A sports psychologist performance coach is a person who uses psychological techniques to work with athletes to improve their performances. A degree in sport psychology is one way a person would prepare for this career although there are other avenues as well. Knowing the answer to, “What does a sports psychologist do?” helps you make a sound decision about your career path and professional goals.
Help With Focus
It’s easy for an athlete to lose focus, especially during a long season or a tough one. Sports psychologists specialize in helping athletes of all levels stay focused during practices and games or competitions. A lack of focus is a leading factor in poor performance, which is why so many coaches put a big effort on it. When a player is focused on the moment as well as on the big picture, they are able to make better decisions. Players are not the only ones who benefit from psychological help with focus. Coaches may also need this guidance. Sports psychologists work with coaches of all types and levels of sports. Players depend on their coaches to be 100% focused on the game and end result. A sports psychologist may help coaches move past an unexpected failure or obstacle in their overall game plan. They help coaches think quickly and make sound decisions when what they had planned to do is not going they way they expected. This builds resilience.
Offer Coping Skills for Performance Anxiety
Performance anxiety is a common problem in athletes. There is a big step from going to the high school varsity level of a sport to college sports. The step of moving from college or amateur sports to professional sports is also a big one. A few athletes are so talented that they might go directly from high school to professional sports without the typical intermediary steps. This can lead to some performance anxiety. There is a big difference in playing at a high school stadium in front of 1,000 fans and playing in a professional stadium with 50,000 fans. Knowing that a game is televised could also stoke performance anxiety in an athlete. A sports psychologist uses proven psychological principles and techniques to help athletes recognize, cope with and work around their anxiety.
Provide Tips for Communicating With Teammates
Consistent, accurate and precise communication is critical between teammates and between athletes and coaches. All it takes is one misunderstanding, misheard word or forgotten step for an entire play or strategy to go wrong. Sports psychologists help individuals and entire teams develop healthy communication strategies so that everyone will be understood. These sessions can include diversity training, which is especially important in professional athletics. The sports psychologist may also focus on specific types and situations for communicating.
Develop Skills for Anger Management
Some athletes have anger problems that affect their lives in and out of the sport. An unfair call by a referee or umpire may stoke an outburst that gets them ejected from a game or on a probationary status. Many sports specifically ban angry outbursts, swearing and violence, even if the person had a violent altercation outside of their sport or outside of a game. The sports psychologist helps athletes manage their anger in a productive way. They can help the athlete recognize their anger and find a healthy outlet for it. They can also help the athlete cope with strong feelings and communicate their responses in a healthy way.
Motivate Players to Exercise and Practice
During a season for a particular sport, most players will have plenty of motivation. As the season goes on, motivation can drop. If the team or player is having a losing season, their motivation level could drop by a significant amount. They might not feel inspired to bother with practicing or exercising. This will certainly lead to additional loss of desired results on the field or during a game. The sports psychologist helps players and athletes regain their motivation to exercise regularly and attend all of their practices. Sports psychologists can even help athletes help each other. They make it easier for a camaraderie to develop both on and off the field.
Different strategies work for different athletes. The job of the sports psychologist is to find out what strategy will work for which person. This can involve one-on-one interviews, watching recordings of games or performances and observing interactions between players or a player and a coach. The psychologist uses well-researched principles and techniques to help an athlete improve their performance. A lot of the success of an athlete is not physical talent but state of mind. By helping the athlete get in the right frame of mind, a sports psychologist helps them meet their own personal or professional athletic goals.
Help Athletes Cope With Stress
Stress has a direct impact on athletic performance. An athlete who is feeling a lot of pressure to perform might end up self-sabotaging their own efforts. Stress may not be a problem until playoffs or a special event. If an athlete is afraid of performing in front of a crowd or a particular person in the crowd, they may get nervous and underperform. Athletes who are facing high expectations from their relatives, friends, fans, coaches or the general public may accumulate a significant amount of stress. The sports psychologist helps them deal with it.
Guide Injury Recovery
Athletes of all levels can experience an injury. Injuries may range from a mild problem that puts the athlete out of play for a couple of weeks to a major event that could mean the end of a professional career in their sport of choice. The sports psychologist guides the athlete through the injury and recovery. This includes the physical and emotional aspects of recovery. While doctors focus on the physical part, the psychologist helps the athlete with the mental aspects of the process. For example, some recoveries are much slower than anticipated. This could cause the athlete to become anxious or even depressed about their prognosis. They may be stressed about a contract or their ability to earn money as a professional athlete. The psychologist helps them work through all of this without becoming overwhelmed.
Keep Up With Exercise
When a person is an athlete, keeping up with exercise is part of the job. Everyone experiences burnout at some point, and this is also true for athletes. As an athlete gets older, they might fear losing their speed, skills or strength. They may notice a loss of dexterity, accuracy or precision in their movement. A sports psychologist helps people keep up with exercise and try new techniques to help them maintain their strength and range of motion. The psychologist also helps the person stay interested in exercise. For people who need to start an exercise regimen, a sports psychologist can help them develop a routine and incorporate fitness into their regular schedule.
Help People Enjoy Sports
A part of what does a sports psychologist do relates to helping all people, including non-athletes, enjoy individual and team sports. There are many people who think sports aren’t for them. Maybe they were forced to play on a team as a child and hated the experience. It’s also possible that a person really wanted to be good at a certain sport, but it turned out they lacked any natural skill or talent. The sports psychologist uses psychological principles to help people enjoy sports, even if they have no intent on becoming an athlete. For athletes, sports can be a job. The sports psychologist may work with professional athletes in order to help them maintain their passion for what they do.
Promote Healthy Self-Esteem
Every athlete goes through tough spots. Perhaps an injury has put the athlete on the sidelines for a while. Maybe they didn’t get drafted or recruited onto the team of their choice. Perhaps they didn’t qualify for an event they had hoped to participate in for the first time. These setbacks can lead to a loss of self-esteem. An important part of what does a sports psychologist do involves helping athletes develop a healthy sense of self-esteem. This includes how to handle losses and setbacks and how to be confident no matter whether one wins, loses or doesn’t meet a personal goal.
Develop Relaxation Techniques
Many athletes suffer from stress. The stress can be internal, such as the pressure they exert on themselves to be better, faster, stronger and tougher. There’s also external stress. That could come from coaches, recruiters, teammates, parents, friends and even fans. All of this stress has physical, cognitive and emotional effects. One part of what does a sports psychologist do involves helping athletes develop relaxation techniques. These techniques can be used before a game, during halftime or after a game. Relaxation techniques might include imagery, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and more.
Change Thought Patterns
Athletes need to have a productive thought pattern if they are going to follow their coach’s instructions and make good decisions during their events. A sports psychologist helps athletes change negative thought patterns, including thought patterns that arise from personal problems as well as athletic problems. For example, an athlete may have had a play go wrong because of an error, so they may not want to try that again. An athlete may be dealing with a relationship problem that has nothing to do with their sport, but the stress and thoughts related to it have a negative impact on their functioning. The psychologist can help them overcome patterns that don’t align with a positive outcome.
What They Do
Sports psychologists may focus in certain areas such as academics and research or clinical sports psychology, which usually involves dealing with athletes who are also struggling with mental health issues such as eating disorders. A specialty in coaching as part of sports psychology would involve a focus on improving the performance of an amateur or professional athlete by working on mental techniques that increase endurance, motivation and and performance. The field may be referred to as “applied sports psychology.” A sports psychologist might also work with an athlete who is struggling with stress or burnout or with athletes who are recovering from injuries. Techniques used might include meditation, visualization, and identifying various sources of internal and external motivation.
How to Become a Sports Psychologist Performance Coach
According to the American Psychological Association, there is no clear career path in most cases. There will not be many jobs available for someone with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and a specialty in sports psychology is usually pursued at the master’s or doctoral level. A few universities offer a specialty in sports psychology or a sport psychology degree. Typical classes offered in such a program include applied sport psychology and exercise psychology. However, students at universities that do not offer this specialty can still pursue a graduate degree in psychology along with classes in subjects such as sports medicine, physiology, and kinesiology. The person might also add business classes such as marketing. There is an Association for Applied Sport Psychology that can connect students with mentors.
People who are already working in the field of psychology who want to transition into becoming a performance coach in sports psychology will probably need to return to school and take additional classes or even get another degree to make the shift.
This is a promising career, and as a new field, it is likely to grow. A psychologist working with athletes as a performance coach might work with individuals, in a school or for a team. The job can be a high-profile one with a major team, or the coach might work with student-athletes. According to the APA, the largest employer of sports psychologists is the U.S. Army. The military hires coaches to work with military who are going into combat as well as with families and other civilians. The earnings in this field vary widely according to the population served. While a coach in a university program may earn $60,000 or more annually, earnings can easily top $100,000 for people working for top teams or athletes or for those who set up a private practice.
Familiarity with the answer to, “What does a sports psychologist do?” allows you to carefully plan your educational experiences, choose the right internship opportunities and look for jobs that will give you relevant work experience while you’re an undergraduate or graduate student. Whether a person pursues a sport psychology degree or studies psychology with a concentration on sports, a variety of career opportunities are available. For people who combine a passion for understanding how and why people behave in certain ways and how to motivate them with a love of athletic pursuits, a career as a sports psychologist performance coach may be the right choice.