As an undergraduate at the University of Missouri-Columbia, Nicki Moore, PhD, learned first-hand the value of both counseling and sport psychology. Moore competed for the university's track and field team and her coach, Rick McGuire, PhD, was also a sport psychology consultant.

Then, in her senior year, a serious hip injury took her out of competition--a devastating experience for someone whose life had been focused on track and field. But a year of physical and mental rehabilitation returned Moore to the team and also led her to earn a doctorate in counseling psychology--with an emphasis in sport psychology--at Missouri.

Today, as a counseling and sport psychologist at the University of Oklahoma Norman, Moore brings her understanding of both psychology and college athletics to her work. She helps Sooner student-athletes deal with the stresses and pressures they face as full-time students and athletes--and she helps them improve their game.

Moore is one of a small but growing number of psychologists employed full time by university athletics departments to provide both counseling and sport psychology services to student-athletes.

More universities employ sport psychologists on a part time or consulting basis, but these psychologists generally work with teams as a whole, using exercises like visualization to help athletes improve their games. Only a few, like Oklahoma and Ohio State University, employ full-time psychologists who combine sport psychology with a more traditional counseling role, say Moore and leaders of APA's Div. 47 (Exercise and Sport).

"Ultimately," Moore says, "I think my position emerged because our athletics director and associate athletics director here recognized that there were a lot of counseling needs that weren't being met through traditional means."

A particular need

There are, Moore explains, many differences between counseling and sport psychology. "In a way, counseling is about getting someone up to par, and sport psychology is about moving someone from doing fine to doing even better," she says. "Sport psychology has more of a coaching feel--it is training the mind to support the physical execution of sport."

Moore says that her job is about 20 percent sport psychology, 60 percent traditional counseling (dealing with issues like family problems, relationship concerns or depression), and 20 percent a combination of the two.

"They're separate areas, but they intersect," she explains. For example, Moore could address minor issues impeding a student's sports performance through counseling, while at the same time using sport psychology techniques to enhance the student's athletics.

Of course, almost all universities have general student counseling centers to address students' mental health needs. So why would a school want to hire a special counselor just for athletes?

According to Moore, there are two main reasons:

  • Access. Student-athletes' lives are heavily scheduled.

"They might have conditioning in the morning, classes all day, and then practice in the afternoon," she explains. So it can be difficult to work in a trip to an inconveniently located counseling center as well.

In fact, Moore says, studies have shown that although student-athletes arguably have to deal with more stressors than other students, they are less likely to use university counseling centers.

Moore's office, in contrast, is in the university's student-athlete academic center, where student-athletes already come for academic advising, a computer lab, tutoring and other services.

Sam Maniar, PhD, one of the three sport psychologists at Ohio State, agrees that access is important: "Because we're around the athletics department, we're more visible than other counselors might be--and the students get to know us."

  • Expertise. As a former student-athlete herself and as someone who has years of experience working with student athletes, Moore understands the issues her students face.

"Someone who's not familiar with the intense level of significance that sport plays in the life of a student-athlete--particularly at a Division I school--can be well intentioned but have a disconnect with the student," she says.

A good counselor needs to understand things like the power of the athletic system and the importance of the athlete-coach relationship, she says. A counselor who's not as familiar with a student-athlete's life might, for example, suggest that an overburdened student simply quit the team. "If they did that, a door might shut," Moore says.

A growing trend

Jobs like Moore's and Maniar's are not yet common in athletics departments, says Frank Webbe, PhD, president of APA's Div. 47 (Exercise and Sport). In fact, he says, Oklahoma and Ohio State are the only schools he knows of with full-time positions right now.

But that may change. An October profile of Moore in The New York Times sports section sparked national interest, says Gerald Gurney, PhD, the associate athletics director at the University of Oklahoma who hired Moore.

Since then, Gurney says, other athletics directors have been calling to find out how this came about and how they can do this at their schools.

And, athletic department officials and sport psychologists from around the country discussed the issue at a recent meeting of college sport psychologists (see sidebar).

Overall, says Gurney, Moore is providing crucial support to Oklahoma's student athletes. "The better the services we can provide to students, the better off we'll be," he says.