Introduction to Sports and Exercise Psychology Coaching

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jobs in sports psychologyJeff, the offensive guard on the high school football team tends to become especially nervous in competition. The more critical the challenge, the more nervous Jeff gets – and you guessed it – the worse he plays. This is an example of just one of your biggest coaching challenges – to help Jeff learn to manage his stress more effectively.

Britney, wellness director for the City Senior Center and Cardiac Rehabilitation Center, runs a group fitness program for patients in recovery. But she is worried. Some of her clients don’t stick with their exercise programs once they are released or after they start feeling better. How can Britney sort this out?

Karen has a BS in Kinesiology and Health Promotion, she’s also completed the NESTA Biomechanics Specialist Certification– she knows she wants to pursue some type of health-related career, such as going to graduate school and becoming a Physical Therapist, Physician’s Assistant, or an Exercise Physiologist. Although she loves the natural sciences, she wonders how psychological factors play along with preventive medicine, especially as they relate to holistic wellness. Karen believes in using physical activity as medicine.

Suzan is the Athletic Director at her local community college. The school’s star wide receiver has reached a 95% physical recovery from knee surgery. The coaches notice, however, that in practices he still favors his recovered knee and is reluctant on the most demanding agility-based movers. Suzan knows that he has physically recovered but that he needs to regain his confidence.

Ken, an exercise and sport psychologist (ESP) and longtime baseball fan, has just been offered a chance at his dream job, a consulting position. The owners of the local Class AAA team, tired of the team’s poor performance and lack of cohesion, have retained him to design a training program using psychological skills.

If Ken can construct a strong program in the next week, he will be hired as the team’s sport psychology consultant. If you become a coach, an exercise leader, a health care provider, a physical educator, an athletic trainer, or even a sport psychologist, you also will encounter the kinds of situations that Jeff, Britney, Karen, Suzan, and Ken face. Sport and exercise psychology offers a resource for solving such problems and many other practical concerns. In this article you will be introduced to this exciting area of study and will learn how sport and exercise psychology can help you solve practical problems.

What is Sport and Exercise Psychology?

Sport and exercise psychology is the scientific study of people and behaviors in sport and exercise settings; it includes the practical application of that knowledge. Sport and exercise psychologists seek to identify principles and guidelines that health and fitness professionals can use to help participants in – and benefit from – sport and exercise activities. This is accomplished by examining the ABCs of psychology: the affect (feelings), the behavior (actions), and the cognitions (thoughts) within a variety of ever-changing environments.

Most students choose to study sport and exercise psychology with two objectives in mind: to (1) understand how psychological factors affect an individual’s physical performance and (2) to understand how participation in sport and exercise affects a person’s psychological development, health, and overall well-being Consider the following kinds of outcomes:

Outcome A: understand the effects of psychological factors on physical or motor performance

  • How does stress affect a basketball player’s accuracy in free-throw shooting?
  • Does lacking self-awareness influence a child’s ability to learn to swim?
  • How does a coach’s feedback and punishment influence a team’s cooperation?
  • How can imagery training facilitate recovery in injured athletes and exercisers?
  • How does one’s communication style influence an athlete’s adherence to the home rehabilitation exercise schedule and recovery?

Outcome B: understand the effects of physical activity participation on psychological development, health, and well- being

  • Does weightlifting reduce anxiety and depression?
  • Do young athletes learn aggression from participating in youth sports?
  • Does participation in daily physical education classes improve a child’s self- confidence?
  • Does participation in elite level athletics enhance personality development?
  • Does physical therapy influence an athlete’s physical health as well as help him or her create a better mental view of the future?

Sport psychology can apply to a broad population group. Although some professionals use sport psychology to help high-performing athletes achieve peak outcomes, many other sport psychologists (and coaches) are concerned more with children, people who have physical or mental disabilities, seniors, and recreational participants. More and more sport psychologists have focused on the psychological factors involved in exercise and health, developing strategies for encouraging sedentary people to exercise or assessing the effectiveness of exercise as a treatment for depression. To reflect this broadening of interests, the field is now called sport and exercise psychology. Some individuals focus only on the exercise- and health-related aspects of the field.

Being a Sport Psychology Specialist aka Certified Sports Psychology Coach

Contemporary sport psychologists pursue a variety of careers, serving three primary roles in their professional activities:

  • Conducting research in the field
  • Teaching ESP
  • Consulting in a variety of settings

The Research Role

A primary function of participants in any academic field is to advance the knowledge forward in the field by conducting research studies and evaluating existing research. Most sport and exercise psychologists in a university will conduct research, perhaps studying what motivates children to be involved in youth sport, how vision and imagery influences proficiency in golf, how running for 30 minutes four times a week affects an exerciser’s anxiety levels, or what the relationship is between movement education and self-efficacy among elementary physical education students. Currently, sport and exercise psychologists can be members of multidisciplinary research teams, studying problems such as

exercise adherence, the psychology of injuries and recovery, how athletes can improve performance, and the role of exercise in the treatment of HIV. Sport psychologists then share their results in their findings with colleagues and participants in the field. This sharing discussions and healthy professional meetings.

The Teaching Role

Many sport and exercise psychology specialists teach university courses such as exercise and health psychology, applied sport psychology, and the social psychology of sport. Some ESP specialists may also teach courses such as personality psychology or developmental psychology if they work in a psychology department, or courses such as motor learning and control or sport sociology if they work in a kinesiology or sport science program.

Many sport and exercise psychology specialists teach university courses such as exercise and health psychology, applied sport psychology, and the social psychology of sport. Some ESP specialists may also teach courses such as personality psychology or developmental psychology if they work in a psychology department, or courses such as motor learning and control or sport sociology if they work in a kinesiology or sport science program.

The Consulting Role

A third role is consulting with individual athletes or athletic teams to develop psychological skills (PST’s coming up later) for enhancing competitive performance and training. Olympic committees, professional sport teams and some major universities employ full-time sport psychology consultants; hundreds of other teams and athletes use consultants on a part-time basis for psychological skills training. Some sport psychologists even work with the military to help prepare troops for peak performance, and others work with surgeons to help them perfect their tactical surgery skills. Many sport psychology consultants work with coaches through clinics and workshops.

Some sport and exercise psychologists now work in the fitness industry, designing exercise programs that maximize participation and promote psychological and physical well-being. Some consultants work as adjuncts to support a sports medicine or physical therapy clinic, providing psychological services to injured athletes.

Comparing the Two Specialties

In contemporary sport psychology, a significant distinction exists between two types of specialties: clinical sport psychology and educational sport psychology.

Clinical sport psychologists have extensive training in psychology, so they can detect and treat individuals with emotional disorders (e.g., severe depression, suicidal tendencies). Clinical sport psychologists are licensed by state boards to treat individuals with emotional disorders and have received additional training in sport and exercise psychology and the sport sciences. Clinical sport psychologists are needed because, just as in the population at large, some athletes and exercisers develop severe emotional disorders and require special treatment. Eating disorders and substance abuse are two areas in which a clinical sport psychologist can often help sport and exercise participants.

99% of the people who need your help will be served well because you complete this training.

  • Educational sport psychology specialists have extensive training in sport and exercise science, physical education, and kinesiology, and they understand the psychology of human movement, particularly as it relates to sport and exercise contexts. These specialists often have taken advanced graduate training in psychology and counseling. They are not trained to treat individuals with emotional disorders, nor are they licensed psychologists.

A good way to think of an educational sport psychology specialist is as a “mental coach” who, through group and individual sessions, educates athletes and exercisers about psychological skills and their development. Anxiety management, confidence development, and improved communication are some of the areas that educational sport psychology specialists address. When an educational sport psychology consultant encounters an athlete with an emotional disorder, he or she refers the athlete to either a licensed clinical psychologist or, preferably, a clinical sport psychologist for treatment.

Both clinical and educational sport and exercise psychology specialists must have a thorough knowledge of both psychology and exercise and sport science.

NESTA and Spencer Institute coaching programs are open to anyone with a desire to learn and help others. There are no prerequisites.

That’s it for now.

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