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South Valley Riverton Journal

Riverton athletes benefitting from sports psychology class

Sep 07, 2021 03:47PM ● By Jet Burnham

Steve Galley’s sports psychology class followed the journey of the Iron Cowboy, James Lawrence, who completed 100 Iron Man races in 100 days last spring. (Steve Galley/RHS)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

As a cheerleader at Riverton High School, senior Hailey Butterfield can relate to how Simone Biles was feeling at the Olympics this summer when her mental health affected her performance.

“If you can't take a tumbling pass correctly, it just messes with your head,” Butterfield said. “And if you don’t stick it right then you can hurt yourself, and that's kind of scary. So if you don't stick it a couple times in a row, the stress gets to you.”

Fortunately, Butterfield took a sports psychology class last year at RHS and learned relaxation techniques that help athletes before, during and after a performance as well as how to deal with fear, anxiety and stage fright.

A few weeks before the state cheerleading competition, Butterfield had learned about meditation and visualization in the class and was able to apply the strategies.

“I separated myself, and I did meditation,” she said. “I visualized us hitting our whole routine. And we did really good, so it definitely helped. I saw a difference between our region competition and our state competition.”

Her sports psychology teacher, Steve Galley, was a basketball coach for almost 25 years. Galley knows high school coaches can’t provide the mental health support that professionals have access to, so the sports psychology class, which RHS resumed teaching last year, is a great resource.

“I want to help all the other coaches, and their players and their performers to be able to deal better with some of this mental health stuff,” Galley said. “I try to give these kids some practical tools to help them to get an edge on performance and also to help them deal with some of these mental health issues that may be causing some obstacles for them or giving them some trouble.”

The sports psychology class isn't just for athletes-- musicians and actors have also benefited from the class’s relaxation and visualization exercises.

“A softball player may be doing visualization that deals with hitting, and you might have somebody that does drama who is visualizing the actual acting process,” Galley said. “These are skills that crossover into just about any activity or profession or vocation. You can use visualization for anything--to help prepare for a difficult meeting, a talk in church or for a marriage proposal.”

Kwan Ki Au, who also teaches sessions of the class, said students learn important life skills such as confidence, staying calm so they can solve problems when they are faced with adversity, and being resilient instead of becoming overwhelmed.

In addition to mental strategies, students focus on practical applications of physical habits that affect performance, including sleep, nutrition and hydration.

“We really want them to experiment with and learn different techniques and things that they can try in their own sport or performance activity,” Galley said.

Students keep a sleep diary and track the effects of optimal hydration and then report on the effect these routines have on their performance. Galley said students are amazed by how much these often underestimated habits have an impact on their physical and mental performance, both inside and outside the classroom.

Au, a RHS football coach, said he noticed the four football players who took the sports psychology class last year had more buy-in to the team workouts. They had learned, through a class assignment testing various workouts, the reasons supporting them.

“The kids understood why coaches do different training techniques that they do and so they've been a lot more focused in the workouts,” Au said. “Our guys have been able to gain confidence because they've understood how to prepare better.”

Au saw the same confidence in his students who were part of the RHS girls softball team that won the state championship this spring. They told Au that the relaxation and focus techniques they learned in his class helped them feel more calm while at bat and to recover mentally after a bad play.

“They were able to use some of those techniques to get resettled, recentered and refocused in their performance again and the results were they got to the state championship, despite some adversity,” Au said.

Hayden Walker took the class last year because he wanted to have a memorable senior year with the cross country team.

“I feel like any sport is a lot easier and you're able to more fully enjoy it and get the most out of it if you have a good mentality,” he said. “I took the class as a way to get better and be able to perform to what I saw as my highest potential.”

During his sophomore and junior years, he was nervous and less confident and his race times were sporadic. In the sports psychology class, he learned the visualizing, breathing and relaxation techniques to help him feel mentally prepared for his meets. During his senior year, he was relaxed and able to enjoy his cross country meets.

“After taking the class, I would go into a race already having visualized me performing the way I wanted to,” Walker said. “And so my performance started going up a lot more because I wasn't only more confident, but because I had already done it and seen it in my mind.”

Walker’s times consistently improved and he qualified for state and then nationals at a higher seating than expected. Inspired by the confidence and skills he gained in the class, he is currently training to complete an ironman challenge.