“Mental” Skills to Support Athletes

Public Relations Office        July 27, 2017

Using Science to Elucidate Ways of Fighting Pressure

Ikuko Sasaba, Assistant Professor, School of Human Welfare Studies

Ikuko Sasaba, Assistant Professor, School of Human Welfare Studies

A native of Osaka, Ikuko Sasaba, graduated from the Faculty of Physical Education, the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Kanoya. She completed a Master of Arts in Sports Psychology at John F. Kennedy University, and a Doctorate at the Ritsumeikan University Graduate School of Sport and Health Science. She took up her current position in April 2017. Ph.D. (Sport and Health Science) Area of specialization: Sports Psychology Also works as a sports psychology consultant.

There are many top athletes in Japan, both at the Olympics and in professional sports, who give us hope and inspiration as they compete at the pinnacle of their fields. As a sports psychology consultant, Assistant Professor Ikuko Sasaba provides these professional athletes and Olympians with mental training, and is also engaged in the study of sports psychology to help them to give their best performance on game day. This article describes the research she is undertaking in this field.

Measuring athletes’ state of concentration before performance

It would be true to say that every top-class athlete who competes at the peak of their chosen sport has achieved a top level of physical strength and technique. While claims that “the cheers of the crowd enabled me to give 120%” are certainly feasible, fundamentally, the deciding factor between victory and defeat is just how well these athletes can display the very best of their true abilities under the pressure of actual competition ,based on their many hours of training and preparation. That is where “mental strength” can become an important weapon.

However, that “mental strength,” is difficult to see and differs from person to person. When it cames to the psychological support of actual athletes, one major question is how to gauge what is effective in response to changes in mental state. In her research, Assistant Professor Sasaba has focused on the mutual relationship between the qualitative “mental” aspects and the quantitative “physical” aspects that are inherent in humans. Focusing on practical research, she spends most of her research time out in the field, such as at sports grounds. She collects changes in athletes’ words and actions, which cannot be expressed by numbers, and performs qualitative analysis. At the same time, she asks athletes to practice breathing methods that are a skill for calming down one’s mental state, and conducts quantitative measurement of “physical” changes that take place. On hearing the results of these studies, the athletes gain an understanding of their own state from both “mental” and “physical” directions and learn ways of maintaining a better mental condition.

Assistant Professor Sasaba also works as a sports psychology consultant in the field, based on this kind of research. ‘It is easy to picture a brilliant, shining image of these top athletes, but behind that, they are actually fighting against unimaginable pain, suffering, and pressure. Precisely because they are top-class, they tend to keep things bottled up inside them, and often the athletes themselves don’t realize how much they are hurting mentally. As a specialist in these “mental” aspects, I can get these athletes to tell me their true feelings, and support them in accepting and overcoming their own struggles.’

Rio de Janeiro Olympics venue

Assistant Professor Sasaba also provides career transition services, giving psychological support to retired athletes moving on to a new life after sports. Because these athletes have devoted their entire lives to their sports until that point, whether they have achieved their dreams or those dreams have been thwarted, they can feel immeasurable uncertainty about venturing out into an unknown world. Assistant Professor Sasaba is filled with a sense of mission. ‘The “mental” skills that I give to my athlete clients will continue to serve them well even after their sporting careers have ended.’ These kinds of activities also form part of her research.

Assistant Professor Sasaba herself was a gymnast for about twenty years, starting at the age of three. ‘When I was competing, I had many doubts about how to stay calm while on top of the balance beam, and I experienced suffering and isolation from major injuries and operations.

However, I never did learn how to solve those problems.’ Taking advantage of her own experiences, her goal is to ‘use science to shed light on those concerns I had back then, and put that knowledge to good use for future athletes.’

While of course it is the athletes themselves who do the competing, Assistant Professor Sasaba’s support showed results, and she accompanied her client athletes to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016. Now, in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, she is working with her athletes to achieve their goals. ‘The outcomes of my research can be applied to many other areas, such as school and university entrance exams and business. In the future, I would like to pass on these outcomes to the broader community, not just the world of sports.’

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