How Sports Psychologists Are Helping Non-Athletes Find Professional Success

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


how sports psychologists help business executives, surgeons, and performing artistsIf a corporate executive is struggling to handle pressure, having trouble with leadership skills, or afraid to take the company in a new direction – the principles of sports psychology may help them. Sports psychologists use many of the same strategies that are used with athletes to improve performance among those facing challenges as business leaders, performing artists and even medical doctors. This exciting area of consulting is called “performance psychology”.

Sports Psychologists Help Business Executives

Business executives must be adept at handling pressure, maintaining confidence and staying focused. These individuals face many of the same challenges as coaches and athletes, without the benefit of a support structure for coping. Sports psychologists work with corporate executives to help them improve performance in the following areas:

  • Mental toughness: Sports psychologists introduce strategies such as visualization, challenging negative thinking patterns and recognizing what is within and outside one’s control (such as actions by a competitor).
  • Leadership skills: Many of the attributes that make a good coach also make a successful business leader. For example, executives must learn how to embrace feedback, understand their own strengths and weaknesses, and take the perspectives of others. Sports psychologists can help them develop these skills.
  • Risk-taking: Business leaders must push beyond their comfort zones when it serves the need of the company. Sports psychologist Rhonda Cohen recommends executives make a list of five actions they can take to push beyond their limits, such as “Meet a new person in the company and really listen to who they are and what their role is.”

Sports Psychologists Help Surgeons

Surgeons must perform complex mental and fine motor tasks at a consistently high level with minimal margin for error, often in chaotic and time-pressured situations. Although many surgeons devise their own methods for coping with these demands, sports psychologists can offer novel ways to manage performance anxiety. Advice given to surgeons is often presented within the framework of “performance enhancement” in an educational format, rather than suggesting that their current behavior requires improvement.

  • Visualization: Surgeons are advised to visualize the procedures they are about to complete during a pre-surgery routine.
  • Managing Arousal and Fatigue: Surgeons are encouraged to manage performance anxiety by using relaxation techniques such as centered breathing, and avoid fatigue by taking breaks as needed.

Sports Psychologists Help Performing Artists

Performing artists such as musicians, actors and dancers also benefit from the help of sports psychologists – much in the same way as elite athletes. Individuals in the performing arts must learn to control performance anxiety or risk being victims of stage fright. At the same time, some anxiety is important for motivation in the performing arts. Sports psychologists help performing artists learn how to maintain an optimal balance of arousal and relaxation during performances.

  • Visualization: Performing artists learn how to visualize a successful performance, just as an athlete would visualize making a basket or scoring a touchdown.
  • Managing Arousal: Sports psychologists instruct performing artists on the importance of reducing negative self-talk and using breathing strategies to manage anxiety.

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