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Performance Psychology

What is Sport Psychology?
Sport psychology is the study and application of psychological principles of human performance in helping athletes consistently perform in the upper range of their capabilities and more thoroughly enjoy the sport performance process.

Applied sport psychologists are uniquely trained and specialised to engage in a broad range of activities including:

  • the identification, development, and execution of the mental and emotional knowledge, skills, and abilities required for excellence in athletic domains;
  • the understanding, diagnosing, and preventing of the psychological, cognitive, emotional, behavioural, and psychophysiological inhibitors of consistent, excellent performance; and
  • the improvement of athletic contexts to facilitate more efficient development, consistent execution, and positive experiences in athletes.
    [extract from Defining the Practice of Sport and Performance Psychology as written by the American Psychological Association’s Exercise and Sport Psychology Division Practice Committee]

To find out more, listen to our series of podcasts on Sport Psychology
How do Sport Psychologists Work?
Sport psychologists can work with individuals (athletes, coaches, staff) and teams in the course of their work. At an individual level, each sport psychologist will have preferred methods of working with their athlete or coach clients based on training, generally using a combination of counselling skills and education depending upon what they are working on.
Unlike more traditional psychological practice, a fair amount sport psychology work happens in conjunction with training or in the competition environment. Much insight about how an athlete, coach, or team performs in training or competition environments can be gained simply by observing, working with those observations, and crafting solution-based strategies to work on and try.

Athletes and teams travel a great deal, and so to be effective, sport psychologists often travel with them. This requires a fair amount of adaptability in terms of work environment, and consultations often happen opportunistically, at meals, in hotel rooms, on training fields, or in the stands. Distance learning methods like Skype are an increasingly necessary way for sport psychologists to stay in touch with their clients as they travel the globe.

What do Sport Psychologists Do?
We often field questions from interested people about what sport psychologists do, and those questions tend to fall into one of two categories:

  • PERFORMANCE: “Do you motivate/psych up/hypnotise athletes?”
  • MENTAL HEALTH/CLINICAL ISSUES: “Do you work with depressed or anxious athletes?”

The short answer is that we work across both areas, as they are often intertwined and can reciprocally influence well-being and performance.

AIS Performance Psychology staff all subscribe to holistic practice that treats the person first and sport performance second. That is, it is our belief and written into our service delivery model that we consider mental health a foundation aspect of our work, for without a good mental health foundation (including both an absence of poor mental health and the promotion of good mental health practices), athletes, coaches, and staff are much less likely to be able to execute the psychological skills critical to sustained, optimum sport performance.

Sport Psychology areas of treatment and intervention

  • Psychological skills training for performance (e.g., relaxation, imagery, goal setting, cognitive restructuring, pre-competitive routines)
  • Behavioural issues (e.g., substance abuse, problem gambling, overtraining and under-recovery, coping with media pressure)
  • Mental health disorders (e.g., depression, anxiety, eating disorders)
  • Trauma (e.g., catastrophic career-ending injuries, physical and sexual abuse)
  • Identity and self-image (e.g., existential concerns, career transitions)
  • Relationship problems or enhancement (e.g., athlete-coach, athlete-family, intra-team player relationships)

Are Sport Psychologists also Psychologists?
From research and anecdotal evidence, it seems that the general public, sports people, and even other psychologists believe that sport psychologists work primarily (or only) in the areas of motivation or psychological skill training (PST) with athletes. It can be useful to know that sport psychologists are educated as general psychologists first, and then as psychologists with expertise in working with people in sport second.

Having this broad training can actually be seen as a performance enhancer. Athletes and coaches are a lot like the rest of us. They have all the same strengths, weaknesses, joys, hopes, and fears as anybody else, and they experience psychological or mental health issues both in and out of sport. Unfortunately, there is a persistent perception that any focus on mental health (or even clinical) issues in the sport environment is disruptive to sport performance. This myth is perpetuated by sport cultures that reward athletes for silencing emotions and not admitting to weakness. On the contrary, helping athletes and coaches acknowledge and address their mental health issues can often have a positive influence on their sport performances. Without a firm mental health foundation, the effectiveness of any mental skills interventions can be actually be undermined. For example, after winning his first tennis Grand Slam, Andy Murray spoke about his work with a sport psychologist, highlighting the importance of holistic service delivery (McDaid, 2012).

I spoke about things away from the court that may affect you and stop you from being fully focused on tennis… that’s really what’s helped me rather than talking about breathing or taking your time between points… there’s a lot more that goes into your life, and an athlete, than just what goes on the court.

In the last 10 years there have been many elite Australian athletes who have come out and spoken about their struggles with depression, anxiety and substance abuse. Ian Thorpe’s revelations of his repeated bouts of depression and self-medication with alcohol is a recent example that even those in sport who appear to be highly functional may be suffering in silence.

We hope to dispel the common misperception that sport psychologists are only performance enhancers and motivators who use psychological skills training (PST) with athletes. Sport psychologists treat whole people, not just the narrow band of behaviours that occur on playing fields.

Sport psychologists mindfully consider the broader contexts of individuals’ lives--athlete health and happiness as much as performance--are essential and foundational concerns. Bona fide service delivery requires practitioners to forge strong therapeutic relationships, use sound theoretical frameworks, and work collaboratively with clients on agreed upon goals – much the same as traditional psychological service delivery (Hanrahan & Andersen, 2010). In so doing, athletes feel and behave in more mentally healthy ways, which in the end is the foundation for best performance when the pressure is on.

Hanrahan, S.J., & Andersen, M.B. (Eds.). (2010). Routledge handbook of applied sport psychology: A comprehensive guide for students and practitioners. London: Routledge.
McDaid, D. (2012, October 12). Andy Murray using sports psychologist to aid tennis focus. Retrieved from

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