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.

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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.”

14 Secrets of Food Sample Demonstrators

Tim Boyle, Getty Images
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

Ever turn a corner in your local grocery store or warehouse club and see the aisle backed up? You might be able to blame a food sample demonstrator, those stationary sales representatives who invite congestion in stores by offering up free bites of food products in an effort to raise sales. (The strategy works—one study found that samples can increase sales by as much as 2000 percent.)

The task might look easy, but it isn’t. Sample demonstrators have to endure annoyed customers who can’t navigate aisles due to the traffic, unattended kids, and more—all while adhering to food safety regulations. To get a better perspective on the job, Mental Floss spoke with two former demonstrators. Here’s what we found out about life in the apron.

1. THEY’RE USUALLY NOT EMPLOYED BY THE STORE.

Food demonstrators are often mistaken for store employees, but they're usually not. The people working behind sample trays at Costco, for example, are often employed by Club Demonstration Services (CDS), a separate entity that hires sample representatives to present products endorsed by Costco and usually backed by the product manufacturer. (Companies can send their own reps out, too.) “CDS might have an office set up in the back of the store,” says Jim, a former food sample demonstrator for Costco locations in California. “We’d sign in, go through the warehouse, and get a quick brief on the product we were demonstrating.”

Though CDS is owned by Costco, CDS employees aren’t technically store employees, and don’t migrate to other work areas. But because customers figure the demonstrators work for the warehouse, they’re often asked for directions. “People just assume you know where stuff is,” Jim says. “I usually told them to find someone in a red vest.”

2. THEY CAN SPEND HALF THEIR SHIFT PREPPING.

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It may seem like a sample demonstrator is burning calories at the rate of a Queen's Guard, but they're usually very busy during the course of a six- or eight-hour shift. Food prep—including mixing ingredients for things like chicken salad or cooking steak strips—can take up as much as half of their time. It’s worth it, as cooked food has a huge advantage over ready-to-eat samples like chips. “There’s a kind of anticipation you build up when cooking something like steak,” Jim says. “It could take a few minutes or 45 minutes, and people are standing there asking when it will be ready.”

3. THEY NEED TO STAY WITHIN A 12-FOOT RADIUS OF THE CART.

Food sample demonstrators may sometimes work in a massive warehouse, but they don’t have the run of the property. Once they’ve settled into their work area—typically near where the product they’re demonstrating is stocked or wherever there’s free space in the building—they’re expected to never be more than 12 feet away from the cart. “The 12-foot radius has to do with the fact that you’re responsible for maintaining your station and keeping customers safe,” says Skyler, a former demonstrator for Costco. “If a kid sees an unattended station with a hot grill running and grabs a sample off of it and burns themselves, it’s a liability.” Demonstrators also need to make sure no one is grabbing a sample and then putting it back, which would be a gross (literally) violation of food handling safety. Once you touch it, it goes either in your mouth or in the garbage.

4. THEY FOLLOW AN ACRONYM FOR SALES SUCCESS.

Vice-president Joe Biden greets food sample servers at a Costco
Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images

Food sample pushers don’t work on commission, but they can get bonuses if they sell through their inventory, so it benefits them to make sure people are consuming what they’re offering. One method for enticing customers is what Jim describes as a corporate acronym called SITGA. “It stands for Smile, Invite, Talk, Give Sample, and Ask,” he says. Demonstrators are also free to come up with their own strategy. “I liked to rhyme, like ‘come on by, give it a try,’ that sort of thing.”

5. THEY HAVE TRICKS FOR STAVING OFF BOREDOM.

Speaking with the Yes and Yes blog, Sam's Club food demo specialist Jan said that the hours spent sporadically interacting with customers can require demonstrators to make up their own fun. "I deal with the boredom in several ways. I practice standing on one foot and count the seconds before I lose my balance ... I count and rearrange samples. I reorganize the equipment under my cart. I alphabetize equipment. I grab items off the shelves and read the ingredient and nutrition labels, read slogans on T-shirts, or I try to engage customers in conversation."

6. THEY GET TIRED OF HEARING THE SAME RESPONSES.

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Sometimes it's hard to tell what's worse—going for long stretches without customers, or hearing the canned answers they love to give over and over (and over) again. "Customers make stock remarks about certain foods," Jan said. "If you serve sausage, they ask, 'Where are the pancakes?' If you serve a cold drink, they say it would be better with vodka. Coffee samples inevitably get, 'Now I need a donut.'"

7. THEY HAVE TO DEAL WITH “SAMPLE NINJAS” ...

There’s usually no cap on the number of samples a customer can grab from a cart. Still, people can feel a degree of embarrassment going back for seconds—or thirds—and sometimes try to sneak a taste without being seen. Skyler calls these people “sample ninjas” for their attempts to go undetected. “People love free food,” he says. “They don’t want to be seen as freeloaders, they don’t want to hear a sales pitch, they just want snacks.”

8. ... BUT THAT SHAME CAN WORK IN THE STORE’S FAVOR.

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When people are so addicted to a food sample they keep going back for more, they might opt to just buy the product rather than risk being perceived as a greedy shopper. “There have been cases where I’ve been shopping at Costco myself and went and bought something because my overwhelming shame kept me from grabbing a fifth sample,” Skyler says. “The system works.”

9. THEY HAVE A HEIGHT POLICY.

Kids represent a dilemma for demonstrators. If they’re unaccompanied by a parent, it can be potentially problematic to offer up a baked good or other food that could contain an allergen. Fortunately, most kids are aware of their food sensitivities. According to Jim, the unofficial rule of thumb is to give out samples to unattended children if they’re tall enough to see what’s on the cart. “We can’t really determine the age of a kid just by looking,” he says. “They just need to be tall enough to see the sample and discern what it is.”

10. THEY HAVE REGULARS.

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Many Costco demonstrators stick to one store or district, making them a familiar face for people who shop there frequently. “There were definitely regulars,” Skyler says. “I would see old teachers from school, old friends, new friends, and regulars who would know my sales pitch and always play along—for more free samples, obviously.” Others were memorable for other reasons. “I was making cookies once and a woman grabbed the raw cookie dough and yelled at me because it was not cooked.”

11. THEY DEMO NON-EDIBLE PRODUCTS, TOO.

While Jim estimates that 90 percent of his time was spent demonstrating food, CDS also handles accounts for a variety of indigestible products, like Ziploc bags. “I’ve done dish soap and laundry soap, which is hard to demonstrate on the floor,” he says. “You have to give someone a sample and hope they try it and then come back.” Another time, Costco charged him with selling prefabricated outdoor tool sheds. “No one is buying a $3000 shed on the spot. They take a flyer. We didn’t get a sale the entire week.”

12. THEY HAVE A PLAN TO MAKE SURE NO FOOD GOES TO WASTE.

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Toward the end of their shift, demonstrators start to estimate how many more samples they’ll need to meet remaining demand without setting out food that will wind up going to waste. “I do what I can not to waste anything,” Jim says. “We’ll usually make sure we’re done cooking by a certain time so nothing is left over.” Sealed food might go to a food pantry, depending on store policies, but prepared and unused food goes into the garbage. And no, it's not going to the demonstrators: They’re prohibited from taking the excess home.

13. NOT EVERYTHING THEY MAKE IS APPETIZING TO THEM.

Sample demonstrators are usually expected to taste their supply so they can make informed comments when a customer presses for details. While most everything is intended to be delicious, it may not necessarily be the demonstrator's own personal preference. "[I served] horrifying steak chimichangas, microwaved," Jan told Yes and Yes. "When cut into bite sized pieces, [they] squirt out a nasty brown liquid. Worse yet, lots of people liked them."

14. THEY APPRECIATE A LITTLE CUSTOMER ETIQUETTE.

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While free food can cause some of us to abandon civility and manners, food sample demonstrators always appreciate when customers acknowledge they have a job to do—and it’s not to hand out free stuff. Listening to their sales pitch is the polite thing to do in exchange for the eats. “Just try to remember that it’s a sales job and that final sale number is being held over the sample demonstrators’ heads,” Skyler says. “They’re not just someone being paid to hand out food to boost customer morale.”

17 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Bookstores

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For book lovers, there’s no more magical place than the local bookstore. Endless shelves of stories and characters, all at your eager fingertips. And while most of us have probably spent a significant amount of time wandering the aisles, few of us know what goes on behind the scenes. Here are some insights into the life of a bookstore, gleaned from the people who keep the shelves stocked.

1. EMPLOYEES WANT YOU TO ASK THEM FOR RECOMMENDATIONS.

“A person will say, ‘I have a really strange question, I’m sorry, but can you recommend a book?’” says Phyllis Cohen, owner of Berkeley Books in Paris. “That is the most normal question. It is my favorite question in the world! Give me some clues. I’ll ask them some pointed questions and then I make a pile for them. When they discover it they’re over the moon—it’s like they have a personal shopper in the bookshop.”

2. BUT BOOKSELLERS ARE NOT MIND-READERS.

They want to help you find your book, but they can’t if you don’t know the book’s name, author, or what it was about. This happens all the time, and it drives them crazy. “Customers will say ‘I don’t remember the name or what it was about but it has a blue cover. I think it had this word in the title,’” explains Katie Orphan, manager at The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. Sometimes the questions are so vague that no amount of Googling will help, and then the customer leaves unhappy.

Even a botched title is better than no hints at all. “One funny thing that happens with customers is they get the titles totally wrong,” says Marissa Rodriguez, who has worked in a bookstore for two years. “High school kids will say ‘I’m looking for ‘How To Kill a Mockingbird’ or ‘Angry Grapes.’”

3. THEY CAN SPOT THE BOOKWORMS FROM A MILE AWAY.

A woman browsing near a sign for half-price paperbacks at a bookstore
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Just browsing? Bookstore workers can tell. “Cookbooks is one of the sections where that happens the most,” Orphan says. “Art books and cookbooks. The people who are going to buy books, I can tell by the way they look at them, touch them, start carrying them around in a stack. I can always tell when people come up who is going to buy a book and who isn’t.”

4. THEY KNOW WHEN YOU’RE “SHOWROOMING.”

In recent years, many brick-and-mortar stores have fallen victim to online outlets like Amazon, which often offer the same books for a lower price. Some customers will browse for books they like, only to buy them later online, and they’re not very sly about it. “They’ll come in and use their phone to take a picture of the cover and barcode and just use the bookstore as the Amazon showroom,” says Keith Edmunds, a former bookstore owner. “It was awful. Seeing people do that was the height of ignorance.”

5. AND WHEN YOU’RE PLAYING THE SYSTEM.

“Some regulars would buy books one or two at a time and then within the two-week return window bring them back and be like, ‘I bought the wrong book,’” said Kat Chin, who worked at The World's Biggest Bookstore in Toronto for five years. “You’d know they read them because you could see the book was a little bit worn or the spine was cracked.”

6. THE GOAL IS TO GET BOOKS IN YOUR HANDS.

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One trick to get customers to commit to a book is to physically put the book in their hands and have them flip through it. “You can direct them to a part of the store, but that’s only half of selling a book,” Rodriguez says. “It's important to get merchandise in people's hands so they feel there’s already some ownership happening. They say ‘I like the way it looks and feels in my hands and I like the way it smells.’”

7. YOU HAVE TO HUNT FOR THE COFFEE SHOP.

Many bookstores, particularly the bigger ones like Barnes & Noble, have incorporated cafes into their layout. Alex Lifschutz, a London-based architect, told The Economist that putting the coffee shop at the back of the store or, if there are multiple stories, on the top floor, “draws shoppers upwards floor-by-floor, which is bound to encourage people to linger longer and spend more.”

8. THE KIDS SECTION IS STRATEGICALLY LOCATED.

According to Edmunds, the kids books are almost always located at the back of a store. “If the parents want to get a book for the kid they have to go through the whole store,” he says. “They’re hoping the parent will see something they want.”

9. SOMEONE PAID FOR THAT PRIME SHELF REAL ESTATE.

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In many big-box stores, publishers pay for good placement on “front tables, end caps and window space, in the same way General Mills and Procter and Gamble buy space for their breakfast cereals and dish detergents in the supermarkets,” Andy Ross, a literary agent, told The Book Deal.

10. AUTHORS, BEWARE THE “SOCIOLOGY” SECTION.

No author wants their book tucked away in the “sociology” section, claims veteran publishing insider Alan Rinzler. It’s “a catchall section for ambiguous titles, and the kiss of death for book sales,” he says.

11. BOOK THIEVES LOVE THE BIBLE.

At The World's Biggest Bookstore in Toronto, “the Bible was the number one stolen book of all time,” Chin says.

Other frequently stolen books? Japanese comics (a.k.a. manga), expensive medical books, and Kurt Vonnegut’s work. Chin also says Haruki Murakami books were so frequently stolen that her bookstore had to take them off the shelves, only bringing them out when they were specifically requested.

12. EMPLOYEES HATE WHEN YOU LEAVE BOOKS WHERE THEY DON’T BELONG ...

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“Neatening up a bookstore is a daunting process,” says Demi Marshall, a bookseller in Austin, Texas. The next time you pluck a book from its designated shelf slot, put it back when you’re done. Otherwise, “it’s like if you go to a clothing store and unfold all the clothes and then put them back on the shelf but don’t fold them,” Chin says.

13. ... AND WHEN YOU TREAT THE STORE LIKE YOUR LIBRARY.

“It’s nice to be able to go in and read maybe a chapter to see if you’re gonna like the book,” Chin says. “But then when you sit and read the whole book and put it back on the shelf, it gets grubby.” You’ll know a bookstore is trying to nudge you out the door if multiple employees drop by to ask if you need any help. “We would quietly pester people,” says Caleb Saenz, who used to work at Barnes & Noble. “I was at my peak passive aggressive phase when I was working at a bookstore.”

14. THE INTERNET HAS ACTUALLY BEEN A GOOD THING.

A brick-and-mortar Amazon bookstore in Seattle
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Before the internet became ubiquitous, the process of looking up a book for a customer was daunting. “We had to look it up in 'Books In Print,’ which is a multi-volume, 4-inch thick, hardcover book,” says Liz Prouty, who owns Second Looks Books in Maryland with her husband, Richard Due. “It was a slow and cumbersome process and if anything was indexed wrong or a customer had the first word of a title wrong, you were out of luck.”

15. IT’S ALSO MADE US LOVE BOOKS MORE.

Some thought the e-book would surely spell the death of the bookstore. But many independent sellers say digitization has actually made people crave physical books more. “I’ve noticed in the last couple of years, so many people come in waxing rhapsodic about the smell of books, the feel of books,” Prouty says. “And they say it more now because the alternatives exist. People are deeply attached to the old-fashioned books.”

16. SOME BOOKSELLERS CAN IDENTIFY BOOKS BY THEIR SMELL.

Especially used booksellers. “These Penguins have their own particular odor,” Cohen says. That odor? Vanilla. Others might smell like almond or coffee.

17. BOOKSELLERS AREN’T IN IT FOR THE MONEY.

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In fact, most of them have second jobs or need monetary support from family members. “It is definitely a work of passion for everyone that I know,” Marshall says. “We don’t do it for the money, we don’t do it because we have any power or prestige. It’s genuinely just that we love books and we love getting them into people's hands.”

A version of this story first ran in 2016.

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