Sports psychology is a specific branch of psychology devoted to supporting the well-being and optimal performance of athletes. Some definitions also include systemic issues surrounding sports teams and organizations, as well as services for coaches, parents of athletes, and others who are deeply involved in sports culture.
Sports psychology can cover sports participation in a wide range of settings, from amateur athletes participating in recreational sports all the way up to Olympians and professional athletes.
Being involved in sports is often an asset in one’s life, offering unique opportunities to work toward goals, bond with peers, and find supportive communities. However, sports can also be stressful or, in some cases, psychologically harmful. If challenges around sports become particularly intense or frequent, they can lead to mental health symptoms and interfere with the activities of daily life.
Prevalence of mental health challenges related to sports
Because sports psychology is a relatively young field, it’s hard to know precisely how common sports-related mental health issues are.
However, the available research indicates that mental health challenges are relatively common amongst student-athletes attending college in the US. A report from the NCAA notes that college student-athletes are about as likely as their non-athlete peers to experience depression and anxiety, but that they are less likely than non-athletes to have sought mental health treatment for these challenges. Another study found that elite athletes more generally are also about as likely as the general population to experience common mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
What are some symptoms related to issues around sports?
Symptoms that might cause someone to seek out a sports psychologist vary widely, but a few of the most common ones include:
- Anxiety or worry: You may be frequently preoccupied with thoughts about sports participation or athletic training and struggle to focus on other things due to anxiety. These symptoms may also interfere with your athletic success, which can compound the problem.
- Sadness or depression: Issues around sports participation can lead to feeling sad, hopeless, depressed, or uncertain of your value as an athlete.
- General stress: Your concerns may cause you to have trouble sleeping or experience physical symptoms including muscle tension, headaches, and digestive troubles.
- Conflicts with coaches, teammates, or loved ones: Sports psychologists sometime aid sports organizations in resolving interpersonal conflict. Stress around sports may also cause strain in individuals’ relationships with their friends, families, or significant others.
- Issues around eating or body image: Because sports are so focused on physical performance, they are often associated with body image issue and/or disordered eating.
Different types of issues around sports
Sports psychologists can provide support around a wide variety of sports-related issues, but the most common scenarios include:
- Support for optimal performance: Some athletes work with psychologists proactively on strategies for increased confidence, focus, and emotional regulation. These athletes may not have any negative symptoms but are instead interested in using psychology to enhance their athletic performance.
- Stress management: Athletes often deal with stressors that non-athletes do not, from complicated schedules to pressure to perform well. Sports psychologists can work with athletes (and coaches, parents, and others involved in sports) on strategies for managing stress and preventing burnout.
- Eating disorders: Athletes may be more prone to eating disorders and body image issues than non-athletes.
- Substance use or abuse: In certain setting, athletics can be associated with a higher risk of unhealthy use of drugs and alcohol.
- Injuries and career transitions: You may find you need psychological support around coping with injuries, career transitions, or other life changes that alter the role sports plays in your life.
- Systemic issues: Teams or individuals may seek out support in coping with issues affecting an entire team or community, including racism, sexism, hazing, and substance abuse.
- Team building: Teams may also work with sports psychologists on strategies for greater success, even when there is no specific problem that needs to be addressed.
What to do if you’re experiencing challenges related to sports participation
If you’re experiencing challenges related to sports participation, you can explore the following options:
- Therapy. Find a therapist who can help you address your issues around sports and learn tools and techniques to improve any mental health symptoms. (See more tips below on selecting a therapist.)
- Meditation or mindfulness practices. Mindfulness practices can help you relax, deal with sports-related stress, and make room for reflection on the role that sports plays in your life. Studies have shown that these practices can help reduce the symptoms of stress and anxiety that sometimes come with sports participation.
- Connect with other friends and loved ones. Spending time with friends, family, and significant others outside an athletic setting can help you gain perspective on your situation and remind you of the resources you have outside of sports.
- Hotlines. If you’re having thoughts of suicide or need immediate support, you can always call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at at 1-800-273-8255. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline at 1-800-622-4357 can also help you locate resource and treatment options.
What to look for in a therapist for issues related to sports
Therapists differ in their approaches to treating sports-related challenges. Some have training specifically in sports psychology, while others may use more general approaches to mental health concerns. Common approaches include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
- Mindfulness Practices
- Interpersonal Psychotherapy
- Existential Psychotherapy
New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.