The process of mental training involves using strategies and methods to improve in a number of specific areas to enhance performance in sport or other high performance situations. This is somewhat different from more general or traditional psychological counseling or psychotherapy which can also be very helpful depending on the person or situation.
It must first be understand that an athlete or other high performer needs mental skills, smart performance, and mental toughness in addition to overall mental health and well-being. An athlete, for example, might be very healthy mentally and have great self-esteem, but this person’s self-efficacy or confidence in a particular free-throw or putting situation might be terrible. From this perspective, the athlete would benefit greatly from a mental training approach aimed at improving confidence, and over the years there are a number of strategies that the sports psychologist can borrow from to accomplish this.
In Dr. John F Murray’s workshops and speeches, he often goes into some depth about the various mental skills and sometimes arranges them as 8 major mental need areas including (1) Passion, (2) Work Ethic, (3) Resilience, (4) Confidence, (5) Concentration, (6) Imagery/Visualization, (7) Goal Setting and (8) Emotional Control. Within each of these areas are a ton of sub-skills or competencies that are trained as well, so we can think of these 8 as broad “umbrella terms” to highlight the essence of the need.
While general psychologists such as clinical psychologists or counseling psychologists are usually well trained in counseling, they rarely have the experience or guided training in the area of mental training. Even more, there are sometimes needs to know a lot about the sport in question to do proper mental training. For example, some sports psychologists are great with tennis player mental coaching or working with golfers in this capacity, but lack experience or education in working with show jumpers or squash players or football teams.
The take home message, is that just because you hire a psychologist does not mean that you are hiring somebody skilled at providing professional mental training. It also works in reverse. You might engage the services of a person well trained in mental coaching, but they know very little about general psychological counseling, which is also critical in treating human beings properly. This issue is dealt with on the menu item called “What is Sport Psychology” and there are a number of excellent articles within that realm that really clarify the difference between authentic sports psychology services and that which is nowhere near that.
While psychology as a science began in 1881 in a lab in Germany, and the profession started to emerge as a viable way to seek help after WW2, the science and profession of sports psychology has only become commonplace in the past 10 or 20 years! This is why it is still extremely rare to find a sports psychologist that really knows mental training and really knows psychotherapy and counseling. If you omit either, you are not really going to get what you need as a high performer.