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As Athletes Face High Stakes Games, MU Sports Psychology Expert Says They Must Trust What They Know and Avoid the Jitters

Sept. 13, 2007

Story Contact:  Jennifer Faddis, (573) 882-6217,
Richard Cox, (573) 882-7602,

COLUMBIA, Mo. – The college football season is winding down as the fans and players are in a frenzy because the most high stakes games are ahead. A sports psychology expert at the University of Missouri-Columbia says the athletes must trust what they have been taught to avoid the jitters that can lead to mistakes in the big games.

 “It is normal to be excited, nervous and a bit uptight about a big game. The nervous jitters will go away once the game starts, so the athletes just need to focus on getting through the first few minutes without errors and then things will be back to normal,” said Richard Cox, sports psychologist and professor in the MU College of Education Department of Education, School and Counseling Psychology. “Worrying about doing poorly in a big game is another matter. Here the athletes must trust the hours of preparation and they will do just fine. They must avoid second guessing and indecision and just play the game. The coaches have prepared the athletes for the big games and now is the time to trust the coaches and teammates and just enjoy the moment.”

 According to Cox, who just published the sixth edition of his book “Sport Psychology: Concepts and Applications,” an athletic performance task can be repeated hundreds of times; yet mistakes are still made.
“It should help if you have confidence in the team around you. However, kickers are the only ones who can kick the ball, and placeholders are the only ones who can hold the ball. They still must control the mind, go through the pre-performance routine and replace negative thoughts with positive ones,” Cox said. “Negative thoughts will kill you. An athlete’s routine is critical. The body is a marvelous piece of machinery, but you can interfere with it. If you see the basketball player at the free throw line, you will often notice a certain routine being repeated. That is when negative thoughts are being replaced by positive thoughts, relaxation occurs and mistakes are minimized.”

Cox earned his bachelor’s and masters from Brigham Young University and his Ph.D. from the University of Oregon in 1973 in psychology of motor learning. He has published journal articles and books of various topics related to sports psychology. His research areas of interest include the effect of mood and anxiety on athletic performance.