Ahead of the Curve

Jon Hammermeister – An expert in sports and performance psychology

By Brad Brown

At the highest level of professional competition, all athletes relentlessly search for ways to gain an edge over their opposition. Their ambition for success is equally preternatural as they train to the outer edges of physical capability.

So what sets apart the perennial MLB All-Star from the struggling minor league prospect, both drafted in the same round in the same year?

Is it simply talent? Luck? Sure, every circumstance is significantly affected by an array of variables but a rising amount of data reveals that a large portion of an athlete’s success and failure boils down to one distinct variable – his or her mental conditioning.

Once used as a tool to help save the careers of problem athletes, sports psychology has recently morphed into a highly influential and respected field. So much so that professional organizations have started hiring sports psychologists to help elevate their athletes’ peak performance and gain an emotional and mental edge on their competition.

Enter Jon Hammermeister, PhD, an EWU professor since 1999 in the Department of Physical Education, Health and Recreation, who specializes in psychosocial aspects of sport, exercise and health.

Over the years, Hammermeister has been called upon to work with some of the world’s most prolific Olympic and professional athletes, and has generated more than 100 academic works in the areas of sport and performance psychology, learning enhancement, leader behaviors, and health psychology – also authoring a book titled Cornerstones of Coaching.

With more than 20 years of experience working with various sports organizations, Hammermeister has been well-suited to take on new challenges and has found his way to the forefront of the ever-evolving field. However, recent technological advancements have pushed him out of his comfort zone and into the realm of psychometrics.

Hammermeister has been working with the Pittsburgh Pirates as a consultant and is responsible for their personal and professional development programs. While organizations have strength coaches to improve athletic performance, Hammermeister works with more than 200 athletes in the Pirates’ system to train the strength of the athlete’s mind.

“The Pirates don’t use the term sports psychology,” said Hammermeister. “They use the term mental conditioning because they want the athletes to think of their minds as muscle. If they train it in the right way it’s going to get stronger.”

Mental conditioning not only affects the way the Pirates train their athletes within the organization, but new technology allows them to acquire numeric approximations of how athletes think when they are looking to acquire new players – and Hammermeister is at the forefront of this cutting-edge research.

“Ten or 15 years ago, we would just guess at that kind of stuff,” said Hammermeister. “Now we’ve got a much more direct way of measuring these things. We are much more confident now in putting together these characterizations of how any individual thinks and what are the reasons behind their action.”

These quantifications play a large role in what Hammermeister does with the MLB draft. In baseball, scouts define a player’s ability by identifying the number of “tools” a player has, with a five-tool player being proficient in fielding, running, throwing, hitting for power and hitting for average. However, part of Hammermeister’s job is to make sure the players the Pirates are interested in drafting have the mental tools that they are looking for in an athlete.

“There are certain personality traits that are important for high achieving,” he said. “The thing with traits is that they generally don’t change much over time. That’s why it’s important that we are able to identify what these traits are, because if certain combinations of these traits aren’t in place, then it’s hard for us to layer the type of training on top of what we think is going to help develop the athlete in the most effective way.”

Neuropsychology is something Hammermeister says has evolved rapidly in the past five years and is what he tries to bring back to his students at Eastern. Drawing comparisons with the modern-day student and the modern-day athlete, Hammermeister thinks the out-of-the-box techniques used by the Pirates to make learning not seem like school is important for getting the message through to the student.

“I think when you’re trying to teach anybody anything, whether it’s sports psychology or physics, you’ve got to be able to connect with the person,” he said. “Modern-day college students and modern-day athletes are just raised in a slightly different way than most college professors or coaches were. Obviously, they’re expecting more technology to be built into the process, and I think they expect to have more of a say in the process as well.”

While the field continues to rapidly change and adapt with the emergence of new technology, Hammermeister has been forced to adapt to it as well.

“I didn’t get a lot of training with this when I was in college, so it’s really been an area that I’ve had to grow in,” he said. “The biggest problem is that it’s uncomfortable, just because change is uncomfortable. But I think I’ve come to grips with the fact that if I want to stay on the cutting edge, discomfort is just a part of the process.”

To stay ahead of the curve, Hammermeister is continuing to explore new and better ways to assess personality. He says it keeps him sharp, and in his field, “if you want to stay relevant, you’ve got to evolve.”

“I think neuropsych and all the technology being developed around neuropsych are going to have a huge influence on the field,” he said. “It’s been exciting, fulfilling and interesting, and it’s the stuff I try to bring back to Eastern.”

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