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.

A black man with the silhouette of another man running, as if in his mind's eye
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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.

The legs, torso, and hands of a white woman meditating in lotus position
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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.

A sporty young woman on a beach looking directly at the photographer
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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.”

11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Holiday Window Display Designers

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iStock.com/andykazie

For decades, lavish holiday window displays at department stores have been one of the first signs of the season. But have you ever wondered how the designers behind the windows create those enchanting arrangements? Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at everything that goes into making the holiday windows so magical at this time of year—from the best way to arrange lights to the pre-season all-nighters.

1. Every holiday window has a purpose.

The holiday windows are supposed to make you feel something, says Jacques Rosas, New York-based artist, founder, and CEO of Jacques Rosas, which does holiday window installations in stores such as Godiva, Elizabeth Arden, and Bed, Bath & Beyond. Whenever Rosas is working on a window, he asks about the personality of the store, what they’re imagining, favorite decorations, traditions, and more—all starting with what they sell. “I try to pull settings that have nostalgia for them,” Rosas says. “I think the magical part is the nostalgia.” He loves the feel of an old-fashioned Christmas—last year, he decked out one store window with handmade stockings, old ornaments, and a real train.

2. You won’t see many Christmas trees in the store windows.

A Macy's 2007 holiday window display.
A Macy's 2007 holiday window display.
Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (cropped)

At least not any real Christmas trees, Rosas says. Usually, the windows are hot, dry places, so any live trees would dry out and die. They could also catch fire, so a lot of the newer buildings won’t use them even if they could create the right environmental conditions. “We tend to use a lot of fake stuff,” Rosas says.

3. You also won’t see any products.

While store windows throughout the year are supposed to sell products, this time of year is all about the entertainment, says David Spaeth, CEO of Spaeth Design, which does holiday windows for Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Tiffany & Co. and Bergdorf Goodman. Sure, you may see a product or two in some of the windows (it’s not a hard-and-fast rule), but this is the time to seduce customers with gorgeous snowflakes or pretty (fake) trees instead of fantastic outfits.

4. But you will see lights.

A Bloomingdale's 2008 holiday window
A Bloomingdale's 2008 holiday window
Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (cropped)

Lights are what draws customers to the windows, and they can really make the displays pop. But you’d be surprised at how few lights will make a big splash, Rosas says. “There’s not a lot of lights—that’s a big mistake,” he says. "If you do too many, the reflection will play tricks on the viewer, and you won’t actually be able to see anything but lights.” Instead, he uses a few perfectly placed lights that bounce off each other. Rosas also tends to use plenty of wood composite, fiberglass, bark, paper, and plastic to create his scenes. But don't be surprised to spot other wacky items in holiday store windows, like Lite-Brite (yes, the retro toy), coffee stirrers, and even taxidermy. Anything goes when it comes to creating the perfect holiday window.

5. They plan ahead.

When the holidays start dying down, these designers are just getting started on the following year, says Michael Bednark, owner of Bednark Studio, a Brooklyn-based fabrication studio that is responsible for some of the Macy’s holiday windows throughout the country. Design talks start in January, and by March, the ideas are set. It takes two more months to figure out rendering, and the summer months are for fabrication (building the physical elements). Installation starts even before Halloween—by about mid-October, Bednark says.

6. They have working habits comparable to vampires.

Ever wonder how holiday windows pop up like magic? That’s because the artists work through the night to put them up so that they’ll appear in the morning. Installation for the simpler windows usually takes six to eight hours, Rosas says. “We have to be like wizards,” he explains.

7. Some windows can take weeks to install.

A Bergdorf Goodman holiday window in 2014
A Bergdorf Goodman holiday window in 2014
iStock.com/LukeAbrahams

A regular window display is an overnight job, but the team working on the Macy’s windows pre-builds them inside the shop. There’s a fake window inside every single Macy’s store, filled with the entire holiday window display. “We pre-build inside the shop so we can make sure that everything fits,” Bednark says. The pre-build takes about four weeks. If it’s a go, it’s moved into the regular window, which takes three weeks.

8. To make it look perfect, the artists touch every light.

The reason store windows look amazing while your holiday display might look just passable is because these designers really pay attention to the details. “When you decorate a tree, or you’re doing your lights and everything, the secret to really nice displays is to touch and adjust each branch, each light, and position everything as if everything was its own individual thing,” Rosas says. “That’s the secret to styling.”

9. When the season is over, the displays are usually tossed.

Some stores will re-use the decorations in-house, but many will toss them because the décor is so unique. Basically, they don’t want to wear the same outfit two days in a row, Spaeth explains.

10. The holidays aren’t their only busy season.

People love holiday store windows, and they’re great for business. But these artists are busy year-round, Rosas says. In addition to doing store window displays for every season, they also decorate show rooms, do trade show displays, and even create sets for TV shows and product launches. In Rosas’s studio, they have two 7500-square-foot spaces, and they use these for creating fake store windows or for marketing experiences. For example, a yogurt company may hire Rosas to use that studio to build an entire yogurt set as a backdrop for a yogurt product launch. The yogurt company would then invite members of the media to the room, where they’d take pictures and do interviews. “We try to inspire people to write about [the company] there,” Rosas says.

11. If you want to replicate the look, get out your checkbook.

A Bergdorf Goodman 2014 holiday window
A Bergdorf Goodman 2014 holiday window
iStock.com/LukeAbrahams

To hire a professional display artist to do your holiday windows, expect to pay anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000 per window, depending on the number of details and amount of work it will take, Bednark says. In other words, making this kind of magic doesn't come cheap.

A version of this story first ran in 2016.

12 Secrets of Dollar Store Employees

A dollar store in Brooklyn
A dollar store in Brooklyn
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Discount retailers have probably been around as long as commerce itself, but it wasn't until the 1950s that a string of stores began popping up in the South that shared a common element: Everything they sold was dirt-cheap. In recent years, the country has experienced a wave of frugal storefronts selling everything from stationary to seafood. Stores like Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Dollar General, and a rash of independently owned stores catering to the budget-conscious now outnumber Starbucks and McDonald's in the U.S.

To get a better sense of the activity that surrounds these wallet-friendly outlets, Mental Floss spoke to three employees of Dollar Tree. Here’s what they had to say about stocking their shelves, fanatical customers, and why they spend so much time filling up balloons.

1. Paper goods are the best deal in stores.

You can find practically anything at dollar stores, including frozen food (more on that in a moment), toys, and cleaning products. Assortments can vary widely by store and by franchise, but according to Brenda, the store manager of a Dollar Tree in the Midwest, customers get the best deal sticking with paper products. At least, that's what employees buy most frequently. “The items that my employees and I purchase at Dollar Tree for value would definitely be toilet paper, paper towels, birthday cards, candy, balloons, plastic ware, paper plates, envelopes, stationary products, and the daily newspaper,” she says. At her store, toilet paper and the local newspaper are the top sellers. While the former is a pretty obvious necessity, newspapers at her location are typically cheaper than in other stores; the Sunday edition in particular is up to two or three dollars cheaper. (Like a lot of their inventory, the chain likely gets a tremendous discount for buying the papers in bulk.)

2. They know you won't be in the store for too long.

The exterior of a Dollar Tree store is shown from a low angle
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Dollar stores typically have little signage, few frills, and a small real estate footprint (Dollar General's is around 7300 square feet, or one-tenth the size of a Walmart). But having limited space with easily accessible items is by design—the average shopping trip for a Dollar General store is just 10 minutes. “Planning the store around fast trips is one good way to improve the fast experience many customers are looking for, while also keeping sales high by allowing customers to see many products,” says Hank, an assistant Dollar Tree store manager in Canada. Customers “tend to want to get in and out fast. They are often busy and have other plans for the day and don't want to spend too much time wandering the store.”

3. They want customers to feel like they’re on a treasure hunt.

According to Moody’s, an earnings and credit analysis firm, Dollar General rotates its inventory on a regular basis to make customers feel like they need to buy items now in case they’re not around later—perpetuating what it calls a "treasure hunt" feel. That helps the stores compete with online retailers like Amazon, which typically maintains stock of popular products and may not provoke the same sense of urgency in buyers.

Dollar Tree’s approach is slightly different. While new inventory does arrive from suppliers, it’s not as frequently. “When we are doing the truck we get really excited when we see a new product,” Brenda says. “We only see maybe 10 to 15 new things per week out of 1500 items that are coming off of the truck, so when we get something new we immediately cut open the box and examine it.”

4. They catch a lot of shoplifters.

You can walk out of dollar stores with an armful of goods for $20, $10, or less, but that still doesn’t deter people from swiping even the cheapest targets. “The shoplifting is ridiculously rampant,” Brenda says. “We catch someone just about every day.”

Oddly enough, the price may help facilitate the theft. “The thing with the low prices is that there is no real deterrent from people stealing since none of the products have any security around them," Brenda says.

5. They recommend you skip the steak.

A steak sits on a grill
A steak purchased somewhere other than a dollar store.
iStock.com/NightAndDayImages

Shopping for frozen foods at the discount chains can be hit or miss. Some items might be OK: “I’ve had the little pie slices, the sausage and pancake bites, and the Cinnabon bites are amazing,” Brenda says. “The frozen dinners are good as well. People also love the frozen vegetables and fruit.”

But when it comes to unprocessed food, like meat or seafood, you should probably consider a visit to the local grocer instead. “I don’t eat any of the frozen fish or rib eyes because I don’t trust frozen seafood or meat that costs a dollar,” she says.

Nate, a Dollar Tree manager in Minnesota, agrees. “I would never buy the steak,” he says. “I’ve heard from more than one person that it doesn’t cook [well] and it feels like rubber.” In 2016, television affiliate WCPO in Cincinnati attempted a taste test, serving up the four-ounce $1 ribeye along with a butcher's and supermarket cut to some area firefighters. Among the responses: "I guess it was meat" and "It's not terrible."

6. Other stores use them to stock up.

When most everything is a dollar, it’s easy to see why discount chains find themselves acting as a warehouse for local small businesses. Hank says that he’s observed independent proprietors coming in to stock up on items. “There is one man who runs a convenience store and buys boxes of chocolate bars and bottles of soda,” he says. “We also get plenty of event organizers buying supplies in bulk, sometimes hundreds of items at a time.”

7. They dread the sight of Hot Wheels toy cars.

A Hot Wheels toy car is pictured
iStock.com/CTRPhotos

While many toys at dollar store locations are of suspect quality, there’s at least one bit of inventory that causes a lot of excitement in aisles. “We get a lot of the infamous 'Hot Wheels Hunters,'” Nate says, referring to collectors of the popular die-cast toy car line from Mattel. “I guess they scour the internet and find out when stores are getting shipments. I’ve had people show up a day after my 2000-piece truck [arrives] and demand I go find the one box of Hot Wheels I got so they can be the first to buy them.”

If they’re polite, Nate will try to accommodate them. Some of the nicer Hot Wheels fans even deputize themselves as de facto employees. “The one guy that is a frequent visitor will take the boxes I have and stock them neatly on the shelves while he looks for what he wants," Nate says.

8. They sell pregnancy tests. And they’re reliable.

A home pregnancy test shows a positive result
iStock.com/nazdravie

If you’re wary of the accuracy of a home pregnancy test kit that costs $1, well, you probably should be. But according to Nate, his store stocks a reliable brand. “The pregnancy tests we sell are the same ones used in most hospitals,” he says. Most all pregnancy tests detect a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG, which is produced during pregnancy. More expensive tests can detect lower levels earlier in a pregnancy, while cheaper tests—like the ones in dollar stores—might not register a positive until a woman is a little further along.

But they're still effective. And according to Brenda and Nate, they're also among the most-stolen items in their stores.

9. Balloons keep them aloft.

Most Dollar Tree and many other dollar store locations have a counter devoted to mylar balloons intended for birthday parties and other events. That’s because the low cost and easy storage of the un-inflated balloons makes them a very profitable endeavor. “Balloons do a ton of business for Dollar Tree,” Brenda says. “A ton. Especially for big events.”

In a given week, her store might sell 150 to 200 balloons: “If you think about it, every day is someone’s birthday, baby shower, graduation, or anniversary.”

10. They might warn you away from a bad deal.

Shoppers browse the aisles of a dollar store
Spencer Platt, Getty Images

If you’re on the fence about whether or not a dollar purchase is worthwhile, you can always ask an employee. They might tell you if it’s worth the cash. “I know that the quality of our products is not always the best and I obviously am not going to constantly bring this up to customers, but I am not afraid to give them a bit of heads up when I know a certain item is especially poor, or could be found much cheaper at a competitor,” Hank says. “I know that the company will survive without those couple sales, and I prefer to make customers happy over adding a few more dollars to the wallet of the company.”

11. The store manager is often overworked.

Dollar Tree, Dollar General, and other chains have come under fire in recent years for tasking store managers with a lot of responsibility in order to keep the costs of staffing low. According to Nate, that checks out. “In my district they are trial-running having the stores unload the semi-trucks instead of the drivers," he says. "But they won’t give us the hours to add an extra guy, which means I’m the manager on duty while being in the back of a semi throwing 1800 cases."

12. They can’t keep Donald Duck on the shelves.

Bottles of Donald Duck orange juice line a store shelf
Ted Eytan, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In stores filled with a lot of unfamiliar brands, customers like to see one recognizable face: Donald Duck’s. The Disney character is front and center on Dollar Tree’s orange juice, and his smiling bill is one of the most popular items in the stores. (The drink is produced by Citrus World, which owns the Florida’s Natural label and licenses the Donald imagery and name from Disney.) “The Donald Duck orange juice is our third most-sold item,” Brenda says. “To be honest, I’m not sure why it’s so popular. A lot of people stop at our store on the way to work or wherever, so it’s kind of a quick pick-up.”

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