Never has psychology in sport been more evident than the last two weeks as many people watched the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. As my blog in 2010 (bloodsweatcheersbook.com) followed female Olympians, both their performances and personal lives were examined. Common themes emerged. We watched focus, determination, confidence, courage, disappointment, relaxation, commitment, risk, and joy. Ultimately, the medalists performed in the “zone.” An athlete is in the zone is when she/he is able to solely focus on the here and now of the competition, allowing all their mind and body training to come together in their competition.
Many Olympians put everything “on the line” just to participate in the Games. In interviewing a former Olympian for a book that I’m writing, Karen Brems’ goal was simply to qualify for and participate in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney in the road and time trial cycling events. When this goal was achieved, she felt successful. In 2012 another road cyclist, Shelley Olds just barely made the Olympic road team. In May 2012, she won a World Cup race that put her into the fourth place spot for Team USA Cycling. Another top level Masters runner’s goal was to qualify for and make the Olympic Trials in the marathon. Honor Fetherston achieved this as well. In each and every performance, sports psychology plays a significant role. This is further evident in the 2010 Olympians. One female Olympic Gold medalist in women’s 10K cross country skiing, Charlotte Kalla (Sweden), made the comment: “It felt good the whole race.” An American, Julia Mancuso exclaimed: “Silver!!!!feels like gold.” Each of these women expressed their feelings at the moment about what their accomplishment meant to them. What we don’t see is all the years of hard work and training that goes into arriving at the pinnacle of sport.
But what is a sports psychologist? I am often asked this question. Sports psychology,loosely defined, is the study of behavior and mental state in sport. APA defines sports psychology in the following manner: “Sport and exercise is the scientific study of the psychological factors that are associated with participation and performance in sport, exercise, and other types of physical activity. Sport psychologists are interested in two main areas: (a) helping athletes use 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.”1 The understanding of health and exercise, performance, and social psychology are essential in working with athletes. Being knowledgeable and understanding of sports injuries is essential for psychologists working with athletes. A knowledge of physiology and kinesiology is also important. In speaking with Dr. Sharon Colgan from San Diego (Ph.D. in sports psychology), she advises being a former competitive athlete and/or coach. My opinion is that a sports psychologist needs to understand or learn the technical aspects of the sport the athlete is participating in and would be advised to know about drug and alcohol addiction. The Association of Applied Sports Psychology used to require their certificated sport psychologists to be licensed psychologists. Becoming a sports psychologist is both a challenging and exciting role for those psychologists who are passionate about sport and exercise being essential for mental health.
Joan Steidinger, Ph.D. is a sport psychologist who specializes in sports psychology/peak performance issues, women’s issues, addiction, depression & anxiety, life transition, stress/post traumatic stress, and police/firefighters. She has offices in Mill Valley and San Francisco. Currently, she is writing a book about female athletes and their relationships.
Reprint from Marin Psychological Association Newsletter slightly edited, May 2010.