Mental Equipment Syndicated Column – Jan 1, 1998 – Dr. John F. Murray – In nearly three years of writing the Mental Equipment column, I have received hundreds of requests from tennis players, coaches, administrators, and participants in many other sports wanting to know more about the practice of sport psychology and how to become a sport psychologist. Previous Mental Equipment articles have addressed the need for sport psychology for tennis players at the junior (See Mental Fitness for Junior Tennis Players – A Trip Report) and pre-collegiate levels (See ATP Tour Headquarters: Pre-Collegiate Workshop).

This month, let’s go a step further and discuss the practice of sport psychology in college athletics. Although the context of this column is tennis, keep in mind that the principles of sport psychology are universal to performance, and that participants in every sport benefit from making a full-time commitment to mental skills training.

The Practice of Sport Psychology

Ask any tennis player, football coach, or basketball fan what percentage of performance in their sport can be attributed to mental skills, and you will find estimates ranging from 30 to 95%. Indeed, mental skills are a major key to performance in every sport. Even the most physically endowed 330 pound offensive lineman has to admit that a thought precedes an action and that emotional control is essential. Certain physical skills must be in place, but performance often comes down to how effectively thoughts and feelings are organized, and distractions eliminated.

Having established the need for mental skills, what is being done to obtain mental proficiency in college athletics? The answer for many athletes is very little. Following up the previous question of percentages, most athletes will admit that they often spend less than 5% of their practice time working on mental skills! This is one area where sport psychologists make a tremendous difference. By implementing a formal mental skills training program, athletes and coaches are two steps ahead of their opponents who take mental skills more casually.

For optimal performance in sport, no area can be neglected. The 4 major skill areas needed in any sport are:

Technical Skills: Provided by coaches to teach strategies and impart sport-specific technical skills and knowledge.

Fitness: Provided by strength and conditioning coaches to keep the body toned and prepared for the demands of the sport.

Health & Nutrition: Provided by physicians, trainers and nutritionists to ensure that athletes are receiving proper fuels for their sport and remaining physically healthy.

Sport Psychology: Provided by the sport psychologist to assist coaches and athletes in mental skills trainig (e.g., imagery, goal-setting), life skills development (e.g., substance abuse education and counseling), and eliminate the many distractions that detract from performance (e.g., stress and injury management, counseling for personal problems).

Becoming a Sport Psychologist

Sport psychology is a scientific discipline and a cutting-edge profession. While there are many educational sport psychologists that teach courses and conduct research at the university level, there are far fewer sport psychologists with doctorates in clinical or counseling psychology and specialized training with athletic populations. The first group are usually research professors in physical education (exercise science) departments, while the second group are psychologists with additional expertise in athletics and sport science. The second group of sport psychologists have the extensive training and legal authority to provide psychological services such as counseling and assessment to athletes, coaches and sports medicine personnel.

In my own training, I combined the best of both worlds by obtaining a graduate degree in exercise and sport sciences before beginning a doctorate program in clincal psychology. Although applied training in sport psychology is difficult to acquire as a graduate student, I was fortunate to conduct my dissertation on a sport psychology and psychology topic (stress and coping in sport injury on the national champion Florida Gators football team) and locate an internship with an applied rotation in sport psychology (Washington State University).

The current sport psychologist for Washington State University is Dr. Jim Bauman. As I write this, he is working hard to prepare the Cougar football team for their first Rose Bowl appearance in 67 years. In addition to football, we work with athletes from many other sports including tennis.

Let’s Hear From You

As a regional representative of the American Psychological Association’s Division of Exercise and Sport Sciences, I encourage any questions about the field of sport psychology from students, coaches, athletes, or athletic administrators. There is no question in my mind that sport psychology is here to stay. Those universities fortunate to implement a formal mental skills program, sport psychology counseling, and sport psychology consultation services have a distinct advantage over their competitors in terms of athletic performance, academic retention, program quality and recruiting incentives.

Has your local university invested in a sport psychologist? Use this form to send me a message and let me know what you have found. Also let me know which mental skills are helping you the most, and any areas that are giving you particular difficulty.