Applied Behavior Analysis in Conjunction with Sports and Athletic Training

ABA in Conjunction with Sports and Athletic Training

In the 21st century, athletes of all levels are training not only their bodies but also their minds. It’s great if you can run the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds, bench press 250 pounds 22 times, and have perfect tackling technique, but if your mind isn’t in the game, you are a liability on the field. Sometimes, you might even be a liability off the field too.

Related resource: Top 15 Best Applied Behavior Analysis Online Programs

The Mental Health of Athletes

The No. 1 barrier to athletes seeking mental health help is the stigma. Much the same as in the military, these people are afraid of being labeled weak in a field where strength is praised and weakness derided. The combination of perceived strength vs. perceived weakness can have deadly consequences if the people involved have such a mental illness that it drives them to self-destructive behaviors or even suicide.

According to Psychology Today, one in four people suffers from mental illness. Those people are often mocked for seeking help while their physically ill colleagues receive no such derision. More than a quarter of athletes also have PTSD, according to the U.S. government, and these cases occur after athletes suffer a concussion. So, athletes with no prior history or family history of mental illness may suddenly find themselves saddled with such an illness simply because they played in a game.

What might be most insidious of all is that mental illness may be underreported. Because of the stigma attached, people may keep mum until it’s too late. There is, however, hope!

Applied Behavior Analysis: What is it?

While Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, is normally applied to patients on the autism spectrum, many of its concepts apply directly to all people. The focus on learned behaviors can be immediately applied to athletes regarding the stigma of mental health reporting. Something as simple as a quick class in avoiding the dangers of untreated mental illness can work wonders, particularly if the required examinations are anonymous.

Individuals with PTSD sometimes exhibit the same behaviors as people on the spectrum. The person might have trouble remembering practice times, team meeting times, and even game times, especially in cases of severe concussion. The same coping strategies for people on the spectrum will work with people with concussion-induced PTSD.

ABA and Athletes

Coaches search constantly for an edge. At every level, they want an advantage over their adversaries. A coach who has a poorly motivated team, for example, might want to inspire the team to achieve greater things through better practice and commitment. By training them in suitable mental techniques, that coach can give the players the tools they need to develop their own collective desire to excel.

No coach wants injured players to get worse. Sometimes, however, players decide that they want to play no matter what and don’t report injuries until they’re noticeable, which is a bad idea because they are usually much more serious at that point than if the player reported such injuries as soon as they occured. This is true of sicknesses too. A player wouldn’t play with a severe, bloody-sputum cough and a 103 fever, and no one would bat an eye. A player who is suffering from clinical depression, whether related to a concussion or not, who doesn’t play should be given the same attention and appropriate treatment. Coaches must train their athletes to realize that coming forward because of mental illness is not weak. Indeed, it shows strength of character because the person wants to get better. It might also keep that person alive. Suicide is often a product of untreated depression or other mental illness.

How ABA Can Be Implemented with Athletes

The core of ABA is reinforcement. Whenever an athlete does something right, the positive feedback should be both direct and immediate. The same holds true about the improvement feedback if the player does something incorrect. In some cases, removing the player from the practice is necessary so that incorrect behaviors are not reinforced.

Feedback must also be constant so that the reinforcement, correction, or both have a chance to sink in. In addition to teaching the athletes the finer points of the game, the concept of going for help with mental health must also be constantly reinforced. When a player is successful in getting that help with a mental health issue, develops strong coping strategies, and takes any prescribed medication as necessary, praising that player will not only reinforce the behavior in that player specifically but also in the player’s teammates. Conversely, if a player known to have a mental illness does not seek help, correcting that player in private will, it is hoped, steer that player toward accepting mental health help.

ABA Outside the Realm of Mental Health

ABA is useful during the game as well as off the field. For example, in the game of American football, there are certain tendencies among coaches that govern what kind of plays are called at certain points in the game, at certain field positions during the game, and on certain downs in the game. Savvy defenders who have been trained to think analytically regarding the behavior of the other team’s coaches might be able to intuit which play is coming next. Then, they could adjust their play to what’s coming. The same holds true in baseball. Hitters will generally behave one way when the count is 2-1 and another way when it’s 0-1 or 0-2.

The Final Words

Applied Behavior Analysis can be a useful tool in many areas of athletics at all levels. It can help young people of all genders develop social skills and strategies that will last them a lifetime. ABA can also give professional athletes a boost in the right direction when they need it. It will enable players of all levels to hone their craft to a sharper edge than just physical repetition would. Of course, it is not a panacea for all of the sports world’s problems, but it is an effective tool for coaches and players.