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What Is Sports Psychology?

By Julia Simkus, published March 14, 2022


Sports psychology is the study of psychological factors that influence athletic performance and how participation in sports and exercise can affect the psychological and physical well-being of athletes.

Researchers in this field explore how psychology can be used to optimize athletic performance and how exercise can be utilized to improve mood and lower stress levels.

Sports psychologists teach cognitive and behavioral strategies to help athletes improve their experiences, athletic performance, and mental wellness when participating in sports.

They can assist with performance enhancement, motivation, stress management, anxiety control, or mental toughness. They also can help with injury rehabilitation, team building, burnout, or career transitioning.

Sports psychologists don't just work with athletes. They can work with coaches, parents, administrators, fitness professionals, performers, organizations, or everyday exercises to demonstrate how we can utilize exercise, sport, and athletics to enhance our lives and psychological development.

Types of Sports Psychologists

Educational Sports Psychologists

An educational sports psychologist educates clients on how to utilize psychological skills  effectively to enhance sports performance and manage the mental factors of sports.

These skills could include goal setting, imagery, self-talk, or energy management (discussed in more detail below).

Clinical Sports Psychologists

Clinical sports psychologists work with athletes who have mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or substance abuse.

They utilize strategies from both sports psychology and psychotherapy, helping athletes improve their mental health and sports performance concurrently. Being a clinical psychologist requires a doctoral degree in clinical or counseling psychology.

Commonly Used Techniques

Arousal Regulation

  • Arousal regulation techniques involve the control of the overall level of neuronal activity, and thus arousal levels, in the brain. Arousal refers to how emotionally activated an athlete is before or during performance.
  • Techniques for arousal regulation could include muscle relaxation, deep breathing, medication, listening to music, or mindfulness.
  • The role of a sports psychologist is to assist an athlete in reaching their optimal level of arousal at which their athletic performance is maximized.

Goal Setting

  • Goal setting involves planning out ways to achieve an accomplishment and envisioning the outcome you are pursuing.
  • These goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, time-based, and challenging.
  • You can make outcome goals, performance goals, or process goals.

Imagery

  • Imagery refers to the process of using multiple senses to create mental images of experiences in your mind.
  • Athletes use imagery to practice activating the muscles associated with an action, recognizing patterns in activities and performance, making mental recreations of an event or game, or visualizing correcting a mistake or doing something properly.

Pre-Performance Routines

  • A pre performance routine refers to the actions, behaviors, or methods an athlete implements before for a game or performance.
  • This could include eating the same foods, putting on clothes in a particular order, listening to a specific playlist of songs, wearing specific clothing, or warming up in a particular way.
  • This helps develop stability and predictability, triggering concentration and decreasing anxiety levels.

Self-Talk

  • Self-talk refers to the inner monologues, whether thoughts, words, or quotes, we say to ourselves.
  • Athletes can utilize self-talk to instill optimism, improve focus, manage stress, or inspire confidence.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a technique within arousal regulation. It involves alternating between tensing and relaxing target muscle groups.
  • This helps with lowering blood pressure, reducing state anxiety, improving performance, and decreasing stress hormones.

Hypnosis

Hypnosis involves being in a state of increased attention, concentration, and suggestibility. Sports psychologists sometimes use this strategy to help clients control state anxiety and arousal levels. Most typically, though, it is used among health psychologists to help patients quit smoking.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

  • CBT is a type of psychotherapeutic treatment that helps people identify and change destructive thinking patterns, emotional responses, or behaviors.
  • While CBT is used by all kinds of people, athletes could especially benefit from its effects.

Biofeedback

  • Biofeedback involves using external technology to measure one’s internal physiological processes such as heart rate, brain waves, or muscle tension.
  • This information can be used to monitor or control these effects to maximize performance and obtain a more beneficial biological response. 

How to Become a Sports Psychologist

Most positions in this field require a master’s or doctoral degree in clinical, counseling, or sport psychology. You are also required to take classes in kinesiology, physiology, sports medicine, business and marketing.

Then, you must practice directly under a licensed psychologist for at least two years. In order to obtain a professional board certification from

The American Board of Sport Psychology, you must pass a qualifying exam. Board certification is not required for a state license, but many employers prefer or require it.

Specialties within this field could include applied sport psychology, clinical sport psychology, or academic sport psychology.

The salaries for sports psychologists vary depending on whether you are in private practice or work within a team or organization.

The American Psychological Association (APA) reports that sport and performance psychologists in university athletic departments can earn $60,000 to $80,000 a year, while salaries working in a private practice can exceed $100,000 annually.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can sports psychologists prescribe medications?

A sports psychologist cannot prescribe medication unless they have a medical degree. If a sports psychologist has this degree, then they are usually referred to as a sports psychiatrist.

Sports psychiatrists are medical doctors who serve a similar role as a sports psychologist, but they focus more on psychopathology and mental disorders in athletes.

 What jobs can I get with a sports psychology degree?

In addition to being a licensed clinical sport psychologist, you could also be a mental performance consultant, a personal trainer, a sports coach, a research specialist, a sports psychology professor, or a physical therapist, to name a few. 

Why is sports psychology important?

Mental health and overall well-being are fundamental to athletic competition and performance.

Seeking the support of a sports psychologist can help athletes achieve their overall goals of performance improvement.

Sports psychologists can help better one’s attitude, focus, confidence, and mental game, empowering athletes to stay engaged in the sports they love.

How does sports psychology help athletes?

Sports psychology can help both athletes and non-athletes cope with the pressures of competition, enhance athletic performance, and achieve their goals.

Mental training alongside physical training is more profitable than physical training alone.

Athletes can learn to overcome pressures associated with sporting performance and develop more focus, commitment, and enjoyment.

 Where can you study sports psychology?

There are both undergraduate and graduate degrees available in sports psychology.

A number of colleges and universities offer undergraduate bachelor's degrees and / or master’s and doctoral degrees in clinical, counseling, or sport psychology.

Depending on the institution, you might also be able to study sports psychology online.

How can sports psychology improve performance?

Sports psychology can improve performance in a number of ways - whether by reducing anxiety, enhancing focus, improving mental toughness, developing confidence, adopting a healthy level of motivation, or uncovering obstacles that might be limiting an athlete's performance.

About the Author

Julia Simkus is an undergraduate student at Princeton University, majoring in Psychology. She plans to pursue a PhD in Clinical Psychology upon graduation from Princeton in 2023. Julia has co-authored two journal articles, one titled “Substance Use Disorders and Behavioral Addictions During the COVID-19 Pandemic and COVID-19-Related Restrictions," which was published in Frontiers in Psychiatry in April 2021 and the other titled “Food Addiction: Latest Insights on the Clinical Implications," to be published in Handbook of Substance Misuse and Addictions: From Biology to Public Health in early 2022.

How to reference this article:

Simkus, J. (2022, March 14). What Is Sports Psychology? Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/sports-psychology.html

Sources

American Psychological Association. (2014). Pursuing a career in sport and performance psychology. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/education-career/guide/subfields/performance/education-training

Audette, J., & Bailey, A.M. (2007). CHAPTER 23 – Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the Athlete.

Cherry, K. (2022, February 14). An overview of sports psychology. Verywell Mind. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-sports-psychology-2794906#toc-what-is-sports-psychology

Psychology.org Staff. (2022, February 16). How to become a sports psychologist. Psychology.org | Psychology's Comprehensive Online Resource. Retrieved from https://www.psychology.org/careers/sports-psychologist/

Sports psychology: Mindset can make or break an athlete. Oklahoma Wesleyan University. (2018, July 5). Retrieved from https://www.okwu.edu/news/2018/07/sports-psychology-make-or-break/

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