What is Sport and Exercise Psychology?

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Many people ask me what I do and when I say I am a psychologist with a specialisation in sport and exercise psychology, they generally say something like “Cool, that sounds really exciting, … but what is a sport and exercise psychologist?”

According to the American Psychological Association:

“Applied sport psychology is the study and application of psychological principles of human performance in helping athletes consistently perform in the upper range of their capabilities and more thoroughly enjoy the sport performance process. Applied sport psychologists are uniquely trained and specialized to engage in a broad range of activities including the identification, development and execution of the mental and emotional knowledge, skills and abilities required for excellence in athletic domains; the understanding, diagnosing and preventing of the psychological, cognitive, emotional, behavioral and psychophysiological inhibitors of consistent, excellent performance; and the improvement of athletic contexts to facilitate more efficient development, consistent execution and positive experiences in athletes. Exercise psychology and sport psychology involve the scientific study of the psychological factors that are associated with participation and performance in sport, exercise and other types of physical activity. Sport psychologists are interested in two main areas: (a) helping athletes use psychological principles to achieve optimal mental health and to improve performance (performance enhancement) and (b) understanding how participation in sport, exercise and physical activity affects an individual’s psychological development, health and well-being throughout the lifespan” (APA Division 47: Exercise and Sport Psychology, 2014).

So after that long-winded definition, we can say that sport and exercise psychologist’s work to assist athletes, exercisers, and teams, to enhance their performance using the mental skills associated with performance. They also assist people to enjoy their sport and exercise regimes and assist people with mental health issues should they need it. Something unique to sport and exercise psychologists in Australia is that we are trained as psychologists first and foremost, sport and exercise psychologists second. This is an important distinction to make, as it is always the individual’s wellbeing that comes first, and then performance.

As with other domains in mental health, a stigma continues to exist that there must be something wrong with someone if they, or someone else, consults with a sport and exercise psychologist. Such stigmas are not only damaging to peoples lives, but they are simply not true. Some people may require the assistance of a psychologist from a mental health point of view and should be applauded for showing the courage to do so. However, the role of the sport psychologist is ALSO to enhance performance. The term ‘enhance’ means to take something that is already good and make it better. For the majority of people who choose to work with a sport and exercise psychologist, enhancing their performance, or gaining an edge to their performance, is the overriding reason they consult with a sport and exercise psychologist.

I can speak from personal experience about the effectiveness of consulting with a sport and exercise psychologist. I was an elite level softball pitcher for many years from the age of about 14 until I retired at the age of 35. Knowing what I know now, I wish I had of had access to a sport and exercise psychologist long before I eventually sought the assistance of one 3 years before I retired. Although there is no definitive way to know exactly how much I improved, I have always said it improved my performance by at least 30%. I wasn’t the best pitcher in the world by any measure but I had enough skill to get by. What often let me down was the mental side of the game. After working hard on the mental side of the game with my sport and exercise psychologist, what I noticed was that I was a lot more focused, a lot less distracted, and enjoyed myself on the diamond so much more. This was also noticeable to many people who’d watched me play over a long period of time.

If an athlete ever asked me if they should consult with a sport and exercise psychologist, my answer would always be yes! So realising how biased this could sound lets look at some tools that might help you or you team decide whether a sport and exercise psychologist might be a good fit for you.

First, there are four aspects of sport that are critical to performance. The first is physical: Does the athlete have the physical ability to perform in this sport at the required level, e.g., fitness, strength, and stamina. The second is technical: Does the athlete have the technical ability to play this sport at the required level, e.g., skills and technique. The third is tactical: Does this athlete have the tactical ability to play this sport at this level, e.g., read the play, know the opposition, and adhere to game plans. The final aspect of performance in sport is mental: Does this athlete have the mental skills or mental strength to play this sport at this level, e.g., goals, focus, arousal control, and motivation. Using these four aspects of sport to assess performance, we might say that if the athlete is lacking in any of these four areas, it is a good place to start to work on improving performance. If the athlete is assessed to need improvement on the mental side of the game, then the athlete, or their coaches, may feel that consultation with a sport and exercise psychologist is a good strategy for assisting the athlete to improve performance.

Another way that I ask people to think about whether they would benefit from working with a sport and exercise psychologist is to think about how much of their sport is physical and how much is mental. I generally go around the room and ask participants to put their hand up whether it is 100/0%, 90/10%, 80/20%, 70/30% and so on. Most people tend to indicate somewhere around the 80/20% to 50/50% mark. The truth is there is no right or wrong answer to this question. However, the participants have indicated that at least some, if not a lot, of their sport has a mental component. Now the next phase of this enquiry is, if you said that your sport is 70/30% for example, do you spend 30% of your training time, working on the mental side of your game. The answer is invariably no and people start to see that there may be some benefit to consulting with a sport and exercise psychologist or at least begin working on the mental side of their game.

Having been an athlete and someone who coaches and has worked with coaches knows that this is where people start thinking, “we have to spend more time at training?” The answer to this question is not necessarily so. There may be an initial burden of time to learn mental skills and practice them, but many mental skills are matched with the doing of physical skills in sport (e.g., a free throw in basketball). So once implemented, the athlete should be practicing their mental skills right along side their physical skills at training. Mental skills then become part of the actual execution of the skill. Therefore, over time, there should be little increased burden of time on the athlete due to working on the mental side of their game.

A word of caution. Any time we choose to work on the psychological aspects of our lives, we should think about it as a marathon and not a sprint. There is no perfect psychological approach to life and just as our life experience evolves, so do our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. To think that working with a psychologist might produce an instant outcome is a mistake, and conversely, any psychologist who promises a speedy outcome is likely doing you a disservice. The truth is that we have become who we are over a lifetime, and therefore we cannot expect to change who we are overnight. To work on the psychological aspects of our lives takes great courage and the time it takes to feel the change you are seeking needs to be respected.

Hopefully this paper has assisted you to understand a little more about what sport and exercise psychology is and what sport and exercise psychologists do. If you are seeking assistance with the mental side of your sport, and/ or exercise, I would only be more than happy to give you a hand.