This summer the Detroit Lions, looking to put more roar into their game, hired sports psychologist Michelle Garvin ’07 to be the team’s first-ever mental skills specialist/clinician. Lions owners hope Garvin’s skills will inspire the team, which finished last in its division for the past three seasons and hasn’t won a playoff game since 1991.
Garvin arrives just as a spotlight has turned on athletes’ mental health. Olympic gymnast Simone Biles and tennis star Naomi Osaka went public this year about their struggles with mental health and competition, and “people began to realize that athletes are human,” Garvin says. “The idea that athletes should just ‘suck it up and compete’ is changing. The message now is that getting support when you need it is a sign of strength.”
Under a new National Football League and NFL Players Association agreement, each team must have someone on staff to help players deal with mental health and wellness. Garvin sees herself over the course of the season leading workshops on topics like coping with pressure. She also plans to meet one-on-one with players to discuss everything from helping injured athletes get into the right head space to return to action, to planning for life after the decision to hang up the spikes.
When teams experience a losing streak, players often start questioning their strengths, which cause them to lose motivation, she says. Therefore, the key to staying motivated is to concentrate on personal performance goals, and just not on winning and losing.
“The outcome goal is to win the game and be in first place,” she says. “However, that goal is dependent on things outside of the individual, which the athlete can’t control.” In other words, a quarterback may make perfect throws, but if receivers constantly bobble the ball, the quarterback returns to the locker room thinking he’s awful.
“Performance goals don’t depend on the won/loss column,” Garvin continues. “With performance goals, athletes concentrate on their accomplishments in relation to previous performances. To do this, they concentrate on process goals — things they can do to reach their performance goals, like doing mental exercises and practicing drills to reach the outcome they want.”
Garvin developed her philosophy of mental skills coaching while working with student athletes at Loyola University and the University of Maryland, and with pro players as a consultant with the Baltimore Orioles.
The lifelong sports enthusiast played club baseball and basketball at Princeton, where she majored in psychology after finding her calling while taking a social psychology class in her sophomore year.
“When I found out I could combine psychology and sports, that was it for me,” Garvin says of the course taught by Deborah Prentice, who’s now the University’s provost. “Dr. Prentice was a super-engaging professor who took the time to talk to me outside of class and advised me on ways to gain experience in my chosen field. I kept up with her through grad school.” Garvin earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from George Washington University in 2014.
Besides her work with the Lions, Garvin is also in private practice, where she specializes in working with high school and college athletes.
“It’s so rewarding to help young athletes grow on the field, and help them find happiness off the field, where they can go on to do things they never envisioned for themselves,” she says.