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
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.
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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.