The Ins And Outs Of Sport Psychology

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Sport psychologist who is looking over information about an athlete he's treating

Sport psychologists play a vital role on the sports medicine team: they address the stigmatized issue of mental health in athletes. Whether it’s mental roadblocks that are hindering an athlete’s performance, like regaining confidence after suffering from an injury or a mental illness like anxiety, sport psychologists are there to take a comprehensive and integrative approach. Since this is such an important topic, we wanted to highlight what exactly sport psychologists do and what settings they provide care in.  

What Do Sport Psychologists Do?

You may not be aware of sport psychology, but this profession has been around for awhile! Psychologists have been conducting sports-related studies dating back to the late nineteenth century. One of the first sports-related experiments was conducted in 1898 by the psychologist, Norman Triplett, who found that cyclists’ speeds increased when they competed against each other compared to cycling alone.

Sport psychologists have the knowledge and skills to help athletes reach optimal performance and well-being. While a coach's focus is physical, a sport psychologist’s focus is on the mental. As we’ve written about in the past, athletes are vulnerable to mental illness because of the enormous stress and pressure they're under. 

Sport psychologists can help athletes with everything from communication issues with teammates to feeling less anxious during competition. Sport psychologists can also help athletes address the following issues:

  • Optimizing performance: Helping athletes thrive and overcome barriers is crucial for performance. This can often involve teaching athletes self-talk, relaxation and visualization techniques.
  • Coping with pressures: Feeling too much pressure can become debilitating for athletes, whether it’s from coaches, parents, or even themselves. That’s why it’s important for athletes to learn strategies for coping with pressure and managing expectations. 
  • Recovery: Dealing with an injury can be difficult, so athletes may need help adjusting to being sidelined, tolerating pain and sticking with their physical therapy plans. 
  • Motivation: Even the best athletes can have difficulty motivating themselves to exercise and reach their goals. Sport psychologists can help athletes adjust their mindsets and increase their motivation. 
  • Enjoyment: Sport psychologists don’t just help professional athletes - they also help educate coaches! Areas of education include everything from promoting self-esteem to helping kids enjoy sports.

Professionals are certified through organizations such as the American Psychological Association and the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. Only licensed psychologists may use this term, which entails passing state educational and training requirements, along with a comprehensive exam. This takes years of schooling (at least eight), and includes a specialized postdoctoral training.

The major distinction between a regular psychologist and a sport psychologist is the model of reference. For example a psychologist’s reference point is the medical disease model, whereas a sport psychologist’s reference point is the health model. This means that unlike a psychologist, sport psychologists don’t look at their clients as needing a diagnosis, but rather they look at their clients as having issues that are limiting their life and performance (i.e. lack of focus during a competition).   

Where Do Sport Psychologists Work?

Sport psychologists not only assist athletes, but other individuals involved in sports, such as coaches, administrators, and parents. A great aspect of this occupation is that there are a variety of settings where sport psychologists can apply their training and expertise, on and off the playing field. Here are a few examples of areas a sport psychologist can work in.

University/College Athletic Departments

Female athletes playing soccer, who will then be helped by Sport Psychologists

College athletes are under enormous pressure, from daily practices to travelling for competitions, while having their every move judged. These pressures are not only physically demanding, but also mentally exhausting. That’s why athletic departments, such as those in the  National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)’s Division 1, have a host of professionals helping them, from coaches to sport psychologists. There are at least 20 NCAA D1 universities that have a sport psychologist on staff. 

While issues affecting athletes vary from one to the next, the same can be said for the types of positions that sport psychologists occupy in NCAA D1. For example, their positions can vary in time commitment, services provided (performance consulting, mental health counseling or both combined), and type of client (male vs. female sports, individual sports). 

Military

The military requires professionals from all areas, including nurses, training specialists, athletic trainers and you guessed it...sport psychologists! The U.S. Army’s commitment to their troops’ health extends not only to their physical fitness but also their mental fitness. In fact, they’re the largest employer of sport psychologists, also known in this setting as Performance Enhancement Specialists (PESs). 

PESs work to help not only soldiers but also their families and civilians cope and build resilience when facing adversity. Since military troops face significant physical and psychological challenges, PESs provide techniques incorporated into their fitness routines to help them perform at the highest level. These techniques help involve goal-setting, positive self-talk, imagery and heart rate control. 

Occupational Settings

Just as athletes need support to improve their performance on the field, employees may need assistance in the workplace. If an employee isn’t doing well at work, wants to strive for success and perform better, a sport psychologist can help! Whether it’s anticipating questions, building confidence or feeling motivated to accomplish tasks, employees can benefit from the same techniques that sport psychologists teach athletes. 

Sport psychologists work with corporations and teach employees techniques such as visualization (picturing a work presentation going well), cognitive restructuring (focusing on the key points in a presentation, instead of thinking your coworkers are bored), and managing stress using deep breathing and muscle relaxation. Sport psychology in the workplace has numerous benefits, including employees learning how to perform better under pressure and corporations saving costs because their employees are more engaged and consistent in workplace performance.

Sport Psychologists And Technology

It’s clear that sport psychologists play a key role in the health and performance of athletes, soldiers and those in the workplace. To support clients in these various fields, sport psychologists can rely on technology, like an Athlete Electronic Health Record (EHR) with a sport psychology module, to keep track of athlete health and performance. Using an Athlete EHR, like Presagia Sports, alongside the rest of the sports medicine team allows sport psychologists to be in the loop about all injuries and illnesses which may impact an athlete’s mental health, empowering them to make informed decisions to help athletes with their performance and past mental roadblocks!

Presagia Sports’ sport psychology module also allows sport psychologists to track referrals, medications and historical mental health issues, and record notes confidentially and provide select information to other members of the sports medicine team, as appropriate. All of this to say, sport psychologists play a major role alongside the rest of the sports medicine team in helping athletes move onwards and upwards!