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What Is Sport Psychology?

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
"...misconceptions include thinking that sport psychology is for treating athletes with mental disorders or that it is simply focused on getting an athlete through a slump or that it is just fluff."
Frequently, people have many misconceptions about what sport psychology is and how it is applied. These misconceptions stem from making assumptions based on a limited understanding of psychology and how it is used in applied settings. In particular, misconceptions include thinking that sport psychology is for treating athletes with mental disorders or that it is simply focused on getting an athlete through a slump or that it is just fluff. There is also a great deal of confusion about the credentials of a sport psychologist primarily because there has been controversy within the field as to the appropriate credentials.

Simply speaking, sport psychology is the application of psychological principles to sport and athletes. However, in reality, understanding the field of sport psychology is more complicated. Using the term “psychology” in relation to psychological efforts with athletes can be both an asset as well as hindrance to understanding the field. Primarily, “psychology” is such a frequently used term in our society that everyone has developed a personal understanding of what it involves which has great potential of being inaccurate. The term “psychology” can be an asset in the application of psychological principles to sport because psychology as a field has become much more acceptable to the public. It seems that every time a person flips through the television channels they are likely to see a psychologist talking about something or other. Not only have people become more familiar with psychological concepts, they also tend to view psychologists as knowledgeable and as providing information useful to everyday life. However, the flip side is that most people know someone who sees a clinical psychologist or therapist for a mental problem. In our society there has been a stigma attached to mental problems which are frequently seen as a weakness. Therefore, many people have attached negative connotations to seeing a psychologist and may misunderstand the nature of seeing a sport psychologist.

It is difficult for a relatively new field such as sport psychology to define itself especially in the minds of the public. First, the field has to demonstrate its unique contribution to both research and practice. If it is not shown to be unique, then it is subsumed under another part of the field. Sport psychology has met this criterion; in particular, without additional education and specialized training a psychologist cannot ethically or legally be described as a “sport psychologist.” A new field must also develop a research base to contribute to the advancement of knowledge and practice within the field. Sport psychology has been able to develop a relatively significant amount of research base in the last fifteen years; this has been aided by general experimental researchers often using athletes as an easily identifiable and obtainable population.

In addition, a new field must identify criteria for professionals who practice in the field. This has been a hotly debated issue in sport psychology because there are two professional disciplines that have expertise related to sports and to psychology. One of the disciplines is psychology and the other is sport and exercise science. Psychologists who practice in the field of sport psychology typically have doctorates from clinical psychology which is focused on treating mental disorders or health psychology programs which is focused on preventing the development of illness. Sport and exercise science practitioners generally have a stronger background understanding issues directly related to sport and understanding the physiology of the body and sport. Both disciplines can be involved in research, teaching, and practicing within the field of sport psychology. The primary difference involves the direct provision of services to athletes. Although practitioners in both fields can provide mental skills training related to performance enhancement, can assess the needs of athletes, and can consult with coaches and others concerning program development, practitioners in the discipline of sport and exercise science are not trained or licensed to test or treat athletes with psychological problems that may affect performance.

The major difficulty in the field is not the difference in training, but the legal use of the term “psychologist” which is regulated by state licensing laws and can only be used by someone who has specific training from an approved psychology program, two years of full-time experience one of which is post-doctoral, and has passed the licensing examination. This causes problems for those in sport and exercise science because they can’t as clearly and succinctly identify their area of practice which can be confusing for the public. Given that public acceptance is an important challenge for a new field this creates an obstacle for the field in general because practitioners are being called by different names such as “sport consultant” which is not as clear in the public mind.

Finally, a challenge for a new field is to develop techniques that are unique and research based. For sport psychology, most of the techniques have long been in use within clinical psychology. For this reason, sport psychology seems to be best identified as a subfield of psychology although many practitioners in the field would not agree. However, the field of sport psychology can be seen as similar to industrial-organizational (I/O) psychology which applies psychological principles to business settings. In fact, I/O psychology has developed an extensive research base and unique tests and methods of practice much more so than sport psychology. Yet, it is viewed as a subfield of psychology. Primarily, the controversy occurs because two different disciplines are practicing in the same area with many of the same methods. Neither discipline can be identified as more important because they both bring a unique background to the field which perhaps will become more cohesive and clarified in the future as more theories and methods are developed. Individuals in both disciplines have contributed to developing the research base, informing the public, and providing services.