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Traumatic Brain Injury

Who's a "Sport Psychologist?"

The title applies to very few practitioners!

• Jimmy, age 15, is a club swimmer. He’s strong and smooth during practice. Put him in competition, though, and everything falls apart.

• Sixteen year old Jason, a hockey player, is depressed, long after concussion symptoms should have subsided.

• At 14, Jennifer is a tennis prodigy…but seems unmotivated and surly.

Perhaps you’re the parent of one of these teen-agers. Can a sport psychologist help?

Earlier, I dismantled the term “sport psychology” and looked at its component parts. Now, let’s put them back together, focusing on the people who actually provide sport psychology services.

Does an athlete work with a sport psychologist if there are psychological problems they need to overcome? Or is it a matter of ensuring the athlete has the mental tools for optimal performance?

If only it were that simple. Let me differentiate among three terms: sport psychology, sport psychology professional, and sport psychologist. These distinctions may seem like “angels dancing on the head of a pin,” but actually, they’re important for getting the best services for your kid.

Sport psychology is a field of study. Much of its research and teaching is housed in departments of kinesiology or sport sciences rather than psychology. Mental skills training is offered by a number of sport psychology professionals. Often, they’ll use descriptive phrases such as mental skills trainer, performance enhancement specialist, or performance consultant. A sport psychologist is actually a short-hand used by many people. Ironically, though, it’s actually a term that, technically, very few professionals can legally use. For now, I’ll refer to the broader category: sport psychology professionals.

With these distinctions in mind, let’s return to the initial examples, our three “J” teens. What’s going on with each of them? Who should they work with? We can then consider the terminology issue.

Here’s what happened with Jimmy, Jason, and Jennifer. (I have, of course, disguised some relevant aspects to protect my clients’ identities.):

• Jimmy’s situation is probably the most common reason that athletes (or other performers) of any age and skill level come to see me: a discrepancy between how they perform in practice and how they perform “when it matters.” Jimmy benefits from learning some mental skills “tools” such as intensity management, re-directing his focus and attention, and challenging his unrealistic assumptions and pressure. Within three sessions, he’s on his way, more confident and eager to apply these skills further.

• Jason is referred by a neuropsychologist. He’s still experiencing cognitive difficulties 8 months after a concussion. Typically, when symptoms last that long, there are some earlier existing issues. Sometimes it can be physiological, such as a history of migraines; sometimes, there are psycho-social issues. Indeed, Jason and his family are still struggling with the loss of one of his siblings. His mother thinks that working with me would be very useful not only to his eventual return to hockey but also a way for Jason to come to terms with his own loss. Jason is willing to work on mental skills for return to play, the kinds of training that I did with Jimmy. He shrugs and isn’t interested in talking about his sister’s death—or his family in general. Afterwards, he reports to his mother that the meeting was very helpful. He isn’t willing to come back, however.

• Recognizing his daughter’s physical abilities, Jennifer’s father wants her to develop stronger mental skills as she moves up in the ranks. They took her to see a psychologist once, who, he says, didn’t understand the importance of tennis to her. When Jennifer meets with me, the door has barely closed before she bursts into tears…of relief. Her father has finally let her come in to speak with someone; she has been feeling depressed and desperate for years. Jennifer and I meet for some months, mostly dealing with her long-standing dislike of herself. Her mood lightens…and she becomes more enthusiastic about tennis.

In light of the process and outcome of these situations, what kind of sport psychology professional should each of our “J’s” work with? Hind-sight is, of course, 20/20. Here are some important questions to consider:

• Why is the athlete coming to see the sport psychology professional? What is she or he interested in gaining?

• Who is suggesting/encouraging/paying for this consultation? And what’s his or her agenda?

• How does the sport psychology professional understand and appreciate the work that she or he conducts?

• What is the sport psychology professional not only legally competent to do but also good at?

Jimmy would probably do well working with a mental skills coach. Jason’s mother has reason to be concerned, to think that Jason needs to see a licensed psychotherapist. Maybe the one-shot chance to talk things through really did help. (One of the frustrations of my work is that often, I don’t get to hear “the rest of the story.”) As for Jennifer: the combined knowledge of clinical psychology and sport psychology was truly important.

Ultimately, I think that, when it comes to “who is a sport psychologist?” the best answer is a matter of competence and “fit” (that is, a good match between practitioner and client) more than the specific words.

As a parent, you will want to know something about the sport psychology professional’s background, training, and credentials. You may, indeed, be wanting your son or daughter to see a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional. In many jurisdictions (states or provinces), licensure reflects only one’s generic training competence, for example as a licensed psychologist, social worker, or counselor. Membership in the American Psychological Association’s Division of Exercise and Sport Psychology (also known as Division 47) can be an indicator of a psychologist’s additional knowledge about the field and practice of sport psychology. The more specific adjective modifier, “sport”, typically is a designation that is available through further recognition of particular training. In North America at present, that certification occurs most effectively through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP). A portfolio review of coursework and supervised practice offers the practitioner the opportunity to become a Certified Consultant, or CC-AASP.

The issue of who really can call themselves a sport psychologist is complex and evolving. (True confessions: Despite all my credentials and experience, by the laws of the province of Ontario—where I hold my license—I am only allowed to describe myself as having a “practice in sport psychology.”) Both Division 47 and AASP are actively working on this—for the protection of the public and the development of the field.

If you would like more information about the practice of sport psychology, here are some suggestions, both general and specific:

• You can get much more detailed information at the websites of APA Division 47 and AASP;

• There’s a riveting book of essays written by sport psychology professionals, Expert Approaches to Sport Psychology: Applied Theories of Performance Excellence edited by Mark Aoyagi and Artur Poczwardowski. Each of the fifteen authors (I’m honored to be among them) represent somewhat different backgrounds, training, theory, and practice.

More specifically:

• If you’re an interested reader/parent/athlete/sports coach, please become informed, as a potential consumer of sport psychology services. The more you understand the field and can figure out who you want to work with for what reason(s), the better “match” you’re likely to make.

• If you are a graduate student, realize that the field of sport psychology is still in development. There are a variety of paths to practice. For more detail, see my FAQ responses @ Consider joining Division 47 and AASP. Your perspective will help shape the field in the years to come.

• If you’re a practitioner considering a practice in sport psychology, bring some humility and curiosity to the endeavor. As with students, your engagement in the field is important.

As always, if you have questions or comments, feel free to contact me through my website: Information about the 2013-14 season of Tele-Consultation Groups, for psychologists, mental health practitioners, sport psychology professionals, and advanced graduate students in these fields is available at

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