What Is Sport Psychology? (Including Types and Techniques)
By Indeed Editorial Team
Published 23 October 2022
The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.
Sports psychology is a field of psychology that studies the relationship between exercise and mental health. There are several types of sports psychology, each with a unique focus. Learning about this area of psychology can help you determine if a career as a sports psychologist may interest you. In this article, we answer 'What is sport psychology?', discuss its different types, share some key topics in sport psychology and list techniques that sports psychologists may use.
What is sport psychology?
The summarised answer to 'What is sport psychology?' is that it's a specialist area of psychology that focuses on mental health in the context of sport. It's the study of various mental factors and the effect they can have on athleticism, sport and exercise. It's also the study of the correlation between physical activity and mental well-being. A sports psychologist uses a combination of expertise and skills to address several things, including:
Optimal athletic performance
Athletes' mental health
Issues within sporting organisations
Occupational health and wellness
It's not only athletes who can benefit from working with a sports psychology professional. The general population can benefit from sports psychology too, by learning about the benefits of sports and exercise and receiving encouragement while introducing and maintaining physical activity in their lives.
Types of sport psychology
Below, you can explore the different types of sport psychology, each of which has a unique focus:
This type of sport psychology typically involves helping individuals who aren't athletes introduce regular exercise into their lives to improve their mental health. Exercise psychologists use a range of techniques to help individuals identify and understand their feelings that may hinder their physical activity. They then help them learn to enjoy exercise through the development of personalised workout plans.
Exercise psychology may exist in several environments. For example, exercise psychologists may use their expertise in schools, fitness centres and large organisations with corporate wellness schemes. Exercise psychologists may also work privately for the community on a consultation basis.
Educational sport psychology
This area of sports psychology significantly focuses on providing athletes with psychological tools to improve their athletic performance. Educational sports psychologists may help athletes perform optimally by teaching them various psychological techniques, such as visualisation, setting goals and practising positive self-talk.
Educational sports psychology typically exists within sports teams, sporting clubs, academies, schools and universities. Educational sports psychologists often have an essential role within a sports team, encouraging the team's athletes to reach their full potential.
Clinical sport psychology
Clinical sports psychology involves studying athletes' lifestyles and athletic performance to identify any areas that might require improvement for them to perform at their best, mentally and athletically. Clinical sports psychologists deploy a combination of techniques to help athletes overcome various mental health conditions. This may include working with athletes in one-on-one counselling sessions to determine their key motivators and develop and deliver personalised treatment plans.
Clinical sports psychology can be common in environments where athletic performance is a focus or essential factor, for example, within athletic agencies, professional sports teams and the military. Clinical sports psychologists typically work independently, conducting individual or group sessions, or they may work amongst a group of psychologists, for example, travelling with a team.
Key sport psychology topics
Sport psychology, in general, addresses a few key topics which are important for the benefit of individuals and teams alike. Below, you can find some of them:
Goal setting: Having goals to work toward can be an essential factor in the success of both athletes seeking optimal performance and individuals seeking a healthier lifestyle. Most areas of sport psychology incorporate an element of goal setting, which can provide participants with confidence and direction for enhanced performance.
Visualisation: Mental imagery can be significant in preparing the mind for athletic training or competition. Sports psychology often involves the teaching and practising of visualisation techniques that can motivate and also enhance cognitive control, both of which can have a significant impact on athletic performance.
Attentional focus: Performing at an elite level can include distractions, for example, loud spectators or the presence of the media. Attentional focus is a topic of sports psychology that helps athletes develop strategies for managing and maintaining their mental focus when performing.
Teamwork: There's a requirement for many athletes to perform as part of a team. Because of this, sports psychology often focuses on team environments and the relationship-building, connection and accountability required for them to be successful.
Resilience: As the role of a professional athlete is highly performance-based, they may work under both physical and mental pressure. An aim of sports psychology is to have a positive impact on athletes' performance by providing them with methods for managing the stress of their roles.
Rehabilitation: While many topics of sports psychology focus on optimal performance, a large part of sport psychology focuses on supporting athletes through rehabilitation. As injury can affect the careers of professional athletes, sports psychology helps cultivate the positivity, motivation and determination required for optimal recovery.
Sports psychology techniques
There can be many techniques sports psychologists deploy to help their athlete and non-athlete clients improve their mental condition for the benefit of their physical performance. Which they use may depend on the area of sport psychology they work in and their exact role. Below, you can find some techniques psychologists in this field may use:
Cognitive behavioural therapy
Sports psychologists use cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help individuals, commonly those with anxiety or depression, identify and overcome behavioural tendencies and thought patterns that may hinder their ability to perform optimally. Through CBT, sports psychologists can provide individuals with strategies to understand their emotions, manage their stress and respond to various scenarios in constructive ways, all of which can benefit their athletic performance.
CBT typically involves a combination of one-on-one or group sessions, exercises and activities that help develop individuals' coping skills. The five key areas that CBT covers are situations, thoughts, emotions, physical feelings and actions.
Progressive relaxation training
Sports psychologists may often teach a range of relaxation techniques to help athletes feel more calm, confident and focused, which collectively can enhance their performance. A specific relaxation technique that sports psychologists commonly use, specifically with professional athletes, is progressive relaxation training (PRT).
PRT involves the tensing and relaxing of various muscles in the body, usually one at a time. For example, a sports psychologist might get an athlete to tense a certain muscle for 30 seconds, and then release it before moving on to do the same with another muscle in their body. They may do this in 15 to 20-minute sessions. Doing this can help diffuse physical tension, which can provide physical relief and mental relief.
Hypnosis can be in use in many areas of psychology, including sports psychology. Many sports psychologists may deploy hypnotherapy to enhance the performance of athletes they work with or to encourage everyday people to take part in exercise and enjoy it. Sports psychologists may use hypnotherapy to help their clients explore their potential, improve their technique, overcome fear, reduce their anxiety, restore their energy and boost their recovery.
During hypnotherapy, sports psychologists help their clients reach a state of magnified focus and concentration. They usually do this by repeating certain words or phrases to guide mental imagery. In a hypnotic state, it can be easier for individuals to explore their subconscious with open-mindedness and gain a unique perspective.
While sports psychologists place a large focus on psychological factors, they also take physiological factors into account to a significant extent. Biofeedback (BFB) is a sports psychology technique that involves observing biological responses to ultimately control the effects of stress and anxiety on the body. Biofeedback uses a range of electronic sensor-based devices to read and communicate psycho-physiological data, for example, heart rate and muscle tension.
Biofeedback provides individuals with insight into their physiological reactions to certain scenarios. Sports psychologists help athletes use these insights to develop their psycho-physiological skills. Equipped with these skills, they can find it easier to self-regulate their physical and mental state, boosting their ability to perform under pressure.
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