Sport psychology means different things to different people, as I found out when the question was put to a group of football coaches in a sports performance workshop recently. To some, it meant being observed, and to others it meant lying back on a sofa and being analysed. Such views are reflected in a general opinion that sport psychologists are hired when something is wrong with an athlete or team, and the psychologist looks for what to fix. I wish to present more realistic examples of what sport psychology is, and what it can do.

The dominant method for delivering sport psychology services comes from a cognitive-behavioural approach in the form of psychological skills training (Lindsay, Breckon, Thomas, & Maynard, 2007). Such an approach assumes that our thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes (mental processes) influence our behaviours and emotions. Interventions therefore aim to teach individuals to change their thinking and responses in order to improve performance. Typically, mental strategies such as goal setting, imagery, and self-talk are taught in structured and educational interventions following this approach.

But sport psychology can take other forms. For example, Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers sees sport psychology as “part of the development of the player”, which fits with a humanistic perspective.

Other approaches to sport psychology:

Humanistic

Such an approach is interested in personal and positive growth, rather than just performance. This takes on a holistic perspective where the athlete is considered as a person as whole, targeting their well-being rather than just performance; although their performance may also improve as a result.  For instance, in getting to know the other life roles and issues an athlete has outside of sport and dealing with these, negative consequences such as anxiety or lack of confidence in competition will be alleviated.

Counselling and psychodynamic

These approaches are client-led in interventions where the athlete goes through a process of revealing their personality and motivational influences, which need to be resolved. The sport psychologist therefore listens to issues and facilitates a discussion through which the athletes go on a journey and is empowered to help themselves.

As each approach underpins different models of sport psychology service delivery, it is important that clients pick a psychologist whose methods suit their needs (Lindsay et al., 2007). A large amount of athletes want a ‘quick fix’ to improve performance, however if there are underlying issues this may not always be possible. Brendan Rodgers provides an example, as Liverpool have been working with Dr. Steve Peters since 2012, and are perhaps only now being recognised as a confident and resilient team. Taking a shorter mental skills approach may not have accrued the same results.

Another point about sport psychology which Brendan Rodgers illustrates regards working with the team; “It (sport psychology) is not solely for the players, but for the staff and other people”. Managers build collaborative relationships with psychologists who provide support, acting as a sounding board and offering advice in preparing athletes psychologically. Coaches can also benefit by considering how to include psychological skills in training, where referees and officials can use psychology to better understand cognitive processes to improve decision-making. To reach its full potential in these ways it is important that sport psychology is not seen as just reaction to drops in performance, but also as a tool to maintain the positive aspects of sport.

Sport psychology is useful for a range of aspects; emotional control and dealing with the stressful demands of competition and training, communication within teams and between coaches, adjustment to events such as injury, as well as facilitating athlete transitions into higher levels of competition or into retirement. Through sport psychology individuals can see the life skills they have developed and how these can be transferred into other areas, for example taking the leadership a player may show in their family setting and using it within their team.

Hopefully athletes, managers, coaches, and the general public will begin to see the role of sport psychology not as a sign of weakness requiring help when issues arise, but as a proactive part of training taken by individuals to reach the very top of their game.