Special to JohnFMurray.com – Happy New Year 2015 from Sports Psychologist Dr. John F. Murray – Palm Beach, FL – Jan 4, 2015 – It was late in 1999 that I finished my post-doctoral training requirements, passed the Florida state licensing exam, and began working as one of a handful of legitimate and licensed clinical and sports psychologists in America. I had jumped through so many graduate school hoops and rings of fire that I considered applying for the job as the dolphin at Sea World. Since my earliest clinical experiences in the NFL included working with players on our long struggling Miami Dolphins, I was definitely considering Sea World.
All kidding aside, I was thrilled to be in private practice, seeing clients both here in South Florida and worldwide by phone, including some of the best athletes and teams in the world. I had begun this journey at age 30 and by 36 had transformed a career in international tennis coaching into an even more exciting and meaningful profession targeted at helping a wider range of athletes and teams refine their mental approach to competition while dealing better with a multitude of potential distractions.
Now 15 years later and in my early 50s, I wonder where the time has gone but can honestly say that I would not have changed a thing. I love what I do and have been privileged to collaborate on so many meaningful missions that I could never even begin to share a small fraction of them in a brief article. What I would like to share today, however, are a couple of the lessons I’ve learned in this past decade and a half, and also state my vision for the future.
The Need for Restraint and Patience Along with Passion
When I first started, the media as well as some professional teams immediately jumped on the bandwagon, saw the huge opportunity with sports psychology, and quickly accepted my proposals and story ideas. It was overwhelming at times. I was thrilled to be on the cutting edge and to have the new challenges of developing a private practice and working with pro athletes. However, along with that excitement and my total belief in the profession, I might have been a little too eager to seize every opportunity, jump in, take on all challenges, and even push hard to effect change at the organizational level.
The truth is that a lot of people were not ready for change and most are still not ready today. While I clearly saw the need then (and still do today) of having a sports psychologist in the clubhouse of every professional sports franchise, others were not ready then and most are still not ready today. When I started, I figured that by 2015 having a sports psychologist on the roster of every professional sports franchise would be as commonplace as the iconic team dentist on every hockey team in the NHL. I was way wrong.
What I did not anticipate was how slow major change takes place, and how most people would much rather keep the status quo intact even at their own detriment. While there are a number of reasons for this, that is another story saved for another day. So 15 years later, I have learned to retain the intensity and passion in my work, but to slow down a little more in my fervor to transform sports into a mental training enterprise. Athletes and teams find me today when they are ready, not when I am ready. It’s the same with individual clients or students in any field that learning never begins until a true audience appears and is completely ready. It will probably be 30 more years before every sports franchise finally understands and realizes the tremendous benefits of having a sports psychologist on staff, and I am ok with that. Those who see the light will prosper while those who don’t will suffer, and I’m not responsible for their wake up call. I’ve stopped worrying about it. Restraint and patience are virtues that I now hold onto more than ever.
There is No Substitute for True Experience
In the beginning months of my practice, I was loaded with ideas, methods and solutions, and eager to share them all. What I was lacking as a sports psychologist, however, was true experience. Sure, I had been through some of the finest graduate training available, had worked for years in a cutting edge psychology clinic and before that worldwide as a coach and athlete, but the truth is that as a sports psychologist I was a neophyte. I hope that I did not hurt anyone in those early months with my inexperience, but I’ve since learned that while knowledge and ideas are necessary in any professional toolbox, they take a major backseat to experience and clinical judgment.
When you purchase a book , CD, or DVD you buy ideas and knowledge and the world is already filled with those. Hiring a true sports psychologist with experience dances circles around plain knowledge. With experience hopefully comes wisdom, and with many rich clinical experiences to draw from in helping a client, there emerges a professional perspective that is severely lacking in the beginning professional.
This is why there is a stark difference between what any one of hundreds or even thousands of psychology professors or researchers might be able to offer client in a side practice, compared with someone who lives, breathes and practices the profession daily. It comes down to clinical savvy, key decision-making, and often that subtle avoidance of that “frenzy to cure,” as it was so aptly described by my internship coordinator many years ago. Jumping in eagerly to deliver a solution is often disastrous for the client. Wisdom is hard to come by in any profession without experience. With wisdom comes better clinical decisions, greater confidence on the part of the provider, and an overall more efficient process of improvement for the client. Knowing what not to do is often just as important as what to do, so the value of true experience cannot be overemphasized in sports psychology.
Vision for the Future of Sports Psychology
The future of sports psychology is bright because the need to succeed in competitive situations will never go away. In fact, competition and performance only continues to increase over time, and it will always do so with evolution of training methods, nutrition and strength training as just a few examples. This profession of mental training is the best at preparing people for success, training the mind, developing solid routines, and operating as a practitioner who informs his or her practice with solid science to stay cutting edge.
Coaches and administrators must realize that sports psychologists are not coming to take their jobs away or create havoc. I can no better call plays or develop a defensive game plan for the Dallas Cowboys than my 11-year-old daughter, and I do not want to do so. I am trained and experienced in a profession that is vastly underutilized and has a right to exist because it helps others succeed. Coaches and administrators have no time or energy to spend the countless hours needed to assess or train the minds of their athletes, and I have no time to go on recruiting trips, negotiate salaries, wrap ankles, or perform surgery. Teamwork is truly the key to success in anything. When sports teams and franchises eventually wake up to the necessity of a solid mental training component in their program, they will realize that the sports psychologist is just one essential piece to a complex puzzle. I am too busy and involved in my own work as a sports psychologist to have the time (and I certainly do not have the knowledge) to try my hat as head coach, athletic trainer or massage therapist. However, together as a team we all prosper to make a better team.
I hope that you have enjoyed this brief glimpse into the world of sports psychology.