Athlete Mental Wellness: Finding the Right Sport Psychology Professional
Updated: Oct 5, 2021
To the benefit of the sports world and beyond, recent times have seen a huge upsurge in awareness of issues around athlete mental health. Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, and Michael Phelps are among the most familiar names on a growing list of elite athletes who have admirably opened up about their challenges. In doing so, these individuals have highlighted the importance of respecting their own need for support, and expecting that same respect from others. They've helped all of us to recognize that reaching out for help is not a sign of weakness, but rather another tool for becoming the healthiest, strongest versions of ourselves.
As an athlete yourself, and as a human being with whatever particular set of challenges, worries, vulnerabilities and aspirations are unique to your life, you may have considered seeking out a qualified sport psychology clinician. Likewise, you may have found yourself wondering, "What type of professional is right for me, and how do I find that person?”
Who Does Sport Psychology, and What is a Sport Psychologist?
The term “sport psychologist” gets tossed around fairly casually in the media and everyday dialogue. As a result, it sometimes inaccurately refers to a variety of certified and non-certified professionals (including mental performance consultants and life coaches), as well as licensed mental health clinicians (such as mental health counselors and clinical social workers). While there are qualified helpers from each of these fields, to call them sport psychologists would be a misuse of a term designated for individuals licensed as psychologists by a state governing bodies.
To become a Certified Mental Performance Consultant (CMPC; a credential granted by the Association for Applied Sport Psychology), an individual obtains graduate training in sport science and some aspects of counseling, as well as supervised hours working in exercise and sports contexts. In doing so, these individuals develop a degree of competency in applied work with athletes and performers. The CMPC credential is an important component of their training, particularly if their graduate degree is in an academic/research field such as kinesiology or sport and exercise science. Typically such a degree does not in itself include training in personal consulting. A search page for CMPC professionals can be found here.
Licensed mental health professionals, including licensed clinical and counseling psychologists, follow a different but sometimes overlapping path. Their graduate curriculum includes academic and clinical aspects of general mental health services. For psychologists, this includes extensive training in assessment and diagnosis of mental disorders. Their training culminates in licensure by a state board regulating mental health professionals (psychology, social work, etc.). Most state associations for mental health providers (for example, this page for Oregon Psychological Association) provide search resources on their websites to find licensed clinicians in their state jurisdiction. Additionally, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee publishes a registry of mental health clinicians, searchable by state and other criteria.
There is no requirement in the standard mental health licensure criteria that a person have experience with athletes. Obviously though, if a person is going to present themselves and function as a sport and performance specialist, they should have ample experience working with athletes and performers. This need for expertise development is true for a specialist in any particular area of mental health (such as those who specialize in working with survivors of trauma, postpartum depression, etc.).
One way that licensed mental health professionals can demonstrate competence within sport and performance is by obtaining the CMPC designation. However, there are many qualified mental health clinicians, including psychologists, who have developed competency in sport and exercise through other routes. For instance, prior to my doctoral degree in counseling psychology, I obtained a master’s degree in kinesiology with an emphasis in sport and exercise psychology. My early practical experience came through a variety of opportunities to provide services within collegiate athletic departments. Additionally, my own history as an NCAA Division I college athlete provided a great source of connection and understanding with clientele from various sports backgrounds.
So How Do I Know What Type of Professional is Right for Me?
There is no single ideal sport psychology professional for everyone. The clinician who will be best for you, will be one with experience that best suits your needs. Do your research and consider asking around to teammates, athletic trainers, or coaches. If you feel you are generally doing well from a mental health standpoint, and are seeking specific consultation around performance or mental preparation, a sports-oriented professional with CMPC certification may be a great fit. If you are struggling with more general social, psychological, and emotional issues affecting your performance and/or mental well-being, you’d likely do best to find a licensed mental health provider with experience in your area(s) of concern.
Of course, many times the person seeking help may be uncertain as to what they need. In that case, I recommend going with the professional who has the broadest and deepest training and experience possible. In my view, that will be a licensed mental health clinician whose background includes work with athlete and performers. These individuals are trained to recognize the full range of issues–and in some cases, clinical diagnoses–impacting performance and overall mental health. Why is that important? Because you’re a human being first! Sports and performance are what you do, not who you are.
Another important consideration is finding a clinician who can appreciate and respond effectively to the impact of cultural factors affecting your lived experience and emotional well-being. When possible, it can be helpful to find a clinician who shares some aspect of that lived experience. At the very least, it’s wise to seek out a professional who appreciates the role of culture in healing and well-being, and is open to growing in their understanding of your identity in areas such as race, ethnicity, ideology, world view, spirituality, and gender.
Don’t be afraid to do some “shopping around” before you land on a provider! A detailed, well-organized website is a good first sign of a competent and effective professional, but consider following up directly with specific questions for a potential clinician. Although these are busy times for sport psychology clinicians, hopefully most that you contact will be willing to talk a bit about their expertise and potential fit with your particular needs. When you make an initial contact, letting them know some specifics about your situation may help ensure a return call or message. But of course, the level of detail you provide is entirely up to you. It’s not unreasonable to hold back some aspects of your situation until you feel trusting of the person’s respect for privacy and confidentiality.
One final word about fit, and that is around the “likability” factor. It’s well established that people benefit most from therapy when there is a strong rapport established between client and clinician. Thus, it’s reasonable to insist on a sport psychology professional to whom you feel a good degree of warmth and trust. However, it’s also worth remembering that effective counseling and psychological therapy sometimes involves feeling challenged. I think athletes can relate well to this adage about the process, as there is some parallel with finding a good coach: You might like the sport psychology clinician, but that doesn’t mean you’ll always like the work! Positive change often comes with some degree of discomfort. You will know you have a good sport psychology clinician when you feel supported in facing that discomfort.
I hope this information is helpful in demystifying the process of connecting with a sport psychology professional. As with many aspects of sport and performance, the process can take some time and effort. But the results can be incredibly rewarding, and in fact, nothing short of transformative!