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Playing the mental game: The influence of Sports Psychology in the Philippines

Athletes spend countless hours on training, dedicated to improving their physical abilities. When fans watch sports, they pay attention to who jumps the highest, who kicks the hardest, or who runs the fastest. These are, after all, aspects that make athletes as great as they are. But, hidden behind all of the physical components athletes are expected to possess is an equally important facet—mentality. 

From a physical to a mental perspective, there is a lot of preparation that an athlete must undergo when approaching a competitive event. While it is generally easy to see how an athlete’s hard work from their physical training manifests in their games, the psychological aspect is often not as easily recognized. But the reality is that the mental facet is just as challenging as the physical; the right mindset is demanded by most crucial moments of the game—and this is where the psychology of sports comes in. 

A look into the field

In recent years, the world of sports has seen major developments with regard to of athletes’ psychological well-being. The field of sports psychology is perhaps not yet as prominent in the Philippines, but it has gradually been gaining traction, and its impact on the local sporting scene is not to be understated.

“Athletes find psychological interventions very helpful because [these help] them calm down before and during a competition…manage the pressure, and concentrate,” asserts Dr. Reynaldo Canlas, an Assistant Professorial Lecturer from the University’s Psychology Department and one of the few applied sports psychologists in the country. 

Starting out as a guidance counselor at De La Salle-College of St. Benilde in 2001, his interest in sports psychology came to life four years later when he began working with student-athletes. Since then, Canlas has been dedicated to counseling athletes at various stages of their career, from the collegiate scene to the professional and national level.

While sports coaches and fitness trainers tend to focus primarily on technical skills and physique, Canlas says it is his—and other sports psychologists’—job to prepare an athlete from a mental standpoint. Several approaches can be used to accomplish this, since just like regular people, different athletes have different needs.

However, what distinguishes them from most other counselors is that their primary niche lies in “sports and specific issues such as performance and competition anxiety,” as Canlas describes. Apart from this, he also notes that athletic performance can be enhanced through psychological skills training, which includes “[teaching] athletes how to develop mental skills, such as goal setting, relaxation, concentration, and visualization.” 

In this sense, sports psychologists work to address matters of the mind, in order to tackle matters of the body. After all, it is one thing for athletes to worry about executing movements and proper technique; it is another to also have to deal with doubts and distractions occupying one’s head.


Impact through the intangibles

Applying valuable psychological principles, Canlas has been able to help cultivate the mentality of many well-known athletes, such as Filipino weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz. Prior to her competition in the 2016 Rio Olympics, Canlas served as one of her psychologists; under his guidance, Diaz was able to set her personal goals, particularly for the target weight she needed
to lift. 

“We made a script for [her competition]—going up on stage, shouting before lifting the barbell, lifting the barbell, putting it down, bowing—it’s all scripted. We mentally prepared for that, and she actually rehearsed both mentally and physically,”
he discloses.

In spite of all the pressures that come with representing one’s country on the Olympic stage, Diaz was able to come up with an incredible performance that garnered her and the Philippines a silver medal. This evidently highlights the importance of both physical and mental preparations in
sports competitions. 

Beyond in-game preparation, sports psychology who aims to develop the athlete as a person. Canlas hopes that athletes would grow not just in terms of their sporting ability, but also in other aspects of their daily lives. “Psychology helps the athlete develop into a holistic individual because what they learn in sports, they can also apply in life. In actual life situations—whenever they are faced with personal problems—they could apply [the same principles],” he shares.


The future of the program 

As an academic program, Sports Psychology is currently not being offered in any Philippine university, implicating to those interested to try and look abroad. Moreover, most of the local practitioners are actually applied sports psychologists, as in Canlas’ case, with backgrounds in Clinical and Counseling Psychology. 

While he is hopeful that Sports Psychology could “in the near future” become an official degree program in the country, Canlas also admits, “At this point, I do not know if some universities would be interested. A problem with that would be [whether] it [is] viable with the students involved, [whether] a lot of students will enroll in this program.”

Additionally, in order to help the discipline grow and develop more experts in the field, Canlas claims that opportunities must be created in order to connect psychologists with athletes, highlighting in particular the context of universities.  

“[Psychologists] should attend to the needs of student-athletes, so that [they can] have a basic understanding of what sports psychology is and an actual experience working with athletes. From there, they can then venture into [helping] our national athletes,” he shares.

With the recent discussions concerning the development of Filipino athletes—from physical health, to facilities and equipment, and even added benefits—perhaps it would also be enlightening to focus on the often overlooked aspect of mental fortitude.

As Canlas emphasizes, “[Sports psychology] actually enhances [athletes’] performances. It is not all about talent and skill during [high] pressure situations…What makes the difference is the mental toughness—whoever is mentally tougher will win the competition.”

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