All about Sports Psychology and What Sports Psychologists do to Help Athletes achieve Goals

Mar 08, 2016

Sports Psychology Career: Sports Psychologists speaking with players practice session

The great Tommy Lasorda once said that “the difference between the impossible and the possible lies in a person’s determination.”

While elite athletes must train hard, eat healthily and keep their bodies in top form in order to remain competitive, a significant piece of the performance puzzle is mental. Athletes who are able to visualize their success are not only able to improve their performance, but are also able to calm their nerves before a big competition.

Sometimes athletes need a little help with the visualization process, which is where a sports psychologist comes in.

Like their peers in other specialties of psychology, sports psychologists provide therapy services to their clients. They work with them to overcome problems, enhance performance and meet their athletic goals.

Career in Sports Psychology

According to the American Psychological Association, sports psychologists are trained to help athletes deal with the pressure of competition; enhance their performance by using mental strategies and self-help techniques; provide motivational tools to continue a diet and exercise program, and recover from injuries.

In exchange for their expertise, sports psychologists gain the benefit of working with professional athletes and coaches, traveling to exciting places to assist athletes on the scene and making top wages. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects demand for trained sports psychologists will continue to increase over the next decade, with an average annual salary of $70,700.

Psychological Interventions Prove Effective in Pro Sports

What do pro golfer Tiger Woods and pro basketball player Ron Artest of the Los Angeles Lakers have in common? Both have used a sports psychologist to help step up their game.

In 2010, when Artest credited his sports psychologist with helping him to keep his head in the game and therefore to be a successful team player, people thought he was even crazier than usual. Known for his off-kilter behavior and lifestyle, the sports world just assumed it was Artest being his usual off-beat self.

Flash forward to 2016, and sports psychology has become a more accepted method of honing one’s athletic abilities. In fact, it is increasingly difficult to find a sport that does not make use of sports psychology as part of its training program. National and international rugby teams, soccer teams, college and pro football teams and even some formula one racers all use sports psychologists.

The U.S. Olympic team has worked with sports psychologist for the last six years, and most recently with Karen Cogan in preparation for the Sochi Olympics. In a February 2014 interview with, Cogan discussed how it was her job during the Sochi games to work with families of the athletes to make sure any issues they were having did not trickle down to the athletes, causing a distraction during their performance. Cogan and other sports psychologists also worked with the athletes themselves to balance their stress and prepare mentally for each competition.

Helping athletes to deal with distractions that may interfere with their performance is just one task of a sports psychologist. They also:

  • Use visualization, self-talk and relaxation techniques to help athletes enhance their performance.
  • Provide coping mechanisms to help athletes deal with the pressures placed on them by parents, coaches and fans.
  • Create regimens designed to help athletes recover from injuries.

In addition to testimony from the athletes themselves, studies indicate that working with sports psychologists is an effective tool. A study published by the National Institutes of Health found that educationally-based psychological interventions have produced significant increases in performance. Of the 45 studies examined by the NIH, 85 percent revealed positive performance effects.
Among the most well-known sports psychologists are Coleman Griffith, Dr. John F. Murray, Terry Orlick and Timothy Gallwey.

Sports Psychology is not Just for Athletes

As is indicated by their very name, sports psychologists can and do work with both amateur and professional athletes. Additionally, they also may work with the parents and spouses of athletes to help them cope with the intensity that is involved when a family member is a dedicated athlete.

Sports psychologists aren’t just limited to the world of athletes. The mental preparation techniques they use with their athletic clients also can be beneficial in other sectors. For example, a popular technique that is used by sports psychologists is to have their clients visualize what they are going to do in advance. That same technique can prove beneficial in a number of other environments, including corporate America, where building confidence can go a long way toward increased productivity among workers.

The five main techniques used by most sports psychologists – smart goal setting, mental imagery, breathing control, champion’s body language and correct intensity – are all things that can help improve any professional person when applied correctly.

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