This may seem to be a strange question, surely its obvious what sport psychology is? Not so, as even though it has been around for a few decades now, it is still massively misunderstood and may be even cause fear in some people. As normally happens when people fear or fail to understand something, they tend to mock it. So let us begin with a look at what sport psychology isn’t courtesy of Mike Bassett, England Manager:

This gives some idea of how the man in the street (or even in the dressing room) may perceive sport science, and psychology in particular seems to be viewed with caution, as if it is some form of modern day witchcraft. It should be mentioned here also that maybe sometimes the sport sciences don’t do themselves any favours – with psychology there can occasionally be too much emphasis on ‘happy clappy’ positivity which doesn’t account for individual preferences.

So, the above clip has given an amusing look at what sport psychology isn’t, but the question being asked is – what is it? Psychology comes from the Greek words ‘psyche’ (meaning the mind) and ‘ology’ (meaning ‘study of’) i.e. studying the mind (and behaviour) in a sporting context. There may be an automatic association when thinking of psychology of it being associated with issues or problems and lying on a couch divulging sexual fantasies or discussing your relationship with your parents.

One of the biggest challenges faced in the domain is persuading clients otherwise. The difficulty of this depends on the context that you are working in. It tends to be a lot easier working with individual clients than with teams, I’ve found this especially true in Mixed Martial Arts where a lot of my consultancy has taken place. Working with footballers (especially in squad sessions) would probably rank as one of the most difficult groups to work with, at first team level anyway. They (footballers) may tend to come across as arrogant and aloof when psychology is introduced, but often if you scratch beneath the surface a little, this often masks insecurity and not wanting to look weak in front of your peers. There is also the added pressure of not wanting your coach/manager to think there is anything ‘wrong’ with you as your livelihood may depend on you playing regularly and securing that next contract. However, the players/athletes that do seek support tend to be the more open-minded and willing to improve i.e. the ones that will develop more effectively throughout their careers.

I am always quick to dispel the myth that sport psychology is about dealing with personal issues (although these often do form part of the process): to describe it in two words – performance enhancement i.e. can you work with the athlete(s) to squeeze every last drop of their potential out of them.  Whenever I work with a client(s) we discuss how we can improve their performance based on the 4 corner approach:

  • Technical (how to…)
  • Tactical (when/where to…)
  • Physical (fitness, nutrition/hydration, rest)
  • Psychological (emotional/mental control of performance)

Sport psychology is very much about working with your client(s), rather than dictating to them. You are helping them to help themselves – they generally already know the answers to the questions, it’s your job to coax them out and help them provide their own solutions. You are also bound by a strict ethical code(see BASES code of conduct below) similar to the Hippocratic oath sworn by doctors: first do no harm.

Often in professional sport settings nowadays, sport scientists tend to work in teams e.g. psychologist working with physiologist working with biomechanist working with performance analyst, improving the synergy between the support areas.

The emphasis in sport psychology today is also on becoming accredited through a recognised body such as the British Association for Sports and Exercise Science (BASES) or through the British Psychological Society (BPS), which obviously lends credibility to the profession, as many charlatans still operate and consequently give the better practitioners a bad name. The process involves providing evidence in a portfolio to demonstrate your:  scientific knowledge (key concepts of your discipline); technical skills; ability to apply knowledge; understanding and using research.

What, then are the attributes needed to become a sport psychologist? According to BASES they are:

  • An interest in sport (good starting point!)
  • Highly developed communication & interpersonal skills including use of ICT
  • Active listening & reflection skills (counselling courses are very helpful with this)
  • Patience & ability to motivate others
  • Ability to adapt to a range of settings with different clients (individuals and teams)
  • Commitment to research and continuing professional development
  • Ability to work under pressure and cope with stressful situations
  • Gaining practical experience in sports performance/ coaching, teaching develops practical skills and knowledge
  • Some grasp of other disciplines e.g. physiology, biomechanics, performance analysis – NETWORKING
  • Be professional (punctual, organised)
  • Applying theory to practice
  • Be self-reflective – honest appraisal of own performance

Once accredited by one of these organisations, you will then be bound to a strict code of conduct to protect yourself and your clients covering:

  • Promotion of scientific study of sport and exercise
  • Ethical clearance (non-routine work)
  • Informed consent and confidentiality (Data Protection Act, 1984)
  • Competence (recognise limitations and work interdisciplinary where possible)

Hopefully the above sheds some light on what sport psychology is and sports psychologists do.