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A Rose by Any Other Name? De-constructing Sport Psychology

Language matters. As does truth in advertising.

“Half of any game is 90% mental.” It’s one of those psychologically apt phrases attributed to Yogi Berra, that icon of malaprops—and mis-mathematics.

So, does that mean that half—or 90%?!—of all athletes should work with a sport psychologist? Well, among other things it depends on what you mean by “sport psychologist.” In this blog, I’ll de-construct that term, looking separately at the words <sport> and <psychologist>. In my next blog, I’ll bring those two words back together again. Although the issue of language can seem pretty obscure, I’d argue for the importance of understanding these points, whether you are a parent, an interested athlete or other performer, or a health or mental health professional.

1. Is it sport or sports psychologist?

This may seem like a pretty picky distinction, but in fact it does make a difference. When the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Division of Exercise and Sport Psychology—Division 47—was founded, nearly 30 years ago, one of the first things that William Morgan, Ed.D. did was to set the record straight. Dr. Morgan, the pivotal initiator of the Division and its first President, clarified the issue, landing squarely on the <sport>, that is, singular, side:

The term sport can be used as a noun, a verb, or an adjective, and we have elected to use it as a noun. This decision follows the European lead where sport can be viewed as competitive athletics; a source of diversion; recreation; or physical activity engaged in for play. In other words, sport involves much more than competitive athletics, and this is the reason why the terms exercise and sport are both included in the division’s title.

The linguistic distinction can be confusing: After all, it’s sports medicine—but sport psychology. Why is this important? For one thing, it’s a matter of inclusion: “Sport” is more than only competitive sports and includes the quality of playfulness that is so essential to our well-being. It’s also a matter of knowledge. I received an email request from the mother of a 13 year old athlete last week and could tell, before she even mentioned it, that she wasn’t familiar with my type of services…because she wrote “sports psychology.” (I wasn’t upset—just figured that there was some education in the offing.) When people advertise themselves as <sports> psychologists, my first thought is to wonder if or what they know—about the history of sport psychology and about the field itself. Recently, I pointed out the distinction to a journalist interviewing me for an article in Runner’s World. She responded that she knew the difference…but that the inappropriate <s> always ends up in copy anyway. When Psychology Today asks what tags I’d like to use for my blogpost, one option is—you guessed it:<sports psychology>!

2. Is it “psychologist”?

For practitioners in North America, just like physicians or dentists, the use of the term <psychologist> is restricted to professionals who hold a state-determined license to practice. Their practice is regulated—which means that the general public can presume that psychologists have met specific standards of education and competence. Because of this regulatory function, members of the public are protected from malpractice (that is, harmful practice): people can complain to a state-sanctioned board that determines the rules governing competent practice.

Does this matter? It sure does! Think about any un-regulated profession—say, building construction, for example—and the frustrating and expensive horrors we hear about all the time. And then think about this: Would I want an un-regulated professional messing with my—or my child’s—head? Some of my best friends are life coaches or un-licensed counselors…and some of them (including, of course, my best friends) are tremendously skilled at what they do. The distinction I am making here is that (a) they aren’t licensed/the public isn’t protected if something goes wrong and (b) they aren’t legally allowed to call themselves psychologists.

Here’s where it starts to get messy (and where I wish there were a solution as simple as the one regarding <sport> or <sports>). As I’ve written before, education in sport psychology typically occurs within programs of sport sciences or kinesiology. This means that some of the most competent practitioners working with athletes will not be licensed psychologists. They may call themselves, for example, mental skills trainers or performance enhancement specialists, and so on. If you are looking for services, consider what you are looking for, what skills the practitioner possesses, and what types of credentials they have.

In Part II, I’ll put the two words back together again. Probably still won’t come up with The Definitive Answer—but at least I can share with you my perspective on what matters and what to do, whether you’re a parent or an athlete, a student or a professional. In the meanwhile, caveat emptor.

More from Kate F. Hays Ph.D.
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