Introduction to Sport Psychology

by Andy Gillham, PhD, CC-AASP, CSCS
NSCA Coach June 2017
Vol 4, Issue 3

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Similarities and overlaps exist between the realm of sport psychology and the profession of strength and conditioning coaching. This article provides a basic introduction to sport psychology and provides some guidance for preliminary directions; ideally, it will help strength and conditioning coaches find effective people and resources to help them in their coaching pursuits.

Professional development as a strength and conditioning coach is mandated via the certification renewal process (6,11). Even the most well-prepared novice strength and conditioning coaches armed with specialty graduate degrees from top-notch institutions have gaps to fill in their coaching development. At first, those gaps are readily filled by attending conferences and observing other strength and conditioning coaches (9). Over time, however, strength and conditioning coaches typically look for something different to increase their effectiveness, to help them move up the professional ladder, or just to continue their own educational pursuits. One of those gaps may be learning more about sport psychology (7,8). Similarities and overlaps exist between the realm of sport psychology and the profession of strength and conditioning coaching. The purpose of this article is to provide a basic introduction to sport psychology and provide some guidance for preliminary directions; ideally, it will help strength and conditioning coaches find effective people and resources to help them in their coaching pursuits.

Training Backgrounds

The first step is to understand the training of sport psychology professionals. A divide exists in the training and educational backgrounds of sport psychology professionals (SPP) between those trained with a greater emphasis on psychology (i.e., clinical SPP) versus a greater emphasis on exercise and sport science (i.e., educational SPP) (13). The clinically trained professionals are equipped to deal with significant emotional disturbances that athletes may have developed and are typically less well-versed in the intricacies of sport and exercise. The sport science trained SPP has a much more thorough background in topics related to exercise physiology and biomechanics, for example, but would be expected to refer an athlete with significant emotional disturbances out to another professional (13). Athletes, while often physically gifted in comparison to the general population, are no more or less likely to develop an emotional disturbance requiring a clinical approach (4). Yet, athletes often need a little help with concentration, managing anxiety, or learning how to properly set and use goals to improve their performance.

Requirements vary from state to state, but without substantial clinical training in education and practice, it is unlikely for an educational SPP to be using the term “psychologist” properly. Adding one more layer of confusion is that a clinically educated and trained psychologist can simply add in “sport” to his or her title and thereby be referred to as a “sport psychologist,” regardless of how much experience that individual has with athletes, exercises, coaches, or even sports in general. Conversely, there is no way for someone who, for example, holds a Master’s degree in Human Performance, the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist® (CSCS®) certification from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), and a sport psychology consultant certification to be called a “sport psychologist” without going back to get additional clinical training and licensing as a psychologist. This leaves a plethora of terms in-use by sport science trained SPPs: mental coach, performance enhancement consultant, applied sport consultant, sport performance specialist, and other derivations not including “psychologist.”

The Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) has attempted to bridge the gap between SPP groups by offering a certification, termed “Certified Consultant” (CC-AASP) (1). Obtaining the certification requires an educational background that includes courses from the sport science and clinical training fields, in addition to some level of direct experience working with clients under the mentorship of someone who already holds the CC-AASP (2). The utility of a certification is most evidenced by whether or not organizations in charge of hiring care enough to require a particular certification as a pre-cursor to employment. AASP’s website includes a Certified Consultant search function that may serve as a resource for coaches, athletes, or organizations in need of a SPP (3).

Doing the Work

Perhaps the single biggest misconception regarding sport psychology is that it is only for the mentally weak (5). That is no truer than saying resistance training is only for the physically weak. In this way, the fields of strength and conditioning and sport psychology are intertwined. Much in the same way that an athlete can improve his or her power output via training using explosive-based lifts, that same athlete can improve his or her self-confidence by employing a systematic goal setting program, for example. The parallels certainly continue in that increased self-confidence and power output will not yield a complete athlete ready for competition. Additional mental and physical skills both need to be incorporated into the athlete’s training to maximize performance.

Different authors will take slightly different approaches with respect to what is termed a “mental skill” or a “mental tool,” but the consensus is that tools are used to improve skills (5,12). That is an especially important point for three reasons. First, skill is used purposely to imply something that can be improved with practice. The second point to emphasize is that mental skills are not innate human characteristics (5). Third, the tools serve as a mechanism through which changes in skills happen (5). For example, tools, such as goal setting, can be used to increase the skill of self-confidence (12). Figure 1 provides a list of mental tools and mental skills. This is paralleled in the strength and conditioning context by selecting certain movements or lifts, such as core work to target increased balance and stability. Aside from illicit substances, there is no magic pill in either strength and conditioning or sport psychology. Improvements in performance are earned over time through diligent effort, training, and feedback.

Table 1Mental Tools and Skills

Self-Talk

Motivation

Imagery

Attention

Goal Setting

Self-Confidence

Relaxation

Stress Management

 

Energy Management


Time of year or select points in the competitive season are also a significant factor that is shared between sport psychology and strength and conditioning. Much in the same way that it would be rare to teach an athlete a new series of exercises or significantly increase training volume and intensity late in the season, it is also less than ideal to introduce new mental skills at that same point in the season (5). The ideal point in the season to begin a mental skills training approach is in the off-season, particularly after the emotional highs and lows from the end of the season have dissipated (5). This is a position entirely congruent with the educational SPP training mentioned earlier. There is also another connection to strength and conditioning in that mental skills training should be periodized throughout the season to best focus on the current needs of the coach, athlete, or team (10).

Who Should Do Sport Psychology?

There is no simple answer to who is best suited to do the work associated with sport psychology. In most cases, both sport and strength and conditioning coaches are already doing some aspects of sport psychology. Motivating athletes is such a big part of the coach’s job that any successful coach has to have some skill in the area of getting athletes to put forth effort. Similarly, parents often naturally carry out some of the pieces of what could be termed “sport psychology.” Additionally, another parallel exists with physical training in that the internet provides a vast array of websites, apps, blogs, and resources that give some amount of information on sport psychology. Of course, the quality of information varies tremendously from site to site.

There is also a group of individuals touting their experiences as a former athlete or coach and using that platform or recognition to open doors and get current athletes, coaches, and administrators to listen to what they have to say. Much like any field, these types of individuals may have some valuable insights, but their information is also typically focused on their own experiences which are inherently unlikely to apply to a wider band of the sporting landscape. A graduate degree, a terminal degree, and a CC-AASP still do not guarantee success, or the perfect SPP, but those qualifications do increase the chance of working with a competent SPP.

Conclusion

A final note is that beyond training and certifications, SPPs are people with their own personalities. To make an effective working relationship, athletes need to find someone that they can easily work with and that they believe in. If the relationship is adversarial, the SPP’s delivery is boring, it feels too much like a sales pitch, or personalities do not mesh for whatever reason, do not discount the mental side of sports entirely. For example, if a car is not running well, a person should not quit driving forever. Rather, they should simply find a different car that will work for them. With the amount of gurus, internet-driven experts, and overall diverse training backgrounds of sport psychology professionals, it is easy to get lost. However, athletes and coaches still need help managing their emotions, raising their self-confidence, and going into a competition with the proper mindset.

This article originally appeared in NSCA Coach, a quarterly publication for NSCA Members that provides valuable takeaways for every level of strength and conditioning coach. You can find scientifically based articles specific to a wide variety of your athletes’ needs with Nutrition, Programming, and Youth columns. Read more articles from NSCA Coach »

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References 

1. Association for Applied Sport Psychology. About certified consultants. Retrieved 2016 from http://www.appliedsportpsych. org/certified-consultants.

2. Association for Applied Sport Psychology. Certification program updates. Retrieved from 2016 from http://www. appliedsportpsych.org/certified-consultants/certificationprogram-updates.

3. Association for Applied Sport Psychology. Find a consultant. Retrieved 2016 from http://www.appliedsportpsych.org/certifiedconsultants/find-a-consultant.

4. Brewer, BW, and Petrie, TA. Psychopathology in sport and exercise psychology. In: Van Raalte, JL, and Brewer, BW. (Eds.), Exploring Sport and Exercise Psychology (2nd ed.) Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 300-323, 2002.

5. Burton, D, and Raedeke, T. Sport Psychology for Coaches. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2008.

6. Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association. Continuing education program overview. Retrieved 2016 from https://www.cscca.org/ceu.

7. Gilbert, WD, and Baldis, MW. Becoming an effective strength and conditioning coach. Strength and Conditioning Journal 36: 28-34, 2014.

8. Gillham, A, Schofield, G, Doscher, M, Dalrymple, D, and Kenn, J. Developing and implementing a coaching philosophy: Guidance from award-winning strength and conditioning coaches. International Sport Coaching Journal 3: 54-64, 2016.

9. Grant, MA, Dorgo, S, and Griffin, M. Professional development in strength and conditioning coaching through informal mentorship: A practical pedagogical guide for practitioners. Strength and Conditioning Journal 36: 63-69, 2014.

10. Holiday, B, Burton, D, Sun, G, Hammermeister, J, Naylor, S, and Freigang, D. Building the better mental training mousetrap: Is periodization a more systematic approach to promoting performance excellence? Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 20: 199-219, 2008.

11. National Strength and Conditioning Association. NSCA certification resources. Retrieved 2016 from https://www.nsca. com/certification/certification-resources.

12. Vealey, RS. Future directions in psychological skills training. Sport Psychologist 2: 318-336, 1988.

13. Weinberg, RS, and Gould, D. Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology (5th ed.) Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2011.

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Andy Gillham owns and operates Ludus Consulting LLC, focusing on performance enhancement for his clients. Gillham has a PhD in Sport and Exercise Psyc...

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