There is no magic formula for achieving optimal athletic success. However, there are tools available that help athletes improve their performance and better master their sport. Sports psychologists are one such tool.
One of the questions athletes ask about sports psychology is “when is it appropriate to seek psychological support related to sports?” Essentially, how do athletes know when the challenges they face are psychological?
Some things that indicate sports psychology could be of value include:
- Performance is better during practice than it is in competition
- Performance varies based on whether there is an audience
- Doubts arise before or during competition/games
- Anxiety or fear occur during competition
- Lack or clarity of motivation or motivation is just to “feel better”
- Losing focus or experiencing mental lapses at critical times during competition
- Performance dips after an injury that is 100 percent physical healed
- Improving overall mental attitude even if performance is up to expectations
How Do Sports Psychologists Differ from Regular Psychologists and Coaches?
Any coach will tell you that he has practiced a certain degree of psychology when working with athletes, And in most cases, working with a regular psychologist could offer benefits for an athlete even if there is no specific focus on sports psychology.
However, to be a sports psychologist, one must be a licensed clinical and counseling psychologist. In most cases, they focus on helping players with the mental challenges of their sport. But there is also a growing trend of sports psychologists offering support to other fields, including military personnel, first responders, and high-level executives. The goal is to improve cognitive skills, physical abilities, and response to emergency or critical events.
In professional sports, the use of sports psychology is growing rapidly as more and more athletes recognize the benefits of improving their mental health. Some professional sports leagues, including Major League Baseball (MLB), provide access to sports psychologists for players. As of 2018, 27 of the 30 teams had “mental skills coaches” in their organizations.
Additionally, the National Basketball Players Association recently launched a Mental Health and Wellness program for players. The goal is to help with mental challenges on and off the court. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) prioritized mental health for athletes and issued its Mental Health Best Practices directive. The document outlines steps schools should take to better mental health among student athletes.
This focus on mental health is a relatively recent change. In the past, there was a stigma regarding athletes seeking help for mental health issues. This was especially true for male athletes. But more recently, the practice has become the norm for high-level athletes. Many athletes have even revealed to the public that they are dealing with specific mental health challenges and are not just seeing psychologists to improve their performance – although that is certainly a benefit of learning to better manage their mental health issues.
According to Sari Fine Shepphird, PhD, and a Los Angeles–area sport and performance psychologist, “Sport psychology has become more widely recognized as being beneficial to address a variety of needs. There’s increased demand for sports psychologists to address sports performance as well as mental health concerns, which is fantastic not just for the field of sport psychology but for athletes and for the general population.”
Dr. Shepphird sees this as a positive development and explains, “By discussing their mental health concerns, they have opened the door for athletes of every age and background to seek help for theirs.”
What are the Benefits of Working with a Sports Psychologist?
Benefits vary from athlete to athlete depending on his individual circumstances. However, the most common benefits of working with a sports psychologist include:
- Improving focus
- Boosting confidence
- Developing coping skills for dealing with setbacks
- Managing intensity levels
- Improving communication skills with teams and coaches
- Improving motivation
- Instilling healthy beliefs
- Eliminating irrational thoughts
- Psychological recovery from injury
- Developing strategies and “game plans”
- Finding and entering “the zone”
In addition to in-game or in-competition performance, sports psychologists also help with other issues. Athletes struggling with anger or violence issues, depression, trauma, or other things off the field benefit a great deal from working with a mental health professional. This is especially true when an athlete’s behavior has caused trouble that affects his quality of life and professional performance. The belief is that rehabilitation from events – both physical and emotional – is possible with the right support and guidance.