Most athletes who take their sport seriously will consider using a coach to help get them in physical fitness, a physio to help fix or prevent injury or a nutritionist to advise on fuelling effectively. An area which is still fairly new, and often forgotten is finding someone to help you train your mind. A Sports psychologist can do this for you.
Sports psychologists tend to sit within two areas.
Research sports psychologists work in universities; teaching students in sports science departments and researching how to help athletes perform better through learning psychological techniques or understanding how different personality traits or developmental background may impact on the way an athlete trains and performs. They may also look at some of the pressures that athletes have (such as from coaches, family, the media or doping) and consider what can be done to alleviate them.
Applied sport psychologists work directly with athletes teaching them mental skills and helping them deal with issues which may be harming their performances or their enjoyment of their sport. Some work in professional sports clubs; with Footballers, Cricketers or Rugby players. Some work with Olympic and Paralympic athletes through the English Institute of Sport (EIS). Some work in gyms or for health departments, focusing on the exercise side and helping to motivate people to be more active, others work with age group athletes who either want to feel more comfortable when they race (so building confidence and reducing anxiety) or to learn skills to make them perform at their best.
Psychologists can work from a number of approaches. Some will work from a Freudian perspective using psychoanalysis to work with their clients. Humanistic counsellors will work in a very person centred way, letting the client drive the conversation and set the speed and direction of the work. Cognitive Behavioural practitioners have more of a listening and then teaching role with clients, helping them to learn skills and techniques which will support their development. Lots of Sports psychologists will be trained in this Cognitive Behavioural background and use this approach but also bring in a range of other approaches, depending on the needs of the client.
In sport, three of the areas where an applied Sports psychologist can be beneficial:
Organisational: Working in a club, the sport psychologist can work with staff at all levels to ensure the environment is as conductive to exceptional performance as possible and that the team is working well as a unit.
Group workshops: To help a number of athletes learn mental skills or concepts at the same time. Working in a group (and often alongside the coach) means they skills taught can be followed up and easily incorporated into physical training afterwards.
Individual sessions: These sessions allow the sport psychologist to act as a sounding board for athletes having specific issues; be it lack of confidence, pre-competition anxiety, losing their temper, or feeling like a failure. The sessions give the athlete and the psychologist time to explore the reasons for these feelings and work on strategies to resolve them.
What can a sports psychologist do for me?
I find there are two main reasons an Age grouper would want to see a sports psychologist; to be more successful in their sport or to feel more comfortable when doing their sport. The sports psychologist will use performance psychology to help the athlete deal with issues that could be holding them back from performing at their best or teach skills and strategies to help them push themselves further. Some prefer to work in a face to face environment, others will work over skype or the phone if their clients prefer it.
While athletes may struggle with mental health issues, eating disorders or depression, a sports psychologist cannot usually support them with these issues unless they have specific additional training. Instead they will refer the athlete to a clinical psychologist who will have more expertise and experience.
You can find a sports psychologist through this directory: http://accreditedsportsprofessionals.co.uk/