Campus News

How student-athletes handle March Madness

Marc Cormier
a hand holding a basketball

LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 18, 2024) — It’s basketball fans’ favorite time of year — March Madness. Whether it is the love of basketball, or the thrill of competition, every fan is rooting on a favorite team.

Marc Cormier, director of the Sport and Exercise Psychology graduate program housed in the University of Kentucky College of Education's Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion, and director of Counseling and Sport Psychology Services in UK Athletics, once again sits down with UKNow to discuss how student-athletes handle high-pressure situations.

UKNow: In simple terms, what is sport psychology?

Cormier: Sport psychology is an umbrella term. Under this umbrella, we have two main areas, mental health and mental fitness, and each have their own sub-fields. Basically, sport psychology professionals (across the spectrum) study the relationship between psychological/mental factors and optimizing human performance. These can include focus, emotional regulation, anxiety, team cohesion, motivation, managing expectations and even the psychological aspects of injury and rehabilitation. Some professionals are certified to work in mental fitness whereas others are qualified and licensed to work in mental health. A small number of professionals are trained and credentialed to work in both.

Elite athletes have strength and conditioning coaches to train the body and athletic trainers to rehabilitate the body and keep it healthy. Sport psychology professionals are another piece of the puzzle as we aim to do each of these for the mind. We may help an athlete through difficulties known as a “slump” or help them develop the skills to prevent slumps from ever happening. By making athletes aware of the importance of mental factors, we can hopefully help them understand that they have control over the way they think, and therefore, how they perform.

UKNow: The NCAA Tournament represents the culmination of a team’s season and is watched by millions of fans. Can you talk about the pressures that student-athletes face associated with playing in this tournament?

Cormier: Without a doubt, student-athletes will face a variety of pressures in this tournament that likely aren’t present throughout the rest of the season. From November through February, if a team under-performs, they regroup, watch film, practice and adjust for the next game. What makes this format so unique are the high stakes. It’s win or go home. There are no do-overs. So, in addition to being physically ready, student-athletes need to be psychologically prepared for this format.

Mental skills are like any other skill. To some, they come more easily or naturally. To others, it can be more of a challenge or a process. Ultimately, if we think of holistic performance as pie, a big piece of the whole, particularly at the Division 1 level, will always be physical skill and technical abilities. The rest of the pie is then divided into the other major contributors to performance (e.g., sleep, nutrition, sport IQ, recovery, physical and emotional health and, of course, mental fitness). The challenge for sport psychology professionals is to determine, for each student-athlete/team in the NCAA tournament: (a) how much of the pie is made up of mental factors and (b) what specific mental skill(s) does an athlete/team need to work on most, in various situations (e.g., free throws, timeouts, defense, final four, etc.). Some student-athletes need to put in extra reps in building confidence, while others need to work on focus and concentration when ESPN cameras are on. Ultimately, the formula looks different for every person and that, in all honesty, is the most challenging and enjoyable part of my job.

It's also important to note that we don’t always look at things from a deficiency perspective. In other words, we’re not always concerned with “what’s missing.” Often, part of the process is helping athletes/teams to identify things they do well. A good practitioner will focus on helping performers identify strengths and assets just as frequently as weaknesses, while working to build both.

UKNow: Building off this, help us understand what usually goes through a student-athlete’s head in high-pressure situations?

Cormier: Stress and anxiety are very common in high-pressure situations and what we see most often. They can have a real impact on a person’s performance. Physical symptoms such as muscle tension, sweating, increased heart rate and trembling/shaking may be the difference between a basket and a missed shot. But there are many instances where an athlete looks fine but is experiencing what is called cognitive anxiety (e.g., racing/clouded thoughts, fear of failure, doubt in abilities, poor decision making, etc.). These can be just as detrimental to performance and require different skills to manage.

Every athlete will respond differently to a high-pressure situation. In the end, it all depends on how an athlete appraises the situation. Athlete A may appraise an Elite Eight game as “high pressure” because of the high stakes, crowd noise and/or national broadcast. Athlete B, on the other hand, appraises it as another day at the office. So, first we must understand the individual athlete and identify what situations lead them to thrive and what are potential areas of growth. Things like fear of failure, negative self-talk (e.g., don’t miss this shot, don’t lose it for the team) and general self-doubt. Basically, in high-pressure situations, everything is magnified which can lead athletes to fear mistakes, dwell on mistakes or avoid complex/risky plays altogether.

UKNow: From a psychological perspective, what makes the NCAA tournament so fascinating and why are we so captivated by upsets?

Cormier: Upsets are magnified in this tournament because we are provided with literal rankings to help us decipher who is supposed to win, and we take those into consideration when watching the game. What we need to remember that a post-season ranking usually represents how well the team has done during the season, not necessarily how well they’re projected to do in the post-season. Players may overlook this and may view the NCAA tournament as a continuation of their season (for good or bad). Ultimately, matchups are critical in this tournament. Talent and coaching matter, obviously, but so does the style of play. It’s likely that a low-ranked “smaller” school will come at you with absolutely everything they’ve got. They have nothing to lose and realize that they’re best chance of winning is to give their best effort. A top-ranked team, on the other hand, may inadvertently approach a first-round game as an “easy win” and focus less on their intentional process (mentioned above).

With that in mind, there are critical things that every team needs to understand as they begin the NCAA tournament. First, every team deserves to be here. There are no “easy games”. Top-ranked teams, therefore, must prepare for a battle and an elite effort, regardless of who the opponent is. Second, every team has a 0-0 record on day one of the tournament. A team’s season record matters, only to the extent that it builds collective confidence (e.g., “we’ve played well this season. We can beat top teams. Let’s keep it going”). But ultimately, every team gets to reset. Finally, teams absolutely need to focus on the task at hand, not the previous game or the next game. This game. The trick here is not to forget about the regular season, but to appreciate and recognize where you’ve come from (and what got you here). Acknowledge the work you’ve done to reach this level and intentionally focus on how it will prepare you for the team you’re currently playing against.

UKNow: What is the key to success when trying to balance mental and physical performance?

Cormier: To me, the biggest key is developing an appreciation for all aspects of performance. From an outside perspective, performance looks like an iceberg. What the fans see is just the tip of the iceberg, floating above the surface. The big shot or the flawless play are products of the work that must be done. The work that matters, day in and day out. And it’s not flashy or celebrated.

Over 85% of an iceberg is beneath the surface and people rarely see or think about what happens when student-athletes are off the screen. We don’t often realize how much is invested to be able to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. The early morning/extra workouts, the grind, sacrifice, team bonding and skill development. At this level, it takes more than just talent or physical skill. It involves an in-depth awareness of how all things fit together for each athlete. As I’ve mentioned before, this process looks different for each student-athlete and team. Ultimately, the ones who continuously perform well are those who understand and appreciate each factor related to their performance … mental, physical or otherwise.

We always consider the environment when optimizing performance. Obviously, the environment is a very broad term since it can involve the physical environment (e.g., stadium, crowd noise, Final Four setting) or socio-emotional environment (e.g., culture, team cohesion, coaching). A very basic tool or technique in sport psychology is remembering to “control the controllables.” We need to remember that some things, such as the setting, cannot be changed. Therefore, student-athletes must work to control how they respond to uncontrollable events or factors, rather than dwelling on the fact that the setting is not desirable for enhancing their performance. This can be difficult. In essence, we’re asking student-athletes to learn to accept an uncontrollable (competing in a win-or-go-home format) while focusing on the aspects of their performance that they can control (e.g., their ability to focus, helping teammates, remaining mindful, their work ethic, etc.).

UKNow: Are sport psychology concepts applicable in other high-performance settings or day-to-day life?

Cormier: A lot of what we do in sport is transferable to everyday life and other high-performance settings because much of what we teach athletes are, in fact, life skills. More and more, people with advanced training and certification in sport psychology are working with non-sport populations. Specifically, we’re seeing a sharp increase in sport/performance psychology services offered in military and corporate settings, as well as the performing arts. This makes a lot of sense when you consider how we, as sport psychology professionals, help. For example, one major thing I try to do is help athletes focus more on the process and purpose in achieving mastery. It can be counterproductive to be too outcome oriented because the outcome can be out of our control. Instead, by focusing on the process (i.e., what YOU can do to achieve a desired outcome), we become agents of success. Imagine a person whose goal is to perform on Broadway. Wanting the outcome can help motivate this person, but ultimately, a director will choose the “best available” dancer/actor/singer – meaning, your ability to get a part in a musical will depend on who else is auditioning. But, by being intentional and focusing on the process – controllable things you can do to improve your chances (i.e., attending voice/dance lessons, relaxation techniques, reflecting on feedback), you work hard and simultaneously increase your chances of achieving your outcome by being a more desirable candidate. Likewise, in a sport like basketball, we’re helping an athlete focus on executing the small things (e.g., foot speed, positioning, defensive awareness), to increase baskets and increase the likelihood of winning a game. Of course, the outcome matters, but by helping clients understand that success has layers, we help them redefine what it means to be successful. In other words: be proud of your audition despite not getting chosen. This mindset motivates us to keep working, regardless of the skill of the opponent.

I also implement mindfulness techniques a lot in my work with athletes. There are so many benefits, both on and off the court, to being present. Being in the moment. This means not dwelling on mistakes or thinking too far into the future but focusing on what you’re doing right now. Taking this concept and applying it to, say, a member of our military or someone giving a presentation in front of board members, it makes perfect sense. In fact, many professionals will have clients from across the performance spectrum, rather than focusing exclusively on any single population.

UKNow: What opportunities are available to pursue a career in sport psychology at the University of Kentucky?

Cormier: Those interested in a career in sport psychology can apply to the graduate program in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion, which is housed in the College of Education. This is a two-year program and allows students the choice of pursuing an applied or research track. Applied students will complete a (minimum) 300-hour internship while Research students will complete an original thesis project.

Students in both tracks will complete coursework in sport and exercise psychology, group dynamics, counseling techniques, leadership, diversity and social justice and psychology of injury. More information can be found on our website


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