Sport Psychology and Counseling

The impact of exercise and sport on our society is pervasive. They are relevant topics for study both because of their societal importance and because they exert a significant influence on physical and psychosocial development across the life span. This entry provides a brief history of exercise and sport psychology, examines the relationship between counseling and exercise and sport psychology, and discusses changes and challenges for counseling psychologists working in these areas.

A Brief History of Sport Psychology

There has been an explosion of interest in exercise and sport psychology over the last two decades even though the first course in sport psychology was taught over 80 years ago, and sport psychology became an organized discipline in North America and Europe in the 1960s. In 1985, the Association for the Advancement for Applied Sport Psychology (AAASP; now known as the Association for Applied Sport Psychology [AASP]) was formed. Membership in AASP is equally divided between psychologists and exercise scientists. In 1986, the American Psychological Association (APA) created an Exercise and Sport Psychology Division. There are now four journals that serve as publishing outlets for the area: The Journal of Exercise and Sport Psychology, The International Journal of Sport Psychology, The Sport Psychologist, and The Journal of Applied Sport Psychology.

Counseling and Sport Psychology

Exercise and sport psychology is broadly defined as the scientific study of sport and exercise to enhance competence and promote human development in sport throughout the life span. The two areas share similar historical and philosophical underpinnings. Just as sport and exercise psychologists seek to promote competent performance, counseling psychologists focus on building on one’s strengths to enhance psychological functioning. In addition, counseling psychology has enhanced exercise and sport by identifying methods that improve performance, increase adherence to exercise programs, and enhance satisfaction and general well-being in exercise and sport. Conversely, exercise and sport psychology has influenced counseling psychology by demonstrating the positive effects of exercise and sport participation on psychological health.

Changes and Challenges

Three areas of importance related to sport and exercise psychology that have brought recent changes along with challenges for counseling psychologists include a focus on working with athletes, using exercise interventions, and promoting positive youth development.

Counseling Psychologists Working with Athletes

The dramatic growth of sport psychology over the last decade has spurred an increase of counseling psychologists interested in working with athletes. Although not typically viewed as a special population with particular needs, many unique and influential factors of athletic systems and subcultures create situations and demands outside of the traditional norms of the manner in which counseling psychologists tend to work. Although the empirical evidence of the effectiveness of sport psychology interventions is mixed, athletes view the most effective consultants as those who they perceive are interested in sport, establish caring rapport, offer concrete sport-specific advice and feedback, and provide follow-up. Athletes believe that consultants show their interest in sport by attending practices and games, maintaining consistent and sometimes extensive contact, and learning their specific sport.

Although athletes do not always feel it is necessary for consultants to have participated in their sport, they do expect consultants to possess a general understanding of the sport experience and the sport environment in which the athlete is involved. This characteristic often involves working with athletes in different settings and under different circumstances. For example, athletes’ needs may differ substantially between try-outs, practice, major competitions, and the off-season. Attending practices and competitions can be time consuming, but these are key opportunities to understand the sport environment, observe the client-athlete in context, gather relevant information, and build the therapeutic relationship. Furthermore, the high visibility of athletes and the public nature of their performances provide the counseling psychologist with frequent evaluations of therapeutic goal attainment. Athletes describe poor consultants as those with bad timing and inappropriate behavior (i.e., crowding them or interrupting precompetition routines).

Athletes are also accustomed to being coached and expect consultants to offer concrete sport-specific interventions and instructional feedback. Counseling psychologists who employ more insight-oriented interventions may find their clients becoming impatient with the pace of the counseling interaction. Athletes appear to respond more positively to specific concrete tasks and expect more active collaboration on the part of the consultant.

The initial contact for consultation services is often made by a coach, a parent, or a sport administrator. By virtue of their initial contact, these individuals become the “client,” but rarely do they see themselves as the “patient.” This perspective is partly due to lack of experience with sport consultants and psychologists and partly due to an expectation that the consultant or psychologist will turn a team around or “fix” a nonperforming athlete. Thus, it is essential for psychologists to clearly communicate the nature of the consultation relationship with regard to confidentiality, record keeping, program goals, and evaluation criteria. Considerable effort must be particularly invested to ensure the coach or parent understands the importance of confidentiality and privacy.

Exercise Interventions in Counseling

Counseling psychologists are involved in both the prevention and treatment of mental health difficulties. Presently the most common form of treatment is psychotherapy and, in many cases, medication. Psychotherapy is expensive and can be difficult to access. Recent meta-analyses that have examined the relationship between exercise and the prevention of mental disorders such as depression and anxiety have found a number of positive outcomes for both clinical and nonclinical populations. Research has also shown that engaging in exercise can enhance ability to cope with stress and enhance self-esteem. In addition, research has shown that when exercise is prescribed as a regular component of therapy, therapeutic goals are more frequently met in less time, and continued exercise is related to psychological well-being.

There are a number of benefits of exercise interventions, including affordability, minimal side effects, capacity to reach large numbers of individuals compared to traditional psychotherapy and medication, numerous physical health benefits apart from mental health, and applicability to all ages. However, despite the empirical evidence, many counseling psychologists fail to implement exercise interventions, because they lack experience and knowledge about how to implement and monitor these interventions. Therefore, further research and training, particularly continuing education training, is needed to teach psychologists how exercise interventions should be designed and implemented.

Promoting Positive Youth Development

Promoting positive youth development through sport and exercise psychology is a psychoeducational approach to counseling psychology. Several community oriented approaches to teach life skills through sport have been developed and evaluated and have been shown to be effective. By describing life skills as skills, the process of learning these skills parallels the learning of any skill, whether it is throwing a ball, driving a car, or baking a cake. Learning new skills entails explicitly describing, demonstrating, and practicing each component of the skill until it can be used consistently.

Implementation involves knowing both the content of the intervention and how to deliver it effectively.

Sport-based life skills programs are designed to help individuals learn both sport and life skills. Therefore, the youth must be able to transfer what is learned in the athletic realm to nonsport settings. The similarity between teaching sport skills and teaching life skills provides an immediate advantage. Both sets of skills must be taught, not caught. A Chinese proverb best describes the ideal teaching process: “I listen—and forget, I see—and remember, I do—and understand.”

Future Directions

The future of exercise and sport psychology seems bright, but professional opportunities are limited. Counseling psychologists who wish to work in the area must be more than sport fans or exercisers; they must be prepared to become familiar with a new area with all its inherent challenges, frustrations, and opportunities. Often this means working with young athletes and volunteering. What is so exciting is that pairing counseling psychology with exercise and sport has produced and will continue to produce innovative approaches to improving sport performance, psychological well-being, and physical health. For those counseling psychologists involved in exercise and sport, it also provides an ideal way to meld their avocational interests with their vocation.


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