Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Use of Psychology in Sports: Does Counseling Really Improve Performance?

Extra, extra, read all about it: a new field of study has recently been born. Sports psychology, one of the relatively newest areas of research in the world of psychology, has come about as the world becomes more and more fascinated with the idea of perfect performance in sports, and as athletes become increasingly aware of the mental aspects of their game. The purpose of studying the psychology of sports is simple: to improve and enhance the performance of a player by changing the way they mentally approach the game. But how can something so intangible change the way person performs in any sort of substantial way? How can talking about gossip in school—with a person who is only an acquaintance—enhance one’s physical capabilities on the field?

For as long as sports psychology has been studied, it has been criticized by some for being a waste of time and money, while others hail it as “the missing link” to success in sports. So which is it? Are sports psychologists just pretending to be able to change athletes’ minds? Or is there substantial evidence that using psychology as a way to better an athlete actually works?

Despite disbelieving critics, many individual success stories can be found in the world today that prove the latter of opinions stated above. Countless personal reports of success and improvement after using a sports psychologist come from all levels of play, in areas all over the world. Kellen Kulbacki, an outfielder for James Madison University, did not completely believe in the advantages of using a psychologist at first, but said he started using a sports psychologist because “A-Rod has one, [and] it was an opportunity that [he] needed to check out to see if it helped [his] game at all.” After seeing a sports psychologist for a time, Kulbacki states he has seen a “huge difference in the way [he] approaches the game,” and that it has had a “huge effect on [him] having a successful year.”

At a higher level, sports psychologists have been known to help internationally competitive athletes as well. Harald Barkoff, an assistant professor of health and physical education at the University of Hawaii, Hilo, helped two such athletes regain their footing in the 2004 World Championships of Artistic Roller Skating. After many hours of observation, Barkoff assigned the two skaters to training programs which revolved around their individual mental needs, and also recorded their feedback about how the program was working, so that changes could be made to the programs if needed. The result of all of Barkoff’s time and research was two world champions—one male, one female—both athletes he had counseled for his home country of Germany.

Sports psychology does not just consist of fairy tale success stories and miracle-working psychologists; it is also an educational and concrete research area. In 1986, sports psychology was recognized by the American Psychological Association (APA), the largest professional and scientific organization of psychologists in the United States, as an official division of psychology. In order to be recognized, a division must be voted into existence by members of the APA Counsel of Representatives, which is made up of doctors, psychologists, and psychiatrists around the United States. Not surprisingly, the proposal to make exercise and sports psychology a division passed without a single opposing vote. If all these esteemed individuals, who are the elite of the researchers and educationalists in the world, can all agree the sports psychology is in fact worth acknowledging, then they must believe that psychological counseling for sports works.

One study which also supports this idea was conducted by Michael J. Mahoney and Marshall Avener. Mahoney and Avener studied the psychological and cognitive strategies of thirteen male gymnasts during the final tryouts for the Olympic team, and found that there was a significant psychological difference between those who made the Olympic team, and those who did not. (Link5) This study shows the need for mental preparation for optimal performance, and the necessity for a psychological coach.

Although research directly focused on whether sports counseling makes a statistically significant difference is hard to find, all one must do is ask an athlete who has been personally counseled by a sports psychologist. The answer is clear: sports psychology works.