cognitively-adapted sport psychology curriculum for their athletes and coaches. After all, youth leagues hope their athletes will one day participate in interscholastic high school athletics.

      In Massachusetts, like the rest of the country, virtually all children participate in some form of athletics. Most of them do so on organized teams where coaches, a practice facility, a schedule of games and equipment are supplied. In Massachusetts high schools, over 171, 000 young people participate on teams annually. Generally, teams meet six days a week, two hours a day, for a twelve-week season. Conservatively, 144 hours of coach/player/team time is spent together. Given that amount of time spent on sports, there are many who ask the question, “What are we teaching in sports?” There are many organizations that have sprung up nationally addressing other issues such as keeping parents sane on the sideline and to educate coaches on how to teach kids properly. Some programs have excellent value-based curriculum for coaches to read and apply. The GPS curriculum is meant to be read by BOTH student and coach.

      GPS proposes a radical, but simple step, that distinguishes itself from other excellent programs. The GPS program uses an existing body of knowledge known as sport psychology (which encompasses how people perform at their best) and puts the findings of both proven science and coaching experience in writing, so that kids can comprehend it. They can see how it applies to them, read the curriculum and practice the mental exercises with the coaches as mentors. The mental skills, over time, becomes the focus of the team’s drills, skills, and games. Surely, integrating those skills into coaching is a process, but younger physical education teachers/coaches, who may have taken sport psychology courses, are an accepting group to start with at any high school.

      By putting down in writing what we want to teach kids to learn from sport, we fundamentally change what we teach in sports. While upsetting to those that see nothing wrong with the status quo, or to those who would have to change life-long behavior, there is an opportunity to change the lives of millions of people. How do we change their lives? By having them practice mental skill exercises that teach how and what to think to in order to improve the chances of success, on or off the field of play.

      Why should it be a matter of serendipity what kind of experience, values, and mental abilities will be enjoyed, or abhorred, by each child who participates on that team? In the existing verbal model of a sport team, each child will receive different lessons on each team within the same school. In addition, even on the same team, different lessons will be inferred among each of the students. Nothing is in writing, so lessons are usually indirectly given, with varied consistency. Why not teach structured lessons, where all players, starters and bench, have a chance to learn how to achieve their best and then go and practice the same skills daily? In this case, each child can have success as they are measured against their own progress toward their goal of personal best. Failures arise when we measure ourselves comparatively, for example, if we started the game.

      In no way does this concept of defining success as progress de-value the joy of competition, On the contrary, treating sport as a personal challenge to perform at a personal best is the highest level of competition, because in sport, as in life, we must conquer ourselves before we can be the best in the field.

      Much as been made about the state of amateur sport in America. The media headlines of fights, brawls, and even manslaughter between any combination of coaches, parents, officials and children show the very extreme examples of negativity and result-orientation. Beneath the surface, however, many of the same thoughts that result in news stories are being whispered and felt by many. Each bulging vein, muttered comment, rolled eye is but another comment on the culture of sport in our schools and in our nation.

      There is a built-in frustration that exists in competition because if winning is the most important goal, someone is always losing. The community suffers as a whole when school athletics are not considered to be an educational process, but a place to merely compete to win. There is nothing wrong in competition or wanting to be the best as it is the essence of a contest. However, if schools used the time set aside for sport as a time to develop life-long mental skills as the mission of each team, schools could help youth develop a way of thinking that has proven itself to be most effective in helping all people to be successful in their lives.


      The mission of, Inc.(GPS incorporated, 12/15/01) is to change the culture of youth and school sport by adding a written sports psychology curriculum to all teams. The curriculum teaches children, in a structured setting, (1) how to practice building self-worth; (2) how to create a positive environment for self and others; and (3) how to recognize harmful thoughts and changing them to helpful ones as keys to improving behavior/performance on and off the field. This is an educational initiative with clear mental health and youth development opportunities.

The Components: The program offered by GPS has the following components: (1) a 1 ½ to 2 hour workshop presentation for students and coaches as a team; (2) a written sports psychology curriculum approved by psychologists and psychiatrists; (3) additional materials such as course outlines and summaries, workshop evaluations, written quiz, worksheets, workshop activities, and mid-season evaluations; (4) a teaching methodology for coaches on how to integrate these skills into coaching; (5) signs placed in each school extolling mental skills as a path to success; (6) e-mail reminders to coaches; (7) Posting results of evaluations throughout school.

Purpose Of Project: In pursuing the mission of GPS to change the culture of sport in each school in which the curriculum is implemented, GPS expresses a clear purpose.

      GPS proposes to change the very paradigm of a school sports team. The current model is one of (a) verbal communication; (b) outcome-orientation; (c) sport-specific teaching; (d) emphasis on results and team records; (e) tangentially educational values giving generalized, mixed, and varied life skills to students.

      GPS changes the model to a sports team that emphasizes: (a) written and verbal communication; (b) mental skill-specific teaching; (c) (CHANGE by dropping word)using the mind to control the body; (d) science (DROP word) and (e) specific, clear and structured lessons.

      GPS has many purposes as there is a ripple-effect to changing what we teach. GPS’s purpose is to empower students with the knowledge and skills taken from sport psychology to increase chances of being successful in any field of endeavor. All the skills in sport psychology are transferable and transcend the sporting arena.

      GPS’s purpose is to lessen frustration in children that comes from participating in sports. When we concentrate on the process of learning and making progress instead of the outcome of the contest, or even the outcome of a particular play or movement, we mitigate the anxiety of that comes from being so concerned about results.

      Another GPS purpose is to take the negativity out of sport. One of the main goals of the program is to create a positive environment for better learning. The coach moderates his behavior when he/she knows that the player understands that negativity is not the best way to learn and that creating a positive environment is the team’s goal. In this case, the knowledge of the student regulates the actions of the coach.

      When we take the negativity out of sport, athletes learn how to become team players, be supportive of teammates, and create a happy environment where learning is fun and progress is celebrated. People perform better in positive environment where there is a regular pattern of positive reinforcement and constructive criticism as opposed to coaching that provides inconsistent encouragement and verbal rewards. Caution should be used in using excessive use of punishment and negative reinforcement in controlling behavior as such procedures evoke unwanted emotional by-products.

      Finally, GPS’s purpose is to educate parents and coaches in the effectiveness of positive thinking, determining what is truly important in sport, and how we can teach the strategies for reaching personal bests, not comparative bests. If each parent is made to sign the curriculum as having read it, they may be less inclined to complain about playing time for their son or daughter when they know the curriculum will be held up by the coach as the real reason their child is on the team. Playing time complaints, like many others, are caused by unrealized, and sometimes unrealistic, outcome-assessments by the parents. If the curriculum is coupled with a public awareness campaign, expectations derived from sports participation can change from outcomes to the joy of competing at our best level possible for each child.

Skills Practiced Through Exercises

      The mental skills and exercises learned at the workshop, from the curriculum and from the coaches during practice on a daily basis, include focus, written goal-setting, recognizing and then changing harmful thoughts, creating a positive environment for self and others, task-orientation, visualization, giving maximum effort, and meditative techniques to influence mood.

      There are countless books at the bookstores or on-line that talk about these various mental skills. Although technique may vary, the skills are basically the same in each of the sport psychology books. None of the skills are so specialized that coaches cannot teach them directly to their athletes. In fact, coaches are encouraged by the authors of these books to use the material in the book with their students. One does not have to be a doctor to learn about sport psychology. On the other hand, players having a serious problem should be counseled to seek professional help from a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist. Generically, however, the skills and exercises discussed in sport psychology are logical and appeal to the common sense. Coaches with no background in sport psychology at all frequently use some or many of the skills with their players, although there is generally no structure to the learning or practicing by athletes.

      Putting those skills and exercises in writing memorializes those benefits we gain from playing sports. While all or many of these mental skills are practiced daily in the existing infrastructure of teams and leagues within the public school systems; these skills are many times lost to students and coaches. Because the skills are communicated verbally, they are used sporadically, with little or no emphasis within the team structure. When what we learn is put into writing, we are forced to make a choice about whether we will practice those skills that make us perform at our best. A science-based written curriculum is for both students and coaches to study, practice and execute. In essence, the scientific principles (which are fairly simple) are taught in the workshop and through the written material, while the team itself is the laboratory where student and coach may test and experiment.


      Practicing mental skills, according to sports psychology, increases our chances of reaching our personal best, whether in sports or in our work. By merely implementing the written curriculum, we begin to change what we teach. Our subject matter has changed from sport-specific skills to mental skill training.

      A school that implements a written curriculum will not be giving children mixed messages about what is important. Lessons to be learned from sports, when placed in a writing, become standardized and do not vary from team to team. Although there is much room for creativity, the basic lessons/skills the coach is to teach remain the same from team to team throughout the school. This is certainly not the case in the current paradigm.

      When we add a written, science-based curriculum to our sports programs, we are equating the learning on a sports team with that in a classroom. No longer will interscholastic athletics be considered extra-curricular, but, on the contrary, the curriculum teaches about how to achieve on the field of play and into the classroom. Because of the newness of this program, the value of this program, in regards to its effectiveness on academic achievement, has not yet been studied.

      In addition, the mental skills embraced in sports psychology provide a synergy with our communities’ shared values of: sportsmanship, diversity, citizenship, respect for others, hard work, responsibility, confidence, care, compassion, generosity, trustworthiness and humility.

      For instance, many studies support the premise that high feelings of self-worth can lead people to feel happier, more satisfied, more confident, and more productive, more resilient, more energetic and more accepting of differences in others. These qualities help create an atmosphere where the values listed above can take root and flourish.

“Self-worth is the most important possession we have…Those (children) who experience initial success become more self-confident, feel more worthy, and are more motivated to pursue excellence…Help athletes recognize that the most important source of self-confidence (an expression of self-worth) is not winning, but their own abilities to become competent……..Optimal self-confidence cannot be developed in athletes who have negative perceptions of their own self-worth….you will have to help them develop positive perceptions of their own self-worth as beings in order to help them develop optimal self-confidence” (Martens (1987), p. 11, 154)

      People who feel good about themselves and their identity are less likely to be prejudiced and biased toward others (Garcia et al., 1990).

      From coaching experience and from what we know of people who perform at their best, we can make a cogent argument that people have a better chance of performing at their best when their self-worth is high. Self-worth can be raised by having success on a daily basis. The situations that creates success daily should be under our control to guarantee success. One activity that guarantees success is helping other people. We feel good as people when we help others, but it is a skill to think about helping others and it does not come naturally for many people. If helping others (our teammates and opponents where appropriate) is something we consciously practice on a daily basis to raise our self-worth, each day can bring new ways to build self-worth.

      Hard work or a strong work ethic is totally within our control. We naturally feel good when we work hard, so effort, if practiced as a skill of its own, will give us an immediate feeling of success. Since one of the tenets of sport psychology is to create success daily, we have the opportunity to train athletes to be better performers and to be better human beings.

      In the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, authors Patricia S. Miller and Gretchen A. Kerr (2002), offer an “Athlete-Centered Sports Model.” Advocates of this model maintain that “performance excellence is thus made possible only through personal excellence.” They continue, “performance goals are only one of a myriad of important objectives. In this way, athletes develop as athletes, but also as contributing members of society.”

      Another reason for implementing a written, science-based curriculum, is to encourage continued participation in sports by the non-elite athletes, which comprise most of the team. Only a few athletes at high school stand out above the rest. Most athletes will not be good enough to participate in college athletics. Out of every 2300 high school boys playing basketball, only 40 will play in college. Therefore, for most, high school athletics is the zenith of their athletic “careers”.

      What are the players on the bench learning from sport? By implementing a written sport psychology curriculum they are learning the same mental skills that the elite athlete is using. Perhaps, because of physical talent or lack of off-season practice, the average high school athlete will not perform at the level of a gifted, practiced athlete, but they can be practicing and learning to think like a high performance athlete. As these skills transcend sport, these children will be learning skills that they can take with them into their fields of employment or passion.


      In the Winter of 2002-2003, 223 male and female athletes on sixteen teams, representing nine Winter interscholastic sports programs, took the GPS workshops and received the written curriculum. This is the second full year the curriculum has been in place at Newton North High School. Many of the participants had taken the workshop once or multiple (1-8) times. They students were given two self-report evaluation instruments: (1) a workshop evaluation given directly after the workshop; and (2) a mid-season evaluation form given by the coach (179 of the 223 reported).

      The evaluation instruments have not yet been validated and the data is NOT from controlled experimental studies. Yet, even taking into account the self-reporting nature of flawed instruments, the numbers are fairly astounding. Three graduate students at Northeastern University Department of School Psychology will be studying the program curriculum and evaluations in the Spring semester, 2003. Also, a Special Interest Group of the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology(AAASP) is also examining the curriculum. Both groups have expressed interest in improving the curriculum and evaluation methods. The workshop composite evaluation appears as follows:


Winter’03  8 Programs Newton North Varsity/Junior Varsity/Freshmen N = 223


1. I have taken a workshop on sports psychology before?

True – 153


False - 70

2. If answer to #1 was True - , I’m re-thinking the effort I put into these skills last year.

True – 137


False – 16

3. The workshop re-enforced the concept that when our self-worth is high we perform better.

True – 211


False – 12

4. This workshop helped me to understand that what I think can influence my performance?

True – 213


False – 10

5. This workshop reminded me that skills within sports psychology can be used in daily life, including academics?

True – 199


False – 24

6. I will try to practice more mental skills this year than I did last year.

True – 205


False – 18

7. The meditation I would use most is:  (many different answers)


8. The material that was presented was clear to me.

True – 211


False – 12

9. I practiced mental skills learned at the workshop last season/year?

True - 147


False - 82  (70 of these did not take last year)

      Mid-season evaluations were done of 179 students. The evaluations are as follows:


Sixteen Teams in Nine Winter ‘03 Sports Programs at Newton North High School, Newton MA

N = 179 (but not answering all questions)

Grades 9-12      No. of workshops previously attended: 1-8

1. I have read the written curriculum given to me at the workshop(s)?

Yes – 65                              No – 34                Some of it - 80    

2. I think that teaching mental skills is an important part of  my training as an athlete.

Agree Strongly – 54       Agree Somewhat – 94      Don’t know – 19      Disagree Somewhat – 4      Disagree Strongly - 3

3. Do the mental skills contained in the curriculum apply to every day life?

Yes - 62                      No - 8              Some of them – 104         Don’t know - 2

4. I practice some of the mental skills and exercises found in the curriculum on my team….

Regularly - 24      Fairly Frequently – 43       Sometimes - 72   Rarely - 29           Not at all - 8

5.  Our coaches remind us of the mental skills we learned at the workshop…….

Regularly - 39      Fairly Frequently - 49        Sometimes - 42   Rarely - 32           Not at all - 11

6. I focus more on mental skills now than I did before I began taking sport psychology workshops.

Agree Strongly – 29      Agree Somewhat – 83     Don’t know – 39     Disagree Somewhat – 14     Disagree Strongly - 13

7.  I have used visualization as a tool for learning.

Regularly - 43      Fairly Frequently - 48        Sometimes - 53   Rarely - 19           Not at all – 9

8. I try to recognize when I am being negative to myself or others.

Regularly - 62      Fairly Frequently - 52        Sometimes - 49   Rarely - 7             Not at all – 5

9. I try to correct negative thought by replacing them with positive ones.

Regularly - 42      Fairly Frequently - 54        Sometimes - 62   Rarely - 13           Not at all – 8

10.  I try to focus more on mental skills this year than I did last year.

Agree Strongly - 39      Agree Somewhat – 91      Don’t know – 38     Disagree Somewhat – 6     Disagree Strongly – 4

11. I try to focus on the “little things” or the “details” when I am practicing.

Agree Strongly - 47      Agree Somewhat – 93      Don’t know – 28     Disagree Somewhat – 3     Disagree Strongly – 1

12.  I practice maximum effort as a skill.

Regularly - 66      Fairly Frequently - 68        Sometimes - 32   Rarely - 2             Not at all – 4

13.  I recognize when I am not giving maximum effort.

Regularly - 77      Fairly Frequently - 56        Sometimes - 35   Rarely - 3             Not at all – 3

14.  I take corrective action when I notice that I am not giving maximum effort.

Regularly - 52      Fairly Frequently - 72        Sometimes - 34   Rarely - 6             Not at all – 4

15. I try to think about what I am thinking about.

Regularly - 33      Fairly Frequently - 48        Sometimes - 50   Rarely - 21           Not at all – 13

16. What I am thinking affects my performance.

Agree Strongly - 70      Agree Somewhat – 60      Don’t know – 31     Disagree Somewhat – 5     Disagree Strongly - 4

17. I try to change what I am thinking when I notice that my thoughts are not helpful.

Regularly - 46      Fairly Frequently - 56        Sometimes - 53   Rarely - 8             Not at all - 5

18. I am using meditation techniques other than visualization.

Regularly - 10      Fairly Frequently - 25        Sometimes - 41   Rarely - 48           Not at all - 36

19. I set goals for practice.

Regularly - 37      Fairly Frequently - 44        Sometimes - 41   Rarely - 23           Not at all - 12

20. I write down goals for practice.

Regularly - 10      Fairly Frequently - 17        Sometimes - 21   Rarely - 29           Not at all - 97

21. I consciously work on being supportive of others.

Regularly - 83      Fairly Frequently - 50        Sometimes - 35   Rarely - 7             Not at all - 2

      After evaluating the results, the reality is that coaches are not quick to change, yet there is movement. Anecdotally, a coach who did not use written goals as a tool on his Junior Varsity basketball team now plans to use them on his Varsity baseball team. Where pictures of athletes were shown on the baseball team’s bulletin board in year’s past, there are now signs about visualization techniques for batting protocol for each at bat. A football coach, after his second year of a workshop, courageously admitted to his team that he was not doing enough to encourage a positive atmosphere on the team and vowed to change. According to team members, he did. A lacrosse coach acknowledged that he was not setting a good role model when he fumed at officials and , according to parents and players, behavior noticeably changed. The coaches just mentioned are all veteran (25 years or more) coaches. It is difficult to change, but with professional development and intellectual curiosity exhibited by the coaches, change did happen. In any case, in the mid-season evaluations printed above, moving the numbers in the “Sometimes” and “Fairly Frequently” boxes to the left, into the “Regularly” column, is the short term goal for this coming season at Newton North High School. What is clear is that the more emphasis the coach places on mental skills, the more the students practice and use them. No study or self-report instrument has been administered to coaches, but one is planned.

      It is believed that, at one time or another, students on all teams execute these mental skills without any curriculum, workshop or even knowing about the field of sport psychology. It is only when students consciously practice these skills, are aware of the ramifications of their use, understand that there is basis in science in what is being practiced, and see the results in terms of progress not outcomes, can we fully appreciate the change in the culture of sport at Newton North High School. The game will always be important as that is the essence of competition, but what we take from it can be a structured, clear and applicable plan for success in life.


      The mission of, Inc. is to add a written sport psychology curriculum to youth and school sports teams.

      The purpose of the program is multi-dimensional with an overall aim of improving the delivery of our school sports programs:

  1. Change the paradigm of sports from a verbal model to a written one
  2. Empower students with mental skills, exercises and training to learn how to build self-worth
  3. Lessen frustration of outcome-oriented children
  4. Take the negativity out of sport and practice creating a positive environment for better learning
  5. Educate parents and coaches as to the value of changing what we teach in sport to mental skill training.

      The mental skills to be practiced are: focus, written goal-setting, recognizing and then changing harmful thoughts, creating a positive environment for self and others, task-orientation, visualization, giving maximum effort, and meditative techniques to influence mood.

      The rationale for implementation of a written sports psychology curriculum on all youth and school sports teams are:

  1. Change what we teach on sports teams to clear life-long mental skills and exercises, using sport as the vehicle for learning instead of learning sport-specific skills with vague and mixed life skills inferred
  2. Equate what can be learned in sport with any academic curriculum
  3. Mirror our society’s values and teachings through teaching a way of thinking that promotes achievement
  4. Teach how to honestly build our self-worth through hard work, empathy, and success
  5. Encourage non-elite athletes to continue participation by making process and progress more important than outcomes.

      The results, while taken from self-report, uncontrolled studies, show that high school age children are learning thoughts and processes associated with sport psychology. The results show that students know specific mental exercises and they say they are practicing them, at least some of the time. While no study has been done comparing Newton North High School with a similar school without any sport psychology curriculum, it would be reasonable to say that high school students are generally not cognizant of what they are thinking about in and during their sports experiences, do not know that those thoughts can determine their behavior/performance, do not know that thought can be recognized and changed, do not actually practice changing harmful (e.g., negative, distracting, anxious, etc.) thoughts to helpful ones (e.g., positive, focused, calm, etc.), do not visualize, do not understand the concept of self-worth, do not set goals, are not cognizant of mental skills and exercises, do not understand task-orientation and its effect on outcome, are not consciously practicing being supportive of others, do not recognize maximum effort as an issue of choice, and do not practice effort as a skill. At Newton North High School, young people and their coaches are thinking of these things. For the time being, in one small place, the culture of school sport has changed for the better.


      Byrnes, (1988). Classroom of Difference Program - Training Manual. Anti-Defamation League, World of Difference Institute.

      Lewis, M (1998). Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, Foreword. Yale Child Study Center, Yale University School of Medicine.

      Martens, R. (1987). Coaches Guide to Sport Psychology, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.

      Miller, P.S., Kerr, G.A> (2002). Conceptualizing excellence: past, present, future. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, p.140.

Mitch Lyons is a president and founder of,, a 501(c)(3) non-profit Massachusetts corporation, which can be found at Mr. Lyons is not a psychiatrist or a psychologist, but a coach of youth, school and college sports for 17 years. He is currently an Assistant Coach for Lasell College Men’s Basketball Team in Newton, Massachusetts. He practiced law for 26 years before retiring to make a positive change in youth and school sports.

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