Performance, whether in athletics, music, theater, or a corporate setting, is never just about your physical skills and abilities. Performance includes both physical and mental skills, and high performance is a display of those skills applied deliberately and consistently well.
So, how do you display peak physical and mental skills consistently? It might be easy for you to picture how to accomplish this physically; set your training plan, move through skills level by level, and practice constantly. But what about accomplishing this mentally? This is where sport psychology comes into play.
What Is Sport Psychology?
Sport psychology is a proficiency that applies psychological principles and skills to maximize performance and enhance well-being. It is also called mental skills training, which might give you a clearer idea of what it is – mental training.
Just like physical training is a process of learning fundamental skills, perfecting them, and progressing to higher levels and tougher skills, mental training is a process of learning fundamental skills, perfecting them, and progressing… I think you get the picture.
Unlike physical training, however, mental training often gets overlooked – or at least doesn’t get the full attention it deserves. (Some of that has to do with some myths about sport psych that we debunked last week!)
Answer this question: What percentage of athletic performance (or any kind of performance) is physical, and what percentage is mental?
There is no correct answer, but more often than not, mental training gets a majority of the vote. So, logically, you might think that mental training should get a majority of the attention, or of an athlete’s time. Not the case (at least for most athletes). Most athletes spend little to no time deliberately training their brain. Which is to say, training themselves to be confident, stay focused, use effective self-talk, and stick with a consistent pre-game routine.
Many of these same athletes find themselves lamenting their emotional outburst that got them a red card, or the fact that they choked under pressure and didn’t come through for their team. Sport psychology and mental training can help.
What Do Sport Psychologists Do, and Who Do They Work With?
Sport psychologists (SPs) work with any performer to improve performance. The characterization of any performer might seem broad, but it’s accurate. SPs work with athletes, musicians, actors, business professionals, and military personnel. Have another performance domain in mind that’s not named here? SPs can work with those performers, too.
SPs teach skills like:
Confidence, focus, communication
Management of nerves and emotions
Progressive muscle relaxation and centering breathing
Visualization or imagery
Describing what SPs do in every performance setting would make this a very, very long blog. So, the focus will be on athletics as the example.
In the athletic world, SPs work at the youth, elite and collegiate, and professional levels, as well as with recreational exercisers and athletes.
At the youth level, they often work with athletes, coaches, and parents. Because youth athletes are young and new to sports, SPs keep things fun, short, and light, working mostly with groups. They teach athletes about teamwork, how to be a good teammate, how to listen to and communicate with coaches and parents, and, importantly, how to have fun while playing. For coaches and parents, SPs typically work with them about how to communicate with kids, keep things fun and engaging, and reward athletes for things they can control, like effort and attitude.
Elite and Collegiate Level
For athletes who take it to the next level and are in elite high school clubs or academies, or athletes competing in college, SPs continue to work with whole teams, but do a lot more individual work as well. Elite and collegiate athletes are often aware of their goals and mindful of their strengths and weaknesses, so individualized plans from an SP can be very effective. Work with coaches and club or college administration is common at this level, while work with parents tends to drop off when athletes transition to college. SPs also tend to communicate with other professionals providing services for a given athlete or team, like an athletic trainer or nutritionist, for example, in order to provide well-rounded care for the athlete.
Note: SPs have ethical standards to uphold and confidentiality of client information is very important (keep in mind, if an athlete can’t trust an SP to keep information confidential, then that athlete likely won’t open up). Communicating with other professionals in an athlete’s network should only happen with the athlete’s approval, and the information shared should be on an as needed basis.
At the professional level, SPs are highly individualized, working with specific athletes and coaches on their specific goal and needs. At this level, even more communication between professionals in the athlete’s network takes place. SPs might also work with whole coaching staffs or administrations regarding mental toughness training and effectiveness strategies in their roles within the organization.
Where Do Sport Psychologists Work?
SPs work for colleges and universities, clubs and academies, and in private practice, or some combination. (Note: less applied SPs might also reside mostly in academia, teaching classes and doing research, but the focus here is on applied SPs).
They tend to have a lot of flexibility, depending on where they are employed. They can meet with clients in an office setting, work remotely over the phone or via video conferencing, or at the client’s place of work (or play, if we’re talking about an athlete!). It’s common for a sport psychologist to do a bit of all of these, combining office sessions with on-field observations and follow-up calls or emails.
SPs who are employed by a specific college, club, or academy tend to find themselves combining office sessions with on-field work, as their clients are always practicing and competing right there at the college, club, or academy facility. It’s common for SPs in this kind of situation to also occasionally travel with athletes and teams to away games, just like their coaches and trainers do.
SPs who are in private practice might also combine office sessions with on-field work (if a particular client trains or plays in the area and the situation allows) with emails, phone calls, and/or video chatting. This is because private practice tends to draw varied clients from different teams and locations, rather than having all the athletes in one place.
Now you know all there is to know about sport psychology. Well, not quite, but it’s certainly a good start. Pay attention to sports articles, athlete and coach interviews, and sportscaster commentary during games to catch references to the mental game and mental training. You might be surprised how often mental skills (or lack thereof) are cited as a big factor in the rise or fall of an athlete’s performance.
If you’re interested in learning more about how you can become a sport psychologist, stay tuned for next week’s blog to learn everything you need to know.