Sports psychologists help athletes of all kinds achieve optimal results on the court, field, or track. Whether they counsel individual athletes or work with teams, coaches, or managers, they focus on how mental and emotional factors influence athletic performance. But there’s more to their profession than teaching visualization techniques and positive thinking. We spoke to a few sports psychologists to learn about their job, from the extensive education and training it requires to their mastery of mindfulness.
1. IT TAKES YEARS OF TRAINING AND EXPERIENCE TO BE SUCCESSFUL.
Sports psychologists spend about a decade or more in school, completing an undergraduate degree, master's, and then a PhD. After completing a minimum of 3000 hours of supervised work experience (the exact number of hours varies by state), they must pass federal and state exams to become a licensed psychologist with a specialty in sports.
“People don't realize how much time and effort goes into not only acquiring the proper academic credentials, but also the immense time and energy devoted to kicking off a private practice and making it profitable,” says Dr. John F. Murray, a licensed clinical and sports psychologist in Palm Beach, Florida.
Once they are licensed, sports psychologists must begin to build their career, whether they work at a sports clinic, university athletic department, gym, or their own private practice.
2. MANY OF THEM WORK WITH JUNIOR ATHLETES RATHER THAN PROS.
“Students [who ask for advice about working in the field] idealistically tell me that they plan to work with the Dallas Cowboys or New York Yankees when they get their degree,” Murray tells Mental Floss. “I have to take them off that delusion, while keeping them hopeful, and steer them to realize that their struggle only begins after they get all their degrees and a license to practice psychology.” Although Murray has two decades of experience and frequently treats professional athletes, the majority of his clients are still junior athletes hoping to improve their game or get into a good college.
3. THEY’RE LIFELONG SPORTS LOVERS.
Most sports psychologists have a lifelong passion for physical activity and self-improvement. Dr. Michael Gervais, a high-performance psychologist (he prefers the term over sports psychologist since he counsels business executives and actors in addition to athletes) and host of the podcast Finding Mastery, tells Mental Floss about his early love of surfing: “I spent countless hours in the water, trying to understand how to get better. I walked home from high school, ‘surfing’ the imaginary waves from the neighbor’s hedges and arching tree branches.”
Murray, who describes his job as a calling, explains that sports psychology is perfectly suited to his passion. “I always loved and played sports and I majored in psychology in college, so I just combined the two,” he says.
4. THE MIND-BODY CONNECTION FASCINATES THEM.
When a young Gervais entered his first official surf competition, his anxiety interfered with his performance. “I was in a foreign body completely unequipped to do the activity I loved the most, while being judged and critiqued,” he says. “I tried three more competitions, all with similar results. And then there was a paradigm shift.” After a fellow competitor told Gervais to stop thinking about what could go wrong, Gervais tried imagining what he wanted to happen in the waves. “Before I realized that I had shifted my entire psychology, I was paddling to catch a wave, free from worry and distraction,” he says. “That early experience set me down a path to want to understand the impact between the mind and body and performance—especially in hostile and rugged environments.”
5. THEY HAVE TO FIND THEIR OWN WAY.
“Many advisors in college and graduate programs know nothing about [the field]!,” Murray says. “You still today have to forge your own path … For me it made sense to first get a master’s degree in the sports sciences (sports psychology track) and then to enter a doctoral program in clinical psychology that would allow me to continue my pursuit of sports psychology.”
After studying the University of Florida’s Florida Gators football team for part of his doctoral dissertation, Murray did a (rare) sports psychology internship and a postdoctoral fellowship before sitting for the licensing exam. “It’s really a field comprised of two different specialties [the sports sciences and professional psychology], and you cannot ignore either part if you want to be a true professional,” he says.
6. THEY’RE MASTERS OF MINDFULNESS.
When performance anxiety causes athletes to doubt their abilities, they may unknowingly make subtle shifts in their movements, leading to a missed basket or a fumbled ball. In an interview with Forbes, sports psychologist Dr. Stan Beecham explains that he first teaches athletes to become aware of their own thought process. “We know that it’s the mental game that counts, whether it’s sports or business. Because the mind is controlling the body. You have to think of the brain as the computer system, and you have to think of your belief system as your software,” he says.
Sports psychologists teach athletes techniques to focus on their breath, find a sense of calm, and think more clearly under pressure. “Mindfulness training is at the center of what I do with the majority of athletes for developing great awareness and mental ability to adjust and to focus,” Gervais says. “When the stakes are really high, one of the mental skills that we want to invest in is the ability to think under pressure and generate a sense of confidence no matter what the circumstances are.”
7. SOME OF THEM FOCUS ON HELPING PRO (VIDEO) GAMERS.
Sports psychologists can apply their training beyond the world of sports. In addition to advising business executives and actors, some work with professional gamers who want to perform at a high level. Weldon Green, an eSport psychology trainer who coaches professional League of Legends (LoL) players, writes in a Reddit AMA that eSports can be an ideal field for sports psychologists. “There is almost zero retraining needed to transfer all of our techniques and knowledge,” he says. “After I discovered LoL I realized that sport psychology has more potential in this sport than in any other sport in history. Both because it’s almost completely mental and also because it is team-based.”
Sports psychologists who train pro gamers to be calm, confident, and focused give them a definite edge over competitors. “eSport gamers know that the level of intense focus, confidence, and emotional control required to be successful rivals those same levels of world-leading athletes,” Gervais explains.
8. THEY TREAT PRE-SEASON GAMES WITH THE SAME RESPECT AS THE OLYMPICS.
Green explains that the way eSport athletes practice is how they will play in a game. "So if a team doesn't know how to take a scrim [practice match] seriously, then they cannot generate the same kind of pressure on themselves that they will face in a real tournament,” he says. “This leads to choking (reverting to previous habits, movements, reactions, loss of focus on the big picture) when the pressure situation rolls around.”
Gervais, who has worked with the Seattle Seahawks for the Super Bowl and athletes competing in the Olympics, adds that pre-season and early season games are when athletes can practice mindfulness. “We hold each game, each practice, and each rep with such high regard and dignity—as if it were the only one we were going to experience,” he says. By treating each practice as if it were the Super Bowl, athletes can become completely absorbed in the task at hand and ideally achieve a state of flow.
9. THEY STILL COMBAT THE SOCIETAL STIGMA AGAINST SEEKING MENTAL HELP.
Although sports psychology focuses on improving athletic performance, some people view the field in a negative light. “[My] least favorite part of sport psychology is the residue from the early '80s that psychology of any nature was reserved for people who were weak,” Gervais says. Rather than focusing on clients’ weaknesses or failings, sports psychologists acknowledge that world-class athletes and performers must understand how their mind works in order to consistently perform well. “Sport psychology is grounded in the tools and principles to amplify growth and strength,” Gervais says.
10. THEY STRIKE A BALANCE BETWEEN SCIENTIFIC ANALYSIS AND INTUITION.
When they work with a client, sports psychologists must draw on their knowledge of the human mind and how it impacts behavior. They also stay on top of scientific literature and new research studies about the role of meditation, mindfulness, and mental health on performance. But successful sports psychologists balance this scientific approach with an artist’s eye for details. “I have to be aware of subtle cues and often dig deep to get at the root of a problem or a solution,” Murray says. “I treat each individual as a unique person and every team as a unique personality, too,” he adds. “A lot of times there is no owner's manual for how to do this job. You just roll up your sleeves and fly by the seat of your pants—or rely more on instincts and intuition in order to get the job done right.”
11. THEY EXPLORE THE FRONTIERS OF THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE.
According to Murray, the best part of his work is helping people grow both on and off the field. “It truly is fulfilling to be involved in changing people's lives for the better. This might include a major comeback from a slump or might involve deeper aspects of overall human development and mental well-being,” he says. And by helping athletes, sports psychologists can uncover techniques and modes of thinking that can push the boundaries of what humankind can achieve. “We have mapped the surface of the land, we have mapped the floor of the ocean, we have a relatively good understanding of how the human body works,” Gervais says. “Yet there is no map of how the mind works—especially for those who pursue the boundaries of performance for human experience.”