Introduction to Sport Psychology. Lesson 1: Isn’t this for crazy people?

WinnersWhen we tell people that we are sport psychologist, we often see faces of “that’s interesting”, but they are not completely sure what it is sport psychology and how it really works. It is an understandable reaction since Sport Psychology is a young branch of psychology and in most countries is a novel field of study. In this blog post, I will try to write an introduction to what sport psychology is and answer some of the frequently asked questions we have heard.

Even if you are not completely sure what sport psychology is, you will agree with me that under certain context, especially under pressure and high expectations, our skills and abilities might not be all we need to have a good performance. Think for a moment a well prepared student who is about to take an exam and when she is in front of it, her mind goes completely blank. Think about Roberto Baggio on the last penalty kick of USA 94 FIFA World Cup. Both scenarios have something in common: they are well prepared people, they have the knowledge, the skills and all the required elements to have a good performance. However, something, call it jitters, lack of confidence, worries, fears, emotions, etc., is interfering with their performance.

It is here, where Sport Psychology enters to action. We help people reach their highest performances in a consistent way. We use knowledge from several psychological subfields like neuroscience, psychophysiology, social psychology, clinical psychology, among others. Although this might sound “logic and obvious”, there is a certain resistance to the psychological input in sport and exercise related fields. The reasons behind it may start by answering the question: Isn’t this for crazy people?

If we were talking about Sports Medicine, very few (just to not say anyone) would consider it something “exotic”, and probably anybody would feel ashamed by saying that they are working with a medical specialist to solve a problem that is affecting their performance. However, most probably he or she won’t feel that unconcerned by saying that is a psychologist who is helping them. So the question is: Why is this happening? Why do we feel ok with “physical” problems, but not with “mental” problems?

One of the explanations goes back to the XVII century, when René Descartes, one of the brightest minds in humanity, was doing remarkable contributions to the fields of math, geometry and philosophy. Within his work in philosophy, he helped to consolidate one of the most historic debates in the area, what has been called the Mind-Body Dichotomy or the Cartesian Dualism. Without going into major philosophical details, that would move us away of the objective of this article, Descartes established that there is a clear distinction between the Mind (or soul) and the Body. Making both of them separate entities, each of them governed by their own characteristics and laws.

Why is it that we are talking about philosophy? Because from that point on, the western culture has maintained the tradition of having a clear distinction between the mind and the body, in spite that there is countless evidence that proves the contrary. We have no problem in asking for help on “physical” problems. If our leg hurts we go to the doctor, without fears, without any taboo. But, the head? Don’t get on my head! We have assumed that is expected and praised to receive help for physical problems, but not with mental problems (unless they are severe). We are supposedly under total control of what is happening inside our head. If not? Get worry because you are crazy!

There is no need to say that this assumption of total control of our minds is not entirely true. Or there was a complete mind control in that girl whose mind went blank during the exam, or did JR Hildebrand’s emotions were bigger and stronger than him on the last turn of 2011 Indy 500? Why not asking for help when needed, why not take advantage of a field of study that specialize in offering people better way to handle situations.

Another possible explanation that has lead to mysticism around the field of psychology is the fact that until a few centuries ago, our minds were a black box. Something in-between our ears, where some senses and information enter and some thoughts and actions are produced.

Luckily, during the last century, advances in several have brought answers to many of the unanswered questions. The significant advances that we have seen in these areas in the last years are so big, that several proven protocol have been developed to treat and handled a great number of issues related to the human mind. Given these points, some mental issues are no longer considered something just for crazy people that require locking down the patients. They are day-to-day situations that affect the overall people’s well being, where professionals may be helpful.

So fear no more, you are not less that anyone; you are not weaker than any of your opponents or friends; and of course, you are not crazy. There is no reason to feel bad if you decide to contact a professional who may be able to help handle in a better way those moments of high pressure and expectancies. On the contrary, you should feel proud that you have decided to work on yourself.

In a few weeks, Lesson 2: But this is only for professional athletes, right?

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