From pit stop to pole position- The role of a Sport Psychologist1 Opinion
Psychology is a word that is thrown around with the likes of therapy and psychiatry. Adding sport on the front, still does not seem to shift these negative connotations. It is often thought that the athlete will be lying on a couch with the therapist wearing a white coat and using their clip board to deduce the athletes’ life problems. However, Sport Psychology is not this! Sport Psychologists can be seen in tracksuit bottoms and sports tops, not white coats
Sport psychologists work with athletes from all sports as a way to enhance performance. The first recorded use of sport psychology is work by Coleman Griffin, with the Chicago Cubs baseball team in 1938 (Green, 2003). Therefore, the use of psychology in sport is not a new phenomenon. However, we have seen a growth of professional bodies and sport psychology journals in recent years (McCarthy & Jones, 2014). A Sport Psychologist could work as one of the coaching staff at a club or work individually with athletes. Sport psychologists work with the athlete who needs help to understand why they are not performing to their best ability by helping to increase the overall performance of the athlete. Sport psychologists are available for individual consultations if there are particular problems, but they are not there to point out issues and cause offence.
The compound noun ‘Sport Psychology’ is constantly diminished by the connotations it has attached to it for example, ‘dark science’ and ‘blatant pilfering’ (McCarthy & Jones, 2014). In the 1980’s Tottenham Hotspur football club hired a sports psychologist and the headlines wrote ‘White coats at White Hart Lane’. These opinions are changing. However, we have yet to reassure everybody that it is a vital aspect of performance. Today sport psychologists are employed in a vast array of sports from individual sports to team sports, working with both individual athletes and elite teams. We see many sporting icons talking freely about their experiences within sport psychology. For example, Victoria Pendleton, when talking about her Sports Psychologist, “I can honestly say I don’t think I’d be here if it wasn’t for Steve“.
There is not one set method to use when working with an athlete to improve their performance. Psychologists apply a number of different techniques. However, there is no differential effectiveness (Stiles, Shapiro & Elliott, 1986). It is suggested the difference stems from the individual’s ability to sustain rapport and a therapeutic alliance with the client (Stiles et al.). Techniques for example, imagery and other relaxation methods, are well received and can be considered important to some athletes as a performance aid. However, other athletes with different backgrounds, might find it more important to use goal setting to enhance performance. This is due to the nature of the individual. Consequently, this is why it is important to understand the client and also for the client to understand the psychologist.
Athletes often feel that if they consult a sport psychologist this will show a sign of weakness. However, sport psychologists do not work with the weak, they are there to increase performance, and in my opinion someone who wants to increase their performance cannot be seen as weak. A misconception of Sport Psychology is the opinion that you will get miraculous results in a short time. You wouldn’t expect to improve your skill based performance with a few hours practice, so why would you expect that of your mental performance? Broken bones don’t heel overnight, and neither do fears of losing and increased stress levels. We don’t start physical conditioning after an injury, we use physical conditioning to prevent injury, therefore, why not start mental training to prevent a mental injury. The time taken to train your physical self should be replicated with training your mental self!
Therefore, when asked to explain the role of a sport psychologist, you can imagine it is not as simple as one definition. The overall aim is to improve performance, which can be done using many different techniques. However, these depend on the individuals involved, and the issues they believe, need to be worked on. The sport psychologist is there to guide both the athlete, the coach, and the team to success. Therefore, this is not a discipline which should rely on a heavily funded sport but a discipline vital in the development of an athlete. Sport psychology should position itself firmly on the ‘touchline’ and not left back in the changing rooms.
Green, C. D. (2003). Psychology strikes out: Coleman R. Griffith and the Chicago Cubs. History of Psychology, 6: 267-283.
McCarthy, P. & Jones, M. (2014). Becoming a Sports Psychologist. London: Routledge.
Stiles, W.B., Shapiro, D.A., & Elliott, R. (1986). Are all psychotherapists equivalent? American Psychologist, 41: 165-180
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About Helen Staff
I have always wanted to be a sports psychologist, ever since studying it at A-Level. After graduating from Northumbria University with a degree in Psychology with Sports Science, I was lucky enough to land a job coaching hockey for two years in Melbourne, Australia. Upon my return to the UK I started my MSc in Sports and Exercise Psychology at Loughborough University. In the past few months I have started working with local cricket and hockey teams to increase their awareness of sports psychology and to increase their performance. I am interested in the psychology of coaching and performance psychology.