Athletes who underperformed in the Atlanta, Nagano and Sydney Olympics reported that more mental training and access to sport psychologists would have made the greatest difference in their Olympic experience, according to a report issued by the U.S. Olympic Committee on athlete performance.

"The sporting world is very physically focused, and athletes get a lot of information about the physical aspects of how to execute skills from their coaches," says Div. 47 (Exercise and Sport) President Kirsten Peterson, PhD, who contributed to the reports. "Where sport psychologists fit in is helping athletes and coaches meet their potential mentally as well as physically."

As helpful as properly trained sport psychologists can be, popular media and sports professionals play fast and loose with the use of that title. To help clarify the field, members of Div. 47 created a sport psychology proficiency-a document indicating that sport psychology is now recognized as a particular aspect of practice within the field of psychology. APA approved the field proficiency in 2003, and now the division is working to get the word out about the resource. Its goal is twofold: To help sport psychologists improve their skills, and also to connect sports-oriented people-whether they're the parent of a Little League baseball player, a collegiate swim coach or an elite Olympic wrestler-with competent practitioners.

"We need to do a better job of educating people to understand what sport psychology is and what sport psychologists can do...based on their training and competencies," says Div. 47 President-Elect Christopher Carr, PhD, who developed the performance neuropsychology program at St. Vincent Sports Performance Center in Indianapolis.

Different paths

People typically elect one of two routes to become a sport psychologist, says Carr. One is to complete graduate work in clinical or counseling psychology with additional training in the issues athletes face, including academic preparation in sport sciences and sport psychology, and the other is to gain graduate degrees in physical education or kinesiology departments. Only by following the first path can one truly call themselves a sport psychologist, says Carr.

The differing paths into the discipline present a challenge, adds Carr, because professional titles carry legal and ethical implications.

"When you see in the media that someone is identified as a sport psychologist, either they typically tend not to be a psychologist and are trained in kinesiology or physical education...or they are a psychologist who subscribes to Sports Illustrated," he says.

The preponderance of such experts claiming to be sport psychologists occurred because the vast majority of psychological research on athletes-on topics such as motor learning or psychophysiology-historically came from physical education departments, says Kate Hays, PhD, former president of Div. 47 and a consulting psychologist whose independent practice in Toronto is devoted to sport and performance psychology. It wasn't until the 1960s, she says, that psychologists began to work with athletes as active practitioners.

"Then the complexity increased because at that point there wasn't really any structure in place for psychologists who were working with athletes to be credentialed or have any recognition for the need for special training in doing this," adds Peterson, who counsels Olympic athletes as a sport psychologist for the U.S. Olympic Committee.

The Association of Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) developed an individual certification program as a step toward addressing this problem, though it cannot certify people as "psychologists." Instead, people who become certified in this manner receive the title of certified consultant. Thus far, AASP certification is the only program that formally recognizes the competency of sports professionals at the individual level.

"Psychology as a term is protected by law," says Peterson. "If you receive your degree in psychology, or are licensed as a psychologist, you can call yourself a psychologist." Thus, the goal of the proficiency, in addition to protecting the public from unqualified consultants, is to focus on how people who are trained as psychologists can get the skills they need to counsel athletic populations. And, for people trained in kinesiology or physical education, the proficiency will point out necessary areas of expertise that may have been lacking from their graduate programs, such as counseling techniques.

"Field proficiency legitimizes sport psychology as a defined area of knowledge," says Hays. "If psychologists are going to practice in this area, they should be fully informed in order to practice competently and responsibly."

Steps toward proficiency

Div. 47 members, led by Hays and former division president Shane Murphy, PhD, worked on the proficiency document, which was passed by APA's Council of Representatives in 2003. The document, available on the Div. 47 Web site and APA's Web site, states that sport psychology is recognized as a particular aspect of psychology practice, but the designation does not gauge the competency of individual practitioners.

However, the proficiency document does describe specialized knowledge that sports psychologists should have.

One such knowledge area is the discipline's unique ethical dilemmas. For example, working with both coaches and athletes to enhance performance can lead to confidentiality issues, says Peterson. Boundary issues also come up, notes Peterson, who accompanies the athletes she counsels as they travel and often eats and sleeps in the same quarters with them.

"I was trained to work with clients in a closed office, but sport psychology by its very nature tends to be less structured," she says. "There are very unique aspects of working in the field that I was never trained for."

In addition to such general counseling issues, the proficiency recommends that sport psychologists develop their skills in areas specific to their field, such as:

  • Goal-setting, visualization and performance planning for athletes.

  • Concentration and attentional control strategies for athletes.

  • Eating disorders, substance abuse and weight-management interventions.

  • Interventions to address parental and familial needs involved in youth sports participation.

The next challenge, says Edmund Acevedo, PhD, Div. 47 member-at-large, is presenting to practitioners the avenues they can take to become proficient in sport psychology. The division hopes to add online coursework to its Web site, and develop workshops and conferences to offer continuing education opportunities. Acevedo also recommends that practitioners seek out additional knowledge through the books and brochures listed on the division's Web site.

"A lot of sport psychology is style and glitter, and not much substance," says Carr. "We need to develop more substance in our profession, and I think we have a lot of it there, but it's not getting out there to people who are awed by the style and glitter. I think the proficiency will help us do that."

Further Reading

The Div. 47 sport psychology proficiency is available online at www.psyc.unt.edu/apadiv47/APA%20Div%2047%20(3)/ what's%20new/whatsnew.html.


Div. 47 at a glance
Div. 47 (Exercise and Sport Psychology) brings together psychologists interested in research, teaching and service in this area. The APA Running Psychologists, a Div. 47 affiliate group formed in 1978 by Raymond Fowler, PhD, holds a 5K race/walk at every annual convention. The division also sponsors preconvention workshops. In addition, the division publishes the Exercise and Sport Psychology Newsletterthree times a year. For more information, visit the division Web site at www.psyc.unt.edu/apadiv47.