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Sunday
Feb132011

Sport and Psychology

First things first: I am not a sport psychologist. The word "psychologist" describes a professional licensure which requires qualifications and a licensing procedure that I have not undergone. I'm glad this procedure exists for psychologists because it allows for quality control and sanction. That being said, anyone who is a psychologist can claim to be a sport psychologist, whether or not they have specific training or experience with sports. I will always talk of myself as a "performance coach," "mental skills coach," or "sport psych practitioner." I never mean to mislead, and I believe that sometimes a little distance from the misconceptions about psychology is helpful anyway.

In general, psychology and sports have a pretty tangled relationship. There's still a stigma associated with talking to a psychologist in general, and the macho culture of some sports can be a further impediment to athletes. It seems like talking to someone about the mental game is an indication that the athlete is weak, so they try to work it out on their own. In my experience, trial-and-error is almost always trumped by technique, and what we call "the mental game" as a set of techniques, often called "mental skills," that can be learned and practiced. 

It is also interesting that sport psych practitioners are bound by confidentiality, so their best work is often done without public knowledge. This perpetuates the idea that using a coach specifically for the mental game is highly unusual and perhaps only reserved for those who need it the most. In circumstances where larger bodies pay for the practitioner, such as the Olympics, nearly every athlete is involved with a staff sport psychologist, and many continue to privately contract with those psychologists outside of the big competitions. However, again because of confidentiality and stigma, the success stories aren't discussed in the same way athletes discuss a Speed and Agility Coach or a Nutritionist.

Lastly, it should be emphasized that sport psychology is a piece of the puzzle. In competitions where people are equally skilled, fit, and coached, mental skills can play a major part in the outcomes. Paying attention to these skills for the first time can make a difference, but it can also take some time. Mental skills training isn't a panacea (Beware of miracle cures!), but it's not a sham or a sign that the athlete is doomed either (as some have suggested). Lots of people benefit from training these skills, whether their trainer is a certified sport psychologist, a coach with a master's degree, or the athlete themself learning and applying skills on their own.

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