Winning Ways

How a local sports psychologist keeps that competitive edge



Photo by Peter Ogilvie

About 75 percent of kids quit sports by age 13 or 14 due to increased performance expectations and a lack of mental toughness, says sports psychologist Caroline Silby.

She grappled with similar challenges when she was a young athlete. Following six years of intense training in figure skating, the Potomac native began to dread competitions and was close to walking away at age 12.

“I felt physically ready, but not mentally ready,” recalls Silby, now 47. “One week I’d skate great and hit all my jumps, and then two weeks later I’d become a human Zamboni and wipe up the ice.”

So Silby asked her parents how she could train her mind to keep pace with her physical ability. Looking for answers, they took her to a sports psychologist.  

Silby says the consultations made all the difference.

“Pretty quickly I was able to manage my emotions and I felt in control,” she says. Her consistency improved and she went on to make the U.S. national figure skating team in 1983 and 1984.

That success aside, Silby says skating provided a way to practice the mental strategies she had learned. Focusing on life’s positives and staying in the present helped her succeed and be happy.

As a result, Silby successfully shifted gears when she didn’t make the U.S. Olympic team as a 19-year-old in 1984. Inspired by her own positive experience, she became a sports psychologist and now has offices in Potomac and Santa Fe, N.M. She also published a book in 2000 on girls’ sports, Games Girls Play: Understanding and Guiding Young Female Athletes (Golden Books Adult Publishing).  

Silby has worked with many athletes and teams over the past 20 years, including Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Dominique Dawes and the women’s soccer team at American University, where she also teaches.

“I feel very prepared for all of life’s challenges,” Silby says.

What she does:

Focuses on her success

Silby says athletes, like many people, tend to focus on what they do wrong. To reverse that thinking, she’ll write down three accomplishments and three actions that contributed to each positive result.

Other times she’ll brainstorm a list of personal strengths, such as an ability to find humor in situations, to summon enthusiasm or to bounce back quickly from mistakes. Silby often instructs clients to pick their top four strengths and then apply one to their sport in a new way every day for a week.

When something positive happens in her life, Silby will “anchor” or cement the feeling by touching her thumb to her middle finger. And periodically she will go through a “happiness drawer” filled with thank-you notes from clients.

Silby, her husband, Larry Hinz, 50, and two daughters, Maddie, 10, and Carly, 6, also discuss the best parts of their weeks during dinner.

The Payoff

“It’s important to reflect on what you’re doing when you’re successful so that you can repeat it,” Silby says. “Making those connections helps you feel in control and builds confidence and happiness.”

Keeps it simple

When pressure mounts, Silby sticks to a game plan. While she was writing her book, her publisher was bought by another company and there were concerns that the project might be cancelled. To get through this stressful time, Silby ignored “TBUs”—“true, but useless pieces of information”—and stuck to a daily routine where she exercised, wrote and saw clients.

She also breaks tasks into actionable steps. If something is not actionable, she acknowledges that it’s simply a worry and lets it go.

And she focuses on a task’s simplicity, rather than its momentousness. For example, before she appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1996 to talk about the stress felt by high-achieving young athletes, she reminded herself that she would simply be answering questions about what she knows.

The Payoff

“Having a path and plan helps you stay focused on what you can control,” Silby says.

Stays in the moment

Silby keeps her eye on the process instead of the prize. If she gets off track, she’ll tense and release her shoulders, take deep breaths or chew gum. “It moves my energy outward, and connects me to the present moment,” she says.

The Payoff

Living in the present helps athletes and others focus and perform their best each day.

Leah Ariniello is a Bethesda-based writer who frequently writes about health.

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