Two of the most common questions I get asked as a sport psychologist are, “What do you do as a sport psychologist?” and “Why sport psychology?”. I think the best way to answer these questions is to give a snap shot of a day in the life of a sport psychologist…
My day starts out at the Chandler Pool in Brisbane for the Queensland State Swimming Championships. I am there to work with a swimming squad I have been consulting to during the year. As a sport psychologist I work with squads/teams through interactive workshops based on an individualised program developed for that squad/teams. The program is developed with the coach and athletes to target relevant areas to strengthen so as to enhance their sporting performance. My involvement depends on the needs of the group.
I really enjoy being out at a training session or at competition so I am excited about being at State Championships; I get to be at a sporting event talking to athletes, coaches, and parents. I love this part of my job! Attending competition is a great opportunity to observe athletes in their own environment. My role in a competition setting involves systematically observing the swimmers in addition to reinforcing the integration of mental skills that athletes have learnt into their performance. My first port of call at States is to check-in with the coach. I like to know from the coach’s perspective how the swimmers have been performing. It is a great way to gain feedback and important information about the swimmers performance. Specifically, I want to know how each swimmer is handling themselves before, during, and after a race. Yes, I am interested in knowing how close they are to their personal best times and their placings, but I am also very interested in their attitude going in to a race and reactions following a race. For example, did they feel prepared, confident, focused, relaxed etc.?
After checking-in with the coach on pool deck I then head up back up to the stands where the squad is and I have a look at what heats the squad’s swimmers are in that morning. The next couple of hours go so quickly! My hours at competition are spent observing the swimmers’ body language before their races, as well as touching base with all those swimmers at the competition venue. It is a chance to talk to the swimmers individually outside of the workshops about what mental skills they have been using at the competition. Also, I want to know how they have been racing, especially whether they have been performing near their ideal performance state (something they have been working on identifying and maintaining). Often I get them to walk me through their routines and I want to know how their routines get them ready to race. By asking each swimmers specifically what they do and think I am getting an understanding of what works for them and also reinforcing what is working for them. It also gives us a good opportunity to refine particular strategies from the workshops for the individual swimmer. To any athlete in competition, my message to them is always clear and simple. The message isn’t new but reinforcing &/or refining the mental skills already learnt in the squad workshops.
In competition, the goal is for the athlete to be in their ideal performance state, their ‘A’ Game, because in this state everything feels automatic. Mental skills help the tactical, physical, and technical areas of performance be automatic. I have seen it too many times before where one bad race can then carry over and impact negatively on other races. Athletes begin to over-think on the technical aspects of their swim and in competition you can’t be any fitter, stronger or flexible. The technical and physical skills come together on competition day through the use of mental and tactical skills. An athlete’s mind is their greatest tool on competition day! As a consequence, my morning out at competition is to talk to the swimmers about their mental skills and help debrief their racing performance. Debriefing is also important as I want the swimmers to be able to log the good points regarding their performance, which helps build &/or maintain confidence, as well as identify what didn’t work and how they can improve this at training or in their next race. Every swimmer is different but they face common demands that they need to be able to deal with effectively when they are in competition. Mental skills are further resources each swimmer can draw upon to help manage the demands they face.
After a couple of hours at Swimming State Championships I have to leave for one of the clinics I work at as I have an afternoon booked with individual consultations. Working one-on-one with individual athletes is another aspect of my job I really enjoy. During clinic hours, I see individual athletes to help address their individual goals and help them enhance their performance through learning specific mental, emotional, and behavioural control strategies. I also work with individuals on helping them improve their mood (i.e., depression, anxiety, eating disorders), deal effectively with pressure and high expectations, which are common requirements in sport, as well as helping people with their injury rehabilitation and pain management. I finish in the clinic in the evening and head home ready for my own recovery (i.e., exercise, food, a bit of television/reading a book & sleep) before the next day of being a sport psychologist.
I hope that this brief daily log helps to answer, “What do you do as a sport psychologist?” and “Why sport psychology?”.