While The Bahamas has and continues to produce many great athletes, particularly in track and field, one area that has been lacking is sports psychology. A native of The Bahamas, Alexander Ian McKenzie is studying sports psychology at a university in Canada. He recently discussed the field of psychology in general, sports psychology and why it is needed to propel athletes to the next level.
McKenzie moved from New Providence when he was 11, as his mother thought it would give him a better education and more opportunities. Having first moved to Nova Scotia and then to Toronto, being exposed to new cultures was an eye-opening experience for him and made him appreciate his own. McKenzie said the experience has been a journey, but one that has made him that much more proud to be a Bahamian.
Studying and specializing in sports psychology and in differentiating between psychology and sports psychology, McKenzie said that the former is the study of human behavior, a multifaceted field that is connected to everyday life, while sports psychology specializes in the world of sports, but not only professional sports. He said it can also deal with implementing different programs and curriculums in schools that benefit the enhancement of cognition. McKenzie noted that people often wonder what one can do with a degree in psychology, but fail to realize how many jobs and careers are predicated on psychology. His goals are to focus on professional athletes and amateur athletes at a high level, and his focus is to help the athletes overcome mental barriers, whether they are a Sunday softball league or the National Football League (NFL).
McKenzie said no matter what the level of competition is, the mental aspect cannot be overlooked. He stressed that on smaller island nations or other underdeveloped nations, mental and physical health are separated. A physical injury is obvious to the eye, but the anxiety an athlete may have when batting or shooting a free throw is not always noticeable. This is one thing that people need to realize exists and is a problem, he said.
When asked what particular field of psychology needs to be focused on as it relates to The Bahamas, McKenzie didn’t hesitate. “The country needs to start from the bottom up. It first has to start in the home, breaking out of the stigma that mental illness does not exist,” he said. “Next we have to focus on how this affects athletes. What is exactly going on?”
According to McKenzie, it’s a bottom-up and a top-down problem. “The government has to make sure it allocates the proper funds to programs, such as sports psychology curriculums at the university level,” he said. “It terms from the bottom, as soon as children are available to study psychology, that should be implemented.”
Noting that it’s a complex situation, McKenzie believes that the way the government spends and allocates resources very much determines the success of that country in that sport. For example, he said that Iceland advanced to the FIFA (International Federation of Association Football) World Cup with a smaller population than The Bahamas. “Most of the players aren’t professional players, but the country, even though living in a cold climate with limited ability to train outdoors, made sure to allocate funds to coaching, sports psychology and mental training,” he said. “Macrosystem and the way the government seems best fit determines the success. The government needs to provide more funds into mental health and sports psychology to get the best out of their athletes and sports teams.”
The Bahamas has some of the most gifted track and basketball athletes in the world, but what is lacking is said to be the mental health aspect. “Once athletes get to a certain level, everyone is very gifted. It is often times those with the strongest mental fortitude who come out on top,” said McKenzie. He strongly believes that athletes in The Bahamas can be on top if they have the proper mental training, because fear of evaluation is one of the biggest causes of performance anxiety, he said.
As to why The Bahamas needs sports psychology, McKenzie said that one who covers competitions regularly can tell who has been mentally prepared and who hasn’t. While The Bahamas regularly sends junior athletes ages nine to 20 to international competitions, there are usually no sports psychologists with them prior to, during or even after the trips. This is a major problem that must be addressed, according to McKenzie. Speaking on the importance to getting to these athletes at the junior level, McKenzie noted that it’s important to build a foundation, especially in competition, teaching children how to control their emotions and anxiety levels. “Children at that age are vulnerable and experiences then can make or break them in terms of continuing on in their chosen sport,” said McKenzie. “Much the same way that parents instill certain values in their children to build a foundation, much is the same as building a mental fortitude to help them in the long run. As talented as a child is athletically, without the proper mental training, children will never reach their full potential.”
McKenzie has a desire to open everyone’s eyes with a view that sports psychologists are needed, that mental health issues do exist. He said that it is important to start programs at a young age and have actual government funding in this area from the ground up. The athletes here are already among the best in the world and he feels that, once mental health issues are addressed with sports psychologists, it can propel them even higher. “The government should make this a priority,” he said.
As a final thought, McKenzie reiterated that the most important thing is to start when athletes are as young as possible. “It’s vitally important for children to understand that the physical gift will never reach full potential without dealing with the mental component,” he said. “Athletes must be mentally prepared to stay focused, not having fear and anxiety of being evaluated. They must realize this is as important as their physical training and performance.”
McKenzie demonstrates a desire to get his message across. With his knowledge and determination, he is likely to play a key role in the mental aspect of sports in The Bahamas for many years to come.
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