Mitch Lyons isn’t a psychologist or a psychiatrist. But the 58-year-old former high school, college and AAU basketball coach adamantly believes that teaching high school coaches and players how to better control their thoughts, emotions and behavior could fundamentally change the way games are played. In fact, Lyons left his job as a Massachusetts-based litigation attorney four years ago to launch GetPsychedSports.org, a nonprofit organization committed to doing just that.
And now he’s got the backing of Massachusetts Rep. Peter J. Koutoujian, a Waltham Democrat and chair of the state’s Joint Committee on Public Health. Earlier this year, Koutoujian introduced a bill requiring a written curriculum that, in an effort to boost sportsmanship and defuse potentially violent game situations, would teach middle school and high school student-athletes the psychology of sports. Although the curriculum would use a "science-based text" already developed by GetPsychedSports.org (which would also train coaches to train their players, per Koutoujian’s bill), most of the education would come on the court or on the field during typical practice sessions, Lyons says.
His curriculum -- approved by Louis Kruger, director of Northeastern University’s School Psychology program -- is based on the American Academy of Family Physicians’ definition of emotional health, which is the ability to control thoughts, feelings and behavior while developing strong relationships and keeping problems in perspective. It revolves around a half-dozen skills that proponents say apply just as much to academics and life in general as they do to sports: creating a positive environment, giving maximum effort, replacing harmful thoughts with helpful ones, visualizing, developing task orientation and setting goals. "There are only six skills that we are presenting," Lyons says. "They’re just six of the hardest skills you’ll ever have to learn."
Mastering those skills -- which for a coach can be as simple as remembering to speak encouragingly to bench players every day, while for players it includes curbing the level of impatience with teammates during practices and games -- creates an environment that helps teams learn inherent mental skills that Lyons says many coaches fail to tap. He says he developed the curriculum after years of coaching, during which he noticed that many players and coaches were unclear about what they should expect from each other and from themselves.
Massachusetts interscholastic athletic administrators seem to agree on the concept, certain language in Koutoujian’s bill regarding implementation of that concept has generated controversy. The bill specifies that schools "prioritize budgeting by first funding the teaching of a science-based curriculum" before funding the athletic programs themselves.
Even at $5 a player, which is what Lyons says the curriculum costs, expenses could reach into thousands-of-dollars territory for schools with several sports teams and hundreds of student-athletes. "We’re talking about requiring something and not funding it," William Gaine Jr., deputy director of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, told The Boston Globe. "It’s almost like somebody’s missing the boat. They don’t understand that athletic departments across the state are tremendously underfunded."
Lyons actually does claim to understand that, but he contends that teaching applied science to sports participants will make athletics "curricular" activities, thereby lending validity to arguments against cutting sports programs. "If education comes first, then budgeting education first should also follow. The legislation seeks to do exactly that," he says, while also acknowledging that Koutoujian’s arguably unenforceable law proposal may not get far. "My aim is not to legislate; my aim is to have a written curriculum and text for students on all teams. But I’ll go with whatever it takes to get the job done."
Even if Koutoujian’s proposal does die a painful death -- the lawmaker did not respond to AB’s request for an interview -- there are indications that legal mandates aren’t necessary in order for some schools to adopt Lyons’ vision. A pair of Connecticut schools, for example, Wilton High and Vernon’s Rockville High, will be the first in that state to add Lyons’ mental-skills training component to their athletic programs. Santa Ana (Texas) High School, meanwhile, is reportedly implementing the GetPsychedSports.org curriculum this fall for all of its sports teams, and the girls’ volleyball coach at Chelsea (Mich.) High School plans to use it with each of her 12 players.
Back in the Bay State, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts recently awarded GetPsychedSports.org a $10,000 grant -- enough money to fund four-day training sessions for up to 50 coaches in that state. "We believe in what Mitch is doing. We believe that what he has constructed is good and is something we’d love for every kid involved in sports to have," says Tim Flannery, an assistant director of the National Federation of State High School Associations. "Having said that, we can’t force our member schools to do these kinds of things. There are a certain percentage of states and schools that will jump on programs like this, there are some that will never touch it, and everyone else is in between. I think it is unrealistic to assume that everyone is going to adopt this, whether it’s required or not. Philosophically, it would be wonderful if everyone did."
While Lyons would like to a see a national effort modeled after the proposed Massachusetts legislation, the logistics of taking the concept nationwide would first involve training an estimated one million coaches. Currently, the NFHS Coaches Education Program, offered in conjunction with the American Sport Education Program, includes a small sports psychology component but only reaches about 35,000 coaches every year. Some state high school athletic associations don’t even require all of their coaches to take the NFHS/ASEP program.
"Coaches have so many things to do to prepare kids for practices and games that when we start introducing these kinds of things, even knowing that they will make a better program, there is resistance. They don’t have time for it," Flannery says.
Massachusetts, it’s worth noting, now leads the country in coaching education efforts. In June, it became the first state to mandate that all coaches over a three-year period undergo the NFHS/ASEP program’s most comprehensive training by taking classes that teach coaching principles, sport first aid and technical and tactical skills.
As of this writing, the future of Koutoujian’s bill remained unclear, while Lyons stayed steadfast in his mission, encouraging schools in Massachusetts and beyond to adopt the GetPsychedSports.org curriculum regardless of support from the National Federation or individual state associations. "This may take 10 or 20 years," he admits, "but it’ll be worth it."
Meanwhile, Flannery thinks the time to teach student-athletes the basics of sports psychology -- with a special emphasis on how mental skills impact sportsmanship -- may have come. In fact, the NFHS/ASEP coaches education program might be reconfigured after the 2005-06 school year to include additional training in that area, he says, adding that the federation would also likely consider input from Lyons.
"If we don’t start changing the culture of sports in schools, someday sports won’t be in schools," Flannery predicts. "If we continue to go down the path we are -- putting winning ahead of everything else -- we’re going to lose them. Reasonable people are going to say, You know what? This isn’t a very good program. I’m going to go find activities somewhere else.’ And there are plenty of other places for them to do that."
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