My last blog entry saw the start of the ‘Introduction to Sport Psychology’ series of lessons, where I debunked the idea that Sport Psychology is only for a group of ‘crazy’ athletes and exercisers, who just need some extra help. I discussed some of the possible explanations for why there is certain taboo surrounding the idea of psychology in sports settings. I also shared some reasons for why one should consider working with a sport psychologist. Today, I am going to deal with another recurring question in sport psychology, which is: ‘This is only for professional athletes, right?’
According to APA Division 47, sport Psychology is the scientific study of the psychological factors associated with participation, enjoyment and performance in sport and exercise contexts. This definition contains some key words that will guide this blog entry. The first ones are participation and enjoyment. It is clear that improving sport and exercise participation and enjoyment is not exclusively reserved for high-level athletes. On the contrary, we are interested in working with the so-called “average Joes”; those of us who fight to maintain a structured exercise regime, who struggle to finish a game when we have an advantage, who feel intimidated and make silly mistakes during a good match; among many others.
Our job as sport and exercise psychologists is to help the ordinary individual develop a high performance mindset. To get an individual to the stage where every point, every movement, every effort contributes to their becoming a better athlete or a fitter person. It doesn’t matter if it is at your local gym or on a multi-million dollar facility. It may be on your city’s 5K or at the Iron Man in Hawaii; the venue, the opponent, or the level of participation does not matter. Fundamentally speaking, our work with a regular person or with a world-class athlete is exactly the same. Same objectives. Same mental skills.
We all have seen those world-star athletes and we are mesmerized by their skills, strength and mental toughness. However, as much as we want to work with them, the truth is that most of the work we do as sport psychologists is not with these amazing athletes. It is not because we are not good enough for them; it is because that market is very small (and hard to enter). Therefore, most of our work is with youth athletes, developing athletes, ordinary people who just want to improve their performance, or people who just want to be in shape.
In our field we work with mental aspects, where interpretation is more important than the real facts. We can have several “realities” that we face, but how we interpreted them makes a huge difference. That being said, what is the difference between you and your favorite golf player? If we put aside all the money in the bank account, the endorsements, the mystique that surrounds these athletes; what is the difference between the 18-hole of Augusta for Tiger Woods and the 18-hole for you at your local country club on any given Sunday? Once again, it is a matter of interpretation, rather than actual facts. It may be that you are more frightened or more anxious during any match than Isinbayeba going for a world-record at the Olympic Games. Interpretation, not facts.
It is true that professional athletes have more resources and time than most of us (among other things). But we are interested in working with people who are committed to their sport, people who want to improve their performance, play better or just enjoy their sport more. People who are currently struggling, but would like to improve their game, it does not matter if the improvements would be seen on Wimbledon or at the tennis courts in your neighborhood. If you are committed to your development as an athlete, on any level, we are interested in working with you and we are certain that we can help you make a difference.
The human mind works in a very interesting way; it does not distinguish between those who have a multi-million dollar contract with Gillette and those who just play for fun. The brain is the same, the emotions are the same, and the pressure is the same. We are interested in helping your mind and your body reach places you thought were only possible on TV.
Even more, the future of sports and exercise psychology will be in what is called ‘Performance Psychology’. Working with any person who needs to perform better in any setting they are. Whether it’s a businessman giving a sales presentation to the board of directors, an opera singer performing at a concert hall or an actress in her latest theatrical play; such a variety of scenarios ask for the same thing: dealing with emotions, doubts and errors. People needing to reach their peak performance in any context have this in common.
In a few weeks, we will have the third and last lesson of the ‘Introduction to Sport Psychology’ lesson series. My last article will try to answer the question: “This is a quick-fix, right? It will be like magic!”