The Problems With Sport Psychology

Dave Kearney
8 min readNov 18, 2020

95% of athletes recognise that mental skills are an important part of every successful sporting performance. And while these athletes are often surrounded with coaches, athletic trainers as well as an ever increasing array of tracking apps and other technology, the vast majority of teams have little or no investment in mental skills coaching. There is clearly a gap (in terms of both time and money invested) between what athletes believe is important to their success and how they actually train for it.

Is it the athlete’s fault?

It’s easy to look at the ever growing body of research about the impact of mental skills training across every sport and decide that as a general rule, athletes need the services of a sport psychologist to reliably achieve their full potential.

But we can’t assume that athletes do this same research, especially when it’s not clear to them that a particular component of their training can be improved. Adding new ideas to the mix, even ones that are based on best practice require a level of understanding that better performance is possible by adopting new ways of training and new ways of thinking. That’s not the narrative currently in place for the average athlete. Currently athletes (there are exceptions of course) see mental skills training in the following ways:

  • With a deficit model: Athletes see a sport psychologist as someone to work with when there is something wrong rather than as an intrinsic part of their athletic development.
  • As something to be defensive about: Criticism of an athletes physical attributes v.s. criticism of their mental attributes are each handled differently by athletes. Physical failings are described as work-ons (“he needs to work on his kicking”), while mental attributes are described as immutable and permanent (“he’s a choker”). Verdicts about mental performances impact cut more deeply at an emotional psychological level and make athletes not want to reach out or open up about mental performance issues.
  • As optional: There isn’t a broad consensus from athletes that there is a need for mental skills training. When it is used, results are slower to accrue and harder to measure than (for example) S&C work. This can lead to a low level of belief in the practical benefits of sport psychology training.
  • As a lower priority to physical work: Mental skills, while outwardly deemed important, reliably drop down the priority list each athlete has when faced with other developmental work. The result is a catch-22 of no time allocated, no improvements made, no growth in the industry or in opportunities for sport psychologists.
  • As difficult and expensive to acquire: Getting regular access to a sport psychologist can be expensive. For younger athletes or those without the resources to get the best quality of coaching, the resources simply aren’t available to pay for a sport psychology expert. In that way, it’s still seen as something only successful athletes or rich parents can afford.
  • As being ineffective in its delivery: Many sport psychologists still work in the land of theory rather than practice and can’t relate to the individual needs of the athletes and the sports they compete in. The athlete is looking for wisdom, not intelligence. The delivery of mental skills training has to be laser targeted to the specific needs of each athlete.
  • Alternatives paint sport psychology in a bad light: Solutions like books are read once (if at all), then left on the shelf to gather dust. Apps like Headspace or Calm (which have made big moves to target athletes in recent years) assist in some areas of athlete mental performance (athlete wellbeing) but are woefully inadequate in others (teamwork, handling pressure, performance).

The end result is that athletes continue to use ineffective solutions to mental performance weaknesses in their overall development.

For example, athletes (particularly male athletes) will suggest “let’s just go for a few beers”, “you’ll be ok” or “just stop thinking about it” when advising on a mental challenge a fellow athlete need to overcome.

When feeling the stress and pressure of competition or while trying to juggle busy personal and professional lives, the athlete might be directed to do a mindfulness session, with the assumption that this will magically make everything ok again.

When asked about sport psychologists, the athlete’s responses vary between “I’m good — I don’t need to sit on a couch with some doctor for my brain” to “We got a great motivational speech at the start of the year, but I haven’t talked to them since”.

Effective messaging around sport psychology and mental skills training has not yet filtered down to the athletes who need it most.

Is it the coach’s fault?

Coaches bring a different perspective to mental skills training to that of their athletes. In many cases, coaches have taken up their role due to a passion for their sport after a successful playing career in their own. In other cases, it comes from a passion for teaching or helping others. In almost every case, they seem to have a wistful story about how their mindset played a role in a pivotal point during their career, and how they want to help their athletes take a shortcut past the same painful lessons they themselves have learned through hard fought experience.

Coaches have the good fortune of seeing their athletes through a different lens to the one that athletes see themselves through. Few athletes will openly admit to choking under pressure, actively displaying poor body language or missing a key play due to a momentary lapse of focus — but coaches notice. Their experience and their role allows them to see the confidence of their athletes and the culture of their team bounce and quiver with sporting results as well as the personal events that affect the team dynamic both in and out of competition.

Very few coaches today have had the benefit of mental skills training from the time they too were athletes. These coaches will readily admit that when it comes to sport psychology, they have little or no understanding of how to implement a structured mental skills training program. That means, even when motived to do so (or ideally when motivated to hire an expert who can implement one on their behalf), it can very easily go badly wrong. Here are a few common ways coaches try to work with a sport psychologist, but end up not getting the results they were hoping for:

  • Mis-hiring When coaches reach out for help from a sport psychologist, often the hiring fit is poor and the relationship doesn’t work. This is not unique to the the field of sport psychology. It’s true in every profession that when a person takes on another for a role they do not fully understand, the risk of the wrong person being hired goes up significantly.
  • Unmet expectations: As discussed for athletes, the impact of mental skills training is still hard to measure. It’s not currently possible to look at one particular play or one particular sporting outcome and say that the sport psychologist made the key difference. Sport is too complex for that. So what expectations does the coach have for bringing in the psychologist? If it’s just a general conversation around “this will be good for us” or “we’re already losing, we might as well give it a try”, then the sport psychologist simply can’t work towards achieving a mutually agreed result, and therefore is bound to fail.
  • Differing expectations: In many cases, a coach turns to a sport psychologist to dig a team out of an impossible hole. Sport psychology is not a magic wand to be waved when a team is on a losing streak or has lost all confidence the week before a big game. Mental skills development is just like developing any other skill — it takes sustained acts of dedication and commitment over a period of time to see improvements. Any coach who’s expectation is a sudden turnaround with a 1 hour session with a team is deluded about what can really be achieved.
  • No real buy-in: Any coach that understands the value of mental skills training knows that there is one thing that they need to throw at a sport psychologist — and it’s not money. It’s time. Time is the single biggest resource that indicates whether a coaching team is committed to investing in their athlete’s mental skills. If a coach’s view is that the mental skills coach is someone to be introduced but not integrated into the overall functioning of the coaching setup, then it’s simply not going to succeed.

At this early stage of introducing mental skills training to athletes at every level of sport, and with some of the more proactive coaches and teams getting burned by early failures, the experiment of introducing a sport psychologist into their team is often deemed not to be effective, which in turn perpetuates the status quo. Its up to sport psychology practitioners to break this cycle.

Leadership means taking responsibility

Hall of fame

If there is one recurring theme in all of the above is that there is a strong belief among coaches and athletes that mental skills training can help them to perform better, but there are still too many components of sport psychology that are poorly understood by coaches and athletes, and poorly communicated by sport psychology practitioners to make and effective difference.

The next steps in elevating the practice of mental skills training:

  1. Translate: Translate the practice of sport psychology from academic research to practical real world exercises that can be easily understood and worked on by the audience they are intended for.
  2. Define: Define the role of the sport psychologist in such a way that it is clear what athletes and coaches should be looking for in a mental skills coach and what outcomes should be expected from working with them.
  3. Communicate: Communicate the benefits that sport psychology can provide in a manner that updates the beliefs of athletes and coaches and brings the overall conversation more into line with the latest understanding of best practice.

Once we achieve these three steps, mental skills training, as provided by qualified sport psychologists will then be considered a coequal component of an athlete’s complete mental, physical and tactical training. This is something I expect to happen in the next 3–5 years.

Over the coming weeks and months, I hope to explore more deeply how sport psychologists can structure the messaging around their craft to improve perceptions and turn the science of sport psychology into a profession that is respected at the same level as the S&C coach, athletic trainer or other common coaching roles.

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Please try out my new approach to making mental skills training accessible to all athletes and coaches in a more effective and more affordable way:

  • www.champsmind.com For coaches who want a pre-packaged mental training solution for teams
  • www.mindset-pro.com For sport psychologists who want to work more effectively with large groups of athletes.

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Dave Kearney

Making mental skills training based on sport psychology best practice a normal thing for all athletes