Sports psychology is an exciting field of work and one that is finding increased demand. Whether working with athletes at the high school, collegiate, or professional levels, sports psychologists can provide much-needed support for enhancing sports performance, improving mental health, and achieving goals on and off the field of play.
To become a sports psychologist, you must have the requisite education – a master’s degree in most cases. In addition to that, you might have to be certified, licensed, or both, depending on where you are employed.
Of course, being passionate about sports will help, too. Though an intimate understanding of how a sport is played might not be necessary, a general knowledge of sports and sports performance might help you connect with the athletes in your charge.
But being a successful sports psychologist requires more than a psychology degree and an interest in sports. Instead, there are a wide variety of skills, attributes, and personality traits that will help you carry out the duties of this job to the best of your abilities.
Let’s explore some of these skills, attributes, and traits in more detail (keeping in mind that this is not a complete list).
Strong Interpersonal Skills
A great sports psychologist should be able to establish rapport with their clients. While you need to maintain professional boundaries, you also can’t be cold and off-putting to the people you’re trying to help.
Being warm, open, honest, and supportive while also being genuinely interested in your clients as people will help you build strong interpersonal relationships with them. This makes it easier for your clients to trust you, to speak freely, and act naturally when they meet with you for individual sessions.
There’s another layer to this, too – you should also work well with many different types of people. As a sports psychologist, you will undoubtedly have clients from a vast array of cultural, religious, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Having the ability to speak and listen to people with very different viewpoints and support them in their truth is critically important.
But sports psychologists don’t just work with their clients. Instead, sports psychologists are one part of a much larger team approach to supporting athletes and their teams. You will work with coaches and trainers at the very least, and depending on the level of athletics in which you work, you might also be required to meet with parents, agents, team owners, athletic directors, and many other stakeholders.
Ability to Observe Others
As a sports psychologist, you might record your clients and spend hours reviewing the footage over and over again. For example, you might record a team training session and review the interactions among athletes and between athletes and their coaches. You might look at people’s facial expressions, examine their body language, and listen for the words used during the training.
The observations you make should be quantifiable and objective, so this skill isn’t just about watching others but also about taking detailed notes. Sports psychologists should understand the meanings of facial expressions, body positioning, gestures, and interactions between two or more people as a means of digging into team dynamics, individual performance of athletes, and so forth.
As with any psychologist, a sports psychologist must be able to analyze what they’ve observed and recorded to find deeper meaning. After all, an athlete or a team will seldom come to you with a perfect understanding of what the problem is – they likely won’t be able to pinpoint the problem for you to help resolve.
Instead, you must use your analytical skills to devise hypotheses, draw logical conclusions about what you’ve observed, and use that information to develop a plan for moving forward.
Additionally, sports psychologists should possess the capacity to critically analyze existing research in their field. This goes beyond a simple familiarity with interventions, treatments, or research studies. You should possess the ability to digest enormous amounts of information, determine what’s important, and understand how the information you’ve analyzed will help you help your clients.
Active Listening Skills
Active listening is more than just paying attention to what another person is saying – it’s a process of being mindful, of observing how people say what they’re saying, and being present in the conversation with your whole attention on the other person. It involves affirming what the other person is saying, acknowledging that they’ve been heard, and examining their body language as they speak, as well.
Using these skills when working with an athlete (or any client, for that matter) is critical so you can dive deep into any underlying problems or issues that present themselves over the course of a casual conversation after a game or a more formal meeting in a therapeutic situation. The information that’s revealed in these communications can prove key to helping guide your approach to assessment and developing interventions.
Understanding of Assessments and Interventions
Sports psychologists don’t just observe athletes and make recommendations based on their observations. Instead, they also rely on a variety of assessment tools that help drive their course of action for providing assistance to an athlete.
For example, if an athlete is struggling mightily and you suspect that depression might be at the root of their poor performance, you might administer a depression assessment like the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI). Not only should you understand how to administer the assessment, but you should also understand how to interpret it to inform your treatment plan.
As another example, you might administer the Sports Anxiety Scale (SAS) to an athlete that is displaying symptoms of anxiety on the court or the field of play. Likewise, you might use the Athletic Intelligence Quotient (AIQ) to measure an athlete’s intellectual abilities as they pertain to sports performance.
Being able to administer psychological tests is just part of the equation, though. The next step is using what you’ve learned to develop and implement interventions that help the athlete cope with their problems.
Using the depression example from earlier, the Beck Depression Inventory might indicate that an athlete has an overwhelming sense of failure and guilt. Using that information, you can devise a therapeutic pathway for exploring those feelings, identify where those feelings come from, and work through those feelings with the athlete in individual therapy.
Then, you might establish next-step interventions like using Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy to teach the athlete coping mechanisms that allow them to more effectively deal with their negative self-talk.
Likability and Trustworthiness
Though you might have to get tough sometimes with your clients, that tough love should be part of a larger effort on your part to express an aura of likability. After all, the more your clients like you, the more they will come to you, open up, and trust that you have their best interests in mind.
Of course, this is linked to your trustworthiness as a professional. If your clients don’t feel as though they can trust you, you’ve already lost the battle – there is simply no way for you to build the type of interpersonal relationship you need with your clients if trust is not a foundational principle.
There are many ways that you can improve your likability and trustworthiness:
- Be genuine
- Be honest
- Be supportive
- Take an interest in who your clients are as people
- Offer sound guidance that’s based on research
- Be a team player
- Be available when your clients are in need
- Be professional and practice ethically
None of these attributes are rocket science, either! Simply focus on doing your job and doing it well, and you’ll find that your clients both like and trust you as their sports psychologist.
Psychologists of all kinds must possess the ability to empathize with others. Being able to see the world from someone else’s perspective will allow you to better understand where they’re coming from and what their truth is.
This, in turn, will allow you to develop rapport, to better identify potential roadblocks to progress, and will also help you devise treatments and interventions that can propel your clients in a positive direction.
It’s important to note that empathy is not just the act of seeing things from others’ perspectives. Empathy is also about being present, striving to understand other people’s points of view, being open and supportive of other people’s journeys, and respecting other people for who and what they are.
Emotional intelligence is your ability to identify, understand, and manage your emotions. Additionally, it refers to your ability to perceive emotions and emotional messages from others.
Let’s start with your own emotions.
As a sports psychologist, it’s important to be cognizant of your own emotions and how they affect you on the job. For example, after a heartbreaking loss, it isn’t helpful for you to let your anger about the loss seep into a session with an athlete. Being able to recognize that you’re angry, understand why you’re angry, and keep your anger in check will allow you to maintain professionalism as you work with your clients.
Of course, at the other end of the spectrum is pure, unadulterated joy. Perhaps a client has a breakthrough, and as a result, they have an epic night on the field of play. While there is nothing wrong with expressing happiness for your client, it’s still necessary to maintain a certain level of decorum in your professional dealings with them.
Being able to recognize the emotions that other people are expressing is a central trait of any psychologist. In fact, your ability to do this might allow you to recognize an emotion that a client is feeling before they even realize it.
Part of building a solid therapeutic relationship with a client is being supportive of their thoughts, feelings, and emotions. With a solid emotional intelligence, you’ll be able to do just that.
Patience and Integrity
Psychologists should also have patience. Providing counseling, therapy, or guidance to an individual athlete, coach, or sports team is not a once-and-done endeavor. It takes time to make a difference in someone’s life.
Additionally, providing effective care and working towards a positive outcome in the psychology of sports can have its ups and downs. Clients might not be as responsive as you hope. Some might be downright hostile to what you’re trying to do. Others might make impossibly slow progress while other clients might make great progress, only to fall back into their old ways again.
The point is that your work as a sports psychologist is part of a long game – seldom will you have massive breakthroughs day in and day out. As a result, it’s imperative that you possess the trait of patience.
In a similar vein, a sports psychologist should work with integrity, keeping individual or team conflicts, personal information, and sensitive problems in confidence according to the law and professional ethics. Ethical codes for psychologists exist for the protection of the people you serve but also serve to protect you as well.
Pursuing a Career in Sports Psychology
Sports psychology can be a lucrative career, but the number of job openings is small compared to the number of people who want to do this type of work. With such enormous competition for jobs, it’s important that you have the education, experience, skills, attributes, and traits needed to perform at your best.
If you possess these characteristics of a sports psychologist, you likely have a good chance of being an ideal fit for a job with a college, amateur or professional team, or at a gym, health center or similar organization. And if you don’t possess all of these characteristics, set goals for yourself to improve in those areas.
Remember that while sports psychology is about helping athletes improve their performance, to do so, you have to be at the top of your game as well. Possessing these characteristics will certainly help you do that.
B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming
M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming
B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts
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