The Paradigm Shift in Sport Psychology

The Paradigm Shift in Sport Psychology

Working Conflict

tug of war between them and us

I have a new friend. We met on LinkedIn. He does Meta-analysis in sport. I’ve not really delved into what that means. He was born in the old Soviet Union and now resides in Israel. In one of our first conversations he said he knew many sports psychologists both in his days in the USSR and now in Israel. He said they are all poor. A curious statement to be sure. He felt the major issues revolved around who the Sport Psychology person worked for. If they work for the team, then how does the athlete trust them? The athlete might reveal something which could get them benched, if the SPC told the staff. If they work for the athlete, how does the  manager or coach trust that they are getting the correct information about the athlete’s state of mind. Trust on both sides has been an issue as long as I can remember. I’ve talked and written about this for years. My answer was always about integration of mental training into the team. Sport Psychology Consultant is there all of the time. They become part of the scene. My new friend’s statement got me thinking. Maybe the issue is not all a team issue, maybe it’s our issue too.

It is time we shift gears or paradigms, even if it means having to do so with a bit of humility (something I often discuss with athletes). If sport psychology was equal to other sport sciences, then a lot of our issues would go away. This is what I mean. If a football player needs more strength, the exercise physiology team with strength and conditioning people tell the athlete and the coaching staff what the player needs to do to perform at the next level. If the athlete has too much fat, a nutritionist tells the athlete and coaches the player needs to eat differently. If a quarterback has a poor throwing motion a bio-mechanics expert might go to the staff and suggest ways to fix it. Unless of course it’s Tebow, then nothing will help apparently.

When sport psychology notices a flaw in a player’s arsenal, be it stress, confidence or focus, we can only talk with the player behind closed doors. Why? Glad you asked. Because we still think of ourselves as psychologists. We are enamored with our pedigree. We talk about teaching skills, but will not allow that we are sport scientists, teachers and coaches. We teach athletes to have confidence, to get over blocks, to cope with stress and to focus better. Helping athletes and teams develop emotional intelligence is not the same as working with someone who is paranoid (no Jim Harbaugh  jokes).

Individual conversations are private. Just as the conversation between sport science staff and athlete are. The public is not invited, but the team maybe. The athletic trainer does not announce that an athlete has a weak hamstring to the world (injury reports aside).  The conversations are private, but the discussion is open to the staff. There are no secret. If there are no secrets, there is no shame. If there is no shame, then doing mental training becomes a part of the program.

Paradigm ShiftIs there a shift going on in sport psychology?

This is a shift, it’s a big shift. It means we are no longer as special. We are no longer different from the rest of the sports science team (we have a natural insecurity because others think our science is soft). We want to be like the team medical doctor. We want legal confidentiality between doctor and patient. We forget we are teaching mental skills. There is still the bond of trust between us, the athlete and team. We are not going public. We are like everyone on the team.

The bottom line is we teach skills to athletes. We help them discover as all good teachers do, elements that are missing from their skills set, in order to perform at a higher level. When we understand that, then we can share that with athletes, teams and others associated with sport. Since we all don’t get that, we are stuck. Hence the need for a paradigm shift.

Understand, I am not talking about working with depression, eating disorders, drug and alcohol related issues, etc. requiring psychotherapy or other interventions.. I’ve been working with athletes for 35 years and have only referred athletes to psychotherapists three times. Maybe only healthy players seek me out. I don’t care. If there are other issues we can help them in other ways. We teach, consult, counsel athletes on mental skills. When we get that through our head, perhaps everyone else will as well.

These are just some thoughts to go along with my last few posts. Until then, I will shout at the wind and perhaps others will listen. I am a sport psychology consultant. I am a mental skills trainer. Come work with me and understand that mental skills training is just like everything else we do in sports to reach the next level. Yes it is in your head. Yes it is harder to measure the results. But sure as anything there is in this life, mental skills training is perhaps the most important part of your training routine.

So let’s all of us get out of your own way. Learn about mental toughness. Join the shift. If we do this, more athletes will follow. For athletes and teams, don’t miss out because a bunch of people like me don’t get it. Help us shift. We will help you back. Maybe even Tebow. Remember- Mental training is not a Luxury, it’s a Necessity!

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