Sport and Exercise Psychology is an expanding branch within the field of Psychology. (Note: SPORT psychology, not SPORTS psychology…common mistake.) It’s becoming more and more popular within athletics and the media. Still, most people don’t have a solid idea, if any, about what it really is.
And that’s perfectly fine. We all learn something new everyday. But what often bothers me is that this ignorance to sport psychology seems to be deeper than just pure unawareness. It’s an extreme misconception, one that must be corrected.
More times than not, when someone asks me what I study and I tell them “Psychological Studies with a concentration in Sport and Exercise Psychology”, they say “Wow that’s great!” Then, they proceed to chuckle and half-jokingly make a comment like “So you want to work with the crazy people, huh?” or “Yeah, those guys (athletes) need a lot of help.”
Pretty much never fails.
It’s no secret: There’s a huge stigma associated with the idea of psychology, therapy, and counseling. Most people in our society subconsciously believe that these words are synonymous with the word “crazy.” This includes seasoned adults, academic scholars, and all sorts of other people who you’d think would know better than to perpetuate this way of thinking.
And this stigma is even greater within the world of athletics. Sports don’t blend well with anything that’s perceived as a “weakness.” So it’s pretty much a double whammy for sport psychology.
But the truth is, Psychology is not a word that should automatically indicate something negative or shameful. According to Google, the word psychology is defined as “the scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behavior in a given context.” So if psychology is simply the study of the mind and behavior, then where does the stigma come in?
The stigma thrives off of the idea that education and awareness about mental health is only relevant for people with mental illnesses or psychotic disorders. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
We’re ALL human beings with thoughts and emotions. We ALL experience life. However, we all deal with these experiences in different ways. The ways in which our experiences affect us are based off of several different factors including both social and biological contributors. Our environment, support system, perception, personality, genetics, and brain structure (among other things) all play their hand in who we are and how we react to life.
The whole purpose of psychology as a discipline is to help people find ways to deal with their experiences in the most effective and healthy manner possible. Call me crazy (see what I did there?), but that concept hardly seems negative or shameful to me.
Of course, nobody voluntarily signs up to be diagnosed with disorders such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc. However, what could be more commendable than having the courage to take the necessary steps to address these issues? Any diagnosis, even the more severe ones, can ultimately be managed if the necessary cognitive, behavioral, and (sometimes) medical changes are implemented.
So my goal in saying all of this is to hopefully help people understand that psychology, although fascinating in many ways, is NOT equivalent to craziness.
Furthermore, sport psychology is applicable to more than just athletes who are dealing with specific mental health issues. Although, it does serve that purpose as well. However, most athletes who work with sport psychology professionals do so simply to elevate their game. Essentially, that’s the main reason that this subcategory of psychology exists.
Athletes of all ages and within all different sports are constantly striving for ways to get better in their sport. The higher one climbs on the ladder of competition, the more important it becomes to try to gain an edge over his/her opponent. The “mental game” is a seemingly minuscule thing that goes a very long way in maximizing one’s physical performance.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), sport psychology is defined as the following: a proficiency that uses psychological knowledge and skills to address optimal performance and well-being of athletes, developmental and social aspects of sports participation, and systemic issues associated with sports settings and organizations.
So basically, the overall goal of sport psychology is to enhance an athlete’s performance by teaching them to effectively deal with the mental, physical, and social aspects of the sport. This can involve the use of such techniques as goal setting, mindfulness, concentration, meditation, imagery, visualization, positive self-talk, confidence building, team cohesion, anxiety reduction, relaxation, motivation, and the list goes on.
Again, athletes can seek sport psychology services because they’ve been struggling in a certain area or just simply because they want to take their game to the next level. Or both. And honestly, these services don’t even always need to be sought out. By educating athletes and coaches more openly about these concepts, they can eventually learn to improve their performance and overall mental health on their own.