Jonas Worth brings his sports psychology background to SFU’s men’s soccer team

Worth trains his athletes to be prepared for failure and mental barriers

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Photo of SFU defender Aaron Colbourne mid-game.
PHOTO: Paul Yates / SFU Athletics

By: Natalie Cooke, News Writer 

Whether you’re an NCAA athlete, olympian, or a beginner at a sport, mentality can influence your performance. Through the collegiate and professional levels of soccer, Jonas Worth, SFU men’s soccer goalkeeping coach, discovered how much mentality contributed to his gameplay. “People will anecdotally say it’s 90% [mentality]. I’d say it’s sometimes closer to 99%  — the brain controls everything.”

Worth, who has a master’s degree in sports psychology, emphasizes the importance of letting go of mistakes to his athletes — a lesson he struggled with as a player. “You have to live in the moment. That really negatively impacted my own personal performance and career. I was always looking towards the future.”

Playing a sport can become draining if athletes obsessively replay what they could have done differently in their heads. In this case, spending too long dwelling on the action of making a mistake, rather than how they are going to make the appropriate corrections.

“Most athletes struggle with living in the past, even if that past was five seconds ago when you made a small mistake that doesn’t necessarily impact the game. But, it impacts your perception of how you’re performing,” said Worth. 

Aaron Colbourne, a defender on the men’s SFU soccer team, knows how relevant a person’s mindset is when it comes to results on the field. Colbourne uses the glass-half-full approach to practice Worth’s teachings about moving beyond mistakes. “Always pushing past mistakes and focusing on positive aspects of my play help me be the best I can be,” he told The Peak. 

For SFU men’s goalkeeper Jordan Thorsen, a positive mindset starts before stepping on the pitch. “Trying to put myself in a good mood in the days and hours leading up to a game helps me not only enjoy my time on the field far more, but allows me to more effectively move past mishaps when they occur.” 

That being said, stress can be a good thing. Stress promotes adrenaline, which allows more energy to be exerted by your brain and muscles. That’s why pregame routines are all about finding the right method to learn how to transform impairing nerves into encouraging ones. It’s why coach Worth believes “Everyone needs something different on game day.” 

In Colbourne’s case, it’s music. For Thorsen, it’s visualization. When you mentally rehearse your movements and skills, you’re making them more automatic. While we may not see the physical work at hand, your brain is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger its connections become. That’s why so much preparation takes place off the pitch. It’s best to do the least amount of thinking when you’re playing. Analyzing and picking apart each second of a game can cause athletes to second-guess a routine play. With how fast the game moves, a slight hesitation can leave enough room for an open player to become guarded. Practicing visualizing these split-second decisions helps reduce any anxiety when athletes come face to face with these moments in a game, which can be a matter of “winning” and “losing,” according to Thorsen.

“Utilizing mental rehearsals and visualizations effectively gives athletes the ability to practice certain specific movements without moving a muscle,” he said. “The same parts of your brain are active when you rehearse a movement, even if you aren’t physically performing it.”

In the last several years, sports psychology has become more recognized. Worth said at the 2018 NCAA Convention, mental health was the number one topic of discussion. NCAA departments are now hiring more than mental performance consultants, but full-time mental health staff, such as PhD-certified sports psychologists. Just a year ago, the NCAA released mental health resources as part of its Task Force to Advance Mental Health Best Practice Strategies. Schools were gifted with a care model with tips about creating better environments to support athletes’ mental health. 

While most of the current NCAA measures offer oversight into the challenges an athlete faces, having a former player with a sports psychology degree like Worth, makes sure athletes are working on the mental side of the game just as much as the physical. “Once athletes achieve a certain level of performance,” Thorsen said, “those who continue to progress and become great do so in their heads, not on the field.”