The Importance of Sports Psychology and Mental Health for Water Polo

Halo everybody. Lets talk about Mental Health. Today we will get to the bottom of this topic. Is mental health something new, or have people been dealing with something similar all our existences and generations? What does mental health mean within the sports world and what does it mean within the other worlds, I will try to find out from our todays guest. This is the topic that was on peoples mouths and ears for years now, but the need for this type of dialog, awareness and understanding has skyrocketed since the recent development of events. So without any further ado, Professor of sport psychology and an official psychologist for the Croatian National Water polo Team and many other athletes of the same caliber Mrs.Renata Barić.

Hello Renata, thank you very much for taking the time out of your schedule to do this interview with me. I feel the mental health topic is usually a very simple one to talk about, once the ice is broken. So this is my icebreaker. How do you as a sport psychologist usually break the ice with the athletes you start to work with? Does an athlete have to be willing to work with you, or do you somehow have to earn their trust?

Hi, I am glad to talk to you today about this interesting and important topic. Mental health is a necessity in contemporary sport due to high demands that have been put in front of athletes in different sport disciplines. Every competition brings a dose of stress and every training is also a kind of an attack on the body. If one wants to achieve sport success in the long run he/she needs physical and a good psychological preparation. Athletes need to embrace the fact that, together with technical preparation, tactical preparation and conditioning, psychological preparation is an elementary part of any sport preparation process. With regard to that perspective, a sport psychologist is one type of a coach that helps them train their minds to be better prepared for stressful situations related to their competitions. If you want to be a complete and successful athlete, you need to take care of all four aspects of your preparation. This is a simple fact that I use at the beginning of any cooperation with a new athlete as a way to explain and to introduce my role as a sport psychologist. Usually, athletes come voluntarily, aware of some barrier they are facing on the sport court, or just want to prepare for some further big competition, or with the simple motivation to work on themselves. In general, understanding is that cooperation with sport psychologist could be a good investment. As in all counseling practice, everything is based on the relationship between the client and the therapist. In our case the athlete and the sport psychologist. When the relation of trust is founded, everything further goes smoothly. I usually start with psycho diagnostics, some tests application, an interview and few other observations with the purpose to get to know the athlete as soon as possible. This way I form a psychological profile of an athlete (or a team) that explains the certain areas, e.g. goals, motivational structure, personality, explanation of some area for improvements where I offer some explanation of athlete’s issues. Then I make some recommendation for those who work with this athlete on how to approach him/her and the report finishes with athlete’s strengths. This way the athlete gets a complete and thorough overview of his/her characteristics and gets a deeper insight into its background and better understanding. This can be considered as a first intervention. It is usually enough for a good start because an athlete feels understood in a safe and a professional environment. Finally, I use this psychological profile as a base for planning psychological preparation process.

I used to coach goalkeepers here and there and I would always tell them that playing the game on a Saturday is the easiest part of the whole sport. The hardest part is getting up on those dumb Tuesday mornings with no game in sight for another few months and still training as hard as you can. No talent makes you go to training and work hard in such a situation. I would say to them that every sport is 0% talent, 0% hard work and 100% mental. What gets you up on those mornings, but your own thoughts and your own attitude? There is no talent needed for setting your alarm clock early and getting yourself out of the bed in the morning.  Do you think that I am right here? Can we make some sort of an argument that sport is basically 100% mental/attitude and hard work is just a byproduct of a healthy functioning brain?

This is an interesting point, a lot of elements come from the mental side, especially in the most difficult sport moments. But I think athletes and especially coaches wouldn’t agree. We are still following the classical approach of coaching physical part of sport, investing minimum or no time to coaching psychological things on the sport court, that is tradition. In sport, as well as in life, the mental attitude is very important. You can see that some athletes really have something what is called “a champion’s mind”  – it means that they do not recognize the word ‘I can’t’ or ‘it is hard’. They follow ‘who is asking you?’ principle. Keep your teeth tight, and try again. This is the way they become stonger.

In your career what happens more often, that you are approached by an individual athlete asking for your expertise, or by clubs and teams which want you to work with their athletes? How do you approach these situations?

I am working as a sport psychologist for 16 years already. I was always more approached by individual athletes, which come from both, the individual sports and team sports. To work with the whole team is more expensive, that is one reason for this situation. When you work with a team it is more complex because you work on 3 different levels – with each individual athlete, with a team and with coach/es. It is always more dynamic, needs lots of energy, but it is a very creative process that brings me lots of challenges and lots of fun. Also, the feeling of success when I recognize that we made a certain change, that is very reinforcing.  

 Do you already have a certain approach which makes you a bit different from some of the other sports psychologist, or is every sport psychologist pretty much the same?

The way I work with my athletes differ. I have a few basic topics that I introduce to everyone in first 2 meetings, just to make some framework of our cooperation and to explain a basic model, but I adjust my work to every single athlete, depending on his/her issues. We start to work on something that I found as the most important through psycho diagnostic process, and then we proceed according to athlete’s further needs and situation. In Croatia we have an education for psychologists who want to specialize themselves in the field of psychological preparation in sport. The general framework, meaning areas of work with athletes, is pretty much the same, but the way how certain sport psychologist realizes it depends on his/her skills, experience, knowledge, personality..etc.

 As we speak you are currently with the Croatian National Water polo Team helping them to prepare for the upcoming Rotterdam qualifications. Could you tell my readers and me, if, because of the current state of our society and the world, your skills and talents are now needed more than ever? Are you there to give support, to provide inspiration, or help everyone get on the same page?

I work with the Croatian Water polo senior national team for 5 years. We all know each other very well. I mean all the coaches, support stuff and players. In these years some players changed, but I worked with younger selections also. So they are introduced to the system and with the role of sport psychologist and when they come to senior national team they are familiar with my work already. We prepare them for that transition, also from young age they pass Croatian water polo system of learning and play, this is very well planned, and transitions to older selection in general is relatively quick. Our players are used to work with sport psychologist. I worked with them on collective and on individual level. It was a bit more challenging in the last months with the Covid because they played fewer games. Their ‘competitive mode’ needed a reset, and the gap was obvious at the beginning of preparations and in first tournament in Debrecin. In this team I help athletes to overcome some obstacles, we talk a lot about goals and we develop team cohesiveness and the interteam support system. Also, we practice some techniques for communication improvement, arousal regulation and relaxation. I try to help them to improve their performance by setting better goals and aims. I also work a lot with coach/es.  I help him to find the specific way to communicate with the team and work with certain athlete aiming to foster him to give his best. Also, I help all of them to cope with stressful situations and we work on specific issues when they arise. We nourish our team values, we strengthen our motivational framework that is directed firstly to the process and play, and the result comes as a logical consequence of such an approach. My work is based on individual consultations, team work and workshops and a lot of on-the-field- observation.

With what age groups you have had experience working with and is there any difference between being a sports psychologist for boys, then it is for girls? Everybody thinks that we adults have it hard with this new world. It must be also hard for kids nowadays with all this new technologies, possibilities and YouTubes?

I work with kids from 9 years forward. It is totally different approach because everything, the same as on the sport court, has to be adjusted to developmental characteristics of children. I find this work very useful because we work on prevention and I teach those kids how to enjoy their sport and their competitions. We build the base for right sport values that grow together with young athlete. Also, this kind of work is very creative. We use different play techniques to find the way that is acceptable for a certain young athlete and I feel a great doze of responsibility for my profession because they will make an attitude for psychological support in sport based on this early work. The work with boys and girls is a bit different, boys are less sensitive, especially in early adolescence, and their sport approach is simpler. Girls mainly think a lot, and care a lot about relations and in sensitive years have got some problems with emotional reactivity, but in general they are more interested to cooperation with sport psychologist. These days are especially tough for kids and youth who are limited and can not fulfill their natural needs for movement, friendship and socialization in a usual, free manner. They are more than ever challenged by monitors and new technology. We are risking real social alienation that will have serious consequences in the future. The limitation of sport participation already took his part – many kids withdrew and lost interest for sports during this sport-on-hold period, and this is a huge reason to be worried about.

Has this whole pandemic made your job, as a sport psychologist, even harder? This is not the first time that people are dealing with issues in life. Did mental health issues started to exist only once “Mental Health” terminology made it to the mainstream media, or did our ancestors also had some sort of issues like the ones we are experiencing people sharing with us in the last few years, and especially during this pandemic?

This pandemic made my job a bit different and I meet some new challenges. I notice some changes and different issues in my athletes thatwere especially present during quarantine. Lots of them were confused, frustrated and as time goes on – demotivated. Their everyday life routine changed significantly, they lost the sense of order that is so typical for sporting life, and some of them felt really lost. Their identity was challenged because their most dominant role – an athlete – was put on hold. Also, elite athletes who planned to finish their qualification for Olympics, or those already qualified are still on standby because they don’t know for sure will their dream come true, will they have a chance to go to Tokyo or not. But they have to train hard every day as the competition will be tomorrow, while in reality they do not know if they will compete this season at all. It is very frustrating and depressive. Also it is very hard to witness all these competition cancellation and to stand still and overcome all these covid protection measures, especially during those few competitions. Some of them who were lucky to compete told me that they didn’t have ‘a feeling of real competition’ at all. But mental health issues existed always. But in that area within sport we talked about depression, eating disturbances issues, burnout etc. that are different topics. I think everybody had some mental health challenges, in all ages. Besides professional help, some social support is healing.

Some say that sport imitates life, and others say that life imitates sport. My guess is that it is probably both, but maybe you can help us draw the line between sports psychology and the other not sports psychology. Could one even make such a line? Is the awareness of life beyond sports a part of sports psychology?

Sport psychology is young scientific discipline derived from psychology. It uses all methods, techniques, theories etc. from the field of psychology and adjusts it to sport practice. It is very interrelated. All psychologists have to deal with psychological processes and behaviors. Sport psychologists study it within the sport domain. On the other hand, when you have an athlete, he/she is a person in general, but also, he/she has got different life roles, and his/her satisfaction or dissatisfaction with any other part of life influences the sport and vice versa. Those are communicating vessels. If one wants to be a good athlete he/she has to have a balanced life, a balance between sport and non-sport life. On the contrary, if an athlete plays on the sport card onlyit is pressuring, and after retiring an athlete can have a huge problem with the adjustment to post sport life.

What are your plans for the future? Do you hope that your work with the Croatian National Team will get you to someday work with someone else, or do you consider your work with the Croatian National Team the pinnacle of your career, as a sport psychologist?

I currently work with many different athletes, some of them are Olympians, world or European champions or vice champions, I have some plans with them too. I love to work with our national water polo team and I hope that we will continue our cooperation, but I love new challenges, of course. I am not so old to reach my peak yetJ. Each athlete taught me something. I am always learning and making experience and I think that I am today much better sport psychologist in comparison to 10 years ago. I hope that I will have some exciting and new opportunities and I hope that I will earn something decent from my work one day. Once, I met one American team of sport scientists and professionals who listened to my presentation about my psychological preparation process with rowing team, silver medalists from London 2012 during one conference. They approached me and simply said ‘Lady, you would earn a million dollars in USA for such a work’. My drive for my job are the people I work with, love for what I do and everyday challenges, not money, but this sounded damn good.

Is there money in Sports Psychology? Sorry for the question. It is a classless one I know, but it needs to be asked. So many of our problems are caused by over thinkingour money situation and here I am asking you about money. This is not the question about your money haha, but about money within the world of sport psychology.

In comparison to the amounts which our colleagues earn abroad and in Europe, here in Croatia we earn 3-5 times less. Those data I have from one international conference of young specialists in sport psychology practice.  Abroad, in professional sports, sport psychologists have contracts per season. In some sports players have 2 or even 3 psychologist. If you enter to the field of so called ‘big sport’ with regard to money amounts, as a sport psychologist you can earn serious money. Because, when you have elite athletes, all of them developed similar levels of skills, have similar equipment, conditions, but they differ in details that make champion, and very often those are psychological skills. Athletes are ready to pay for it because stabilization and improvement in psychological part brings them better performance and better contracts. In Croatia you may only dream about it. Conditions are better today, but people still didn’t get the value of psychological preparation and the advantage it can bring. Results of this preparation cannot be measured easily and many still think that this is risky investment.

If you could work with one athlete, or a team, who would you want to work with?

When I started to work as a sport psychologist I saw myself in team sport, working with Croatian national football team. I would like to work with a senior female team, for example in basketball. I think that I could also find myself with our national handball team especially because I have a lot of experience working with individual elite handball players. But first of all, I would like to continue to work with my water polo boys. Also the challenge for me would be to work somewhere abroad, in team or individual sport, maybe having a professional contract, same as a coach.

If you could work with one sports psychologist to learn from him/her, who would you want to learn from the most?

I have some names on my mind… maybe Jim Loehr, Ken Ravizza or Terry Orlick from USA or somebody from Avskenty Puni’s  Russian school. Maybe I would like the best to combine different approaches to sport psychology practice – western and eastern.  Today when we have an abundance of mental and/or life coaches ofmany different professions which offer their services under the banner of sport psychology. It is not easy to distinguish and see through the quality of good marketing. I choose old school guys with results, publications and reputation behind themselves.

You said something interesting there. Is there such a thing as a “good marketing” within sports psychology? How to tell the difference between a “bullshit” psychologist and a good one?

I don’t like to judge people. Athletes are free to take any help they want for their money, but something else can not be called psychological preparation in sport because we have legislative that protects our profession and out clients, at least formally. Also, we have a good cooperation with COO that included our regulations to their documents related to payment of all support services that an athlete can use. Also information and lists of licensed sport psychologists in Croatia is well known and publicly available. Despite the new technology era, according to my personal opinion, it is not necessary to have special marketing or advertisements of your job. If you work well, your athletes and their progress and results will talk for themselves and for you as an expert.

And unfortunately we came to our last question. If you had only one message to share with the whole world, as a sport psychologist, what would that message be? I am not speaking about phone message, or the world peace message, but from your point of view. What do you think would be the best way to make the world aware just how important taking care of our mental health is?

As a psychologist I am driven by love for people. I really think that it is important that we take care of each other, to have empathy and to be kind because you never know when you can put some light onto somebody’s darkness. Give attention to others and positive energy, it is so restorative; because life is like an echo – what you give, you get back. Physics teach us that everything is energy, I believe in these circle, I believe that everything happens for some reason and that all energy you invest in something counts. My life teaches me that it is worth to fight for your goals and dreams and I truly believe that if you strongly want something, you will get it, one way or another. This can be a message for athletes. Also, be optimistic. We are made of strong material and we are capable to find a solution even in worst conditions.Be in the present moment and enjoy life. All of us are born qualified for running final races, no repetitions, so seize the chance. Also, don’t forget to take care of yourselves, find something that makes you happy and relaxed, be active, enjoy the nature, it is the ticket to a balanced, fulfilled, happy and healthy life.