Who is sport psychology for?

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By James Byron-Daniel and Manuela Teti (UWE MSc Sport and Exercise Psychology graduate)

What is sport psychology? 

Sport psychology is a broad subject, covering such things as the enhancement of athlete performance, dealing with pressure, enhancing focus, working with addiction and an infinite number of other issues. In terms of these services there has traditionally been a focus on athletes at the professional end of the sporting continuum, and there is a wealth of research which has shown very convincingly the efficacy and worth of these services for this group of athletes. All sport psychologists who work in practice have a smorgasbord of techniques they can bring to any given athlete or team, from psychological skills training (goal setting, visualization, relaxation techniques and self-talk) to more intensive therapeutic techniques (mindfulness, cognitive restructuring, REBT), all of which can be adapted and used collectively to address the issue or issues we face in applied sport psychology work.  

We can also say from our own experience, both from an applied sport psychology perspective and as a professional coach, that athletes and teams almost all believe in the importance of the mental side of their sport, regardless of what that sport is, and that despite an emphasis on the importance of this side of their training and performance in competition situations they do very little, and often feel they don’t have the opportunity, to enhance the psychological side of their game. 

Sport psychology, in an applied sense, therefore fills this gap. Indeed the discipline as a whole has been developed and continues to evolve in order to provide a way to enhance and support athletes to be the best they can be. So, taking both the focus of sport psychology and the need and enthusiasm for it in sports in general then it seems rationale to assume sport psychology is widely available to all and that sport psychology services are integrated across all levels of all sports. This unfortunately isn’t necessarily the case. 

Who uses sport psychology? 

Sport psychology services (SPS) have traditionally been directed at professional athletes, perhaps not exclusively, however when one looks at any number of sport psych textbooks there tends to be a skew to this group, or at the very least when describing and discussing applied techniques the assumption often is that who you are working with has significant access to sport psychology and other resources. This may well be the case for professional or semi-pro athletes however this is almost universally not the case for the hundreds of thousands of us that play and compete outside this professional group. If one were to look at a current issue of a popular sport psychology academic journal (for example Journal of Applied sport psychology; The Sport Psychologist; Psychology of Sport and Exercise), there is a trend toward elite and professional levels of sport in academic research as well (not exclusive but certainly the focus tends to be on semi professional and professional sports women and men). There are undoubtedly many reasons for this focus however this shouldn’t lead us to conclude that sport psychology services have no place in amateur sport, be that competitive or non-competitive amateur sport. It is in the authors experience that far from not having a place there is in fact just as much demand for sport psychology support and that sport psychology interventions and support at this level can be just as effective. There is however a sub group of this already unrepresented group that have even less access to sport psychology services and are further under researched, and that is young (non-adult) non-elite athletes.

Sport psychology support for young amateur athletes 

Even less research and applied work has been dedicated to youth non-elite athletes, with a lack of guidance for Sport Psychologists working with young athletes which in recent years has sparked streams of research aimed at generating developmental frameworks and attempts at understanding young athletes’ progression in sport, from childhood to adolescence and into adulthood.  

Authors of the ‘International Olympic Committee (IOC) Consensus Statement on Youth Athletic Development’, reported an “urgency to address the culture of specific sports and youth sport in general, which have become disproportionately both adult and media centered”. The IOC recommendations advise on the need for widening the definition of success in youth sport, focusing on the development of young athletes in their whole and as “persons”, and committing to their psychological growth. The historical paucity of literature on developmental sport psychology is even more surprising when considering that young athletes are placed at the “ideal window of opportunity” for developing mental qualities and competencies. 

Many researchers agree on the need for developing comprehensive and holistic models and programs to support young athletes at a vital transitional period of physical and psychological development.  This is of course challenging for all sorts of reasons, perhaps one of the most important being the already existing challenges for young people, be they pre-adolescent or be they 12-18 years of age.  

Due to the high demands of competitive sport and more general life demands, young athletes are faced with the need to take ownership of their psychological growth: this often leads them to intuitively (through experience) and/or informally (taught by significant others) acquire a repertoire of mental skills necessary to cope with the pressures their sport places upon them. Consequently, young athletes may gain an implicit understanding of a range of psychological skills, albeit at various levels of awareness

Furthermore, the lack of easy-to-access sport psychology services to young athletes might drive them to spontaneously seek information, gain understanding and share experiences. In this context, in addition to relying on members of their support network, they might explore the internet and access online communication tools, such as social media platforms etc. However, a lot of this is assumed as so little work is done at this group, and it is in this context that we have conducted an initial investigation into sport psychology in youth amateur sport.  

Our research into sport psychology and young athletes 

The main purpose of our research was to investigate non-elite young athletes experiences by giving young athletes voice and an opportunity to express feelings and communicate thoughts in relation to their sporting engagement. The study revolved around three main research questions:  

  • What are young athletes’ perceptions of psychological needs and experiences of challenges?  
  • What is their understanding of the psychological dimensions of sport?  
  • What spontaneous ways do they resort to when seeking psychological support? 

An online survey, including quantitative and qualitative data collection and qualitative semi-structured interviews were conducted in a sample of 13-19 year old girls and boys who regularly engaged in extracurricular sporting activities (outside of school and within clubs, associations, organisations), involved in a number of sports (including multi-sport engagements), at any level of training and competition, but not included in any talent development programs or professional level sport structures.  

Through these interviews what the participants said clearly showed the discrepancies between young athletes’ needs and their sporting realities. The young athletes’ all desired sport psychology support, specifically access to independent sport psychology professionals and availability of ‘in-house’ and ‘easy-to-access’ services consistently integrated in their ‘ideal sporting world’. Participants sometimes resorted to Screen-Based Media (SBM) as a spontaneous way to seek psychological support: however, the young athletes were favourable to online communication technology to get that support as well as face to face support with a sport psychology specialist. (This work is currently being prepared for publication, as well as a follow-on study to this initial work.) 

So what does this mean and where do we go from here? 

In summary, it certainly seems that there is a need for a greater understanding of how sport psychology services could be used to benefit young athletes, and that irrespective of level of athlete this support is desired and sought out. Our work with these young athletes clearly shows that demand and perhaps points to a way we can get sport psychology into amateur club and team settings (through screen-based media and social media being one possibility). The lack of research into this group also needs to be addressed, specifically deepening our understanding of how sport psychology can be integrated within a young athletes life, and what the subsequent benefit for future engagement and performance might be. We believe that integrating sport psychology into youth sport has the potential to reap huge benefits for youth sport and the sport psychology profession in general, and we hope in the years to come a greater focus on this group of athletes will lead to not only to the next generation of elite levels sports women and men but perhaps more importantly a much greater engagement with all sports across all age groups at all levels. 

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