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Sports Psychologists - Helping Athletes Get Back On Track

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In sports, where a fraction of a second can make all the difference between winning and losing, the impact of psychology has become more and more an area of focus and for this reason sports psychologists are beginning to find themselves in great demand. Starting with Norman Triplett, a psychologist from Indiana University who discovered that cyclists rode faster in groups than when cycling solo, the discipline has since grown to encompass a range of terms and theories and has found its way in to most professional sports today from football to sprinting. Even Olympic curling benefits from sports psychology…

The role of the sports psychologist then is to provide consultation to help train the mental state of the athlete or team (as well as their coaches) thereby increasing their endurance, conscientiousness, confidence and the effectiveness of their training. Additionally they must manage emotion in a very high-pressure arena and try to minimize the psychological impact of injury or illness. Finally they will teach athletes to utilize techniques and ‘tricks’ such as goal setting, visualization, self talk and concentration; for example, sports psychologists teach that visualization can be useful both as a way of practicing and boosting confidence. Some studies suggest that when we ‘imagine’ ourselves performing the perfect golf swing our neurons fire in much the same way as they do when we actually perform the action, making it almost as valuable as ‘real’ training. Meanwhile, concentration and relaxation techniques can be utilized leading up to and during a game or event increasing their mental clarity and eliminating nerves or jitters. Athletes will then asked to practice these techniques on a regular basis in order to perfect them much in the same way that they practice their physical skills. This is known as ‘Psychological Skill Training’ or PST.

While these are the mains role of a sports psychologist ‘in the field’ (no pun intended); they will also be required to fulfill the roles of teacher and researcher. This means passing their knowledge down to the next generation of sports psychologists as well as breaking new ground by carrying out experiments and research projects to test new theories and techniques. This will also require you to be able to write up your results and calculate correlations for significant findings by using statistical programs such as SPSS, after which they will usually be published in a peer reviewed journal such as the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology.

In order to become a sports psychologist many universities are now offering degrees that cater specifically to that career. In order to work in the field you will need to obtain at least a masters or preferably a PHD to enable you to carry out research and work with the most high profile clients. You can also get certification from an accredited source such as the ABSP (American Board of Sport Psychology) or AASP (Association for Applied Sports Psychology), for which you also need a masters degree or doctorate in a clearly related field (PE, psychology or even sports psychology). For this reason becoming a sports psychologist represents a fairly large commitment in terms of your time and requires a certain amount of dedication.

For those who stick at it however, job satisfaction undoubtedly comes from having a hand in creating the winning team or athlete and in helping them to go from bronze to gold through your consultation and guidance, and there’s also something satisfying about having your research published in psychological or sports journals. Sports psychology presents an interesting blend of sports and academia and an interest in both will benefit you greatly. It’s a job that’s suited well to those who are interested in pushing the boundaries of human performance, who like working with people and who are maybe looking for something a bit different to the typical office job.


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