Sport psychologists help professional and amateur athletes overcome problems, enhance their performance and achieve their goals.

How sport psychology helps athletes

When basketball player Ron Artest of the Los Angeles Lakers credited psychological help for some of his success on the court, some commentators took that as evidence that he was crazy.

To the contrary: Professional athletes like Artest would be crazy not to seek help from professionals like sport psychologists.

While coaches typically focus on the physical side of sport, sport psychologists focus on athletes' minds. Sport psychologists can help athletes — professionals and amateurs alike — achieve their goals.

What sport psychologists do

Some athletes seek help from a sport psychologist or other exercise and sport psychology professional when they have a problem.

They might become anxious or lose focus during competition, for example. They might have trouble communicating with teammates, controlling their temper or even just motivating themselves to exercise. Or they might choke at key moments during a game.

But athletes don't just consult sports psychologists when they're having difficulties. Sport psychologists can also help athletes:

  • Enhance performance. Various mental strategies, such as visualization, self-talk and relaxation techniques, can help athletes overcome obstacles and achieve their full potential.

  • Cope with the pressures of competition. Sport psychologists can help athletes at all levels deal with pressure from parents, coaches or even their own expectations.

  • Recover from injuries. After an injury, athletes may need help tolerating pain, adhering to their physical therapy regimens or adjusting to being sidelined. 

  • Keep up an exercise program. Even those who want to exercise regularly may find themselves unable to fulfill their goal. Sport psychologists can help these individuals increase their motivation and tackle any related concerns.

  • Enjoy sports. Sports organizations for young people may hire a sport psychologist to educate coaches about how to help kids enjoy sports and how to promote healthy self-esteem in participants.

Sports psychology can even help people off the playing field. The same strategies that sport psychologists teach athletes — relaxation techniques, mental rehearsals and cognitive restructuring, for example — are also useful in the workplace and other settings.

How to find a sport psychologist

To find a sport psychologist or other exercise and sport psychology professional, talk to other athletes and coaches. In addition to names, ask how the professional helped them and what type of services were provided.

Your local college or university may also be able to provide referrals.

In addition, you can check with professional organizations, such as APA's Div. 47 (Exercise and Sport Psychology), the Association for Applied Sport Psychology or the U.S. Olympic Committee sport psychology registry.

Who is qualified

When you're seeking sport psychological help, ask about the professional's credentials, experience and clientele. Also ask about membership in such professional organizations as APA and the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, which certifies sport and exercise professionals.

Some exercise and sport psychology professionals are also licensed psychologists, who are doctorally trained individuals who have met their state's educational and training requirements and passed a comprehensive exam. These psychologists undergo specialized postdoctoral training in how to optimize athletes' performance and well-being. Only licensed psychologists may call themselves psychologists. 

Adapted from Div. 47's Is an Exercise and Sport Psychologist What I'm Looking For?