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Psychological skills training myths

This is an excerpt from Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Fifth Edition with Web Study Guide, by Robert S. Weinberg, PhD, and Daniel Gould, PhD.

Myths about psychology skills training (PST)

Several myths still circulate about the use of psychological techniques in optimizing performance. In fact, research (Martin, 2005) revealed that male athletes, younger athletes, and athletes who have been socialized in sports that involve physical contact still assign a particular stigma to sport psychology consulting. Unfortunately, many of these myths only confuse the issue of what sport psychology consultants can and cannot do to help athletes maximize their performance.

Myth 1: PST Is for “Problem” Athletes Only

Many people wrongly think that all sport psychologists work with athletes who have psychological problems. This is not the case (see chapter 1). Clinical sport psychologists in the United States are typically licensed to practice clinical psychology in a particular state and are trained to treat various mental disorders. However, only about 10% of athletes exhibit behaviors and mental disorders that require the expertise of a clinical sport psychologist. Rather, most athletes’ psychological needs can be addressed by educational sport psychology specialists who focus on helping develop mental skills in athletes with a normal range of functioning. The following are some examples of the various PST needs addressed by educational and clinical sport psychology specialists.

Educational sport psychologists

  • Goal setting
  • Imagery
  • Arousal regulation
  • Concentration
  • Mental preparation

Clinical sport psychologists

  • Eating disorders
  • Substance abuse
  • Personality disorders
  • Severe depression or anxiety
  • Psychopathology

Myth 2: PST Is for Elite Training Only

Psychological skills training is not only for the elite. It is appropriate for all athletes, including young, developing athletes (Orlick & McCaffrey, 1991; Petlichkoff, 2004) and special populations such as people who are mentally disabled (Travis & Sachs, 1991), physically or intellectually challenged (Bawden, 2006; Hanrahan, 2003), or hearing impaired (Clark & Sachs, 1991). (See “Conducting Psychological Skills Training With Athletes With Intellectual or Physical Disabilities.”) Dedicated professionals work to help improve performance and personal growth. Popular magazines and news media tend to focus on Olympic and professional athletes who work with sport psychology consultants, but many other groups receive sport psychology consultation as

Myth 3: PST Provides “Quick Fix” Solutions

Many people mistakenly think that sport psychology offers a quick fix to psychological problems. Sometimes athletes and coaches expect to learn how to concentrate or to stay calm under pressure in one or two lessons. Actually, psychological skills take time and practice to develop. And PST is not magical—it won’t turn an average player into a superstar. However, it will help athletes reach their potential and maximize their abilities.

Myth 4: PST Is Not Useful

Some people still think that sport psychology is hocus-pocus, having nothing positive to offer. This is highlighted by the comment of former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, who stated, “You lie on a couch, they take your money, and you walk out more banana than when you walk in” (LeUnes & Nation, 2002, p. 18). However, substantial scholarly research, as well as anecdotal reports from athletes and coaches, indicates that psychological skills do in fact enhance performance (e.g., Greenspan & Feltz, 1989; Morris & Thomas, 2004; Weinberg & Comar, 1994). At the same time, the research also shows that effective PST efforts must be carried out in a systematic but individualized fashion, over time, using a variety of psychological techniques (Meyers, Whelan, & Murphy, 1996). Sport psychology is neither a magical elixir nor useless bunk, and people should have realistic expectations of what PST can do.

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