Peak Performance

Eric Van Meter, Jacob Chinn photo

Student-athletes ease themselves onto padded tables as athletic trainers probe and prod and wrap long, beige bandages around twisted ankles. 

Here, in the training room in McKale Center, a sports medicine team of physicians and trainers treat the whole student-athlete, and Amy Athey, the UA’s new director of clinical and sport psychology, is part of that team.

As a former college basketball player, Athey found working with athletes a natural fit as she began pursuing her clinical psychology doctorate in the late ’90s. “I could relate and bring services in a way that reduces stigma and normalizes taking care of mental health. This is just another part of their training.” 

At the core, it is about the well-being of the students, Athey explains,  including addressing everyday issues like anxiety and depression — common challenges for all students. As Athey notes, while sports promote mental health in some ways, athletes also face distinct demands and pressures. 

It isn’t often that the NCAA adds a new sport to its roster of championships — or that the University of Arizona adds a new sport, period — but both will be happening next year as Arizona Athletics welcomes its brand-new women’s sand volleyball team. The sport, which has been popularized by recent Olympic Games, not only helps balance the school’s Title IX ledger, it should also prove to be an instant hit with players and fans alike in sun-soaked Southern Arizona.

The team will consist of a hybrid squad featuring several players from the nationally ranked indoor team along with a couple players recruited and given scholarships specifically for the outdoor game. “The crossover will benefit all of the players and both squads,” says Steve Walker, who will serve as the program’s first head sand volleyball coach.

Walker has plenty of experience at Arizona. He was team captain and tourney MVP when Arizona won back-to-back NIRSA (club) national championships in 1999 and 2000. He was also a volunteer assistant coach for Arizona’s Pac-10 title winning team in 2000 and a full-time assistant coach at Arizona from 2003-05 before getting the head coaching job at UC Davis.

The sport’s competitive format has an interesting wrinkle. Instead of just two players battling against two others in a marathon session, as is often the case in the Olympics, collegiate sand volleyball will feature multiple two-person teams for each squad. “We’ll travel with 12 people,” explains Walker. “You break those 12 into two-person teams, and competitively it’s a best-of-five. They go until one school has won three matches and then let the other squads play their matches just for the sake of competing.”

'At this stage in their lives, they know what to do to get in the flow or the zone. Our job is helping them get there more consistently.'

With 12 players from which to choose, it will make for challenging coaching decisions by Walker. “Every player has particular strengths and weaknesses and we have to pair them up in such a way to give that duo and the entire team the best chance to win.”

Walker is especially excited about the fact that Arizona’s first season of the sport should coincide with sand volleyball bursting onto the scene, both in terms of conference affiliation and national championship competition. As when Arizona baseball first joined the Pac-10 in the late 1970s, the Wildcats will compete in a sub-conference consisting of the Arizona schools, UCLA, USC, and the Bay Area schools — unofficially referred to as the Six-Pac. Other Pac-12 schools may consider joining later.

Nationally, the NCAA mandates that, in order to sanction and hold official national championships in a sport, there must be at least 40 schools competing in that sport for two straight years. At least 40 schools are committed for the 2014 season as interest grows rapidly. The eight-week season begins the first Thursday in March and runs through to the championships the first weekend in May.

The former football practice field at the far southeast corner of the campus (near Campbell and Sixth) will be converted into a state-of-the-art sand volleyball complex.

“We’re getting into the sport at the perfect time,” says Walker, “and we’re in it to win it.”

‘At this stage in their lives, they know what to do to get in the flow or the zone. Our job is helping them get there more consistently.’ 

“At every level, we’re looking for how we can help create an environment where the performance mindset is supported and reinforced.”  

While wellness counseling may be the first priority in sport psychology, that’s not how it’s usually portrayed in entertainment media. “One of the challenges for our field is that we’re often defined by the interventions,” Athey says, referring to those high-impact speeches in Rocky, Hoosiers, and The Karate Kid — movie moments that take ordinary people to a state of elite physical prowess and legendary performance. 

It’s true there are certain tools and techniques — “interventions,” in the professional parlance — that many sport psychologists draw on to help athletes live and play at their best. But they’re built on fundamentals common to all fields of psychology, and there are no shortcuts. “These students are talented, but they’ve also worked hard,” Athey says. “They wouldn’t have gotten this far if they hadn’t. What’s amazing is that at this stage in their lives, they know what to do to get in the flow or the zone. Our job is helping them get there more consistently.” 

Yes, that might involve coaching them on better “self-talk” or helping them learn to click into a certain level of alertness and regulate arousal to an individually optimized point. And yes, there is research suggesting that an athlete tends to run, jump, and shoot better after watching a highlight reel of her own best moments. Even so, these interventions aren’t psychological steroids but elements in a larger system of nurture and care.

In the end, it comes back to fundamentals and decades of psychological research that also helps sport psychologists change lives far away from any stadium. 

“I have colleagues who help surgeons, ballet dancers, C-level executives,” Athey says. “Some of them make the argument that we should shift the label to ‘performance psychologists.’” Because what works for athletes works for nonathletes, too, in any situation where one trains hard to give it all back, consistently and with composure. Like athletics, many endeavors take dedication, persistence, focus — and that’s within all of us, right? 

“Everyone can focus,” Athey says. “What’s hard is to refocus, and to stay focused on the right things.”