By Patricia Wen
At first, the Salem teenager balked when his parents asked him to see a shrink. "Do you think I have emotional problems?" asked Shelley Peirce, 15. But he gave it a try. Things weren't getting better on their own, so he thought he might as well get his head examined. Every week or so, he entered a therapist's office, plopped his 6-foot 2-inch frame into a sofa chair, and divulged his feelings. To his surprise, he's hooked. He and his therapist saw the results they wanted. He's swimming faster.
The lanky redhead has shaved two seconds off his 200-yard freestyle time, giving him confidence he may break away fro
m his lackluster past.
"My parents felt I was physically fit to swim, but mentally not tough enough," said Peirce, who practices 25 hours a week, in addition to seeing his sports psychologist.
More and more teenage athletes are sinking into the couches of sports psychologists, hoping it will save them from mediocrity in a world that values champions. By high school, many teenagers feel they can't handle more than one sport, let alone be ordinary at it. So they go for a psychological edge, hoping to be mentally tweaked into shooting flawless free throws or sinking perfect putts.
"When kids have problems in sports, it's often not mechanical. The problem is between their ears," said sports psychologist Alan Goldberg, head of Competitive Advantage, based in Amherst. "I'm a `head' coach - literally."
As sports psychologists explore the mental condition of adolescents, charging a typical rate of $100 an hour, they're often asked to inject determination where there is now daydreaming, or curb excessive sulking in a teenager who "choked" on a big play and now feels like Bill Buckner Jr.
While teenagers have many reasons to seek this mental edge, many acknowledge they want to bolster their athletic record to impress college admissions officers.
Not everyone convinced of benefits
But not everyone is convinced all this mental manipulation of today's young jocks is harmless. Teenagers are at a critical age of developing character and forming new identities. Daydreamers might be burned-out teenagers who shouldn't be made to feel mentally ill. Sulkers could be learning humility.
"When kids are brought to a sports psychologist, they can view it as just more pressure to perform," said psychologist Sharon Gordetsky, who specializes in treating teenagers and children. "Somehow they're a failure because they haven't measured up."
"Some students see sports psychologists as no different than SAT preparation coaches, college admissions consultants, tutors, and trainers who help teenagers improve their performance. They tap into a teenage mindset that worries less about the stigma of seeing a therapist than the stigma of not being in the spotlight."
For the past year, Bryan Swaim, a soccer player at Noble & Greenough in Dedham, has visited his therapist, learning how over-analysis feeds nervousness. No figures exist on how many teenagers visit sports psychologists. But in the exploding field - nationwide membership in the professional group is about 1,100, almost double that of a decade ago - local practitioners say their clients are now predominantly high school athletes.