Dylan Donahue, Josh Huestis, and Christina Aragon. What do they have to say about Sport and Performance Psychology?

What percentage of any given sport -- individual or team -- is mental?
Athletes of all levels will often answer this question with a number 75 percent and above. Assuming that’s true, what percentage of time does any given athlete devote to improving themselves in the mental aspect of their game? The most common answer to that question is zero percent. That means no time spent improving the one aspect of the game that the athlete is in complete control of, no time spent looking at the value of sport and how it can help in so many other areas, no time spent gaining the competitive edge.

Bill Russell said that “concentration and mental toughness are the margins of victory,” and he is absolutely correct. Think about how many athletes who are not as skilled as their opponents end up winning. The same applies to teams. To put it in the simplest way possible: That phenomena is the result of mental ability, which is the primary focus of sport and performance psychology.

The first element of sport psychology is the lies in the mental skill of the athlete. “Mental skill” is a vague term that applies to aspects like confidence, goal setting, visualization, self-talk, mindfulness, arousal control, and so many more concepts that sport psychologists are looking at all the time. They apply to all aspects of sport, but can also be somewhat separated. The athletic world now recognizes the importance of things like physical conditioning, proper mechanics, and even analytics. People have been hired for years to improve athletes in these areas. The next edge is in the mind and how it can be used to limit the interference an athlete experiences on game day.

The best of the best in athletics are using mental skills to separate themselves, whether they do it naturally or take part in mental training. Coaches and parents often tell athletes that they need to “be more confident.” That’s an easy thing to agree with, but how does that athlete become more confident? Is it a simple choice? It seems to come from the right mixture of a good skill set and the correct thought patterns. Those thought patterns are the primary focus of sport psychology.

Dylan Donahue has provided his input to help explain the main aspects of sport psychology. Donahue is a former Billings West High football player who was a fifth-round NFL draft pick. He finished his college career at University of West Georgia, where he was named 2016 Gulf South defensive player of the year after setting the conference record with 13.5 sacks in the season. Donahue is currently a free agent hoping for a comeback into the NFL.

Q: How important are mental skills in sports?
Donahue: "Having a healthy and positive mind-state in athletics is simply the most important tool you can have in your arsenal. The mind is the most powerful thing on earth. If you learn and practice on controlling it, you can improve your game tenfold."
Q: What role does mental health play in sports?
Donahue: "For me, I’ve sometimes let my anger take over when I’m playing. I’m not saying that anger isn’t necessary and natural in that kind of environment, but if you can learn how to control and channel that energy, you will be way more effective. And there are so many other emotions involved, but that is just one example."
Q: Please describe your experience in working with a Sport Psychology Consultant.
Donahue: "Working with a sport psychologist was great for me, because he taught me certain tricks and techniques that I can use to implement a better understanding of yourself and your opponent. Another thing that was useful is learning how to be able to take your mind off of the game and knowing when doing so is necessary. Your mind needs time off here and there for it to be able to reach its potential. A sport psychologist can help show you how to work on all of these things. That is why I think that it is completely necessary, even crucial, being an athlete."

Elite athletes like Dylan Donahue understand that physical skill can only take you to a certain level. Although an extreme amount of time and effort can be put into increasing strength, speed, agility, and technical skills, mental ability is what brings it out on game day. Mental ability also requires some time and effort on the athlete’s part.


While most sport psychology consultants/mental performance coaches are not licensed psychologists in their state, they still have a commitment to improving the welfare of the athletes they work with. A lot of this work is done by breaking down the stigma of mental health in sports, which is that asking for help equates to a weak mentality. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as explained in a previous article featured on MontanaSports.com. Athletes are not immune to similar issues that people generally face just because they take part in sports. There may be some that disagree, but deciding to “suck it up” isn’t always the choice that leads to the best result.

Josh Huestis has had a lot of experience in his career with the mental side of the game. A former Great Falls CMR basketball player who helped his team win State AA championships in 2009 and 2010, Huestis is a graduate of Stanford University and holds the program record for blocked shots in a career (190). He was a first-round NBA draft pick of the Oklahoma City Thunder and has recently signed a contract to play for FC Bayern Munich . Huestis has outlined his experiences in sport psychology, including his views on mental health in sports, which he has also authored an article on .

Q: What role does mental health play in sports?
Huestis: "I’ve seen mental health issues be a really prominent thing in professional sports. All our lives, we as athletes are trained for a singular purpose. Our entire self-worth is reliant on succeeding at our sport and being the best. Because of that, I’ve seen so many athletes find themselves lost as human beings and become depressed and anxious. We’re held to such high standards and driven to achieve nearly impossible goals, which can lead to daily fear and mental struggles. The players that can truly succeed are the ones who recognize the need for help and can find the time to talk to someone about their issues on and off the court."
Q: How important are mental skills in sports?
Huestis: "To me, mental skills are the most important you can hone. Growing up everyone has heard that sports is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical, but hardly anyone actually treats it that way. I’ve been able to play basketball at the highest level possible, and I’ve seen so many examples of players who may not be the most skilled, athletic, or talented but find a way to be highly successful purely because their mental training is second to none."
Q: Please describe your experience in working with a Sport Psychology Consultant.
Huestis: "I’m proud to say that I’ve worked with a sport psychologist since college. I’ve always struggled with my confidence on the court. Since Day 1 I’ve been a perfectionist, and that pursuit of perfection can lead me to be paralyzed with the fear of making a mistake on the court. This obviously causes my game to suffer tremendously. Working with a sport psychologist helped me so much in letting go of that fear and facing it head on. Realizing that all I can do every single day is take care of the things I can control has helped me a lot. By learning how to not dwell on the past and focus on the present, my game improved significantly. I’d recommend every athlete speak with a sport psychologist at some point. We all can benefit."

Josh Huestis is in tune with these concepts and uses his awareness of them to continue working at his craft on a daily basis. The first thing that any sport psychology consultant will look at is the mental and emotional wellness of the athlete, because progress can’t fully be made unless that area is addressed.


There is a question that lingers with most in Montana: What does a sport psychology consultant do?

There are many terms used for this type of career. Sport psychologist, sport psychology consultant, mental game coach -- all really the same. The main body of sport psychology is the Association for Applied Sport Psychology . Instead of licensing their members, they offer a certification that ensures that those in the field are competent. After completing the requirements, one becomes a Certified Mental Performance Consultant. Consultants work with teams, individual athletes, and even coaches. This work is done on the field and off the field. It is delivered in ways that are uniquely catered to the team or athlete that needs the service but always focuses on the performer’s well-being and level of performance. Almost all professional sports organizations have a “Mental Performance Coach” somewhere on their staff. Many college organizations are also investing in sport psychology, and smaller organizations are beginning to, as well.

Christina Aragon is a well-known name in the sports world of Montana. She is a former Billings Senior High and current Stanford University runner whose accomplishments are extensive, including a fourth-place finish at the 2018 NCAA Division I National Championships in the 1,500-meter run. Aragon takes part in a unique sport as far as mental ability goes because of the almost-guaranteed pain that runners endure during their races. Aragon touches on this topic in her responses, and also talks about the benefits of working with a sport psychologist.

Q: Please describe your experience in working with a Sport Psychology Consultant.
Aragon: "I began working with a sport psychologist in my junior year at Stanford, and it has been an extremely positive experience, both for my relationship with running and my personal happiness as a student-athlete. It is difficult to fully understand your own thoughts when they are caught up in your head, but sport psych has helped me to better understand my own patterns of thinking. This has allowed me to form a healthier relationship with running that is based on excitement at the possibilities, rather than a need to accomplish something in order to achieve happiness."
Q: How important are mental skills in sports?
Aragon: "I believe that mental skills make up a large portion of what sport is. When looking at elite athletes, all of them are talented and all of them are fit. At this level, an athlete’s ability to work in conjunction with their own mind is what often determines results. In an endurance sport like running, I have found my headspace to have a huge impact on performance. Endurance sports are all about existing with pain and using goals to remind the mind that the cost of the pain is worth the result you are pursuing. Endurance athletes have to work to develop the mental skill of changing the relationship they have with pain, recognizing it as a good and natural part of the sport. Since mental skills have been a centerpiece in my experience with my sports, I assume that it is a dire part of any competitive sport in which you are practicing and competing at a high level."
Q: What role does mental health play in sports?
Aragon: "Mental health is important because the relationship you have with you own mind in life is often going to be reflected in your self-talk in a sporting event. I have found running to be almost a parallel world where I get to learn real-life lessons in the lower-stakes context of sport. The things that you learn in sports about your own internal being and the skills that you develop to interact with that being are the same skills and lessons that you need for the hardships of life. Therefore, I think working with someone on headspace in the context of sports and the setbacks of sports can consequently help to improve overall mental health. As you compete at a higher level, I have found that personal enjoyment and stress levels can have a greater impact on how you perform. Working with someone on overall mental health can help to make competition a more enjoyable and life-enhancing experience, which can consequently lead to more success, as well."

Focusing on mentality can make an athlete happier and more successful. Although the concept seems simple, the results can be profound. The margins of victory are often measured in inches. Inches can determine whether or not a last-second shot goes in. Inches can determine whether or not the defense gets the goal-line stand they’re looking for. Inches can determine the winner of a close race down the back stretch. Sport psychology may not give an athlete a mile, but it just may give the inches necessary to succeed.


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