When one thinks of a high-performing athlete, the first thought that springs to mind is often of someone who can leap the highest, run the fastest, or play with the best technique. But just as important for athletes who regularly need to compete at an elite level is being mentally and emotionally in shape.
For Austin FC, a key figure in making sure the team is mentally fit is sports psychologist Hillary Cauthen, PsyD, CPMC.
“I think athletes in general think a little bit differently. High-achieving, perfectionists, very routine-oriented, have their own quirks and mentalities that work for them,” said Cauthen. “You have to really individualize the player themselves: what works for them and who are they? You have to get to know their brain and help them be successful by treating them all individually within the collective unit.”
Cauthen was a very successful youth athlete herself, but at the age of 14 found she had lost the enjoyment of playing sports after experiencing an injury. She remembers thinking how nice it would be to have someone who understood sports and competition to talk to her through a difficult recovery period, and found sports psychology to be the perfect intersection of her skills and interests as she progressed through her education.
“People don’t realize our thoughts lead the physical aspect of our body, so you really have to be tapped in,” said Cauthen. “The thoughts lead into the feelings, and the feelings lead into how our body responds, so understanding it’s a collective holistic approach and not just one kind of wellbeing is better than the other. They have to be synchronized together.
“Often, the misconception is to only go work on the mental side when it’s a problem. The approach of building it as a preventative, skill-based program in their performance routines, shifts the mindset from being problem-based to optimization. It’s really hard mentally when you’re succeeding. Mental skills and mental work are very similar to physical work, you have to practice and implement mental skills training in all phases of the competitive environment, preparation, competition, recovery.
Soccer presents its own unique challenges as well, and Cauthen works with Austin FC’s athletes through the ups-and-downs of a long and arduous Major League Soccer season, helping them maintain a level of mental wellness and preparedness.
“That energy, the vibrance, the mentality is just a different level,” said Cauthen of working with professional soccer players. “Being around people who want to be the best is exciting. Soccer specifically is such a welcoming environment, it’s very team-oriented, family-based, and technically smart. It challenges you in both the cognitive and physical mentality of it.”