Sports psychology is the use of psychological techniques to improve the performance, mental health, emotional health and general well-being of athletes. Sports psychology not only draws from psychological science, but also from sports science and physical fitness science.
Athletes share an unusual set of problems. Like rock stars, they are often surrounded by admirers and groupies who stroke their egos but also can lead them into a world of decadence or drug abuse. Sleazy agents or managers might try to manipulate them for their own advantage. And athletes are often bombarded by conflicting voices telling them what to do.
Sports psychologists are trained to read people, and they can often help athletes sort through the maze of influences surrounding them. Sports psychologists also help athletes deal with personal problems that they don’t want to share with managers, family or friends. Sports psychologists maintain confidentiality and are trained to counsel people concerning personal issues.
Injuries can be quite problematic for athletes; not only do injuries limit or prohibit their ability to perform, but they can rob an athlete of self-confidence. Sports psychologists can help maximize an athlete’s performance by teaching techniques of concentration, visualization and motivation that can help athletes cope with injuries, gain self-confidence, overcome mental blocks, alleviate depression, lessen anxiety and deal with substance abuse. Many sports psychologists are trained to use techniques like hypnosis, stress reduction therapy, biofeedback and behavior modification.
Here are some common techniques that sports psychologists use or teach:
Arousal regulation refers to techniques for entering into and maintaining an optimal mental and physiological state for maximizing performance. These includes techniques for relaxation, including meditation, breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation and music. One of the newest and most popular methods is the Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment (MAC) technique, which involves specific protocol that uses meditation and acceptance.
Pre-performance routines are actions and rituals that athletes use while preparing for an event. They usually incorporate warm-up exercises into these routines. Performing the same routine consistently before each event readies the athlete mentally and physically for the event, and usually leads to consistent performances.
Imagery refers to the creation or re-creation of mental experiences by using a variety of senses. Athletes often use it on the day before an event by visualizing themselves performing well at the event. The more realistic the imagery and the more senses that are involved, the better the results are likely to be.
Self-talk refers to cues athletes use to direct their attention to something that requires their focus. For example, golfers might say or think “smooth stroke” right before they start to putt.
Goal Setting is the systematic planning for achieving specific objectives within a given timeframe. The goals should be difficult but attainable. They also need to be measurable, with a mixture of short-term and long-term goals. The short-term goals should get progressively more difficult.
Types of Degrees
A bachelor’s degree in psychology is a good start, possibly with a concentration or double major in exercise science or physical therapy. To get licensed, sports psychologists must get at least a master’s degree, and usually a doctorate. It’s hard to find a master’s degree program in sports psychology, but a master’s in clinical psychology works fine as long as it’s accompanied by sports-related coursework.
Most sports psychologists get into counseling and therapy, though some get into teaching or research. Some work for amateur or professional sports teams, traveling to games alongside managers, trainers and coaches. Others set up their own private office, form a partnership or work for an agency.
Many sports psychologists specialize in a particular area of sports psychology or specialize in a particular sport.
According to the American Psychological Association’s (APA), sports psychologists working in university athletic departments can earn $60,000 to $80,000 per year.