What is Sport Psychology?

According to Irene Lopez at WebMD, in simple terms, sport psychology studies how psychological factors affect athletic performance. Sport psychologists also look at how taking part in sports, exercise, and other physical activities affects one’s psychological state and physical health. Performing at your highest level as an athlete is more than just physical fitness.

Athletes and exercise enthusiasts often find that focusing on bodily health is not enough to achieve peak performance. That’s where sports and exercise psychology comes in. Sport psychologists specialize in individual or group interventions for optimizing the mental and psychological factors that influence performance.

Who benefits from Sport Psychology

Here’s what you need to know about sport psychology and how it can help you. You don’t need to be a professional athlete to benefit from this type of support. Sport psychologists often work with people outside of professional sports who want to improve their psychological development and enhance the health of their bodies.

Sport psychologists are divided into two types—educational sport psychologists, and clinical sport psychologists. Educational sport psychologists use techniques like goal-setting, imagery, or self-talk to help clients manage their mental and psychological thought processes to perform optimally on the field. Clinical sport psychologists go deeper by working with athletes on issues like anxiety, depression, or substance abuse.

The American Psychological Association (APA) stated there is a growing demand for sport psychologists. With the issues of mental health, violence and activism in sports on the rise, more athletes and teams are seeking the expertise of sport psychologists. Sports are a microcosm of society, as the old maxim goes—and that’s never been more apparent. When elite athletes such as swimmer Michael Phelps and basketball player Kevin Love speak out about their mental health struggles, it reflects a growing awareness of mental health among society at large. When football players like Colin Kaepernick kneel during the national anthem, it sparks a national conversation about social justice.

What Sport Psychologists did for Olympic champions

When Olympic champions speak out about the sexual abuse they endured from USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar, it adds gold-medal weight to the #MeToo movement. As athletes navigate these difficult topics, sport psychologists are playing an expanded, and increasingly important, role. Sport psychologists are best known for helping athletes overcome mental roadblocks and improve their performance: for example, helping a baseball player snap out of a hitting slump or supporting a runner as she regains confidence postinjury. While that performance emphasis remains a cornerstone of sport psychology, it’s only a slice of what sport psychologists are now doing to support athletes. Their expanding roles include helping athletes navigate interpersonal issues and addressing mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders. The practice of sport psychology is also finding fans beyond athletics.

Sport psychologists’ skills are increasingly sought out by professionals in high-stress jobs, such as surgeons, firefighters and performing artists. In fact, the U.S. Army is now the country’s largest employer of sport psychology professionals, who help soldiers learn to focus in combat and deal with stressful situations. “Sport psychology has become more widely recognized as being beneficial to address a variety of needs,” says Sari Fine Shepphird, PhD, a Los Angeles area sport and performance psychologist. And demand is growing, she adds, even among youth athletes and serious amateurs. “There’s increased demand for sport psychologists to address sports performance as well as mental health concerns, which is fantastic not just for the field of sport psychology but for athletes and for the general population.”

How do You Find Sport Psychologists?

Speak to other athletes or coaches for referrals. If you are a student, you can also check in with your college or university for recommendations. You can also find a professional on websites such as the Association for Applied Sport Psychology or the U.S Olympic Committee’s sport psychology registry.

This article is provided by Dr. Ralph Kueche (Child Psychologist). Dr. Kuechle is a Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychologist who specializes in treating children and their families who may be struggling with mood and behavioral issues. Learn more about Dr. Kuechle.