Sports Psychology: Finding the Right Sport Psychologist for You and Your Players

Michael L. Sachs, Ph.D., Temple University

Suzi Serve, your top junior player, has just come off the court after a tough loss to her arch rival, Jeannie Volley.  In talking with Suzi about the loss, her problems with concentration and being able to relax before points come up again.  These are the problems that have been plaguing Suzi for a while and that you have both tried to solve, unfortunately unsuccessfully.  It is time to talk with a sport psychologist.

Persons with expertise in sport psychology are known under many different names - sport psychologist, performance enhancement consultant, mental coach, sport consultant, etc.  Only persons who are licensed in a state can legally call themselves psychologists (or use the terms psychological or psychology - like sport psychology consultant).  However, being licensed as a psychologist doesn't mean that one knows anything about sport.

Using the term 'sport psychologist' to include all practitioners, there are two general areas within sport psychology: Educational Sport Psychology and Clinical Sport Psychology.  An educational sport psychologist focuses upon education, particularly Psychological Skills Training, which includes the psychological skills of goal setting, arousal control (relaxation), imagery (visualization), concentration, and positive self-talk.  These skills are essential to successful performance, along with physical conditioning, good technique, and match strategy.

A clinical sport psychologist focuses upon clinical or counseling issues, such as eating disorders, substance abuse, psychological rehabilitation from injury, and interpersonal relationship issues (such as with parents, coach, or boyfriend/girlfriend).  Some practitioners have expertise in both educational and clinical sport psychology.  Others only have expertise in one or the other.

In searching for the right sport psychologist for you and your players you need to:

1) Identify what the problem areas are - if they are educational in nature, look for an educational  sport psychologist.  If they encompass both areas, look for someone who can do both.

 2) Do some networking - ask some of your colleagues if they know of a good sport psychologist in the area, or check with the local college/university physical education department for a referral.  You may have read in your local paper about someone in the area with expertise in sport psychology, or the area/state psychological association may have a referral network.  You can also contact one of the national organizations like the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology (AAASP).

3) Talk with the sport psychologist - interview the person carefully to find out his/her educational background, credentials (licensed as a psychologist?, certified as a consultant by an organization such as AAASP?, etc.), and experience in sport in general and tennis in particular.  How many athletes/teams has the sport psychologist worked with, in what sports, at what level?  Can the sport psychologist provide recommendations?  Does this person seem to have the credentials and experience needed to be effective?

4) Assess your degree of comfort with this person - do you have a sense of rapport with the sport psychologist, and think he/she will work well with you and Suzi?  If you walk away feeling negatively towards the person, for whatever reason, then success is unlikely.  Search around until you find someone with the credentials/experience you want and the feeling of comfort/rapport that this person will be able to help Suzi.  Check with Suzi as well to ensure that she feels comfortable with the sport psychologist.  Remember that you are the consumer!  If you don't like the job the person is doing or feel uncomfortable, switch.

There are many practitioners with expertise in sport psychology out there, but if often takes some digging to find us.  However, the digging is worth the effort.  You know the importance of psychology in tennis, and taking advantage of every area of expertise open to you and your players only makes sense.  Good luck in your search and enjoy the game!