In fact, I first met Dr. Hamming in 2012 at a local CrossFit gym in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I had joined for a few months while my husband was rehabbing his shoulder. I couldn’t help but notice this incredibly fit, competitive man who defied the term, “over the hill.”
Sure enough, I soon found out his accolades as an All-American fast pitch softball player, winner of two gold medals in the U.S. Track and Field Master’s division competition, and more recently, thirteenth in the WORLD for his division at the 2013 CrossFit World Games (yeah, kind of a big deal, right?).
It gets even better – he has a passion for nutrition! After attending a nutrition seminar series I conducted in the fall of 2012, I saw his dedication to nutrition and health first-hand, which has obviously paid dividends with his high level performance at the CrossFit World Championships. His philosophy?
“I eat seriously but not religiously…probably about 90% of my food is Paleo. I raise my own chickens for meat and eggs and raise my own organic fruits and vegetables.”
Additionally, Steve’s expertise in performance coaching, collaborative divorce coaching, and clinical consulting at his practice in Grand Rapids, Michigan extends beyond to his latest development: PsychWOD (“Psychology Workout Of the Day”).
Designed specifically but not exclusively to help CrossFitters, Steve has designed PsychWOD to be an inspiration and free resource to help athletes gain the mental edge en route to a higher level of achievement.
Without further ado, I’ll let you learn from this credible expert who practices what he preaches!
Interview with Dr. Steve Hamming
Q: Where does your motivation and interest for sports psychology come from?
“I have been a competitive athlete most of my life, and then became a psychologist later in life. For me, it was pretty natural merging two important aspects of my own life experience. I also like athletes – I like the mentality, I like their drive– I love the intensity of athletes – for me, they are very enjoyable people to work with… they’re my people. It’s a great way for me to be involved with people that I enjoy.”
Q: What is “sports psychology” and what role does it play in performance?
“What it means to me is paying attention to what happens mentally. Most athletes have spent their time developmentally on their bodies, and on their technique, on their stamina, and they all know the mental (part) is important. But, I think most younger athletes believe either you have it or you don’t, or it just is what it is and they don’t know you can actually work on it and improve it. So, sports psychology for me is helping develop an appreciation that what happens mentally and emotionally makes a difference, and helping people understand how it makes a difference – both positively and negatively.”
Q: What are typical results that most patients have seen in working with you?
“Most people just do better. Now, how much better can depend on maybe the length of work that we do, the depth of work that we do, and how much that particular block was affecting them.
For example: I was seeing a high school long distance swimmer, and in practice, she was just torpedo fast. And when she would get in the meets, her times were noticeably slower. That’s why she came to me, because there was such a disparity between practice performance and game performance. What we came to discover about her is that she had a block that she was going to run out of gas before the race was over. So, in exploring what the fear looked like – was she going to sink to the bottom of the pool or would she have to quit – having worked with that fear for a while and diminish it, she went on and won the high school state championship. She always had the potential, and her coach knew that, but she couldn’t let it go in competition. She swam just managing her fear.”
Q: What are some ways that removing the “block” affects your clients’ lives both on and off the court or field?
“I enter into an opportunity with an athlete with belief that all of life is a stage. And, by stage, I mean this person that’s coming in with performance issues has had many on-stage experiences. Some have been athletic, some have been social, and some have been interpersonal. Performance shows up in sport, because we have ways to measure it with clocks and distances and so on. But, a lot people come in with these earlier life on-stage experiences that have to do with being embarrassed, being shamed, being compared, not feeling like they’ve measured up… kind of like a glass ceiling placed over their heads. They’ve learned that developmentally as life has gone on.
So, they come to me, and they can break through that glass ceiling, and they find out what’s holding them back and whether that’s fear, or a particular belief that they’ve had, or a belief that others have had about them that they’ve adopted… to be free of that means to be free, not just on the court, but to be free in their relationships and other goals they have for their lives. As their belief in themselves expands in the sport that they came for, it expands everywhere.
Q: What is the most common mental mistake(s) that you see with athletes?
“The most common mental mistake is that if someone wants to do really well, then they push themselves in ways that decrease their performance. There’s an old adage in sports psychology: ‘Let performance happen, don’t make performance happen.’ By the time the athlete comes to see me, they will have done whatever their movement is in their sport thousands and thousands of times. Their body and their muscle memory know what to do. If they can get their head of out of the way and let their body do what it’s trained to do, they will be more effective than trying to make their body do something.
For example: Think of shooting free throws. If you try to make that happen, your body is going to stiffen and tighten, and that’s the last thing you want. You want a nice, relaxed, easy release. Your attempt to make it better by pushing intention into, ‘I’ve got to make this happen,’ will make it worse.”
Q: So, what are some ways that you help athletes to LET performance happen?
“It depends on the setting, because every sport has a little different setting and need. But, much of it has to do with keeping your body calm and keeping your anxiety at a level that is useful, as opposed to a level that causes more tension in your body. Part of it is learning how to regulate your own body through breathing and other techniques, so you can calm your body down and do your sport with a greater sense of relaxation. You can’t be too relaxed, but your body has to be calm. You can’t be hyped up with anxiety.
So, I help teach people how to calm their body, though some people need to get bodies more agitated… But, for most people, their bodies are too jacked up emotionally. Their heart is going too fast and their breathing is too fast and too shallow, so the whole body system is not ready for a peak performance.”
Q: Can you give an example of some breathing techniques to induce relaxation?
“Yoga is very helpful with athletes. Yoga breathing, learning diaphragmatic breathing, belly breathing, and use bilateral stimulation, are all helpful ways to calm their body down while they breathe.”
Q: What does bilateral stimulation involve?
“Our brains are divided into two hemispheres, and the signals from the right side get recorded on one side of the brain and the left side on the other. So, when you tap one leg and the other leg and/or one arm and then the other arm 10 – 12 times, it has a calming effect on the brain. If you do it too many times, though, it can have the opposite effect.
When I would play fast pitch softball and I was in batter box, which is one of the more anxious times for a ball player, I’d just take a minute, put the bat down, and just tap back and forth on my legs while I breathed slowly and deeply. It’s very calming, and then I’d step in and do business.”
Q: What is the best form of mental training for high school, college, and/or professional athletes?
“At that level, I talk with clients about how this needs to happen every day. It needs to happen every practice, because we play like we practice. For instance, I’ll just stick with the basketball example; you can’t go into practice and not be focused, not concentrate, not be paying attention to your body, and then all of a sudden, at game time, flip a switch and think you’re going to do all that stuff in a game if you haven’t practiced it in practice.
Athletes need to do the different exercises, both in calming their bodies and focused attention. Figuring out where their focus needs to be, regulating their bodies, etc.; all of that has to happen as a part of everyday practice, too. Some of the stuff you can do at home, like visualization… but much of what they need to learn to regulate in their own minds, to know where their minds are, where they need to be, and what their inner dialogue is and so on… that has to happen during practices.”
Q: What are some ways that athletes can help focus their attention?
“We’ve all heard coaches yell, ‘Focus! Focus! Pay attention!,’ because we all know focus is important. But, they’re not telling the athlete WHERE their attention should be. They just want them to be focused, but you can’t just focus; you have to focus ON something. You can’t tell a basketball player, ‘Focus.’ You know, there are 20 things happening on the court at any given point in time…
You have to get clear… where the focus needs be when playing. It can’t be too narrow or too broad. You can’t be too narrow, because then you’ll miss the bigger game of how people are moving and positioning. Part of that is figuring out with the athlete in their particular role where their focus needs to be, and what it needs to be – how broad and how narrow.”
Q: Give me an example of where their focus should be.
“When you’re sitting on the bench in baseball and your team is not up to bat, your focus can be quite broad. You can look around, and you can look at fans if you want, but when you step into the on-deck circle, your focus cannot be that broad anymore. Now, it needs to narrow down to the scoreboard. What inning are we in? Are we ahead or behind? How many outs are there? All of that’s going to make a difference to what you’re thinking about doing with the ball.
Then, when you step into the batter’s box, your focus needs to narrow even more than that. You know what you’re told to do, and at that point, all you should be focusing on is the ball. That’s the only thing in your mind; you can’t be thinking about all this other stuff. It goes from real broad to real narrow depending on the situation.
Most athletes don’t know how to do this. Some do it instinctually, but for most athletes, it can be improved as they come to understand the helpfulness of where their focus should be, how narrow it should be, and where they should be paying attention. What they do naturally isn’t necessarily what they do best.”
Q: What are some of the best ways to train the mind to think positively?
“Well, a couple of ways. Your positive thinking has to be thinking that you believe. It can’t simply be positive – it has to be something that internally you actually believe to be true. It has be based on some belief or reality. For instance, it wouldn’t help me to say, ‘I’m going to go out and compete. I’m the best athlete in the world.’ It’s real positive, but on some level, I know it’s not true. So, if it’s not true, I’m not really going to believe myself. I’ll take my own example of the stuff that you have to figure out in practice, not in competition.
When I’m competing in a Crossfit WOD (Workout of the Day), what do I say to myself that I find motivating? While I’m running, what keeps me going? I know one (statement) that’s become really meaningful to me. It’s actually a negative but it works for me; it’s a ‘don’t’ statement as opposed to a ‘do’ statement. At some point in the workout, you get really, really tired. Whenever that happens, I say to myself:
‘Do not waste this effort. I’ve come this far, now I’m close to the finish line. Don’t waste it now. I’ve already invested deeply into this workout. I’ve pushed hard; don’t waste it, don’t that throw that all away by coasting to the finish line.’
I find that really motivating. That really keeps me going hard. For somebody else, that may not help at all, but it does for me.
Finding that uniquely with each athlete is not that hard and then it’s more fitting, because that particular athlete finds that phrase helpful and they believe it.”
Q: Do you ever have your clients write down their focus or positive statements?
Absolutely; I’ll have them rehearse it, (find a way to) see it often, put it in their pocket; even put a stone in their pocket so the stone comes to remind them of it. I want this stuff to live in a real present way with them, where they’re thinking of it often.
For Part 2 of my interview with Dr. Hamming, click here.