11 Secrets of Sports Psychologists

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Sports psychologists help athletes of all kinds achieve optimal results on the court, field, or track. Whether they counsel individual athletes or work with teams, coaches, or managers, they focus on how mental and emotional factors influence athletic performance. But there’s more to their profession than teaching visualization techniques and positive thinking. We spoke to a few sports psychologists to learn about their job, from the extensive education and training it requires to their mastery of mindfulness.

1. IT TAKES YEARS OF TRAINING AND EXPERIENCE TO BE SUCCESSFUL.

Sports psychologists spend about a decade or more in school, completing an undergraduate degree, master's, and then a PhD. After completing a minimum of 3000 hours of supervised work experience (the exact number of hours varies by state), they must pass federal and state exams to become a licensed psychologist with a specialty in sports.

“People don't realize how much time and effort goes into not only acquiring the proper academic credentials, but also the immense time and energy devoted to kicking off a private practice and making it profitable,” says Dr. John F. Murray, a licensed clinical and sports psychologist in Palm Beach, Florida.

Once they are licensed, sports psychologists must begin to build their career, whether they work at a sports clinic, university athletic department, gym, or their own private practice.

2. MANY OF THEM WORK WITH JUNIOR ATHLETES RATHER THAN PROS.

Two black men in sporty clothing sitting on bleachers and laughing
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“Students [who ask for advice about working in the field] idealistically tell me that they plan to work with the Dallas Cowboys or New York Yankees when they get their degree,” Murray tells Mental Floss. “I have to take them off that delusion, while keeping them hopeful, and steer them to realize that their struggle only begins after they get all their degrees and a license to practice psychology.” Although Murray has two decades of experience and frequently treats professional athletes, the majority of his clients are still junior athletes hoping to improve their game or get into a good college.

3. THEY’RE LIFELONG SPORTS LOVERS.

Most sports psychologists have a lifelong passion for physical activity and self-improvement. Dr. Michael Gervais, a high-performance psychologist (he prefers the term over sports psychologist since he counsels business executives and actors in addition to athletes) and host of the podcast Finding Mastery, tells Mental Floss about his early love of surfing: “I spent countless hours in the water, trying to understand how to get better. I walked home from high school, ‘surfing’ the imaginary waves from the neighbor’s hedges and arching tree branches.”

Murray, who describes his job as a calling, explains that sports psychology is perfectly suited to his passion. “I always loved and played sports and I majored in psychology in college, so I just combined the two,” he says.

4. THE MIND-BODY CONNECTION FASCINATES THEM.

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When a young Gervais entered his first official surf competition, his anxiety interfered with his performance. “I was in a foreign body completely unequipped to do the activity I loved the most, while being judged and critiqued,” he says. “I tried three more competitions, all with similar results. And then there was a paradigm shift.” After a fellow competitor told Gervais to stop thinking about what could go wrong, Gervais tried imagining what he wanted to happen in the waves. “Before I realized that I had shifted my entire psychology, I was paddling to catch a wave, free from worry and distraction,” he says. “That early experience set me down a path to want to understand the impact between the mind and body and performance—especially in hostile and rugged environments.”

5. THEY HAVE TO FIND THEIR OWN WAY.

“Many advisors in college and graduate programs know nothing about [the field]!,” Murray says. “You still today have to forge your own path … For me it made sense to first get a master’s degree in the sports sciences (sports psychology track) and then to enter a doctoral program in clinical psychology that would allow me to continue my pursuit of sports psychology.”

After studying the University of Florida’s Florida Gators football team for part of his doctoral dissertation, Murray did a (rare) sports psychology internship and a postdoctoral fellowship before sitting for the licensing exam. “It’s really a field comprised of two different specialties [the sports sciences and professional psychology], and you cannot ignore either part if you want to be a true professional,” he says.

6. THEY’RE MASTERS OF MINDFULNESS.

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When performance anxiety causes athletes to doubt their abilities, they may unknowingly make subtle shifts in their movements, leading to a missed basket or a fumbled ball. In an interview with Forbes, sports psychologist Dr. Stan Beecham explains that he first teaches athletes to become aware of their own thought process. “We know that it’s the mental game that counts, whether it’s sports or business. Because the mind is controlling the body. You have to think of the brain as the computer system, and you have to think of your belief system as your software,” he says.

Sports psychologists teach athletes techniques to focus on their breath, find a sense of calm, and think more clearly under pressure. “Mindfulness training is at the center of what I do with the majority of athletes for developing great awareness and mental ability to adjust and to focus,” Gervais says. “When the stakes are really high, one of the mental skills that we want to invest in is the ability to think under pressure and generate a sense of confidence no matter what the circumstances are.”

7. SOME OF THEM FOCUS ON HELPING PRO (VIDEO) GAMERS.

Sports psychologists can apply their training beyond the world of sports. In addition to advising business executives and actors, some work with professional gamers who want to perform at a high level. Weldon Green, an eSport psychology trainer who coaches professional League of Legends (LoL) players, writes in a Reddit AMA that eSports can be an ideal field for sports psychologists. “There is almost zero retraining needed to transfer all of our techniques and knowledge,” he says. “After I discovered LoL I realized that sport psychology has more potential in this sport than in any other sport in history. Both because it’s almost completely mental and also because it is team-based.”

Sports psychologists who train pro gamers to be calm, confident, and focused give them a definite edge over competitors. “eSport gamers know that the level of intense focus, confidence, and emotional control required to be successful rivals those same levels of world-leading athletes,” Gervais explains.

8. THEY TREAT PRE-SEASON GAMES WITH THE SAME RESPECT AS THE OLYMPICS.

A man sitting on football field, arms raised in victory, as confetti flutters down
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Green explains that the way eSport athletes practice is how they will play in a game. "So if a team doesn't know how to take a scrim [practice match] seriously, then they cannot generate the same kind of pressure on themselves that they will face in a real tournament,” he says. “This leads to choking (reverting to previous habits, movements, reactions, loss of focus on the big picture) when the pressure situation rolls around.”

Gervais, who has worked with the Seattle Seahawks for the Super Bowl and athletes competing in the Olympics, adds that pre-season and early season games are when athletes can practice mindfulness. “We hold each game, each practice, and each rep with such high regard and dignity—as if it were the only one we were going to experience,” he says. By treating each practice as if it were the Super Bowl, athletes can become completely absorbed in the task at hand and ideally achieve a state of flow.

9. THEY STILL COMBAT THE SOCIETAL STIGMA AGAINST SEEKING MENTAL HELP.

Although sports psychology focuses on improving athletic performance, some people view the field in a negative light. “[My] least favorite part of sport psychology is the residue from the early '80s that psychology of any nature was reserved for people who were weak,” Gervais says. Rather than focusing on clients’ weaknesses or failings, sports psychologists acknowledge that world-class athletes and performers must understand how their mind works in order to consistently perform well. “Sport psychology is grounded in the tools and principles to amplify growth and strength,” Gervais says.

10. THEY STRIKE A BALANCE BETWEEN SCIENTIFIC ANALYSIS AND INTUITION.

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When they work with a client, sports psychologists must draw on their knowledge of the human mind and how it impacts behavior. They also stay on top of scientific literature and new research studies about the role of meditation, mindfulness, and mental health on performance. But successful sports psychologists balance this scientific approach with an artist’s eye for details. “I have to be aware of subtle cues and often dig deep to get at the root of a problem or a solution,” Murray says. “I treat each individual as a unique person and every team as a unique personality, too,” he adds. “A lot of times there is no owner's manual for how to do this job. You just roll up your sleeves and fly by the seat of your pants—or rely more on instincts and intuition in order to get the job done right.”

11. THEY EXPLORE THE FRONTIERS OF THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE.

According to Murray, the best part of his work is helping people grow both on and off the field. “It truly is fulfilling to be involved in changing people's lives for the better. This might include a major comeback from a slump or might involve deeper aspects of overall human development and mental well-being,” he says. And by helping athletes, sports psychologists can uncover techniques and modes of thinking that can push the boundaries of what humankind can achieve. “We have mapped the surface of the land, we have mapped the floor of the ocean, we have a relatively good understanding of how the human body works,” Gervais says. “Yet there is no map of how the mind works—especially for those who pursue the boundaries of performance for human experience.”

9 Secrets of Uber Drivers

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Where would we be without Uber drivers? Probably still stuck at the pub or in some taxi line, wishing we were home in our pajamas instead. But while many of us take Uber rides all the time, we often don't know much about the experience of driving for the company. Mental Floss looked into what it takes to become an Uber driver, why they dread four-star reviews, and and why they just might profit if you vomit.

1. It’s pretty easy to become an Uber driver ...

There are only a few basic requirements to become an Uber driver. Applicants must have an eligible four-door vehicle, a valid U.S. driver’s license, and at least a year of licensed driving experience in the U.S., or three years if the driver is under 23 years old. Of course, they must also be of legal driving age. Applicants’ driving records and criminal history are checked via an online screening process. (Some critics of Uber have called for stricter security screening, arguing that drivers should be fingerprinted to better identify bad actors. In response, Uber has said that fingerprinting would pose “an unnecessary burden and cost.”) The process is usually relatively fast. Nichole Visnesky, a student who used to drive for Uber part-time in Greenville, North Carolina, said her application was approved within 24 hours, and she was driving shortly thereafter. “The car that I was driving wasn’t even in my name at the time, but it was still OK,” she tells Mental Floss.

2. ... But driving for Uber isn’t for everyone.

While it’s easy to get up and running as a driver, the job isn’t suited to everyone’s personality and skill set. For one, it requires good customer service skills, according to Catherine, a former Uber driver in Pittsburgh. Like any job in retail or food service, that sometimes means biting your tongue when dealing with difficult customers. “A friend tried to [drive for Uber] but got into an argument. Obviously it’s not for her,” Catherine tells Mental Floss. And because driving requires some physical rigidity and mental focus, it can be draining, too. “You get very tired because you’re constantly driving, sitting in the car, and you do have to pay attention,” Catherine says. “I would not have been able to do it full-time.”

3. Uber Drivers disagree about whether or not the pay is worth it.

If you peruse the “r/uberdrivers” forum on Reddit, you’re bound to see some differing opinions on the pay scale, which varies depending on “when, where, and how often you drive,” according to Uber. “Driving for Uber is a waste of time. Only do it if you’re homeless/jobless,” one Reddit user wrote last year. Shortly before the company's May 2019 IPO, many Uber drivers even went on strike to demand higher wages and better working conditions. (According to a 2018 study by the Economic Policy Institute, Uber driver compensation averages about $11.77 per hour, after deducting for Uber's fees and driver expenses.)

Yet both Visnesky and Catherine say they have had positive experiences. Catherine said she drove in the evenings and on weekends and earned anywhere between $200 and $800 per week, depending on how many hours she put in. She said the pay was enough to help her get through a tough time financially. “I love driving, so it was a perfect way to make money on my own terms and make more money than I would make in a store,” Catherine said. Visnesky said she mostly drove on Fridays and Saturdays and earned between $80 and $470 per weekend.

4. A four-star review can get an Uber Driver fired.

The Uber app
Melies The Bunny, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Maybe your Uber driver missed a couple of turns, so you decide to rate them four stars (out of a possible five) at the end of your trip. You may think this is still a pretty good review, but your driver probably feels differently. “Uber doesn’t educate its passengers as to what the rating system means, and how they should be applying it,” an Uber driver named Bob, who wished to be identified only by his first name, told PBS. “And I understand it’s perfectly reasonable in a five-star rating system to reserve your fifth star for the best situations, you know? Michelin stars for example. A four-star review in any normal situation would seem great! And, unfortunately, a four-star review on Uber’s system is a vote to have the driver fired.” That’s because drivers’ accounts can be deactivated if their ratings dip below a certain threshold; this varies by location, but is roughly around 4.6 stars. According to Uber, “There is a minimum average rating in each city. This is because there are cultural differences in the way people in different cities rate each other.”

5. Some Uber drivers put party lights in their car to make passengers happy (and get better ratings and tips).

Many of Visnesky’s passengers were drunk college students, so she decided to make their ride a little more memorable. “I eventually got lights to go under my floorboards, and they would get in my car and be like, ‘Whoa it’s the party Uber!’ They would be so stoked for it,” she says. Not only did it serve as a good icebreaker for conversation, but it also helped her ratings. Kahseem Panchoo, who at one point drove for Uber in New York City, also tricked out his 2013 Chevy Suburban by installing a light strip and disco ball. "Since people love to party, it matches their mood," Panchoo told the New York Daily News in 2016. "If they're going to a party or if they're coming from a party, they get excited." (It paid off, too. On one particular night, he received a $100 tip.) Bottles of water, snacks, and phone chargers are also surefire ways to impress passengers. Visnesky said she invested in two kinds of chargers for her car—one for Android and one for iPhone users.

6. Uber drivers might turn a profit if you barf in their car.

Three girls get out of a car
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A typical Friday night for Visnesky usually involved shepherding drunk students around town, so she always kept plastic bags, disinfectant wipes, and other cleaning supplies on hand. During the year and a half that she drove for Uber, two people threw up in her car on two different occasions. One person was too drunk to know what had happened, and the other laughed and said, “I feel so much better now.” Though she let the first person slide, she filed a claim for damages in the latter case. She took a picture of the mess and sent it to Uber, and the customer was charged accordingly. “I was given like $80 for damages but I probably didn’t spend more than a few dollars to clean it,” Visnesky said, explaining that she just went to a car wash and wiped down her seats. “I only charged them because they were such jerks about it and laughed afterwards.”

7. Returning lost items can be a major inconvenience for Uber drivers.

According to Uber, the average driver returns 11 lost items per year. Phones, cameras, and wallets are the most commonly forgotten items, but there have also been reports of a mannequin, deer antlers, and fish tank (with fish and water inside) turning up in the backseat of a car, according to Uber’s Lost & Found Index for 2019. Naturally, the larger the object, the more difficult it is to return—and prior to 2017, Uber drivers weren’t compensated for returning objects. “It can be inconvenient,” Catherine says. She has gone out of her way to return both a phone and a wallet to separate passengers. However, Uber eventually started charging riders $15 for each lost item that was returned, and riders were also given the option of tipping their driver. Still, drivers have to fill out a form in the app when they return an item, then wait three to five days to receive the $15.

8. If they’ve gone out of their way to be friendly or helpful, Uber drivers think you should tip them.

The option to tip drivers wasn’t built into the Uber app until 2017; by then, the precedent may have already been set. Both Visnesky and Catherine said younger, college-aged passengers typically never tip. While neither of the women said tipping should be viewed as mandatory, they both agreed that tips are welcomed in exchange for good customer service. “I do think if I’ve gone out of my way or you’ve kind of made it a hassle, maybe you should consider that when you’re paying me,” Visnesky said.

9. Some Uber drivers want passengers to be more courteous when discussing new movies and TV shows.

Two women talk in a car
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Let’s suppose that you and a friend just watched Avengers: Endgame and you’re dying to discuss it during the Uber ride home. Just be mindful that your driver might also be dying to see it, and probably doesn’t want to have the ending spoiled for them. “I would be really upset if someone ruined Game of Thrones for me,” Visnesky said. When in doubt, ask your driver if it’s okay to talk about a certain show or movie. You might even get a five-star passenger rating for taking this extra step.

13 Secrets of Substitute Teachers

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iStock.com/shironosov

Whether they’re recent college graduates or retirees, substitute teachers are a diverse bunch with a range of academic specialties and skills. No matter their background, they often arrive at work unsure of exactly who and what they’ll be teaching—but they usually have some tricks up their sleeves to get oriented quickly. Mental Floss spoke to a few subs to get the inside scoop on everything from why they love pregnant teachers to how they spot troublemaker pupils.

1. Morning people get more substitute teaching jobs than night owls.

Substitute teachers must be willing to have a (very) flexible schedule, and it helps if they’re morning people. As early as 5:00 a.m., subs get a phone call—automated or from someone who works in the school’s office—offering them a job for that day. If they accept, they have an hour or two to get out of bed, get ready, and report to work. Some schools now use an email notification system, but early morning phone calls are more effective given the time-sensitive, often unexpected nature of substitute teaching.

2. First impressions are important when it comes to substitute teaching.

A young female teacher in front of a white board talking to a group of students
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According to Kevin, a substitute teacher who works at schools in Southern California, dealing with new groups of students can be challenging. “It’s very hard to establish authority in the classroom. As a newcomer, you’re the foreigner,” he explains.

To immediately establish their authority, some substitute teachers practice speaking with a powerful voice, exhibit confident body language, and shut down any disruptions swiftly and decisively. But no matter how confident a sub is, some students will take advantage of the teacher’s unfamiliarity with the class. “It’s hard to write up a student who you can’t name. In a high school setting, you usually get 30 to 38 students a period for five or six periods. That’s a lot of students who may or may not want to test their bounds that day,” Kevin says.

3. Subs are an eclectic bunch.

Substitute teachers range in age from recent college grads working toward their teaching certification to elderly retired people. But what unites them is a love of teaching. Beverly, a substitute teacher who has taught for over 56 years, says that subbing keeps her sharp and active. “I do it for mental stimulation and because it’s a terrific service. You have to stay stimulated and involved with people,” she says. “I find youngsters to be so forthright and honest. The kids light up my life.”

Besides being a variety of ages, substitute teachers also come from a variety of professions. “You can’t believe how many teachers used to be lawyers but couldn’t stand it,” Beverly says. Everyone from former nurses and flight attendants to chemical engineers have earned their teaching certificates and become subs, bringing their real-world experience into the classroom.

4. There's a reason a substitute teacher's face might look familiar.

In schools in Los Angeles and New York, many struggling actors work as substitute teachers because they can balance teaching gigs with auditions and short-term film shoots. Like actors, subs must be able to speak in front of groups of people, improvise when they don’t have good instructions, and be quick on their feet when something goes wrong.

5. Substitute teachers aren't a fan of school holidays.

Because substitute teachers don’t have a set salary and work one day at a time, many of them face financial uncertainty, especially when holidays roll around. “Holidays can be devastating financially,” Kevin explains. When a school has the whole week of Thanksgiving off, subs don’t see that as a chance to relax. “In reality, a quarter of your paycheck for that month is gone,” Kevin says. “When you have student loans, insurance, etc. to pay, that extra little bit taken off your paycheck may mean you’re just scraping by.”

6. Substitute teachers have tricks to learn names quickly.

A primary school teacher helping a young boy in the classroom
iStock.com/JohnnyGreig

Facing a classroom of unfamiliar faces can be daunting, but subs have a few tricks up their sleeves to memorize student names in a flash. While some subs make seating charts as they take attendance, others use mnemonic devices to remember troublemakers’ monikers. Beverly admits that she doesn’t use anything fancy, but because she substitute-teaches math and science classes at the same school, she sees the same kids year after year. “I see the same youngsters out of junior high and into high school, but I do have a seating chart as well. They’re always amazed when I know their names,” she explains.

7. They love pregnant teachers.

Subs seeking job stability hit the jackpot when full-time teachers get pregnant. “At the school I currently work at, there’s a woman who is subbing for the whole semester for a second grade teacher who is out on maternity leave,” says Kyle, a science teacher who worked as a sub before getting a full-time teaching gig. Besides pregnancies, long-term health challenges and injuries can present an opportunity for subs to get a steady gig. Beverly says she once took over for an entire semester because of another teacher’s broken hip.

8. Some substitute teachers are quite familiar with busywork.

Novelist Nicholson Baker, who wrote about his experience going undercover as a substitute teacher at six schools, describes the astonishingly large amount of busywork that subs must assign students. “I passed [work sheets] out by the thousands,” he noted in The New York Times.

While Baker laments the “fluff knowledge” and vocabulary lists that subs are expected to force students to memorize and regurgitate, some subs do teach lesson plans. Kyle, who has a math and science background, explains that some teachers felt comfortable with him teaching the lesson plan so the students wouldn’t fall behind. “I’d teach it and assign homework accordingly for what we covered in class,” he says. But he admits that for middle school or non-science classes, he would sometimes simply be given a video to show the kids, or a work sheet or quiz to pass out.

9. The reputation of a substitute teacher can precede them.

High school professor asking students to answer question
iStock.com/Steve Debenport

Once a sub has taught at the same school a few times, they can develop a reputation—good or bad—among students. “When I first started subbing, I was 23 or 24, so I wasn’t much older than these kids—especially the seniors—and I think they saw me more as a peer than an authority figure,” Kyle explains. “I thought if I kept a light and fun atmosphere, kids would show their appreciation with respect. But that’s not how kids’ minds work. If you give a little, they’ll want more. So I became stricter and sterner as I went on,” he adds.

10. Substitute teachers can often spot troublemakers fast.

Although it might seem obvious which students are talking out of turn or giving the sub a hard time, substitute teachers have another way to quickly identify any mischievous students. “Usually, if a teacher has a really outrageous student, they’ll leave a note of warning for the sub. Sometimes the teacher will also leave a list of who the helpful students are,” Beverly says.

11. Substitute teachers may deal with inappropriate student behavior.

Kyle says that due to his young age and easygoing nature, some students tried to push the boundaries and act inappropriately with him: “[Students] would talk about or say things in front of me that I know they would never say in front of a teacher. I was once asked to party with some of the kids. Girls would try and flirt with me.” While male students typically tried to talk to him about basketball, female students frequently asked him if he had a girlfriend. “I would lose control of classrooms sometimes. Kids would get very wild, and sometimes would say inappropriate or abusive things to other students without fear of discipline,” he admits.

12. Substitute teachers are honored on a special day in November.

The National Education Association established the annual Substitute Educators Day on the third Friday in November to honor subs around the country. Besides bringing awareness to the work that substitute teachers do, Substitute Educators Day supports subs in trying to get health benefits, professional development, and fair wages.

13. Substitute teachers can make lasting impressions on their students.

Although most subs don’t see the same kids day after day, they can have a meaningful impact upon their students’ lives. “As an outsider, especially a younger teacher, students will often listen to you as someone who recently was in their shoes. Sometimes you talk to them one-on-one and give them a new perspective on why they should care about their schoolwork,” Kevin says.

And some students listen to their sub’s advice on studying and planning for the future. According to Kevin, students have approached him as he walked down the halls to thank him for encouraging them to get better grades.

“These experiences are few and far between, but it’s crazy to think that even these small talks with students can actually have a lasting impression,” he says.

This story was republished in 2019.

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