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Sport, exercise & performance psychology
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  • Writer's pictureElliot Smith

What does it mean to be a sport psychologist?

Who are they? What do they do? And why?

As a (very) brief introduction as to why I decided to write this blog, I thought I would just clarify what it means to be a sport psychologist because on a regular basis I receive tonnes of questions related to the profession. When I’m interacting with the general public, athletes, coaches, and aspiring students there is often general confusion about what a sport psychologist does, and the distinction between sport psychology and other branches of psychology. So, I suppose, the goal of this blog, is to somewhat explore, clarify and expand on what sport psychology represents, and what it means to be a sport psychologist, and why it differs to other practices in psychology and counselling. And in this blog I gently scratch the surface of these topics, based on my own reading, knowledge, and experience.

Who are they?

The field of sport psychology, that is, the academic and professional practice, has in the last few years gained widespread visibility. This can be seen in the media, in society, and across all types of sports and exercise domains. Nevertheless, sport psychology is a fairly new profession, having only gained traction in the past 50 years or so. On top of that, there has been much confusion regarding the status of sport psychologists, how they are regulated, their cultural and contextual relevance, and the ethical guidelines under which they practice. As a result, many sport psychologists, especially trainees, have experienced some difficulty in understanding their professional identity, and what their role might look like when operating with a variety of clients and sports teams.

When we discuss professional identity, this refers to the values, beliefs, motives, attributes and experiences held by individuals, which informs them on how to define themselves and specialise in a particular skill- or education-based occupation. The search for a professional identity is a particularly relevant task for individuals working in the realm of healthcare, especially psychologists and therapists. This is because there is a noticeable amount of variation between psychologists, for example, in the way they carry themselves, their preferred techniques and practices, and their philosophy regarding what good practice looks like and the goals they are trying to achieve. The same goes for sport psychologists, who work with a variety of different clients, in many different ways, whom possess a wide range of unique competencies. Such an expanse of competencies has led to confusion within the field of sport psychology, as well as the public, in terms of what sport psychologists actually do.

To further accentuate the identity crisis among practitioners in the field of sport psychology, there are many practitioners using different titles which describe very similar professions:

Mental performance coach, applied sport psychologist, sport psychology professional, sport psychology consultant, sport and exercise psychologist, performance psychologist, expert in performance behaviour, practitioner psychologist, applied psychology practitioner…

Some of these titles are protected, others are not, and as a result, there may be some sport psychologists who are operating without regulation or governance. Furthermore, protected titles such as ‘Sport & Exercise Psychologist’ come with a certain level of guarantee that the individual in question has been thoroughly educated and trained with experienced supervision. Whereas, titles such as ‘mental performance coach’ are not protected, therefore, individuals may be practicing sport psychology without sufficient education or training. These gaps in competency within the profession may be contributing towards the confusion, and may result in inconsistent quality delivery. Hence, in the field of sport psychology (at least in the United Kingdom) the focus is on training and development of practitioners, and the protection of the profession. Which is why the title ‘Sport Psychologist’ can only be used if the aforementioned practitioner has undergone years of high quality training and well organised, regulated supervised practice. Essentially, to ensure that anyone who is using the title is going to deliver a premium service, characterised by a warm, open, competent, and supportive practitioner.

While there are many routes that can be taken in becoming a sport psychologist, that is not something I intend to discuss in this particular blog. If you are interested in becoming a sport psychologist you would benefit by inspecting the ‘Qualification in Sport & Exercise Psychology’ via the British Psychological Society, AND/OR the ‘Sport & Exercise Psychology Applied Route’ via the British Association for Sport & Exercise Sciences. Of course these references are only going to be relevant if you are UK-based.

What do they do?

This question is virtually impossible to accurately describe, given that sport psychologists can often operate in a variety of sport and exercise environments, with a variety of different demands, roles and responsibilities. Generally speaking though, a sport psychologist may work with athletes, coaches, physios, trainers, parents, governing bodies, sport organisations, clubs, venues, doctors, and directors. This might come in the form of one-to-one consultations, group-based seminars or workshops, online webinars, presentations, or ‘pitch-side’ support and advice. The work that sport psychologists do is broad, flexible, and interchangeable. Given the expanse of sport performance and wellbeing support, and the increased quality of support, for athletes, teams, and sports clubs, sport psychologists often find themselves operating within a multi-disciplinary environment. In which case, they need to be able to cooperate with other professions and support services (e.g. physios, coaches, nutritionists) in order to provide a well-informed and holistic service.

The stereotypical practices of a sport psychologist include psychological skills training such as imagery, visualisation, controlled breathing, decision-making, concentration and focus, mindfulness, attention control, motivation, confidence, goal setting, and injury rehabilitation strategies. While these are core components of sport psychology support in many regards, too often are sport psychologists associated with and engrossed by performance measures. That is, commonly, sport psychologists are required to improve performance, whether that’s for a particular individual, a team, or coaching staff. Albeit, performance is typically the focal point. While there are many sport psychologists who would agree that their primary goal, as a service provider, is to help improve performance. Yet, as far as the profession goes, and the industry of sport and exercise psychology, performance might be considered secondary.

Unlike other professions and service providers in the realm of sport and exercise, it is rather difficult for sport psychologists do evidence their effectiveness. For instance, a strength and conditioning coach might be able to show that they have helped increase an athlete’s max overhead squat, from 60kg to 80kg, over the space of 6 or 8 weeks, for arguments’ sake. While they cannot promise that the increase in overhead squat weight will lead to a winning performance during competition, as far as they are concerned, they have done their job competently and, without much debate, been successful. In contrast, a sport psychologist might be able to use questionnaire and rating scales, to perhaps demonstrate an increase in perceived confidence, but these scales are ultimately burdened by subjectivity and might be considered arbitrary. Furthermore, there are many sport psychologists who don’t value the use of questionnaires or scales, and would not consider to use them at all. This only makes proving their effectiveness more challenging. Not only do sport psychologists have a hard time trying to evidence the changes they’ve tried to encourage, there is also the matter of integrating psychological skills in sport/exercise competition.

As the reader may well be aware, performance in sport/exercise is incredibly multi-faceted, and the factors that determine ones’ success are numerous, some controllable, others not. The point being, a sport psychologist may well make an impact on their client, and enable their clients to be able to use psychological skills, but that does not necessitate a victory, a winning score, a personal best, a top 10, making the cut, qualifying, or any success really. And this is something that is often overlooked, with regard to sport psychologists who are out there presently, and the profession in general. Unfortunately, in the past, and even in present day in particular environments, there is some stigma towards sport/exercise psychology. As a result, sport psychologists are often doing their best to convince stakeholders of their worth, trying to convey to clubs, organisations, coaches, and athletes, that they can make a difference. And the difference that matters the most (which is part of the problem) is performance. Hence, sport psychologists for years have been trying to lean on the thing that matters the most, which is improving performance. By consequence, there are some sport psychologists who claim that they can improve performance, despite the uncontrollable factors, despite the lack of clear-cut evidence, and despite the stigma against sport psychology that has existed (and has not changed to much extent) to varying degrees for the past 50 years.

This leads us to the why?

So, if performance is not controllable, and there is no guarantee that sport psychology intervention can lead to that all-so-desirable WIN, why do we need sport psychologists? The answer is that sport psychologists, while they do provide psychological skills training, and they do help athletes develop crucial psychological skills that may help aid performance, provide a service that athletes, coaches, and sport organisations need but don’t necessarily want. The sport psychologist represents a confidential, supportive, informed, caring, and sometimes endearing character, in an environment that is often characterised by cut-throat philosophies, black and white expectations, win-at-all costs mentalities, and substantial performance expectations. The conversations one might have with a sport psychologist may seem unrelated to sport, it may be about relationships outside of sport, it may about domestic issues, career transitions, life satisfaction, mental health, challenges with identity, and everything in between. That is why sport psychologists are valuable, because they can represent a service provider who is not bound to the performance fixation. Rather, the sport psychologist sees athletes and coaches (for example) as whole individuals, as people who are removed from their identity in sport. By supporting people in terms of their interests, personalities, barriers, and the issues they are experiencing not just within the environment of sport, but outside of sport too, sport psychologists represent a caring and unbiased service provider.

One of the key elements is confidentiality. A sport psychologist typically operates on a basis that anything shared between the client and practitioner, remains confidential (i.e. private, not shared). And this is very valuable when we consider the nature of sport, for instance, that is incredibly performance and outcome oriented. In nearly every aspect of sport there is a continuous demand for performance-related measures, and improvement. In the sport psychology domain, however, performance need not be the focal point, how about enjoyment? Well-being? Passion? Interest? As an athlete, or coach, or other, in the environment of sport and exercise, it can sometimes be a relief to be released from the performance mindset. The psychologist-athlete relationship should represent an open, transparent, and non-biased affair, where individuals can talk freely without judgment or assessment, a type of relationship that can sometimes be hard to find elsewhere in the context of sport. And often, without a caring, engaging, and close interpersonal relationship between the sport psychologist and athlete/coach, the likelihood of any intervention or skill training being successful is going to be lower. While some athletes might show a preference for only learning psychological skills, and have no interest in any support outside of their performance context, the sport psychologists would respect that position but simultaneously recognise their role in the relationship as an impartial support provider uninfluenced by the performance demands placed on the athlete.

While many of these views are ultimately influenced by my own philosophies and views regarding what sport psychology support might look like. The profession is ever evolving, and the emphasis on performance is slowly but surely subsiding, and I hope that anyone reading this blog recognises that sport psychologists provide a whole lot more than just psychological skills training. The sport psychologist represents a service provider who will listen to, engage with, and support their clients irrespective of their performance, sport, exercise, status, position, individual characteristics, and challenges they are experiencing.

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