Dr. Joan’s Sports Psych Talk: Just what is a sports psychologist anyway?
Since this is a new column, I thought this week would be good to introduce myself. However, my main goal is to describe who, what, and how a sports psychologist works.
Sports psychologists must have a love for sport. My love affair began long ago when I was just a young child. I began participating in all types of sports, swimming, equestrian, and golf to name a few. Eventually, I played on the high school badminton and tennis teams. I tried out for the track team, and qualified, but my parents forbid me from participating. They didn’t consider track “ladylike” enough. This was in the late 1960’s.
Not until I was getting my Master’s did I go hard at a sport again. I had moved to Humboldt County, rescued a Golden Retriever, and began running her late at night. This laid a foundation for a lifetime of joy involving Golden Retrievers and running. Later on, I ran marathons and participated in ultradistance cycling for fun. I competed as an ultramarathoner, placing 3rd in the Pacific Association’s Grand Prix Series in 1993, and as a Ride and Tie competitor. In 2001 on our honeymoon, my husband (JP), and I summited Mt. Kilimanjaro, a 19K peak. We experienced a sense of bonding on this trip that occurs in sport and carries through to this day. Sport has, and will always be, an essential part of my life both personally and professionally.
In 1982, my first sports psychology internship was filled with encouragement, involvement, and training by one of the grandmother’s of sports psychology, Dr. Betty Wenz. Dr. Wenz shared her vast knowledge about sports psychology and even exposed me to a sport that I knew little about, synchronized swimming. Se went on to become the 1984 and 1988 clinical psychologist for the Olympic track and field team. She was my mentor for sports psychology.
But, what do sports psychologists do? What types of approaches do sports psychologist use? Do sports psychologists collaborate with others? What kind of training do sports psychologists go through?
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines sports psychology:
“Sport and exercise is the scientific study of the psychological factors that are associated with participation and performance in sport, exercise, and other types pf physical activity. Sport psychologists are interested in two main areas: (a) helping psychological principles to achieve optimal mental health and to improve performance enhancement, and (b) understanding how participation in sport, exercise, and physical activity affects an individual’s psychological development, health and well-being throughout the life span.According to both APA and AASP (Association of Applied Sports Psychology), a sports psychologist must have a Ph.D. In clinical psychology or sports psychology.”
Sports psychologists work with both exercise and competitive sports. Their perspective includes an agenda in assisting their clients to move, including such activities as walking, yoga, Akido, and many others. There are now six main areas of work done with athletes: performance enhancement, creating well-being, clinical issues, drug and alcohol problems, special populations (youth, collegiate, elite amateur adults, pros, and Olympians) and retirement from sport. We often work with athletes in a very short term and directive style, developing a mental game plan with clear goals and objectives. Collaboration with sport professionals–such as coaches and family–is often an essential part of the process. An example of positive collaboration with a coach was when I was working with the cross country and track and field teams at San Francisco’s City College. The coach, Ken Grace (a former Dipsea black shirt winner) and I developed an extremely collaborative relationship. I would conduct sport psychology performance enhancement presentations. Ken would then address issues arising from the meeting with group of athletes and incorporate them into their individual weekly training programs. Often time, there were issues that emerged in the group that Ken was unaware of. This was not because he wasn’t paying attention but I was introducing a different perspective focused specifically only on the mental game of sport. One nineteen-year-old woman, Lisa, admitted she felt unable to pass a much older team member who she looked up to. Lisa and I explored her reluctance to pass. I suggested if she felt good at the next meet, she try passing her. Pass her she did, and never looked back. Lisa went on to U.C. Berkeley, became a member of the girl’s track team, and ended up as captain. This was all started by this one little yet powerful intervention according to Ken Grace.
Sports psychologists need to know information in both the psychological and sports science realms. The understanding of health and exercise, performance enhancement, and social psychology (working with team sports) are the key ingredients for sport psychologists to know. A San Diego-based sport psychologist, Dr. Sharon Colgan, suggests being a former competitive athlete or coach is a critical experience for sports psychologists. I would also add the importance of knowing the sport the athlete participates in, and also, a knowledge of drug and alcohol abuse. If and when you might be looking for a sports psychologist, ask about these knowledge areas–where, and when they received specific sports psychology training. As always when dealing with any sports professionals (e.g. coaches, trainers) a good fit between the athlete and sports psychologist styles’ is absolutely necessary. This will hopefully provide you some basic guidelines for your child or yourself when looking to incorporate the services of a sports psychologist.
Dr. Joan Steidinger is a sports and clinical psychologist with offices in Mill Valley and San Francisco. She has been practicing sports psychology with clients ranging from recreational to pro athletes for the past 17 years.
As an athlete herself, she has been a competitive ultrarunner, Ride & Tie competitor, and ultradistance cyclist.