- Most athletes come to sport psychologists and mental coaches to become more mentally prepared for competition.
- However, sport psychology is about more than just helping athletes perform their best; mental health is a top priority.
- Sport psychology is also about helping athletes become the best versions of themselves as people.
When most people think of sport psychology, they think about what is typically referred to as mental training. The purpose of mental training is to better prepare athletes psychologically and emotionally for the rigors of sports practice and the demands of competition. Increasing motivation, building confidence, managing competitive anxiety, and improving focus are common areas in which sport psychologists and mental coaches help athletes.
Yet, in my 30-plus years of consulting with athletes (and drawing on many more years as a committed athlete), my notion of sport psychology has expanded beyond the field of play to encompass a more holistic approach to working with athletes. This evolution came from several realizations. First, even the best athletes in the world (e.g., professionals and Olympians) can only stay at the top of their sport, in most cases, till their mid-to-late 30s, and that’s only if they stay healthy and motivated. Yet, these very same athletes will be people for the rest of their lives (as will athletes who don’t make it as far). Second, the pursuit of athletic greatness doesn’t necessarily coincide with healthy personal development or, as we have seen a growing awareness of in recent years, mental health. Third, athletic success doesn’t inevitably translate into a happy and well-adjusted person.
From this perspective, when I work with athletes, my aim is to help them achieve three fundamental goals that will serve them in their sporting careers but, more importantly, in their overall lives.
The most obvious goal, and the most common reason why athletes come to me, is to help them maximize their sports performances and accomplish their competitive goals. As I described above, this is where typical mental training comes in. Goal setting, self-talk, mindfulness, mental imagery, routines, and breathing are just a few of the many tools that sport psychologists and mental coaches have in their toolbox to help athletes become more mentally prepared for both practice and competition.
At the same time, much of my work with performance enhancement involves helping athletes instill healthy attitudes that are also beneficial for the two goals that follow. Ensuring ownership of their sporting lives, having them focus on the process over the outcome, seeing competition as a challenge rather than a threat, looking long-term rather than short-term, and learning to take reasonable risks are all attitudes whose value extends well beyond the athletic arena. Conversely, helping athletes let go of unhealthy attitudes, such as overinvestment, perfectionism, fear of failure, and expectations, also will serve athletes well both on and off the field of play.
I support athletes’ pursuit of their competitive goals as much as they do, and I devote considerable time and energy to these goals related to competitive performance. At the same time, all this performance-enhancement work is filtered through the lens of the next two goals, which I view as far more important in the grand scheme of life.
The first goal views sports participation and the quest for athletic greatness as an end in itself. I also see athletic involvement as a means to a much more important end: namely, as a vehicle for personal development as athletes strive to become the best versions of themselves. As such, sports are both a microcosm of and training ground for life writ large.
An essential aspect of my work with athletes is to help them become the best versions of themselves. Broadly speaking, I’m talking about a person who is value-driven, happy, successful, fulfilled, and deeply connected with others. Sports can provide a venue for athletes to develop into that best version of themselves, but that isn’t always the case.
This goal involves helping athletes identify what that best version is, what may be preventing them from being that best version, and using sports and all the essential lessons that it can teach athletes to develop into that best version of themselves. This notion of using sports to maximize personal development isn’t a stretch for anyone who works with athletes because the tools in their toolbox aren’t about sport psychology or even just psychology (though most are cognitive-behavioral strategies with a rich history in the field), but rather about ways to better navigate the oftentimes rough waters of life.
I have a saying that I share early in my work with athletes: “Nothing is worth your health or your sanity.” That message can be directly contradicted by many messages promulgated by the “sports-industrial complex” and the decidedly toxic sports culture that many athletes (as well as their parents and coaches) can be seduced by. “Win at all costs,” “Whatever it takes,” and “Greatness requires sacrifice” all send the message that athletic success is worth selling your soul to the devil, whether that devil is performance-enhancing drugs, hiding mental illness, accepting abuse from a parent or coach, or just being unhappy despite the success.
Thankfully, in recent years, we have seen increasing numbers of professional and Olympic athletes who are speaking openly about the mental health challenges they have faced. Depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and eating disorders are some of the mental health difficulties that they shared with a world that has historically seen them as superhuman and invulnerable to the maladies that can afflict the rest of us mere mortals.
At the recent Tokyo Olympics, we saw an incredible act of self-care from the gymnastics great, Simone Biles, who removed herself from most of the events in which she would be competing (and in which she was the prohibitive favorite), despite being the face of the Games. Her courageous decision is a powerful illustration of an athlete making a choice based on what was best for her as a person over what was best for her as an athlete.
This goal of prioritizing mental health over everything else represents the bookends that begin and conclude the journey I take with athletes. Helping them to prioritize mental health in their athletic lives has several essential benefits. First, it places sports as a healthy starting point from which athletes can pursue their dreams. Second, this goal helps them to resist the Siren’s call of unhealthy messages that they may be receiving from the “bubble” in which they live, train, and compete. Third, it gives athletes permission to see themselves as people first and athletes second. Finally, and somewhat paradoxically, it actually liberates them to strive toward their sports goals with commitment, confidence, and courage, and without doubt, fear, or hesitation.
I always introduce these three goals early in my work with athletes for several reasons. First, the goals make clear what my priorities are in our work. Second, it hopefully broadens the athletes’ perspective on the work we will do and helps them to realign their priorities if needed. Third, these three goals help athletes to put their sports efforts in the larger context of their lives so that they see sports as a part of their lives, not life itself. Finally, this framework shows athletes that these three goals can work in unison with rather than at cross purposes to each other.
As I noted above, the achievement of athletic goals can come at a significant price in terms of personal development and mental health. At the same time, if athletes approach the pursuit of their sports goals with a positive perspective and healthy attitude, the three goals I just described can support each other, resulting in a more successful athlete, a better version of themselves, and a more mentally healthy person. For example, if an athlete becomes more confident, improves their focus, and develops the ability to respond positively to the stresses of high-level competition, they will become more resilient in their competitive efforts. In turn, this resilience can then be used in other areas of their lives, such as school, work, and relationships, thus making them better people. Lastly, this resilience will bolster their mental health because it will help them better manage the inevitable challenges that life presents to them.
In sum, by helping athletes to embrace all three of these goals (whether you’re a sport psychologist, mental coach, parent, coach, or teammate), you give them a gift that will keep on giving in every part of their lives and throughout their lives.