Sports psychologist Caroline Silby

Report by Lorrie Kim on presentation at the Professional Skaters Association conference, May 26, 2000

United States Figure Skating Association sports psychologist Caroline Silby, a former competitive skater, was introduced as "probably the best in the industry." She said when she works with skaters on developing a healthy training environment, she asks how much of sport performance is determined by the mind. The answers range from 50% on up. Then she asks how much training time they spend on working with the mental aspects, and it's a rare skater who spends as much as 10% of their time on that.

Developmentally, she advises coaches to teach children up to 5 years old how to have fun on the ice and make friends. Training a small child the same way as a ten-year-old will take the fun out of it.

From ages 6-10, students like variety in their training, to give input, and to have a good role model in the coach. This is also the time to start setting boundaries with the students' parents. Silby asked, as an open-ended question: Who's responsible for reminding kids that sport is more than winning?

Students 11-14 need to be allowed increased input. This is a tricky time, because age 14 has the highest dropout rate across all sports. A student of this age might idolize the coach, or even confide family difficulties. It is very important for the coach to set boundaries then and understand how to respond -- primarily to listen. If you agree too much with the child about their family problems, said Silby, the student may feel relief at first, but half an hour later will feel that it's confirmed -- "I've got a wacky family."

After age 14, the coach becomes more of a consultant and a balancer to the student, and must give up some responsibility as the young adult assumes more. It's important at this time to encourage interests outside of skating as well.

Both internal and external factors influence how a skater performs. When asked to list the external ones, skaters have no problem: the judges, the arena, their friends, their placements, and so on. But ask them to list the internal factors, and most often, said Silby, the answer is "I don't know." Yet if they don't know, then how can they ever be in control of their performance?

She teaches them to identify the internal factors: focus, feelings, preparation, confidence, routines, body language, perceptions, thoughts, reactions, and images. Coaches must teach students that athletes always change under pressure or nerves, but there are ways to understand that.

It is useful for coaches to give descriptive feedback, such as "I see your shoulders are up" -- to describe what they see. To be specific, saying "Take a break" instead of the imprecise "Shape up your attitude!" To say "How can you make that better?" instead of "Why did you miss?" To have and define a purpose for each discussion with a skater, and to give rationales for why things are done a certain way so the skater understands. And most wonderfully, after a good performance, "Why did this go well?"

Silby told a fun story about how to help an athlete reframe, so they can affect their own performance through thought. At one event, a girl missed her triple toe combination all week in practice, and was convinced she'd miss it in competition. Silby asked her how many times she had ever landed it -- thousands. Then she asked how often the girl brushed her teeth. She made the point that if you make a mistake brushing your teeth, you unthinkingly pick up the toothbrush again without any sort of anxiety. After the conversation, the girl realized that she didn't know if she'd land the combination, but it was certainly _possible_.

Silby works with competitors in other sports as well, and will have a book out in August 2000 called Games Girls Play: Understanding and Guiding Young Female Athletes.

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