Special Editorial – Nov 12, 2007 – John F. Murray – With the number of serious issues present in sports and society today, the need for junior and professional athletes to acquire mental skills for success in sports and business beyond sports, and the need for companies and executives to achieve greater success and well being in the most important and challenging pursuits, it is now appropriate that we revisit some of the professional issues related to who provides high performance psychology services.

Even in 2007, I am still sometimes amazed when I am called and asked about sport psychology or performance psychology as if it were truly a new profession. “How does it all work?” is a common question.
ABC Good Morning America invited me on last year to talk about “choking” as if it were the first time anyone in the nation had heard of it! Good ideas do take time to reach the masses!

The truth is that this science and profession best suited for mental skills training and high performance has been around now for almost over 40 years in one form or another, but there are still very few qualified professionals, although it is growing slightly. What does exist in the mind of the public might not always be state of the art.

The public needs to know that there are many people practicing within the field of “Sports Psychology” or “Performance Psychology” as it is often called when outside the realm of sport, who lack the proper credentials and/or a good working knowledge of the profession. These may try to tackle issues without proper training or licensure. It can harm the public when a proper referral is not made or proper treatment is not conducted.

Did you know that there are generally two types of individuals who may be perceived as Sport Psychologists by the public? Were you aware that a clear distinction needs to be made between them?

The first type (coming primarily from sport science programs) may have taken courses in sport psychology and may be excellent scientists, researchers, or teachers, but they are 99 % of time neither trained nor licensed (the minimum standard of care required by a state) to provide psychological services. They may not hold themselves out to the public as Sport Psychologists in private practice in the vast majority of states. If clinical issues are suspected (e.g., anxiety, depression, anger, personality disorders, eating disorders), they must refer the athlete to a licensed professional (such as a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist) to allow for proper care.

The second group, the practicing Sport Psychologists, are licensed psychologists who are additionally trained in the sport sciences with supervised training in providing both counseling/psychotherapy and performance enhancement services to athletes. These Sport Psychologists offer the benefits of training athletes in performance enhancement while conducting assessments and counseling as needed rather than having to refer the client to another professional.

It is extremely important to ask if individuals who call themselves Sport Psychologists are licensed in their states as psychologists, and then inquire about the extent of their supervised training and experience in working with athletes and teams.

Practicing Sport Psychologists combine two separate academic and experiential backgrounds – psychology and the sport sciences. Proper credentials and training in BOTH disciplines are essential to hold oneself out to the public as a Sport Psychologist. Unless the professional has been trained and experienced in BOTH disciplines, and licensed in psychology, the person is not a true Sport Psychologist and is not permitted to advertise as a Sport Psychologist.

But … just as highly trained sport scientists without proper training and licensure in psychology cannot use the title “Sport Psychologist,� the same holds true for authentic licensed psychologists who have not undergone rigorous and proper training and supervision in the various sport sciences, or who have not received the proper supervision by another legitimate Sport Psychologist.

State laws, you see, prohibit any permutation of the title “psychologist” unless the professional is state licensed. State laws protect the use of the title “psychologistâ€Â? and only allow licensed psychologists to legally use the title in order to protect the public by establishing a minimum standard of care.

I know why this is wise. I learned almost nothing about how to counsel, assess, or diagnose an individual with a general problem when I was studying and receiving a Masters degree in one of the best sport science programs in the country. Similarly, while studying in a clinical psychology program, I learned almost nothing about how to improve an athlete’s performance through mental skills training, or how to structure practice conditions. The thousands of hours of supervised training or “on the job” work with hundreds of clients, however, was the critical piece that would have never in 20 years been possible to acquire in a strictly sport science program. While performance principles are key, knowing about people, how to diagnose and treat problems and how to counsel is infinitely more important! Psychology programs are set up to provide that kind of training. Sport science programs are not.

When I am working with an athlete, I find that much of our time is spent discussing and resolving general issues – perhaps even 70% of the work! This goes way beyond mental skills training or performance enhancement. Reducing and resolving problems off the court or field, or in the case of business away from the office, can help a person perform better just as much or more than specific mental skills training! I believe that holistic care requires an understanding of both the “person” and the “performer.”

It is important to at least communicate this message to athletes, trainers, players and executives.

According to many reports, pro sports teams are not always giving their athletes the proper care because they do not have the properly trained professionals on board!

In sum, becoming a licensed “Sport Psychologist” or “Performance Psychologist” (the is a semantic issue as we are really talking about a licensed psychologist with extensive additional supervised expertise) is necessary for the individual who wants to handle serious personal or clinical issues, enhance performance through mental skills training, and use the title “Sport Psychologist.” While gaining this extra training takes more time and effort, these professionals are more versatile than either “non-psychologist sport scientists” or “non-sport scientist psychologists.” Licensure also carries its weight in gold in terms of client well being and public safety.

Is this news? Not according to Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated, Selena Roberts of the New York Times, and Dan Weil of Fox Sports. They have all addressed the seriousness of real Sport Psychology in their articles on the subject, and there are many more references I can direct you to. All these people know how important this is in a growing science and profession with still few providers.

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.