7 Ways Professional Athletes Benefit from Working With Sports Psychologists

by Arlin Cuncic, Edited by Laura Morrison, for GradSchools.com, April 2014

The Buffalo Bills were down by a single point with eight seconds left in Superbowl XXV, when field goal kicker Scott Norwood faced a 47-yard field goal to win the game. His kick was long enough, but it missed by a foot to the right, earning him the unfortunate nickname, “Scott Norwide.” Norwood’s failure to perform under pressure highlights the importance of a good mental game, and the value of sports psychologists who can assist athletes in developing the skills necessary to succeed.

1. Confidence and Self-Esteem

Sports psychologists assist professional athletes in building confidence, self-esteem, and expectations of success. NHL hockey player Olli Jokinen credits his sports psychologist John Murray for improving his game and mental outlook in a quote from Murray’s website: “Thanks so much for making me mentally stronger this year. You are the best… nothing like the rest[i].”

2. Focus and Concentration

Rather than requiring more mental effort, ideal levels of focus demand less of the athlete, as described by the sense of being “in the zone.” Sports psychologists help athletes to tap into this type of concentration and learn how to cultivate the ideal type of focus.

3. Motivation

Professional athletes must maintain a high level of motivation both during competitions and in practice. Sports psychologists help to define specific, measurable, challenging, and realistic goals to keep athletes motivated during times of stress.

4. Managing Emotions

Professional athletes benefit from sports psychology by learning to manage negative thoughts and bodily arousal that can contribute to choking under pressure. During the 2007 British Open, professional golfer Padraig Harrington had a string of misfortune -- hitting two consecutive balls into a creek on the 18th hole and forcing a playoff against Sergio Garcia. Before the playoff, Harrington spoke to sports psychologist Bob Rotella on the practice green, who boosted his confidence enough to come back strong. Harrington is quoted as saying: “I wouldn’t have won the British without Bob[ii].”

5. Coping with Setbacks

Professional athletes must cope with setbacks such as a losing slump, injuries, and mental blocks. Former professional basketball player Tracy McGrady describes how sports psychologist John Murray helped him through micro fracture surgery on his knee: “Dr. Murray helped me regain my focus after being out of the game for a long period of time. I used Dr. Murray’s techniques of positive imagery and felt the benefits immediately. It helped my game tremendously[i].”

6. Communicating with Teammates

Not only must professional athletes perform at a high level – but they are also expected to function well as part of a team and demonstrate good sportsmanship. Sports psychologists can aid in improving an athlete’s ability to communicate with teammates and demonstrate grace under pressure.

7. Off-Field Issues

Professional athletes also benefit from assistance targeted at personal issues that affect performance. For example, basketball star Ron Artest completed anger management classes after a domestic violence issue in 2008, and went on to meet with a sports psychologist to improve his mental game. After winning the 2010 NBA title with the Lakers, Artest publicly offered thanks to his psychiatrist: “Thank you so much, so difficult to play, so much emotion going on in the playoffs, and she helped me relax[iii]."

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Sources:[i] johnfmurray.com/comments/ | [ii] forbes.com/forbes/2007/1126/162.html | [iii] sports.espn.go.com/los-angeles/nba/columns/story?id=5698248

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