Psychologist Barbara Kolonay Helps Athletes Train Themselves to Overcome the Clutch
The score is tied with only five seconds to play. The whistle blows: You’ve been fouled. You can feel your heart pounding. Your legs are rubbery. Sweat is rolling down your back. A hush settles over the crowd. The referee hands you the ball for the free throw that could win the game.
The pressure is on, all right, but it’s only in the minds of basketball players who lie on cushy mats, eyes closed, listening to sports psychologist Barbara Kolonay, 31. Using this speech and variations on it, she has worked with nervous athletes from high schools to the pros, teaching them to prepare for crucial situations by “imagery”—thinking ahead exactly what they might have to do in a game.
The Phoenix Suns have been following Kolonay’s program since last fall. She gives each player a hand-held biofeedback instrument which indicates tension by measuring the expansion of skin pores and the amount of sweat. From the rapid high-pitched tone the device emits, Kolonay can gauge anxiety levels and concentrate on imagery. The system seems to work.
Forward Truck Robinson, for example, is now shooting 75 percent from the free-throw line—against 59 percent last year. Kolonay also successfully coached a pro player last season (she conscientiously refuses to divulge his name) who “was so afraid of going to the foul line he didn’t go up for rebounds, because he didn’t want to be fouled.” Kolonay’s rate for treating Foul Shooters’ Anxiety is $50 an hour.
Imagery is not new. Kolonay cites positive results in gymnastics as far back as 1899. Such modern athletes as high jumper Dwight Stones and Billie Jean King have devised personal forms of imagery. Still, Kolonay rues, “Coaches and managers are suspicious about using psychology with athletes. It’s supposedly not macho for players to be concerned with mental health and emotions.”
In her 1977 master’s thesis at New York’s Hunter College, Kolonay showed that the success rate of eight New York area college basketball foul shooters had significantly improved—from 68.3 percent to 74.8 percent—after a six-week program of relaxation and imagery exercises.
She has since worked with another pro basketball team that doesn’t want to be named and with teams at Louisiana State and the University of California at Berkeley. She’s also had preliminary talks with the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees to work on hitting and pitching problems.
Kolonay conducts monthly sessions in McLean, Va., sponsored by a local tennis school, for pro and amateur athletes of all sports. “Tension causes fatigue and injuries and prevents smooth, precise movements,” she notes, but warns, “If you don’t have a body like Nadia Comaneci’s, there’s no way you’ll be able to do what she can do, no matter how much you imagine.”
The wife of Lewis Schaffel, former general manager of the New Orleans Jazz and the Atlanta Hawks, Kolonay became interested in sports psychology after hearing her husband’s basketball players talk about “getting psyched out at games and not being mentally prepared.” She did her doctoral thesis at Tulane on the compatibility of the players on eight NBA teams in the 1978-79 season. Using a psychological test devised to help the Navy select submarine crews, Kolonay found that compatibility meant victory. Among teams with a .500 record or better, those whose players got along best won the most games, those whose players got along next best had the second best record, etc.
Born in Trafford, Pa., a Pittsburgh suburb, one of seven children of a Westinghouse executive, Kolonay was head cheerleader and class president at Trafford High. A philosophy graduate of Temple in 1972, she went to Hollywood to become “a star,” she laughs. “I did the whole starving actress routine but never landed a role.” In L.A., she met Schaffel on a blind date, and they were married in 1978. They now live in New York, where Schaffel is an investment broker and Kolonay is writing a book on behavior therapy, planning a study on the mental state of distance runners and hosting a cable TV talk show. She uses her own imagery techniques before each program to overcome anxiety, mentally going over her questions and guests’ likely answers. “Before my first show I was scared to death,” she says. “Now I’m comfortable.”