What is Sport Psychology, Anyway?

When I tell people what I'm trying to do with sport psychology and why I went to school for it, they often ask me to explain what sport psychology really is.  Of course, I try to give the best explanation that I can, but usually a short conversation can only go so far.  I wanted to take the opportunity early on in this process to give a better background into the area, explain why it's important, and attack some of those misconceptions that are out there.

Sport and performance psychologists essentially have one main purpose: find out what makes elite performers so skilled at what they do and relay those mental skills to anyone that requires them.  I like to tell people that it is a two-pronged approach.  The first is performance enhancement, whether this is at the team, individual, parent, or coach level.  The second is mental and emotional health.  Certified sport psychologists are required to have education in counseling and psychotherapy, and they should be open to using that education because wellness of the athlete will always be number one.  This is usually the first place to look when performance issues are going on, also.  Think about it: if you were a young athlete and struggling with a relationship in your life, wouldn't your performance suffer?

Currently, the field is growing at a very fast rate.  A large majority of professional teams employ or contract with one or multiple sport psychologists.  This includes the NFL, NBA, MLB, U.S. Olympic Committee, professional golfers and tennis players (on the individual level), and other popular sports.  Sport psychology is also growing rapidly at the college level, with many universities employing or contracting sport psychologists to provide these services for student-athletes.  Cutting-edge high school level programs are even beginning to follow suit.  I could go on forever arguing the importance of sport psychology for athletes of all levels, but I like the way legendary sport psychologist Ken Ravizza put it when he said, "People are now realizing that we've tapped the physical conditioning aspect.  We've tapped the mechanics aspect.  We're tapping the computer aspect and all the numbers.  I think now they're realizing the next edge is the six inches between the ears."

People who want to work in the field are generally working against two stigmas: one about mental health in sports and one about sport psychology itself.  Although there is a sense that mental and emotional health is gaining acceptance in sports through athletes like Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan opening up about their struggles, but we are far from full acceptance.  The reality is that athletes struggle just as much as anyone else, and the pressures that they face may even be unique because they play sports.  The old norm of being "tough" and "brushing it off" is where this negative stigma has come from, and the fight to allow athletes to show vulnerability and acceptance of their issues is ongoing.  Next comes that hesitation that some feel about working with a sport psychologist.  Just the word "psychology" being involved raises red flags in some people's minds.  No, you do not have to be "messed up" to see a sport psychologist.  No, you won't be asked to lay on a couch for an hour and talk about your feelings.  Sport psychology was not created out of thin air for just anyone to talk about.  In order to be a CMPC for AASP (I suggest you look those up if you really want to know) it takes more than one or two college courses.  Joe Maddon, manager for the Chicago Cubs, puts it wonderfully, "To think that psychology is an indicator of weakness truly is an ignorant statement.  When people are fighting it, it's only because they don't understand it."

The growth that I talked about previously hasn't quite taken hold in Montana communities yet, but I'm very confident that this is the next step in changing our sports culture.  You will see me write about a lot of mental skills throughout these future posts including anxiety management, goal-setting, self-talk, imagery and visualization, team culture, and much more.  I'm also going to try to keep this as interesting as I can.  It's my hope that you can use this information to improve yourself, your children, or your athletes.


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