What Is Sports Psychology?

Medically Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on June 01, 2022
5 min read

Performing at your highest level as an athlete is more than just physical fitness. Athletes and exercise enthusiasts often find that focusing on bodily health is not enough to achieve peak performance. That’s where sports and exercise psychology comes in. Sports psychologists specialize in individual or group interventions for optimizing the mental and psychological factors that influence performance. Here’s what you need to know about sports psychology and how it can help you.

In simple terms, sports psychology studies how psychological factors affect athletic performance. Sports psychologists also look at how taking part in sports, exercise, and other physical activities affect one’s psychological state and physical health.

You don’t need to be a professional athlete to benefit from this type of support. Sports psychologists often work with people outside of professional sports who want to improve their psychological development and enhance the health of their bodies.

Sports psychologists are divided into two types—educational sports psychologists, and clinical sports psychologists. Educational sports psychologists use techniques like goal-setting, imagery, or self-talk to help clients manage their mental and psychological thought processes to perform optimally on the field. Clinical psychologists go deeper by working with athletes on issues like anxiety, depression, or substance abuse.

It’s common for sports psychologists to come into the picture when an athlete has a specific challenge they need help with. For example, an athlete may be having difficulties managing anxiety before an event. But sports psychologists are great to have on hand for ongoing support. Here are some sports psychology examples that show how this plays out in the real world. 

  • Improving performance. Clients could be having thought patterns or other challenges that could be getting in the way of them performing well. Sports psychologists use a variety of techniques and strategies to refocus clients on their goals and work through these challenges. 
  • Improved ability to cope with stress and pressure. It’s normal for athletes and performers to experience stress and pressure. Sports psychologists teach coping techniques to successfully manage pressure and stress. 
  • Support for pain management. While dealing with the physical pain and care routines for injuries, athletes can sometimes need support in learning to cope with the pain, maintaining their care routines, or recovering from feelings of inadequacy. 
  • Help with sticking to an exercise program. Sometimes people who aren’t athletes may have problems with sticking to an exercise routine or achieving their fitness goals. Sports psychologists can help to improve feelings of motivation and train on techniques for goal achievement. 
  • Developing a healthy interest in sports and exercise. Schools, other educators, or sports organizations may ask sports psychologists to intervene in raising awareness about why sports are beneficial and how they can improve confidence and self-esteem in both children and adults. 

Sports psychologists use a variety of different techniques to support their clients’ needs. Here are some of the most common techniques:

  • Arousal regulation. Arousal regulation deals with helping athletes achieve an ideal state of arousal just before a performance. Arousal refers to how emotionally charged an athlete is before or during a performance. Being in an ideal state of arousal helps athletes perform at their best. Sports psychologists teach their clients deep breathing, meditation, muscle relaxation, and other similar exercises to help them achieve this state.
  • Goal setting.Goal setting techniques help train clients to set goals for themselves. Clients are encouraged to create concrete actionable steps they can take along the way to achieve their goals. Following through with smaller milestones helps clients stay focused, motivated, and committed to achieving their goals.
  • Pre-Performance Routines. Pre-performance routines when performed regularly before sports events help trigger or ‘switch on’ peak performance states. The mind is trained to understand that it’s time to get their ‘game on' when a client performs specific routines. Pre-performance routines don’t need to be complicated. It can be as simple as listening to specific songs, eating one type of food or some specific foods, or even dressing up in a unique order before the event.
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). In progressive muscle relaxation, clients are taught to alternately tense and relax their muscles one after the other. The technique can be used on its own or as part of other techniques for arousal regulation. Progressive muscle relaxation has been found helpful in reducing stress and anxiety and lowering blood pressure as an aid to enhancing performance.
  • Imagery. With imagery or visualization techniques, sports psychologists train athletes to engage all their senses as they pre-rehearse their wins or most ideal states. For example, an athlete can bring to their mind the sensations of winning a tournament—how that feels and smells like, and see the picture forming inside their mind’s eye. Visualization helps with improving performance, speeding up progress, competing more effectively, and more.
  • Self-Talk. Self-talk is simply about the way we talk to ourselves, whether that’s the words we use, or the thoughts we have in our minds. Sports psychologists train clients to minimize or eliminate negative self-talk and focus on positive self-talk behaviors.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a form of psychotherapy that helps clients identify negative thought processes, emotions, or behaviors that are getting in the way of achieving satisfaction or success in their performance. Through CBT, the psychologist works one on one with the client to replace these with more practical, realistic, and positive thoughts.

Most sports psychologists are required to have a master’s or doctoral degree in counseling, clinical, or sports psychology. They are also required to have additional training in related subjects like sports medicine, physiology, and kinesiology.

Post-degree, sports psychologists are expected to have practiced under the guidance and mentorship of a licensed psychologist for a minimum of two years. Some psychologists also have a board certification from the American Board of Sport Psychology, although it’s not necessary for practice. Only licensed psychologists can refer to themselves as psychologists. 

Speak to other athletes or coaches for referrals. If you are a student, you can also check in with your college or university for recommendations. You can also find a professional on websites such as the Association for Applied Sport Psychology or the U.S Olympic Committee’s sports psychology registry. 

A sports psychologist can help you enhance your mental game so you do better at sports, exercise, or general physical activity. You don’t have to be an athlete to benefit from sports psychology. Talk to a sports psychologist if you need support and techniques to boost your mental and physical wellness.