Practice Like You Play

Caleb Holifield was born in Norwalk, Connecticut, and raised there until the age of fourteen, alongside two older brothers. Holifield came from a family of athletes–one brother played basketball collegiately and professionally, and his father played baseball professionally. Following his experience playing basketball and attending high school in Atlanta, Holifield played basketball at Grand Canyon University, and later on in Europe. Today, Holifield is a Field Experience Counselor for the College of Education at Grand Canyon University where he encourages students to work through their emotions to improve performance. Caleb Holifield sat down with Sack the Stigma to talk about his experiences playing basketball, and how they have shaped his view on mental health in athletics. 

Brooke Woodrum, Sack the Stigma: How did growing up in a family of athletes influence your view on athletics? Was there pressure to become an elite athlete yourself?

Caleb Holifield: From a young age, I knew what I was in sports for. With my dad being a professional athlete and my brother also in athletics, my dad really preached intention and discipline. If you’re gonna do this sport, this is how you have to do it, because everybody else is doing it ten times harder. There was a lot of pressure with that and you could say it kind of took the recreational, fun aspect out of it at a young age because it felt like a job, but it kind of had to. Overall, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It taught me discipline, it was fun, and it gave me a competitive edge. 

STS: How did the pressure put on you affect your mentality while playing sports?

Holifield: Honestly, it was challenging to keep a positive mindset. I think my mindset was mainly determined by my performance, so the better I was playing and the more improvement I saw in myself with basketball, I equated it as me being successful. If things weren’t going right in basketball, if I wasn’t getting enough playing time, and other things like that, it was hard to still have a positive mindset in other aspects of life. 

STS: How did your injuries while playing basketball impact your mentality? 

Holifield: While I was playing, it was challenging [to keep a positive mindset] because it felt like man, I can’t catch a break. You’re trying to control things that aren’t in your control, and that was the most frustrating thing about it. You work out as much as you can, you try to stay in the best shape, but you can’t control injuries. There’s a lot that goes into that, especially when you’re sitting on the side watching your team and you lose that camaraderie aspect of it and you feel isolated. It was challenging, especially at the collegiate level. At the professional level, it was more cutthroat. Once I dislocated my fingers, I got sent back to America. 

STS: What mental strategies did you use to cope when dealing with injuries?

Holifield: While I was playing, I honestly didn’t really have any coping mechanisms and it did affect my mental health. Success was equated to basketball, especially at the collegiate level where it’s mainly a job and there's money and a business on the line, there’s a lot more pressure. Little things like coaches not talking to me and walking past me starts to get in my head, because I’m like, what are they thinking? It was challenging to still have a positive mindset. Once I stopped playing, it was challenging because it was my identity. I was an athlete and that’s how I saw myself, and I felt like other people saw me in that light, too. I felt that if I didn’t have that hobby, then what am I? I went through an identity crisis trying to refind myself and find new hobbies. With the right people and the psychology background I had, it made it a little easier. 

STS: How would you describe the connection between your physical health and your mental health? How did injuries impact this?

Holifield: With my injury during college, it was a different situation. I injured my shoulder, so I went to a lot of team doctors and trainers, but the whole time they couldn’t tell me what was wrong with me. They thought I was lying, but I couldn’t lift my arm above my head. They said, clearly something is wrong with you but they wanted to clear me, so they thought maybe I should go home and try their doctors. That was the part that irritated me the most, that they couldn’t find a solution. So then, I’m in my own head thinking, man, is it just me? I’m kind of psyching myself out and losing that mind-body connection. I wasn't really listening to my body, and I think that’s super important for athletes to listen to their bodies. Everybody can tell you how your body feels, but only you really know how it feels. 

STS: How did your experience as an elite athlete influence your decision to go into the field of sport psychology?

Holifield: It wasn’t until I got hurt that I realized I was into sport psychology. The whole time, I thought I was mainly into coaching because I had so many different coaches and I saw different coaching styles and how kids reacted to them. At a young age, I would think, maybe I would do this differently. But, it wasn’t until I got injured that I realized the importance of the mental side of it and how important confidence is, as well as mental health and awareness. With performance anxiety and other factors that come into gameplay, I don’t think a lot of coaches take that into consideration, especially the coaches that didn’t play. It’s a lot of pressure and currently, the pros and the collegiate athletes are able to withstand it, but there’s a way to make it better. I don’t care if you’re Lebron James, you still have jitters when you go play a game. Listening to your body and understanding what it is your body is feeling is so important.

STS: What’s your go-to “mantra” in counseling?

Holifield: I don’t really have a go-to mantra, I think it’s kind of like coaching, where everybody's different. It’s mainly about trying to hit people in their wheelhouse and their specific situation. At the end of the day, it’s important for people to find somebody to talk to. Find a coach, find a trainer, someone outside of a parent. I think parents are emotionally invested whether they want to accept it or not. I could tell my dad a bunch of things, but at the end of the day, he wants to come to the game and see me shoot and score. It’s important to find somebody to have in your circle that has an unbiased view so you can get things off your chest and out of your head. 

STS: What strategies do you use and pass onto your clients to help regulate emotions in performance?

Holifield: A lot of it comes in practice. A lot of the emotion people feel in the game is full of adrenaline, and you can’t really control the emotion you feel in a game, but the more you practice it and are aware of it, the better. You have to practice situations where you’re in duress and facing the in-game situations, that way you’re feeling those emotions and you can channel them better. It would be foolish to think you could control your emotions during gametime if you never practice it. When it comes to remembering plays, don’t just read your playbook in the kitchen with no noise and distractions. It’s not going to be like that. You have to practice in-game reps, or it won’t translate in terms of performance. 

STS: How do you hope your work in sport psychology & your story inspires others?

Holifield: I want to inspire people to be more vocal about emotions. I think emotions and sports are two things we act like are oil and water, but they should coexist. If people learn how to feel their emotions and actually understand what they’re going through, they’ll perform better. I hope that with the work that I do, I can push people to be more open about how they’re feeling, get them to talk to somebody, and help them assess what the problem really is so we can find a solution.

STS: How do you Sack the Stigma?

Holifield: Confidence. Not worrying about what other people think and finding two or three people for a strong support system to face the negative stigma head-on. I personally believe in not speaking to everybody, because everybody is not meant to give advice to you, but do have those people. You have to know who should be in your social circle and who shouldn’t. Personally, I try to mentor kids and talk about the mental side of the game. I don’t think enough coaches and trainers talk about the mental side of the game, it’s strictly weight room or on-the-court things, but what are you doing off the court to help you on the court? 

Basketball, among other sports, is just as much of a mental game as it is physical. In practice, athletes run through plays and scenarios as if they were actively playing a game. Holifield emphasizes the importance of practicing emotion regulation in this same way, in practice, so it can be translated to games. “It would be foolish to think you could control your emotions during gametime if you never practice it,” Holifield says. Both mentally and physically, athletes have to practice like they play.

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