A Sport Psychology Perspective

Article excerpt

Sport psychology is playing a more influential and respected role than ever before in the pursuit of excellence in sport. Athletes are seeking mental training and counseling on a daily basis. Sport psychologists are in high demand at Olympic Training Centers.

Historical analyses of the development of sport psychology describe the advent of applied sport psychology as an uncharted frontier for women in the Olympics (Pemberton & Petlichkoff, 1988). Pemberton and Petlichkoff cite an early emphasis on sport performance, which shifted in the 1950s to laboratory experiments in social psychology. The study of personality dominated the field through the 1970s, and the 1980s produced much documentation in defense of sport psychology from a theoretical research perspective. The most recent trend is a return to the delivery of sport psychology services, especially for elite athletes.

Most current literature on elite female athletes focuses on professional athletes in tennis, bowling, and golf. The theoretical sport psychology literature often chooses collegiate athletes or elite gymnasts and runners as subjects for research. Rarely does a U.S. women's Olympic team become the spotlight of applied sport psychology documentation (Gipson, McKenzie, & Lowe, 1989). This article addresses the psychological issues and concerns of elite female athletes as they prepare for Olympic competition. Applied sport psychology for female Olympians is examined from the perspective of the sport psychologists who administer the services. The discussion includes key performance issues, key personal and developmental issues, differences between female and male athletes with regard to these issues, types of psychological services provided to Olympians across the country, athletes' response to these services, and the projected future role of sport psychology for female athletes in the Olympic Games.

Under the direction of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) and sport psychologist Sean McCann, new directions for elite female athletes are being explored through the channels of applied sport psychology. Service to athletes is the primary mission of USOG sport psychology. The extent of these programs is vast and expanding daily.

Applied sport psychologists at the USOC devote more than 3,000 hours per year to the development and performance enhancement of American Olympic athletes. Athletes have access to sport psychology services at each of three Olympic Training Centers in Colorado Springs, Lake Placid, and San Diego through the Sport Science and Technology (SST) Division of the USOC. Services are also available nationwide through the SST National Network Program and the USOC Sport Psychology Registry. Staff sport psychologists provide services at practice and at competition sites, including the Olympic Games. These services include performance enhancement, mental training, group workshops, team building, coaching education, and individual counseling. Sport psychology is the most widely demanded service area for the SST Division.

Women in the Olympics in the 1990s have a special interest in the value of applied sport psychology. Perpetual social and gender role issues continue to make women more receptive to psychological services, and until more women have opportunities to gain high-level competitive experience, the need for performance enhancement and mental training will be sustained.

Training Pressures

As we approach the 1996 centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, the key performance issues for women revolve around the multiple pressures of elite-level sport. According to USOC sport psychologists, a major goal for athletes as they prepare for Olympic trials and for the Games is simply to survive the process. Attention control and anxiety control dominate their psychological needs. A frequently asked question is "How do I handle the reality that the potential to win an Olympic medal actually exists?"

Associated with these kinds of pressures are issues such as staying confident in training, avoiding perfectionist attitudes, and minimizing the desire to over-train. …