By Lou Mancinelli

People’s compelling stories. How one copes with chronic pain. These are issues that caused 17-year Chestnut Hill resident and long-time Drexel University professor, Sarah Whitman, M.D., to follow a career path of psychiatry instead of general medicine, when she first experienced the mind-based discipline during her rotations at medical school. Something about the more personal nature of the field and being able to spend more time with people appealed to her.

Dr. Whitman gives some athletic tips to Ali Brenman, a family friend who is on the varsity soccer team at Springside.

She will apply techniques she has refined and practiced for over 20 years as a clinical psychiatrist and university professor to managing an athlete’s state of mind in “Sports Psychology Skills for Competitive and Casual Athletes” at Mt. Airy Learning Tree. The two-session class runs the second and third Saturdays in October, from 10 a.m. to noon, in Hagan Hall at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at 7301 Germantown Ave.

The skills she teaches are basic: individualizing goals, how to raise your capacity to focus, manage anxiety and use imagery and positive thinking.

Philadelphia Phillies all-star shortstop and three-time Gold Glove winner Jimmy Rollins has fielded thousands of ground balls in his lifetime outside of the game at practice. He has repeated the steps of the fundamentals and the act of fielding a ground ball, ushering the ball safely into his glove so many times it has become muscle memory.

Repetition ultimately provided the foundation for Rollins’ skill set to expand, as practice will do for almost any player in any sport at any level. Now apply this concept of muscle memory to the brain, and you have the foundations of sports psychology.

Dr. Whitman, who requested that her age not be mentioned, has worked with teams from high school to professional levels and teaches athletes and students to take “psychological batting practice” as well as actual batting practice. In other words, imagine yourself directing the bat to connect with the ball for a hard-hit line drive up the middle.

Or imagine yourself thrashing a serve just within the corner of the lines on a tennis court or a blazing, veering, graceful skiing descent down an alpine slope. “The desired outcome is more likely if you’ve rehearsed it in your mind a lot,” said Dr. Whitman during a recent interview. “Our brains work very well with pictures.”

It seems simple enough, but according to Whitman, stressing the importance of skills like taking a few deep breaths to calm down and imagining positive outcomes aren’t really taught by coaches, especially at the levels at which the majority of athletes compete. Little Leaguers aren’t learning how a few deep breaths might help their swing, or how those breaths might help the pitcher manage his anxiety about the slugger six-inches taller than he coming up to the plate. But the power of mental exercises can be as important to the development of an athlete, and the casual athletic experience, like running or Pilates, as the development of physical skills.

One technique Dr. Whitman uses to help improve athletes’ focus is “mindfulness meditation.” She instructs students/athletes to eat a piece of chocolate and tells them to focus completely on the experience of eating the chocolate. How does it smell? How does it taste? What associations does it trigger in the mind? This sort of exercise commands focus.

She compares the value of these exercises to weight-lifting. If you do it once, you may a feel a little stronger but the results are short-lived. But doing it three times a week yields longer-lasting results. The same is true of the focus exercises. The more you practice these two-to-three minute sessions, the more effective they become. Then, she instructs students/athletes to apply the technique to their sport “the next time they need to be razor focused.”

Raised in North Jersey, Dr. Whitman earned her bachelor’s in biology from Washington University in St. Louis in 1983. She then graduated from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry (’87) in upstate New York, followed by a four-year psychiatric residency at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, where she received a Sandoz Award for professional activities.

For the first decade of her career Dr. Whitman worked in outpatient psychiatry and teaching young doctors at Hahnemann and Drexel, where she is still a clinical assistant professor. Then she focused on how to treat chronic pain, biologically and psychologically.

At present, Dr. Whitman runs a private psychiatry practice in Chestnut Hill, where she lives with her husband, Dave, and their daughter. She is also an educational consultant and has worked in the Counseling and Psychological Services Center at Rowan University, since 2005.

For more information, visit www.mtairylearningtree.com. For information about Dr. Whitman’s private practice, call 267-265-2082.