The ability to perform at a consistently high level has always been a top priority for athletes and coaches alike.
Traditionally, this has led athletes to seek out new and novel ways of increasing their physical abilities. However, within the past decade or so, athletes have begun to finally realize that in order to consistently reach their full potential, and maximize their physical abilities, they need to not only train their body but also train their brain. This has led to a renewed interest in the field of sport and exercise psychology by both athletes and coaches who may be looking for an additional edge over opponents or to increase their overall well-being within the sport.
Furthermore, sports participants are no longer the only ones tapping into this industry. Today, performers in a multitude of domains (e.g., business, performing arts, the military, eSports, medical profession, etc.) are seeking out performance psychology specialists to help them prepare, overcome challenges, and grow within their chosen field. With this increased enthusiasm, the field of sport, exercise, and performance psychology has risen from a fringe specialty area to one that can be found securely within the mainstream of psychology.
What exactly is sports and performance psychology?
Prior to getting into the specifics of what sport and performance psychologists do, and how to become one, it is important to clarify exactly what sport and performance psychology actually is. Originally, sport and exercise psychology was defined by the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Division 47 as “…the scientific study of the psychological factors that are associated with participation and performance in sport, exercise, and other types of physical activity” (What is Exercise and Sports Psychology, para. 1).
This definition primarily covers what the field is and what it studies. This is obviously an important aspect however it does not address the application of psychological factors to athletes. As such, it is also important to be aware of what applied sports psychology is. According to the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP), which is the largest and most recognized organization of sport psychology professionals in North America, applied sport and exercise psychology “…involves extending theory and research into the field to educate coaches, athletes, parents, exercisers, fitness professionals, and athletic trainers about the psychological aspects of their sport or activity”. AASP’s definition gets at the heart of what sport psychology professionals do when working with their clients.
Emphasis on performance.
Obviously, these first two conceptualizations suggest the primary research focus and application of the field has traditionally been in the sport and exercise domain. However, as previously mentioned, this is no longer the case. As such, there has been a recent push towards a more comprehensive description of the field, focusing on the aspect of performance. This ultimately recently led Division 47 to expand its scope to include not only sport and exercise, but also performance psychology, which focuses specifically on the psychological aspects of optimal performance.
Now that you have a basic understanding of sport & performance psychology, catch part two explaining the different types of sport & performance psychology professionals.