Q&A with Mental Performance Coach Madeline Barlow

madeline explaining her sports psychology philosophies
Photo Courtesy: Association of Applied Sports Psychology

By Alexa Kutch, Swimming World College Intern.

Former Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania swimmer, Madeline Barlow, is using her passion for the sport in the professional world of psychology. Recently, she joined Drexel University’s athletic department under the title of Sports Psychology Coordinator and Mental Performance Coach. She earned a bachelor’s degree in general psychology at Bloomsburg. Following this, she earned a master’s degree at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Currently, she is a student at Temple University looking to complete her doctorate in Psychology of Human Movement with a specialization in Exercise and Sports Psychology by June 2019.

Swimming World had the opportunity to sit down with Barlow to get the inside scoop on what a sport psychologist does and how they can enhance a swimmer’s performance.


Photo Courtesy: Madeline Barlow

Swimming World: Thank you for meeting with us. While your official job title at Drexel is Mental Performance Coach, we understand you have expert knowledge in sports psychology. In your own words, how would you define it?

Barlow: Thank you for taking the time to interview me. I think a true definition of applied sports psychology is educating athletes and coaches on the psychological aspects of their sport. Additionally, this includes the way one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors influence athletic performance and overall experience.

SW: Why do you want to eventually pursue a permanent career in sports psychology?

Barlow: Within six months of my last collegiate race, I discovered that swimming was a big part of who I am. Throughout the time that I completed both my degrees, I came to realize that I missed swimming itself and the general athletic environment. This separation from swimming resulted in a loss of athletic identity. Therefore, it only made sense for me to want to be in an environment where I can give back to something that gave so much to me. With all these feelings in mind, I decided to start applying to more sports psychology based PhD programs.

SW: When did you start to notice the rise of sports psychology?


Photo Courtesy: Drexel Athletics

Barlow: The field of sports psychology is fairly young. It came to fruition around the early 1970s. I am actually fortunate enough to work under one of the catalysts of sports psychology. Occasionally at Bloomsburg, we had someone come in and talk to us. At the time, there was a lack of clarity and awareness as to what it was. Nevertheless, this curiosity was what planted the seed for me. It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I understood what sports psychology really meant in any capacity.

SW: What would you say the stigmas of sports psychology are?

Barlow: When I first meet with teams, I like to begin by clarifying what it is versus what it is not. I have found that the stigmas fall under what it is not. I am not here to simply diagnose a problem nor here to fix something because it is broken. False terminology I hear is, “Go to sports psych because something is wrong.” Sports psychology is not about coming in after a problem and being first aid. Of course, I will talk to many athletes after they have some type of issue and that’s alright too. It’s important for their coaches to understand that their athletes will run into anxiety, stress, nerves, or whatever may come up. It is then my job to deal with these potential barriers ahead of time so when they get to it, they know how to manage and overcome it.

SW: From that, how can both coaches and athletes look to break these stigmas?


Photo Courtesy: Drexel Athletics

Barlow: Something I pride myself on doing is having open and honest communication with coaches. I look to help get the message across about what I do versus what I don’t do. Once coaches begin to understand, it becomes almost a word of mouth until one day, it becomes very clear as to what sports psychology is. I cannot stress enough that it is rarely about a big problem but rather attacking things we need to adjust. That is mainly what we need coaches to comprehend so they can relay this information to their athletes.

SW: What services do you as a mental performance coach provide to swimmers?

Barlow: After acknowledging that swimming is such a mental sport, I begin by helping them build present moment awareness. I teach important skills like mindful meditation and an overall appreciation of their strengths and weaknesses. The second is working on imagery. Being able to actually see and control what you are doing in those moments in your mind. If you can do it in your mind over and over, you are more than likely to do it in real life. The third is positive self-talk. Swimmers have this ability to let that negative inner critic creep in as they are continually staring at a black line. It is about reframing that talk in their mind to be useful because it is something they can control. As a whole, these three techniques will help to enhance confidence and their overall positive athletic experience.

SW: Any last advice for swimmers who may not have access to these services and are experiencing forms of mental defeat?

Barlow: If the athlete is at the point where they need to talk to someone, I think that their school’s counseling center is a great resource. If not, there are resources in regards to sports psychology online. The final piece and one resource that every team has in some capacity is each other. At the very least, if you are unable to get some type of sports psych or counseling resource, use one another. Teammates and coaches are just as valuable.

-All interviews are conducted by the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

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