Dr. Carly Anderson, Ph.D, is a licensed psychologist, certified mental performance consultant, and former UCLA gymnast. Her first-hand experience as a competitive athlete, coupled with years of professional training and expertise in sport psychology, provides her with unique, valuable insight into the mental side of training, coaching, competing, and performing. In this article, we learn more about Carly’s personal experience as a gymnast, particularly during her time at UCLA. She also shares her views on hot topics in the field of sport psychology, including effective coaching methodology, how to cope with performance anxiety, and the transition out of sport.
COMPETITIVE GYMNASTICS CAREER
Born and raised in Seattle, Washington, Carly enjoyed competing in club gymnastics for 15 years at Cascade Elite Gymnastics. She looks back on her club gymnastics days fondly, stating that it was a positive experience with a great coach. One highlight of her club career was winning the 1998 Level 10 National Team title with Onnie Willis (UCLA). That year, nationals was held in her hometown, which made the victory all the more glorious.
In 1999, Carly earned a full-ride athletic scholarship to UCLA, where she trained with esteemed coach, Valorie Kondos Field. When asked what drew her to UCLA, Carly replies, “I chose UCLA because I loved Miss Val, I loved the school, and I wanted to surround myself with people who are the best at what they do.”
The year she joined UCLA, there were 7 Olympians and national team members on the team. During her five years there, UCLA won 3 NCAA national team titles. Unfortunately, Carly was sidelined for most of her collegiate career due to suffering 2 ACL injuries. “I tore my ACL during my freshman year. Sophomore year, I competed mostly on bars. In the beginning of my junior year, I tore my ACL again. So by my senior year, I decided not to continue competing.” Instead, Carly had the opportunity to work as a volunteer assistant coach during her fifth year at UCLA. She was also a research assistant in the International Center for Talent Development, a sport psychology lab. All these experiences and more, shaped her desire to become a sport psychologist.
Carly graduated from UCLA with degrees in Psychology and Communication Studies. College was an incredibly formative, pivotal life chapter that not only fortified her career path, but also taught her invaluable life lessons. “The caliber of people I was surrounded by at UCLA really gave me perspective on what it means to be great at something. By the time I got done with UCLA, Miss Val’s expectations of us and our team and how I then embodied that for myself instilled in me the mantra that ‘excellence is the new normal’. You always give your best effort, you always push to be better, you always have a growth mindset and find ways to improve, and that’s kind of your philosophy for life. That was a very significant takeaway from my time at UCLA. I feel fortunate that I had Miss Val as a mentor and coach, especially as a young person. She was really impactful and really influential in shaping how you think and sort of approach the world.”
FROM ATHELETE TO SPORT PSYCHOLOGIST
Upon leaving UCLA, Carly dove straight into her Ph.D program at the University of North Texas (UNT), where she studied Counseling Psychology with an emphasis in sport psychology. She is now a practicing sport psychologist based in Minnesota. She has worked with the USA Curling National Team and was a staff member of Team USA at the 2018 Winter Olympics, where the US Men’s curling team won gold. When asked what her favorite part about being a sport psychologist is, Carly says,
I love joining people on their journey to being the best version of themselves, or achieving whatever goal they’re wanting to work on. It’s so fun to watch someone get through something or achieve a goal, and progress and move forward along their path in life. It’s just super rewarding.
Coaching Methods— which is most effective in training athletes?
A lot of discussion has centered around the topic of coaching methodology. How does one train an athlete in a way that maximizes the athlete’s potential in a healthy, constructive manner? Should coaches adopt an authoritarian, fear-centric mode of training to shape mentally tough athletes who can deliver great results? Or can the same results be achieved when training athletes in a more positive, nurturing manner? Perhaps these two modes of coaching exist as two ends of a spectrum, with the ideal coaching style falling somewhere in the middle. Carly offers her thoughts on the topic.
“We’re always advancing and innovating in performance realms and in sports, and I think now we have quite a lot of data and research that suggests that motivating with fear, or coaching in a way that belittles or demoralizes people, particularly children, is not healthy. In the short term, some coaches may argue that [using this method] can get athletes to do what they want, or get more out of them. But I would argue that there’s risk, if not high likelihood, of causing damage and harm along the way that’s not sustainable for psychological health and sometimes even physical health, and is not ideal for athletes’ long-term trajectory of development as a young person. We have way more science around methods that should be applied that are much more productive and effective for long-term health and wellness, and are equally as effective, if not more. I think we can all cite coaches who do the berating, yelling, screaming method, and they have successful teams, and I think you can also argue that there’s coaches who don’t use that method, that are using a much more supportive, positive way of coaching, that also have successful teams. The former method of coaching is often a method that those coaches maybe grew up with or knew, and it’s perhaps actually an easier one to do, whereas finding what motivates people, getting to know people for who they are, and finding different ways to coach and support them that may be more positive, might take a little more work. But we know that it’s healthier.”
Carly draws parallels between the world of sports and classroom learning, pointing out that in many ways, the role of a coach and the role of a teacher are, in fact, one in the same. “Some of the conduct and behaviors and styles of coaching that are tolerated in the sports world would never be tolerated in a classroom. Well, if in a school environment, we don’t tolerate [methods] that are seen as unprofessional, unhealthy, or inappropriate, then why do we tolerate it in a sports environment?”
Carly emphasizes that coaching, especially coaching young people, is delicate work. “[Coaches] are teaching, and they are teaching primarily kids. Our brains are not fully done developing until our mid-twenties. Kids are impressionable, they’re still being shaped.”
The takeaway, then, is that coaching– like teaching– can and should be done in a way that brings out an athlete’s potential, but also acknowledges the athlete’s very real, very human dimension. Failure to do the latter, and focusing solely on building physical gains at the expense of mental and emotional well-being, can come at a steep cost to an athlete’s long-term psychological health.
As a competitive gymnast, Carly struggled a lot with performance anxiety, particularly on the balance beam. “I rarely had a competition where I didn’t fall, or hit all four events at my potential, because I would typically fall on beam. I didn’t have access to sport psychologists, or coaching on the mental side. It was just like, do lots of repetition and that will help you feel more confident going into a meet. But somehow, I would make all my repetitions in practice and still fall during a meet. I could have used some helpful strategies with breathing and calming my body physically, because gymnastics is such a sport of precision, and even just a little bit extra adrenaline or jitters and shakes can really affect an event like beam.”
When asked how she helps her clients overcome performance anxiety, Carly says, “One thing that helps is having more awareness of how your body responds to nervousness. Recognize the physiology of nerves– our heart starts to race, our breathing gets quicker, our muscles tense, we may sweat or get butterflies in our stomach. That’s normal in high pressure situations. Consider how you think about nerves and re-appraise them as a sign that your body is actually readying, in a good way, to compete. Nervousness can help, so don’t try to suppress your stress. Instead, re-appraise it as useful and interpret the nerves as helping you, such as giving you faster reaction time. Then, learn how to turn on your parasympathetic nervous system, which is your ‘rest and digest’ calm state, with breathing techniques, and turn off the sympathetic nervous system, which is the get up, get ready, fight and flight response.”
Carly has had many athletes come to her and ask if she can rid them of their nerves, so they can perform better. “When they say that, I always tell them, ‘Well that’s not realistic. You’re going to the national championships, you’re going to be competing at the Olympic Games. The nerves are going to be there, and that’s really normal!’ Your nerves are just signaling to you that there’s something that’s important to you. I help them have some compassion surrounding their anxiety. It’s like, ‘Okay, my nerves are gonna be there, how can I embrace them and work with them and actually, in fact, prepare for them?’ Just prepare for the nerves! Plan for how you’re gonna respond to that nervous feeling that’s innately going to come. And then you won’t feel so panicky when you do feel nervous.’”
Another way Carly helps her athletes is by turning the lens away from the outcome of a performance, and focusing more on the process of controlling the controllable factors. “When we get really nervous, we tend to be hyper-focused on the outcome and the results, and the importance of these results. It’s that worry about the outcome and the meaning and significance of the event that can actually make us more nervous. I try to help athletes shift their focus back to the process or the how-to stuff. Like, ‘Okay, you want to hit this beam routine, and it’s really important to you. How are you going to go about it? What are the things that are within your control, that you can do, that will up your chances of hitting that beam routine?’ Granted, there’s no guarantee in sports, there’s a whole bunch of things that we can’t control. But focus on the things you can control, and let the outcome come. And sometimes, it’s relieving for athletes to be like, ‘You’re right, I can’t guarantee the outcome, but I can focus on what I can control. I can keep my chin up, be aggressive, talk to myself during my routine, and use mental cue words.’ Just go do those things to the best of your ability, and whatever the outcome, it’s going to be a byproduct of your best effort. Sometimes I’ll get athletes who say, ‘What if my best effort isn’t good enough?’ And I really just invite them to remove the word ‘good’ and let go of the judgment. If the outcome is the byproduct of your best effort, then it’s enough. That’s all you can ask of yourself. And the great thing is, you can always keep getting better.”
“Growth mindset”. It’s a buzzword in both academic and laymen’s discussions of learning, development, achievement and performance. The term was coined by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, who explored two different mindsets– the growth mindset and fixed mindset. Dweck argued that a simple shift from one to another could drastically alter one’s performance, learning and success in all dimensions.
In our discussion of mental performance, Carly briefly explains the difference between the two mindsets, and why fostering a growth mindset is so integral to an athlete’s performance in competition. “Fixed mindset is this idea that, ‘I have a certain innate level of ability or talent’, as opposed to the growth mindset, which is, ‘I’m always able to get better.’ The fixed mindset is the idea that there’s such a thing as failure. If you don’t get the outcome, then it’s sort of worthless. Whereas with the growth mindset, there’s not really failure so much as it is like, ‘Okay, I didn’t get the outcome I was hoping for. What nugget or valuable thing can I gain from that experience that I can use for the future, and take with me in life?’ The growth mindset sees every sort of adversity as growth. And honestly, that’s why our more seasoned senior athletes tend to compete great, because they’ve been through a lot of adversity, they’ve had failures.”
Carly says that failure– particularly fear of failure– is a topic that comes up often in discussions with her clients. “Sometimes I’ve had athletes, coaches, or even parents who are very fearful of failure. They’re like, ‘Oh gosh, I can’t have my child disappoint someone, fall at a meet, or not make the state championships.’ They’re very fearful of the societal message surrounding failure. When talking about failure, I always use the metaphor of riding a bike. When you taught your child how to ride a bike, you didn’t hold onto the back of the seat forever, because you were afraid of them falling. You knew they needed to learn to ride a bike, and part of learning to ride a bike is having the opportunity to fall off! How else are they going to learn to get back on? If you’re always holding onto the bike, you’re robbing them of the opportunity to actually learn how to fall off and get back on. And that’s a really important skill. Sometimes people have one incident of failure, and they literally fall apart, mentally, because they don’t have a real strong mental muscle in how to respond to adversity, because they just didn’t haven’t had that many opportunities to use that ‘muscle’.
In sum, it is important for athletes to adopt a growth mindset surrounding failure– that is, viewing failure as an opportunity to learn and grow, rather than as a marker of self-worth. This mindset will build resilience in athletes and eliminate a lot of that deep-seated fear of failure that hinders so many from reaching their greatest potentials.
Transition Out Of Sport
Transition out of sport is something all athletes must go through, and for many, the process is extremely difficult for multiple reasons. Carly reflects on her own transition out of gymnastics. “Personally, with my injuries, it was probably a slower, more gradual process of letting go of gymnastics and moving on, and I felt kind of fortunate in that regard. In my last year of college, I was still involved in gymnastics as a volunteer coach, but I wasn’t doing gymnastics. I was already envisioning a future for my profession, and I could see value in that. I felt that the transition was very easy and smooth for me. But I would say that’s not really the norm.”
“The NCAA has put a lot of research and resources into transition out of sports because many athletes have spent virtually their whole life being a student and being an athlete, and literally for college athletes, there’s a day in [spring] when they are neither, and it can be very jarring. And certainly high-level athletes can have what we call ‘high athletic identity’, where they base a lot of their self worth and sense of value and self in their achievements in their sport. So the thought of not having their sport or not being good at their sport is very threatening to who they are as a person and their identity, and that’s really a hard thing to work through. It can be especially challenging if you haven’t spent a lot of time preparing and planning for the transition, or if you don’t have a lot of support around it. Then there’s the fitness, eating, structure and schedule component– all of that oftentimes has been given to athletes, and now they have to decide for themselves what they’re gonna do. The idea of moving into a career or next step can be challenging. It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m gonna be starting at the bottom, I’m not gonna be competent, it’s a new foreign feeling.’”
Carly urges those going through a transitional phase to be cautious with expectations, and be ready to adapt and be flexible surrounding new experiences. “Focus on the aspects you can control,” she says, “and surround yourself with as much support as you can get.” As always, she encourages athletes to adopt a growth mindset towards change. Preparation for the transition, if possible, can go a long way. Take one day at a time, and stay present, focused, and committed to finding new interests and passions during this time. Finally, creating a normal routine during transitional periods can be immensely helpful, since having a sense of structure and control during a time of change and uncertainty, especially as an athlete, is important.
These days, Carly enjoys spending time with her husband, two daughters (ages 4 and 6), and her 4-month-old puppy. She will always remain an avid gymnastics fan, and works with many gymnasts on mental coaching.