By Mitch Abrams, Psy.D.
It is not uncommon for me to get referrals where parents hope that I can transform their above-average athlete-child into a superstar. Willing to pay “whatever it costs” to make their child great, they look confused when I ask, “Why do you think your child isn’t already great?”
Oh…..you meant a great athlete…well, sport psychologists don’t make individuals with average athletic skills become elite. Unfortunately, there are still parents who have confused boundaries, live through their children, and hope that they can bask in the glory of their child’s shining star. Ironically, one of the techniques that sometimes can free the child up to optimize their potential is to disentangle their parents’ issues from theirs. The pressure young athletes can experience from their parents’ expectations can absolutely be an obstacle to peak performance. It is true however, that sport psychologists can improve an athlete’s performance by removing the mental obstacles that interfere with them maximizing their physical abilities. Akin to removing the parachute that is providing drag when the athlete is sprinting or utilizing their emotions to increase their intensity when training, sport psychologists can make athletes better.
It should be understood however, that not all sport psychologists have the same training. There are sport psychologists who are trained primarily as sport scientists with a counseling overlay that generally focus on performance enhancement. There are also sport psychologists who are trained as psychologists (often from clinical or counseling psychology doctoral programs and licensed as psychologists) with specialized concentration (coursework, supervision, and/or training) with athletic populations. From both orientations, if the goal is to improve the athlete’s performance, the sport psychologist is where you want to go.
If there is the potential that there are more complicated psychological problems, including mental illness or extreme emotion regulation problems, the psychology trained sport psychologist is usually the better referral. Personally, falling into the latter category, I find that very often performance issues emanate from complicated emotional problems; that a referral for sports performance issues is often what gets the athlete in the front door, and later we discover the “real” reason they sought help. Either way, there are amazing people in the field, from both schools of training, who have done amazing work helping athletes become their best.
But, there is a problem looming out there that the public should be aware of…there are many athletes who could benefit from working with a sport psychologist, but don’t know where to look and/or don’t know if they can afford one. The first problem is easy to solve. The Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) is the premier, international sport psychology organization and through them, an endless list of sport psychologists (yes, in your neighborhood likely) is at their fingertips. Similarly, the American Psychological Association’s Division 47, Sport & Exercise Psychology, is the focal point in the psychological world. Either organization is well poised to point you in the right direction if you want to find a sport psychologist.
The latter problem may seem more daunting. It does seem that the sport psychologist is seen to be the equivalent of a new pair of Air Jordans…the best equipment that the rich folks can buy to make their kids better. It need not be that way, and it should not be that way. Increasingly, sport psychologists have recognized the importance of bringing sport psych services to those who need it the most. APA’s Division 47 has held a Sport Psych Giveaway as part of the organization’s annual convention where local sports organizations receive pro bono workshops by pre-eminent sport psychologists. And, in discussing this with many sport psychologists, many recognize the need to make our services available to a broader base. The inner-city, multi-problemed high school athlete who barely had the academic skills to stay eligible for athletic participation was targeted by the Play It Smart program (initiated by the National Football Foundation) and saw phenomenal results. There are sport psychologists out there that want to help athletes remove the obstacles that interfere with peak performance in sport and in life; and not just for the rich or superstar athletes.
Athletes represent an at-risk population, if for no other reason than the illusion that because the athlete is physically healthy, it is assumed that they will be emotionally healthy. There are many stressors that our athletes face and we can do a better job of helping them.
So, parents, coaches, sports administrators, athletes – if you have any questions about sport psychology, reach out; there are more professionals available to meet your son/daughter/athlete’s needs than you realize. Just keep in mind that sport psychologists don’t offer a “quick fix” and just like buying a pair of Jordans won’t make a given athlete a superstar, but we certainly contribute to building well-rounded athletes that can be successful in all walks of life.
Source Psychology Today