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A sports psychologist is a psychologist who looks at how sports performance is affected by a person's emotional wellbeing as well as how to increase motivation and help an athlete keep focused. A sports psychologist will work with athletes individually as well as with the team as a whole. Coaches as well as parents can also benefit from seeing a sports psychologist.
Years ago, psychologists were not that involved in sports and sports psychology was done mainly by physical education teachers. However, by the early 1900s, people became more interested in studying the psychology of sport and sports psychology started growing into its own discipline.
One of the first sports psychology articles was written by Dr. Norman Triplett who showed that cyclists would ride faster when they rode with a competitor or a pacemaker. In the 1920s three different sports psychology labs were established: one by Carl Diem in Berlin, Germany; one by A. Z. Puni in Leningrad; and a third by Coleman Griffith in the United States. Coleman Griffith was actually the first person hired as a sports psychologist by a professional sports team. He was hired by the Chicago Cubs, a professional baseball team.
Lack of funds ended up causing Coleman's lab to be closed and the study of sports psychology stagnated until the 1960's when the International Society of Sport Psychology was established by Ferruccio Antonelli. In the 1970's, universities started to offer courses in sport psychology and two different academic journals, the International Journal of Sport Psychology and the Journal of Sport Psychology were published.
Sports psychology continued to develop and sports psychologists began to use more rigorous methodologies. Sports psychologists began to utilize scientific methods that could be used to increase an athlete's performance. They also explored how exercise can be used to improve a person's mental wellbeing.
At about the same time, a number of organizations in Europe and North America were created to help promote sports psychology. In Europe, the International Society of Sport Psychology and the European Federation of Sport Psychology were founded, and later became prominent organizations for the promotion of sports psychology.
In North America, the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity (NASPSPA) and the Canadian Society for Psychomotor Learning and Sport Psychology (SCAPPS) were developed. Most of these organizations were focused on research and learning within the field of sports psychology.
In addition to the increase in research there was also an increasing awareness of applied sports psychology. Some sports psychologists were concerned that the stresses faced by professional athletes could not be replicated in a laboratory and that sports psychologists needed to get out into the field to apply the concepts of sports psychology in a real world setting.
When the NASPSPA decided to continue focusing on research and not deal with applied sports psychology, a number of sports psychologists decided to form the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology. This organization later became known as the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP).
Over time, AASP began developing standardized codes and methods of practice as well as developing a teaching program to train sports psychologists to meet these standards.
In 2003, the American Psychological Association recognized sports psychology as a distinct branch of psychology.
A sports psychologist can focus on applied or clinical/counselling sports psychology. Both types of sports psychology are similar since they are concerned with helping an athlete perform better. However, clinical and counselling sports psychologists are more focused on mental health issues and view athletes as a unique population that has different mental health needs. A sports psychologist can also be involved in conducting research related to understanding and increasing athletic performance.
Some of the areas that a sports psychologist will help an athlete improve include becoming more consistent in performance and developing effective practice habits to improve motivation. Sports psychologists also help athlete perform better under pressure and learn ways to improve focus during competition.
People of all ages, skill levels, and involved in just about any sport may seek help from a sports psychologist. This means that sports psychologists work with professional and amateur athletes alike, not just top-tier professional athletes.
Applied Sports Psychologist: This is the most popular area of work for a sports psychologist. An applied sports psychologist strives to increase an athlete's performance by teaching the athlete a variety of skills. These skills will allow the athlete to maintain a positive psychological frame of mind during both training and competition. These skills include visualization, goal setting, increased confidence, relaxation techniques and coping with injury.
Visualization: A sports psychologist will teach an athlete to visualize successfully completing a certain action. For example, a figure skater will visualize performing a difficult maneuver. The visualization will be as detailed as possible with the figure skater visualizing the approach to the maneuver, the actual maneuver and the end of the maneuver. This will give the athlete confidence to complete the maneuver as well as prepare the athlete's body for the actual maneuver. In essence, the athlete will be able to "remember" successfully completing the maneuver.
Goal Setting: A sports psychologist will help an athlete to set goals which will continue to push the athlete but are still attainable. Most athletes will have the goal of winning already established but an athlete also needs to set other goals. If the only goal that an athlete has is to win, then it can be hard to remain motivated if the athlete is in a bit of a slump and has not won in a while. For example, a runner could focus on finishing a race within a certain time instead of being worried about who was first.
A sports psychologist could also help an athlete to set smaller goals focused on improving specific parts of an athlete's performance. A runner could focus on improving performance out of the starting block at the beginning of a race.
Self Talk: A sports psychologist can help an athlete increase self esteem and motivation by using self-talk. An athlete could be taught to recite various "mantras" such as Muhammad Ali's mantra "I am the greatest" (of course, he actually was :-). Using self-talk will help build an athlete's confidence and improve overall performance. The type of self-talk that will be used by an athlete as well as when it will be used is developed in collaboration with the sports psychologist.
Relaxation & Focus: A sports psychologist will help an athlete develop ways to relax so that tension and anxiety will not get in the way of performance. Athletes also need to make sure that they are not too relaxed and ensure that they are "up for the performance".
The athlete will also learn ways to concentrate and block out unwelcome noise such as heckling coming from fans or opposing players. A sports psychologist can help an athlete focus only on the task at hand and to not worry about other problems which may affect performance. For example, if a baseball pitcher makes a bad pitch, he will need to have the skill to put the bad pitch behind him and focus on the next pitch to ensure that it's a good one.
Dealing with Injuries: All athletes will need to deal with injuries at some point in their career and a sports psychologist can help ensure that the athlete deals with the psychological stresses that can be associated with an injury. If an athlete's identity and self esteem is closely identified with the sport or the team, then the athlete may have difficulty adjusting to no longer being able to perform. An athlete can suffer a number of psychological issues such as depression or low self esteem as a result of being unable to perform as well as by watching a competitor continue to play and advance.
Clinical and Counseling Sports Psychologists: A sports psychologist who focuses on a clinical practice will often work with conditions faced by people in general and not just athletes. What the sports psychologist will do is to make sure that the treatment that is provided takes into account the unique circumstances of a person being an athlete.
Athletes may experience conditions such as depression, eating disorders and even substance abuse. Although these conditions are not restricted to athletes, a sports psychologist will be able to help a person to deal with these problems within the framework of them being an athlete and may also be able to incorporate techniques to improve performance into the therapy.
A clinical sports psychologist will use psychotherapy techniques such as cognitive behavior modification or psychodynamic approaches to deal with any issues that an athlete may face. These approaches are similar to the approaches used with the general population.
A sports psychologist using the cognitive behavioral approach will help an athlete identify thoughts and behaviors that are affecting the athlete and establish ways to change these patterns of behavior.
The psychodynamic approach will look at an athlete's unconscious motivation and family background to see how they affect the athlete's mental well being as well as the athlete’s performance.
Regardless of the clinical approach taken by a sports psychologist, the main focus is to deal with the mental health issues faced by the client and then move towards improving performance. Of course, an athlete's performance will be helped by dealing with any of these mental health issues.
Some of the topics that a sports psychologist may study include how to increase motivation, what exercise is best for an athlete and techniques for ensuring an athlete can keep anxiety under control as well as remaining focused during a competition. Other areas of research will be in helping youth athletes avoid burnout as well as studying how parents can help their children deal with the stress of athletic competition and how to keep children motivated.
A person can take a couple of different approaches to becoming a sports psychologist. The three main areas of study are kinesiology, sports science and psychology. If you decide to focus on psychology you will need at least a master's degree and probably a Ph.D. You will also need to obtain the necessary state licenses in order to practice as a psychologist.
Some psychology programs offer a specialization in sports psychology although you can still become a sports psychologist by obtaining the necessary skills through a work placement or extra study after achieving your graduate degree.
In addition to the skills learned during the completion of a graduate degree, a person hoping to become a sports psychologist should also develop knowledge about the theory and research in sports psychology as well as the biobehavioral aspects of sports and exercise. You should also look into developmental and social issues and how they relate to participation in sports. One way to gain this knowledge would be to complete a certification program similar to the one provided by the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. On completion of this program, you will be a certified consultant in sports psychology.
To complete this program, you will typically need to have obtained a master's or doctoral degree in an area related to sports as well as complete the certificate program coursework and at least three hundred hours of supervised practice.
Jobs For Sports Psychologists
A sports psychologist has a number of options for work. One option is to work for a professional sports team helping the athletes deal with any issues they may have. The same work could also be done with university level sports teams. The sports psychologist will not only work with the athletes but can also work with the coaches to develop ways to motivate athletes and how to build a stronger team. A sports psychologist will also work with the team as a whole to improve team cohesion and help the team work better together.
A sports psychologist can help a coach find the best way to give feedback to the team as well as how to reinforce positive behavior. A sports psychologist will also help a coach avoid negative self fulfilling prophecies and ensure that the team remains positive and motivated.
It can be difficult to find work with a professional team so you may need to start off working with amateur athletes until you have gained some experience and become better known within the sporting community.
You can also decide to work with individuals in private practice. Any athlete who is having difficulty remaining focused or is having trouble performing can benefit from seeing a sports psychologist.
If you specialize in rehabilitation, you can find work in a health centre or in a hospital. You will deal with athletes who have been injured and help them deal with the psychological problems they may experience as a result of being injured. Adults are not the only athletes that a sports psychologist can work with. A sports psychologist can also find work with youth sports programs. A sports psychologist working with youth will need to deal with some of the same issues faced by adult athletes as well as issues that face youth such as developmental issues, sexual orientation issues or issues with family and friends.
Research into sports psychology is usually done within a university setting. A job with a university will allow you to conduct research as well as teach students about sports psychology.
The average salary for a sports psychologist is approximately $68,000 a year although some sports psychologists can make over $100,000 a year. A sport psychologist who works for a professional sports team will usually earn a higher salary although these jobs are harder to find. Job growth for psychology is expected to increase by twenty per cent and sports psychology is expected to experience an even higher rate of growth.
If you like being active and enjoy participating in sports, then becoming a sports psychologist may be a good choice. Although it can be difficult to find work with a professional team, there are still a number of opportunities with amateur athletes and a good sports psychologist can quickly find work. People who like being a part of a team and helping people overcome problems to become great athletes can think about becoming a sports psychologist.