Why Sports Psychology?

Why Sports Psychology?

 

Dr. Lager speaking at RunFest 2016 (Photo by Dan Reichmann)

Dr. Lager speaking at RunFest 2016 (Photo by Dan Reichmann)

By Jennifer Lager, Psy.D.
GAME – Get A Mental Edge

Often when I begin a workshop or talk, I will ask participants about how many hours they physically train per day. More and more hands go up as I ask: 1 hour, 2-4 hours, more than 4 hours per day? Then I ask participants to raise a hand if they spend any time on the mental aspects of their performance. Suddenly, the room is silent and I’m lucky if any hands are raised at all. Why is this the case?

Athletes should pursue proactive sport psychology to get an edge on the competition.

Athletes should pursue proactive sport psychology to get an edge on the competition.

Most likely this situation occurs because athletes will often view sport psychology as something that needs to be pursued if they have a serious problem that is causing their performance to deteriorate and they are unable to solve this problem on their own. That is the most common situation I find when an athlete or his/her parent contacts me. I can definitely help in these situations!  However, I feel that athletes are missing a key opportunity to boost their performance to a higher level if sport psychology assistance is only pursued when difficulties arise. We know, both through research findings and the reports of performers in a variety of fields, that our mental processes have a significant impact on our physical abilities and performance. We also know that strengthening our mental “muscles” is just as essential to success as is strengthening our physical muscles and skills. The psychological tools that an athlete has in their repertoire – and uses – are often are the difference between a good and a great performance. These are the here and now benefits of sport psychology, and particularly proactive sport psychology.

Swimmers can develop life skills that go beyond sports performance while working with a sport psychologist.

Swimmers can develop life skills that go beyond sports performance while working with a sport psychologist.

In addition to assisting an athlete in the “here and now”, sport psychology work can have a long-lasting and holistic impact on the individual. As I help develop a swimmer’s skills to win races, I am also helping to develop her as a resilient, strong, and capable human being. She is learning important life skills about balancing the different demands of her life, and being able to identify, regulate, and respond to her inner world. Many tools that we all use in life are identical to the ones learned through sport. These include the abilities to set goals, sustain focus,  increase confidence, maintain motivation, cope with setbacks, and recover from physical injury to name a few. This longer term view of the benefits of sport psychology is often overlooked, yet in my opinion, is one of the greatest selling points for investing your time and money into the work. The ability to perform these mental functions assists in interpersonal relationships (they are used in friendships, marriage, and parenting) as well as professionally (they are used to succeed in providing a high-level briefing, focusing while performing a difficult medical procedure, making split-second decisions as a first responder, or managing a team of employees).

Instead of thinking of a sport psychologist as we might think of a specialist (e.g. we go to the orthopedist when we have an injury), we are better served by thinking about the sport psychologist as a mental coach. You see your coach regularly, and the coach is assisting you to improve on an ongoing basis through teaching, collaboration, and support. If the time and cost of working with a professional is a deterrent, there are many great books available that you can use to coach yourself in the mental aspects of swimming. (Ed. note: We particularly recommend Keith Bell’s The Nuts and Bolts of Sports Psychology for Swimmers). 

Happy Swimming!

Jennifer Lager

Jennifer Lager

Jennifer Lager, Psy.D., is a Clinical Psychologist and mental coach who helps athletes improve their mental game in multiple sports including swimming, tennis, golf, figure skating, and gymnastics (to name a few). She is the owner of GAME- Get A Mental Edge, a performance enhancement business based in McLean, VA. Feel free to send questions or comments about this article to her at [email protected]

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