Q&A with a highly experienced Sports Psychologist: Dr. Cristina Fink

Dr. Cristina Fink, Sports Psychologist. Photo by Cristina Fink.

Cristina Fink, PhD, is a highly experienced sport psychologist with over 25 years of experience in teaching, counseling and sport administration. Counseling clients include Olympic Medalists and World Champions as well as professional and national soccer teams. She was the Sport Psychologist for several teams in the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games. She competed in two Olympic Games (Seoul 1988 and Barcelona 1992) and held the Mexican High Jump Record with a 6’4” (1.94) jump for 22 years. 

Cristina is the author of a number of published papers and books, and a keynote speaker in many national and international conferences. She is the Director of Performance Psychology for C Fink Consulting. She works with INFP (International Network of Football Psychologists) where her peer group includes sport psychologists from top professional European clubs. She is in charge of Performance Psychology for the Football Science Institute FSI.

Read on to hear about Dr. Fink’s experiences as a sports psychologist and how she feels that this generation is continuing the up rise of normalizing mental health.  Get a closer look on why mental health is so important and needs to be prioritized through everyday life. Athletes emotions humanize them, and more and more high caliber players are coming out to talk about what is going on in their mind.

What is your main focus as a sports psychologist?  

I work mainly with coaches and athletes on how to perform at their best.  I work with mindfulness and get people to be aware of what works for them and what doesn’t so that they can be ready to perform when they need to be.  I work mostly with performance orientated situations and being aware of the mental health aspect of it. Athletes now are more willing to talk about mental health. Making sure you’re taking care of the whole person is important and is something I have been doing for the last 30 years.  

Listen to Dr. Fink talk about the key to athletes performing well.

What are some sports that you have worked with throughout your career?

I worked mostly with soccer.  I was an Olympic athlete and competed in two Olympic games in the high jump in track and field. After that I went to three Olympic games with different sports: swimming, modern pentathlon, diving, synchronized swimming, now working with lacrosse basketball and soccer.  It’s a very interesting view to see the differences between the individual sport and team sport. I worked with weight lifting for example. The difference in weight lifting and then a team sport like basketball, volleyball or soccer is fascinating to see the differences that you have from the athlete being able to make decisions to having to wait for the coach to see if he’ll play you or not, to see if you’ll be a starter or not just to understand all of those differences is quite interesting.

Do you think that mental health differs from sport, or does it depend on the individual? 

I think it’s the person.   I don’t think that mental health is about the sport it is about the individual. There are quite a number of examples of basketball and soccer players talking about mental health just as well as you have Micheal Phelps talking about mental health. I don’t think that mental health is about the sport it is about the individual.  It doesn’t matter where you are at you can have mental health issues no matter what sport you are in.

Do you believe that people are more comfortable talking about mental health because athletes such as Kevin Love and Michael Phelps talked about their struggles on such a big platform? 

 That has definitely helped.  I also think that the younger generations are more willing to talk about mindfulness rather than mental toughness.  It’s not about being mentally tough it’s about being mindful about what you need. In that you can see that you can perform at a very high level while suffering depression or having an anxiety or a panic attack.  Being aware of these things doesn’t mean that you can’t perform, it just means that you can get the help that you need to deal with these things.

Do you think athletes need mental health checkups? 

 I think you do need that.  I went to University of Arizona because Bob Myers, the high jump coach for the United States was at that University.  The first month I got there I got injured and I was out for two months and I was miserable and I didn’t like where I was. The fact that the coach was very involved when I was injured played a very big role in me feeling okay.

Click below to hear how important it is to let people know that they are more than just an athlete. 

Tell me a story when you were struggling with mental health or dealt with an athlete that has struggled with mental health and how did you deal with it from your job standpoint?

 There’s been several instances where I have dealt with athletes that are struggling. I worked with an athlete who was depressed and could function very well in the sports arena, but then outside of training and competing had suicidal thoughts. I worked with a clinical psychologist making sure this person had the attention that they needed. I worked with another athlete who suffered from panic attacks and had panic attacks before games and just feeling like they weren’t able to do it.  We talked about coping strategies when it’s happening. So when you recognize it and what gets you there I teach athletes to figure out what are the triggers that get you to that point and valuing is it just something that just happens in sports or is it something that across the board. I figure out what is it that we need to do here and again working with a clinical psychologist and a psychiatrist with this athlete to make sure that this athlete has the attention they need. 

Sometimes fans see athletes not as humans, do you think that is why there is such a big mental health stigma?

 The fact that people are being more and more open about it is helpful.  I really enjoy the fact that you now have the players tribune where athletes are writing about their experiences and they are being very open about how they feel and that they have a space now to do that.

Listen to Dr. Fink as she talks about how professional athletes are normal human beings, that are capable of great things. 

Do you need to be mentally okay to perform physically well? 

One of the things that I have noticed particularly in the high performance when you are talking about Olympics or the World Cup, you find athletes that can compartmentalize really well. I worked with a Mexican soccer player that lost his dad right before the World Cup and came back to be part of the funeral and then went back to the World Cup and was able to perform at a very high level, but then would be pretty vulnerable after games.  So in between making sure that they have the support they need or the space that they need. Athletes can perform at a very high level even when they’re having a mental health issue just like they can perform at a really high level even if they have asthma. They learn to cope with it and then they are able to perform at a certain level because they learn to compartmentalize and learn to pay attention to the moment.

After Kobe Bryant died, we saw a lot of players playing that same day people who were close to him crying on the sideline.  Do you think that was a good move by the organization to make those players play due to being not in the right place mentally?

I’m not really in a position to judge how the organization went about playing or not playing athletes after the death of Kobe Bryant. It took a toll on not only the athletes, but coaches, front office personnel, close friends and family. It was a worldwide hit that struck the entire nation, but I do know that the NBA took precaution to be there for the athletes emotionally during the games the day of Kobe’s death.

Listen to Dr. Fink talk about how the NBA had assistance on the sideline after the death of Kobe Bryant.

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