Sports psychology is a subdiscipline of applied psychology that helps athletes improve their performance by using psychological principles, techniques, and skills. Sports psychologists also help non-athletes use exercise and sports to further their good health and psychological well-being.
Sports psychology integrates disciplines like medicine, physiology and kinesiology into its psychological approach to helping athletes maintain and improve their performance. Of course, sports psychology also addresses the psychological health of athletes. The importance of sports psychology cannot be overestimated, as the mental side of sports can be more challenging than the technical aspects. Athletes rely on sports psychologists to help them stay at the peak of their performance.
What Does a Sports Psychologist Do?
A sports psychologist’s job description is very broad, with a wide range of responsibilities. These include:
- Performance: Sports psychologists train athletes to use many mental strategies and techniques to improve their performance and break through plateaus in their performance. A few of these techniques include positive self-talk, cognitive restructuring, visualization, focus enhancement, and anxiety reduction.
- Recovery: Many athletes undergo physical therapy and surgery for injuries. Recovery from injury can require a lot of psychological adjustment, especially since restricted movement is a part of initial healing. Athletes may need help coping with life from the sidelines while they complete the healing process. Feelings of helplessness and anger are common, which makes having a psychologist on staff a necessity for sports teams.
- Coping skills: Athletes living with enormous pressure that comes from all sides. Family, coaches, fans, and teammates have high expectations that generate feelings of anxiety, tension and sometimes even depression in top athletes. Psychological experts can help them cope better with intense pressure and stay focused on performance.
- Motivation: Athletes sometimes have problems maintaining consistently high levels of motivation under stress. Sports psychologists teach techniques to assist athletes maintain top levels of motivation.
- Conflict Resolution: Athletes live under high pressure, which can lead to anger control problems and friction between the player and coaches, the press and teammates. Sports psychologists help players communicate more effectively with others. They also teach relaxation exercises that diffuse and reduce negative emotions.
Becoming a Sports Psychologist
Sports psychology isn’t a brand-new specialty, but new training programs continue to be developed and rolled out across the country. Sports psychologists are first and foremost psychologists, which means an educational path that must include a Ph.D. in counseling or clinical psychology. Sports psychologist must also be licensed.
The education of a sports psychologist isn’t limited to psychology. Many other fields are included, like biomechanics, medicine, and kinesiology. Nonetheless, the education of sports psychologists begins with a bachelor’s degree. After that, the most direct track to becoming a sports psychologist focuses on the counseling or psychology route to becoming a
Specialized coursework at the doctoral level includes:
- Techniques of counseling athletes
- Group dynamics in sports participation
- Theories of sports psychology
- Sport-specific aspects of sport psychology
- Principles of applied sport psychology, including sport-specific psychological assessment and mental skills training.
- Organizational consultation
- Sports medicine
Clinical and counseling psychology programs can take up to 7 years to complete. Sports psychology requires a practicum and one-year internship in a program similar to that sought by the student.
What’s Being a Sports Psychologist Like?
Being a sports psychologist is an intense job. There’s a lot of high-pressure situations where athletes rely heavily on their psychologist. Sports psychologists help players develop their mental focus and concentration, which is an ongoing job. Sports psychologists travel with their team during the season, which translates to a lot of time away from home. Sports psychologists also work as part of a team, which is somewhat different from the role of most psychologists, who work alone.
What is the Job Outlook for Sports Psychologists?
Opportunities for graduates in sports psychology continue to grow. It’s a hot, expanding field that benefits from the USA’s passionate love of sports. There are opportunities in high school and university sports programs and athletic departments. Many recreational clubs also are on the lookout for sports psychologists. Sports psychologists are in such high demand in the military that the U.S. Army employs more performance and sports psychologists than any other entity in the county. Called Performance Enhancement Specialists in the military, they work with soldiers and family members to help cushion and reduce problems associated with long or frequent deployments and combat injuries.
What is the Average Salary for a Sports Psychologist?
The salary spread for sports psychologists varies tremendously. Athletic departments that are part of universities often pay between $60,000 and $80,000 a year. Naturally, major league athletic teams pay far more.
Famous Sports Psychologists
Coleman Griffith. Regarded as the ‘father of sports psychology,’ Griffin published Psychology and its Relation to Athletic Competition in 1925. He also established the first sports psychology laboratory at this time, at the University of Illinois. He worked for the Chicago Cubs in 1938 as a sports psychologist, the first person to do so.
Dr. Alan Goldberg. A prolific author, Dr. Alan Goldberg has written 35 books on mental toughness and performance. He’s consulted for the NCAA and University of Chicago Huskies, among many others. Dr. Goldberg is an expert on helping athletes recovering from setbacks and push past plateaus. He holds a PhD in counseling from the University of Massachusetts and is the director of a private firm.
Dr. John F. Murray. Dr. Murray has been an author, clinical psychologist and sports psychologist. Labeled “the most quoted psychologist in America,” he’s worked with athletes from NFL (National Football League), as well as athletes from other sports.
Robert M. Nideffer. Dr. Robert M. Nideffer has written over 17 books about athletic performance and developed the Enhanced Performance System. It focuses on emotional control, minimizing distractions and developing focus to improve individual and team performance.
Terry Orlick. Dr. Orlick developed the Zone of Excellence, a way of using one’s focus and energy to achieve a singular outcome. He’s worked with professional dancers and classical musicians, in addition to many Olympic coaches and athletes. He has published many classics of sports psychology, including In Pursuit of Excellence.
B.S. Psychology | Arkansas State University
M.A. Rehabilitation Counseling | Arkansas State University
M.A. English | Arkansas State University
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