A Career in Sport Psychology

by Clinton Gahwiler

Officially, the title ‘sport psychologist’, is not yet recognized in South Africa. Currently, there is not even a national body which regulates the profession. While there are countries such as Australia and the United States that are further along the path in this regard, even they have different views on who can do what within the field. As one of the younger sports sciences, there is therefore still a way to go before we have a single, clearly defined profession!

In the meantime, bottom-line: If you are wanting to work effectively in the field, I believe you need the following:

    To be a registered psychologist.
    To have expertise in, and be able to teach mental skills for sport.
    Be able to function comfortably and confidently in the sporting context, and relate easily to sportsmen and women.

You should also be prepared to work practically, and in a solution-focused manner. Sports people understandably have little patience for long-term processes focusing on deep, psycho-dynamic concepts. They want short practical interventions, with the ultimate goal of being made independent of the psychologist.

If you are an athlete or coach looking for a psychologist to work with, then most fundamentally important is that you feel comfortable working with and relating to the person. There are also non-psychologists working in the field, but just make sure that whoever you choose to deal with is credible, and has the all-round expertise to be able to adequately address your needs.

In a recent article in SA Sports Illustrated (February 2008 issue), "Sport psychology: Understanding it and applying it properly", I wrote that one should beware of those claiming responsibility for their clients’ successes. I have in the past been both lucky and unlucky in this regard, in at times having been viewed as a saviour when a team won immediately after my interventions, and similarly as a dud when a team lost in spite of my involvement! Realistically of course both represent a huge over-simplification - there are way too many factors involved in sport to simply disentangle the mind from all other factors and attribute any result directly to it. By working on the mind, we are increasing the likelihood of achieving the desired result.

Unfortunately, as the discipline of sport psychology is not yet regulated, there is also no clear study route towards working in the field. Depending on who you talk to (and their particular background), you are likely to encounter different advice.