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Monday, February 1, 2010

What is Sports Psychology?

Psychology majors are sometimes surprised to learn that there are psychologists who specialize in the field of sports psychology. This is a potentially exciting career field that students often want to learn more about.

According to the American Psychological Association, sports psychologists "help athletes refine their focus on competition goals, become more motivated, and learn to deal with the anxiety and fear of failure that often accompany competition. The field is growing as sports of all kinds become more and more competitive and attract younger children than ever." To learn more about one person's career in the field and find more resources, read on!

“A Career in Sport Psychology”

Casey Cooper, PhD Counseling Psychology, Licensed Clinical Psychologist

I have a long history of sports experience as an athlete, and as a coach’s daughter. Growing up in Southern California, my father was an international Track and Field coach. I became accustomed to the demanding life style and extraordinary rewards that accompany elite athletics. I trained as an Equestrian competitor and was awarded top honors in national competitions and state circuits. Tragically, my career was ended at 16 years old when my horse was diagnosed with epilepsy after experience a grand mal seizure on the eve of a new competitive season. After finishing that year showing other people’s horses at competitions, I retired from riding while still in High School.

The retirement allowed me to pursue other interests that have served me well in my career as a psychologist and radio host. I found myself reconnecting with sports in a very unexpected way during my undergraduate years at USC. As a tutor for student-athletes, I became aware of the numerous and varied on and off-field complaints of my students. Believing that they were in need of more professional support, I began learning about the sport psychology professionals at the university counseling center and decided that the combination of communication major and appreciation for athletic culture provided an optimal foundation for me to build a career as a sport psychologist.

I was surprised to learn that there were so few educational opportunities that allowed me to become a licensed psychologist with a sports specialty. So I created my path at USC with multiple departments. After speaking with my sports psychology mentor, I chose to enroll in the MFCC program. This important foundation allows me to conceptualize my clients and teams from a family systems perspective. I later declared a sports specialization with the support of the Kinesiology Department during my Counseling Psychology, Ph.D. program. Sports specific supervisory experiences were much more difficult for me to locate. However, after a more careful review of the staff rosters of the University Counseling Centers on the APA Internship list, I was able to locate several that could provide sports mentoring and training opportunities. Students should take the time and initiative to seek out and interview for specific supervisors at internship sites that match their own interests for specialization. I was ultimately matched at UCLA and was very grateful for the sports exposure I was given.

The majority of my training prior to licensure was at College Counseling Centers. However, I am always grateful that I developed my overall clinical skills in many other non-sports settings that provided a solid, all-around experience that is crucial for the success of my current private practice.

My clients consist of athletes of all ages (8-60+), athletic families, and teams. My hours are split between treating clients, networking with health professionals, meeting coaches, speaking with booster clubs and other sports groups, writing columns for various sports websites, giving interviews, donating time to sports related non-profits, and supervising a psychological assistant. There are several misconceptions about sport psychologists. The most significant is that I simply help athletes run faster and jump higher. I find that this is a helpful description: I’m a psychologist who treats depression, anxiety, anger management, family discord, and other difficult life issues. I just happen to work exclusively within the culture of athletics. As a result of feeling better, most athletes experience an elevation to their performance. Athletes should not be evaluated or treated as a different class of clients. I apply my knowledge of athletic culture, values, and norms along with current research related to athletic samples to my application of cognitive-behavioral and interpersonal therapeutic interventions to increase my effectiveness with this group. In this way, athletes who seek assistance are no different than any other client who strongly identifies with a cultural minority. There are some performance enhancing techniques that I have become familiar and developed over the years, but this is the smallest percentage of what I discuss with clients in my practice. Because of this philosophy, I strongly encourage students interested in sports psychology as a career to seek out a program that is APA Credentialed and can support their earning a license in their state as a psychologist. Beware of sports psychology certifications that are not awarded by your state’s board. These “sport psychology professionals” are exposed to very real limits to their scope of practice and can encounter some legal difficulties for themselves and their clients.

Sport psychology is an up and coming field with new programs offering comprehensive training and supervision. The opportunities are vast and the research to be conducted is immense. I plan to continue in my private practice with a psychological assistant and I am now hosting a radio show fully dedicated to sports psychology. My clinical focus is spreading positive parenting messages and supporting a balanced lifestyle within a culture of sports excellence for athletes through my practice, online presence, publications, and traditional media.

For more information, visit the following sites:

North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity http://www.naspspa.org/

Association for Applied Sport Psychology

Special thanks to Dr. Casey Cooper (www.drcaseycooper.com) who contributed the narrative above for inclusion in my book, "Insider's Guide to the Psychology Major" (Wegenek and Buskist, APA books, 2010)