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Sport Psychology Still Doesn't Get the Respect it Deserves

Sport psychology is still a second-class citizen in the sports world.

I’m coming to the end of what has turned out to be a three-week international tour of sport psychology. During my trips, I have worked with athletes and coaches from the U.S., Australia, Sweden, Switzerland, and Russia in Argentina, California, Oregon, and Switzerland. One question that has emerged during my travels involves the role of mental preparation in athletic development. But before I get to that question, let me provide some back story.

Whenever I speak to athletes and coaches, I ask them how important the mind is to sport success. With few exceptions, the response is that the mind is as or more important than the physical and technical side of sports. I am obviously biased given my work in sport psychology, so I won’t take a position on which I believe is more important. But I will say that the mind is an essential piece of the sport performance puzzle.

Consider the top-10 athletes, male or female, in any sport. Are they all gifted? Yes. Are they all in exceptional physical condition? Yes. Are they all technically sound? Yes. Do they all have the best equipment? Yes. So, on game day, what separates the best from those who are close, but can’t quite get to the top? All of these other factors being equal, it must be what goes on in their minds.

I will also add that, in the greater scheme of life, it wouldn’t be difficult to argue that the mental side of sport is vastly more important than physical fitness and technical prowess, at least for young athletes. Why? Because, realistically speaking, relatively few athletes will make to the top of their sport. But, all of the attitudes, mental skills, and life lessons that athletes learn from their sport, for example, motivation, confidence, focus, perseverance, resilience, the ability to handle pressure, the list goes on, will serve them well in all aspects of their lives when they enter adulthood.

Yet, when I ask these same athletes and coaches how much time and energy is devoted to mental preparation, they indicate not very much and certainly not as much as it deserves.

Herein lies my question: Why isn’t mental training treated the same as physical and technical training? To be sure, sport psychology does have a presence in most sports. Sport psychologists work with many professional athletes and teams, as well as Olympic and collegiate teams. And I and many other sport psychologists work with youth programs in many sports around the U.S. and throughout the world.

Yet, when compared to its physical and technical counterparts, sport psychology clearly has  second-class status. While all sports programs and teams at every level of competition have full-time technical and conditioning coaches, few have full-time sport psychologists. Moreover, when sport psychology is offered to athletes, its presence is usually vastly different from the physical conditioning and technical regimens that athletes benefit from.

Let’s consider what makes physical conditioning and technical development effective and then compare it to the use of mental training in most sports settings today. Two key elements come to mind.

First, when athletes work out, they don’t just walk into the gym and do random strength or agility exercises. Instead, they engage in organized workouts based on a structured program that coaches believe will result in optimal physical preparedness for their sport. Similarly, when athletes go onto the field, court, course, or hill, they don’t just play around and hope to improve. Rather, they follow a technical progression based on their level of development. In sum, both the physical and technical components of athletic development have an organized program comprised of a framework and process that guides athletes systematically toward their goals.

Second, athletes wouldn’t get more fit if they worked out every few weeks. And their sport skills wouldn’t improve if they only practiced once a month. What enables athletes to get stronger and perform better is that they engage in physical and technical training consistently. Day in and day out, week in and week out, and month in and month out, athletes regularly put time and effort into their conditioning and technical work.

Using these two criteria—a structured program with a clearly defined progression and consistency—it’s pretty obvious that mental side of sport isn’t getting the attention it is due. Yes, many athletes get some exposure to sport psychology either through contact with sport psychologists or directly from their coaches. But, based on my own experience and feedback I have gotten from athletes, coaches, and parents around the country, this exposure, for almost all U.S. athletes, lacks both a structured program and any consistency that is essential for maximizing its value to their development.

So, is there an immediate answer to my original question: Why isn’t mental training treated the same as physical and technical training in sports? I have a few theories.

First, though sport psychology has been a field of study for more than 100 years, it has not been  a traditional part of training for most sports. Old attitudes, habits, and methods die hard and new approaches to improving athletic performance are not easily accepted. Perhaps it will take a new generation of coaches who have been exposed to sport psychology as competitors and then in their coaches’ education for the tide to turn toward wider acceptance and use of sport psychology with athletes.

Second, the reality is that the best athletes in the world have done pretty darned well without formal mental training. They simply developed mental skills through their training and competitive experiences. In contrast, I don’t think there has ever been a successful athlete who didn’t have a rigorous conditioning or technical program (at least not in the last 40 years). As a result, the need for structured mental training may not seem great. I would suggest, however, that for every successful athlete who develops mental toughness on their own, there are one or more who are equally talented and motivated to become successful, but need help in developing their mental capabilities.

Third, psychology lacks the concreteness of conditioning and technical training. You can readily see the areas in need of improvement physically and technically, for example, amount of weight lifted in the gym or technical problems revealed on video. The mental side of sport is not so easily seen, quantified, or measured. As a result, it’s harder to gauge where athletes are in different aspects of their mental preparation, what areas they need to work on, and any improvement that is made mentally.

Fourth, sport psychology can suffer from ‘guilt by association’ with the broader field of clinical psychology that still carries the stigma that only screwed-up people seek professional help. This perception, however inaccurate it is, can prevent athletes, coaches, and parents from seeing mental preparation for what it is, namely, an essential contributor to sports performance that must be developed proactively. This fear can also scare them away from getting sport psychology help when it is needed.

I predict that it will take some time before mental preparation receives the same attention as its physical and technical counterparts. But, as the stakes get higher and the competition gets tougher, from the development level to the world stage, athletes and coaches will look for every opportunity to gain the competitive edge that separates success from failure. As the limits of physical conditioning and technique are reached, it will be both natural and necessary to leverage all that sport psychology has to offer athletes. Only then will sport psychology, at long last, stand as equal partners with physical conditioning and technical training as athletes strive to take advantage of every opportunity to achieve success in pursuit of their goals. I look forward to that day.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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