What do these past and present professional athletes have in common: Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, Tiger Woods, Kerri Walsh, and Russell Wilson? They have all used the services of a sports psychologist. However, psychologists are not reserved for only the professional ranks. For over twenty years, sports psychology has been a staple of college athletics. Student-athlete pressures can be enormous with the challenges of academics and expectations to excel in sports. The demands on the athletes can be very stressful in high revenue-producing sports like football and basketball. For example, Alabama’s Crimson Tide athletic department generated $174.3 million in 2017; the football team accounted for $108.2 million of the total.
What is a Sports Psychologist?
To do well in any sport requires more than the physical prowess that a specific sport needs. There is the mental side of the equation. Whether the athlete struggles with a slump in his/her physical performance or interpersonal issues, they can benefit from a sports psychologist. Therefore, the psychologists’ primary role is to help the athlete win. After all, sports are a competition against another team, opponent, or the clock. From peewee leagues to professional organizations, the purpose is to win.
The application of sports psychology has not changed much since 1925 when Coleman Griffith began studying sports psychology at the University of Illinois. Griffith used scientific methods and laboratory tests to adapt psychological knowledge to athletic competition. Philip Wrigley, the original owner of the Chicago Cubs, hired Mr. Griffith to work with the team in 1928. Wrigley was ahead of his time. Today, 27 out of 30 MLB teams employ professionals as mental skills coaches.
You don’t need to be the most decorated Olympic athlete, namely Michael Phelps, to use a sports psychologist. However, it may launch the gifted athlete to stardom as it did with Phelps, who since the age of eleven, befriended Bob Bowman, a sports psychologist, and swim coach. Mr. Bowman applied what he learned, studying the success and failures of athletes to the real world. His methods have helped people succeed and cope with employment strain, financial burden, family issues, and relationships. Bowman evolved from a mental coach for athletes to a motivational speaker for all.
Another application that takes the psychologist beyond the realm of performance enhancement is in anger management. Sports psychologists work with individuals and teams to counsel them on behavioral issues that may stem from the violent nature of the sport. In male-dominated sports, domestic violence has become to the forefront. The longer room mentality must stay there and not spill into a person’s personal life. Behavioral modification may be incorporated into the coaching sessions or handled on a one-on-one basis for offenders. Teams invest considerable sums of money to have the athlete play – not sit out due to a mandated suspension.
Business is a venue where sports psychologists can improve the performance of employees. For example, if someone is multitasking and not focusing on the task, he/she may need coaching. This situation is similar to a distracted pitcher or gymnast whose mind always wanders. Both athletes must concentrate or stay in the moment. The last term refers to the ubiquitous word: mindfulness. The businessperson can learn how to refine his/her mental approach that will increase confidence and overcome weaknesses.
In law enforcement, sports psychology is one branch of several specialties that help personnel deal with the stress of police and related work. Military, cognitive, and behavioral psychology can also teach strategies for building resilience to stressful settings and boost cognitive function. Mental toughness is paramount in law enforcement, particularly in combative and life-threatening situations. For NFL quarterbacks, concentration is crucial. It is the ability to direct and maintain your attention on a specific target or activity. Officers of the law need to develop the skills to expand and refine their mental prowess.
Sports psychologists also consult. He/she may have a private practice or be part of a larger firm of consultants. People in this industry work with professional athletes and high school teams. Depending on the client, the psychologist analyzes and develops a comprehensive program for performance enhancement. As a consultant, they coach performers, executives, and Olympic and youth athletes. Some consulting firms specialize in specific sports, such as equestrian, tennis, golf, and baseball. Performers like lawyers, musicians, actors, and singers may employ the services of a sport psychologist to hone their skills in their respective craft.