Mind and Body

The grandstand shadowed half the track, including the shot put circle, inside the Estadio Francisco Montaner in Ponce, on Puerto Rico’s southern coast, on the final day of the 2008 Justas Intercolegiales, the Puerto Rican equivalent of the NCAA track and field championships.

In shot put throwers’ parlance for on deck, a meet official told Pontifical Catholic University junior Virnia Arguelles to “be advised.”

Arguelles, who habitually refused to watch her competitors throw, sauntered to the cage from the periphery of the on-field spectators. She grabbed her shot, chalked up.

Stepping onto the throwing platform, she felt as if she were “inside a capsule,” psychically removed from anything other than the throw she was about to make.

She tucked the shot under her right ear, shifted her weight to her back leg, twisted into her starting position, then let her training take over. She felt her entire body doing what it was supposed to, all the way up to the moment the shot left her fingertips, after which, she knew: that throw was “the one.”

She left the circle without watching it land, and began shaking. She found her coach and told him, simply, “I did it.”

She would later find out what she had already intuited: The shot had traveled 13.01 meters, a personal best by no small margin. It was good for third place.

The apex of her collegiate athletic career, the throw was as much a mental feat as it was a physical one. She’d been taking psychology courses at PCU—first as part of her pre-med track, then as a means of mitigating her own sports-related anxieties. “At my university, we didn’t have a sports psychologist in the time I was there, and I was seeking something because there was a lot of pressure,” she says. “Every single year, I was competing not just with other universities; I was competing with my teammates.” As a student-athlete, her scholarship was dually contingent on her success in- and outside the classroom, and a time-healed rotator cuff tear from her sophomore year (complemented by a bout of dengue fever the following fall) made her status thereafter all the more precarious.

“That is why,” adds Arguelles, more than a decade later, sitting in her modestly furnished office in Mallary Hall, “I became the person that I was missing there.”

Arguelles began last August as AIC’s coordinator of clinical services to student-athletes. (“They made that huge title,” she says, but “I’m the sports psychologist.”) As such, she works with athletes on what she defines as the three distinct aspects of sports psychology: sport enhancement, and life and mental concerns.

In her relatively short tenure here, Arguelles says, she’s mostly encountered student-athletes at once struggling with adjusting to being away from home for the first time—not uncommon among even non-athletes, of course—and balancing the increased demands of collegiate athletics and academics.

The language barrier is another hurdle uniquely common to AIC athletes. “They (international students) know English. They know how to do everything in English,” says Arguelles, for whom English is a second language, “but their first thought is going to be in another language.”

Even such conversational minutiae as idioms and figures of speech, when lost in translation, can alienate international student-athletes from their native-speaking teammates. “I have a joke,” Arguelles recounts one of her athletes telling her, “but I don’t know how to translate it. So it’s fun for me, but once I translate it, it doesn’t make sense.”

“They see their coaches every day. They see a strength and conditioning coach,” she reasons: Why not see a sports psychologist regularly?”
Virnia Arguelles

Arguelles cut her teeth working at the Albergue Olímpico in Salinas, Puerto Rico, with athletes preparing for the 2012 Olympics. She sat in on biofeedback sessions with the athletes before they left for London, then worked with the two medalists—Javier Culson, who won a bronze in the four-hundred-meter hurdles, and Jaime Espinal, a freestyle wrestler, who won a silver in the eighty-four-kilogram division—when they returned. (Culson was in especial need of psychological counseling after clipping the seventh hurdle in the finals and losing his rhythm and the gold.)

Arguelles envisions her office becoming a more routine resource for AIC’s student-athletes. “They see their coaches every day. They see a strength and conditioning coach,” she reasons, “Why not see a sports psychologist regularly? ”

She’s already found coaches here to be, on the whole, much more receptive to her interventions than those she’s worked with in the past, which she partially attributes to generational attitudes. AIC, she says, has “a lot of younger coaches” with “a different perspective” than that of the obstinate—often older—coaches to whom she has had to “sell” the merits of sports psychology.

Ultimately, she wants to make student-athletes more aware of their transferable skillset. “They’re very determined, driven, responsible—in athletics,” she says. “They forget that all those skills, they can use them in classes, in their professions, in other aspects of their lives.”


By Brendan Gauthier :: photo by Eugene Deykin