Beyond the Baseline Podcast: Sports Psychologist Dr. Jonathan Katz

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On the latest Beyond the Baseline podcast, host Jon Wertheim talks with Dr. Jonathan Katz, a sports psychologist and performance coach based in Austin, Texas, who works with tennis players at the college and pro levels, in addition to athletes in other sports. Wertheim and Dr. Katz discuss the psychological impact that the coronavirus pandemic will have on athletes; how financial stresses during this time can impact athletes; the mental health dimensions of being a pro tennis player; and much more.

(Listen to the latest Beyond the Baseline podcast here. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Jon Wertheim: What you would tell clients who are not able to work from home? What do you tell the athlete that is not working right now? Who could be 20 years old and suddenly—never mind the financial implications—they're not able to do their job. Would you tell them during this period?

Dr. Jonathan Katz: It's funny you said that. Just recently, in the last few weeks, I started working with a male player on the tour. And I brought this up because he kind of had gotten out of the pattern, not only not playing tennis, but really had not been working out very much. And so I brought this up on two levels, basically strongly recommending/suggesting that they get back into a pretty regular routine of working out. To me, I was less concerned about the nature of the workout than they get a regular kind of demanding physical workout. And there's two reasons. One reason is just as a general world event in this pandemic, part of the difficulty that we all face is the uncertainty associated with this. Uncertainty is one of the great triggers for discomfort. One of the positive ways that people can offset that is by providing themselves with some structure and discipline to their lives. I know just as a longstanding long distance runner, it has been enormously important to me and very comforting and grounding to get out for my run every morning. It's something I've done for 100 years, but is particularly important now just because it provides a sameness. Apart from the psychological physical aspects, there is a sense of control that you have over things in your life where a lot of the world is out of our control.

So from an athletic point of view, one of the reasons that it's important to do this is to provide some structure and discipline for themselves. The other aspect is just from the totally performance point of view is that, you know, when I was speaking with this athlete, we don't know whether you're going to play in two months, four months, six months. But whatever it is, you need to put yourself in the mindset that this is going to be working towards your ability to perform at a high level. What happens if at some point in a couple of months there's gonna be an opportunity to play well? If you were six feet deep and your lack of conditioning, that's a hell of a hole to kind of work yourself of. If you're one foot deep, that's gonna be a lot better. You're going to give yourself a competitive advantage if you find, engage and kind of regain that motivation and desire to keep yourself in tip-top shape. Granted, it may or may not be exactly tennis shape. You've got to play the long game here. From a motivational point of view and a career point of view, because whenever things come back, you want to be in the best situation, both mentally and physically to regain your professional talents.

JW: It sounds trite, but it's something I firmly believe that tennis really does teach life skills. What are some other experiences, skills, traits that tennis players have in their arsenal that they can lean on here and tap into that they may not be aware of. What are some other things that come with being a tennis player that might be helpful in this situation?

JK: Well, I think if you look at some common personality characteristics that are common along high level athletes, you would say high level of discipline, process-oriented, conscientious, focused, detail-oriented, hard-working, usually like emotionally resilient. These are aggressive, achievement oriented, competitive.

These are our common characteristics of athletes. And the best ones are really are kind of flexible, open minded. So the ability as a tennis player to be nimble and creative and flexible if a Plan A is not working during that particular match to go to a plan B. So these are some of the common personality characteristics that I see present in a lot of high level athletes.