Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

Got Game? HOW I TRANSITIONED MY PRACTICE TO SPORT PSYCHOLOGY

Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

Got Game? HOW I TRANSITIONED MY PRACTICE TO SPORT PSYCHOLOGY

Article excerpt

Q: After being in private practice for many years, I'm considering a new clinical speciality in sport psychology. Do you have any tips?

A: When I contemplated making a similar change, my wife wondered if I'd lost my marbles. "Why would you want to become a sport psychologist when you're finally busy and making money! Why stop now?"

But as I thought about the next several years of my life, I realized that two things mattered most to me. First, I was interested in finding a niche that would take me out of my comfort zone and get my juices flowing. Otherwise, why bother? Second, I wanted to distinguish my practice from what everyone else in my office-and most of the therapy community-was doing.

As a lifelong athlete who enjoys doing 12-hour team endurance challenges and running marathons, it made sense to move toward a specialty area that applies what the field of psychology has learned about motivation, cognition, visualization, emotion, and behavior to help athletes. Today's sport psychologists counsel players at all levels, including pros. These "mental coaches" might get to sit at the end of their basketball team's bench during games or wear their football team's official logo, and it still excites me that my work brings me so close to live sports action.

There are plenty of similarities between my clinical and sport clients in terms of the work we do. In fact, my training in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness, and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is just as applicable to my work with athletic competitors as with cliniGREENEcal clients, whether it's a student athlete who's showing signs of depression and contemplating quitting her sport, or a parent of a star tennis player who gets so mad at his son for not trying harder in matches that all they do is scream at each other.

Most of us are already familiar with supporting anxious kids, encouraging a client's honest self-appraisal, and coaching parents who expect too much of their children, so you'll be pleased to discover how much of what you already do clinically ties in with ways that you can help athletes and coaches. For example, I was recently consulted by a high-school coach who'd been put on a leave of absence because parents had complained about her tactlessness, including her habit of texting too much with students. Though our work together involved discussions of basketball and coaching, I helped her understand important psychological principles around group dynamics, adolescent development, and interpersonal boundaries.

Like any group, however, athletes have their own lingo, culture, rituals, and lifestyle, and understanding the ins and outs of them can give you a leg up on establishing rapport, trust, and mutual understanding. For instance, when the game becomes more obligation than recreation for athlete-clients, it's helpful to appreciate that quitting may be the first thing they think of but the last thing they'd ever want to do. Clients who take their sports seriously will prefer seeing someone who appreciates how significant the game is to them.

The bulk of what I do as a sport psychologist is to teach high-performing athletes how to compete when the competition gets rough, using techniques drawn from a range of approaches, including ACT's concept of willingness, DBT's distress-tolerance skills, and mindfulness teachings on how not to be sabotaged by "mind chatter." Young kids, high-school and college players, even elite and professional athletes, will tell you the game is different when a crowd fills the stands, when your opponent's skills are just as good as yours, and when you're playing with something big at stake, causing many athletes to focus on avoiding embarrassment, rather than playing the game. In other words, they get anxious, and can't talk freely to their coaches or parents about feeling intimidated, scared, unstable, and depressed. That's where I come in.

Therapists often ask me if they need to have specific sport knowledge to work with these athletes. …

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