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I´d like to provide a few insights into what sports psychology is, since in my experience there are quite a few people who have asked me what do sports psychologists do?

To begin with, I would say that psychology is a science, the science of the mind, and therefore sports psychology is the science of the mind applied to human performance. We talk about a healthy mind, otherwise we would be talking about clinical or health psychology (which unfortunately is what sports psychology is confused with). Seen this way, it is understood that to practice as a sports psychologist you must know the theoretical-scientific foundations underpinning this exciting specialty.

A bit of history on sport psychology

As it happened with the psychology degree (the first psychology university degree was founded in Spain in 1980), sports psychology is a very recent area of ​​psychology itself, being somehow the last to join the world of high performance (after other practitioners such as fitness coaches, sports physiotherapists, biomechanists, or sports nutritionists). The pioneers of sports psychology were those lucky ones who worked with high-performance athletes on early days, and who traveled to international competitions with their respective teams in the 60s/70s. Most of these practitioners were north Americans (notwithstanding the Soviets were prominent in the field too).

Mental training

In 1977, two US sports psychologists interviewed athletes who competed in the trials (the US athletics championship prior to the Olympic Games and where it is decided who will represent the country). The analysis of the interviews reached some revealing conclusions; Those who won a medal differed from those who did not in that the former concentrated better, managed pressure better and had more self-confidence. From this and other such type of studies, more specific work began with athletes to improve these and other psychological variables that were beginning to be related to better performance.

Current sport psychology practice

Much progress has been made in sports psychology today, addressing different topics beyond mental training in high performance (such as advising coaches, group dynamics or leadership), and extending to other areas such as participation in grassroots sports, fitness and other types of physical activity, including amateur. Likewise, the type of work carried out at a psychological level is applicable to any other facet of human performance given that we are dealing with the same psychological variables, as can occur in the case of a musician, a businessman or a surgeon.

Not all that glitters is gold

Psychology is not exempt from “new” and promising techniques, assertions or quick fixes whose results seem to be infallible. Selling the “everything is in the mind”, “where there’s a will, there’s a way” or the pop psychology approaches which claim that pursuing a goal are “a walk in the park”, simply lack scientific foundation and are far from reality. Likewise, some specific evidence-based techniques seem to be becoming too popular, being sold as a “jack of all trades” that can be used for almost everything. Two examples could be the current interest on everything that begins with neuro, which, although it dazzles the lay person, its evidence regarding human performance seems very limited and, in my opinion, still has numerous methodological gaps.

Another example involves everything related to “flow” states, which appears very appealing for those who opt for quick solutions to achieve optimal peak performance experiences. The reality is that flow is an altered state of consciousness that, although it has been studied in sports psychology (I have contributed my part in this field), is a phenomenon elusive to evidence and which we still are far from understanding.

A final note

That said, rigorous work in sports psychology must be underscored by three fundamental tenets in my opinion:

  • Firstly, we must understand the theories that underpin the different psychological variables that are related to human performance. Such theories explain human behavior in performance contexts, such as goal setting, self-talk, the allocation of attentional resources, anxiety management or arousal levels.

  • Secondly, we must know what applied research tells us regarding human psychological performance. Hence, evidence-based interventions provide the sports psychologist with (proven) frameworks to achieve peak performance.

  • Thirdly, it will ultimately be the experience of the sports psychologist in establishing an appropriate relationship with his client, based on mutual respect and unconditional regard, which will determine the growth and direction towards achieving the client´s goals. In my mind, this work should embrace a broad and flexible orientation (a holistic approach), considering an heterogeneity of techniques and methods (eclectic methodology), and based on the values ​​of transcendence and human existence.


© Todos los derechos reservados. Samon Psiquiatría.

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