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How Sport Psychology Can Work for You: Lessons from NCAA Athletic Administrators

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Where high performance sports exist, psychological demands and athletes’ abilities to cope with them are often the unseen elements influencing performance1. Enhancing performance through psychological skills training and helping athletes deal with critical developmental, personal, and psychosocial issues are specialties of many sport psychology professionals (SPPs).  Therefore, in recent years, several coaches (e.g., Nick Saban2,3 or John Calipari4) have commented publically on the important role SPPs played in their title runs. However, most SPPs are behind the scenes providing services in a quiet and confidential manner to help student-athletes, coaches, and athletic departmental staff deal with the many demands that have their roots in the mind5.  Yet, while any coach can tell you, no two athletes are going to have the exact same skill set; the same is true for SPPs. Finding the right skill set begins with defining the position that is the best match for each athletic department. This article helps to outline some of those options and provide examples of what a nation wide sample of NCAA athletic administrators had to say about sport psychology positions at their colleges and universities. Specifically, each of the following three sections will provide athletic administrators, coaches, and other university affiliates information to consider when weighing in on the integration of sport psychology positions at their respective institutions:

  • Options: Common options that can exist for the format of a sport psychology position
  • Directors’ Voices: What athletic administrators have to say about developing sport psychology positions
  • Questions: Questions to ask at your institutions when considering integrating sport psychology services

The data provided is based on a survey of NCAA DI, DII, and DIII athletic administrators (head athletic directors and select assistant or associate athletic directors) during the spring of 2013. 

Options
The types of sport psychology positions that currently exist vary a great deal from one university to the next. In a sample of 96 NCAA DI institutions, Voight and Callaghan (2001) found that there were at least ten different kinds of sport psychology positions that varied based upon department affiliations and time-commitment. In the past decade, creative formations and increased demand for sport psychology services have seen even greater variability in position design. In a review of previous literature, Connole et al. (in press) identified five characteristics of sport psychology positions that varied from one university to the next: 1) time commitment, 2) affiliation, 3) payment, 4) services, and 5) clients.  For these characteristics the following options were identified as the most common options present for the aforementioned characteristics.


Time Commitment

Affiliation

Payment

Services

Clients

Full-time with Athletics

Athletic Department

Annual Salary

Performance Consulting

Athletes

Part-time with Athletics

Academic Department

Fees for Services

Mental Health Counseling

Teams & Staff

 

Counseling Center

Teams’ Budgets

Both Performance & Mental Health

Athletes, Teams & Staff

 

Private Practice

 

 

 

These options represent those that have been addressed in scholarly publications. While these options may represent some of the more common choices when structuring a sport psychology position, these are not the only options that can exist. Other options to consider include additional roles, teaching duties, advising responsibilities, committee involvements, office location, psychological testing, and division of duties between sports (e.g., male vs. female sports).

Directors’ Voices
Developing new sport psychology positions
Recent surveys found 38-61% of responding NCAA DI institutions and 10-23% of both DII and DIII institutions reported having access to sport psychology services (Connole et al., in press; Kornspan & Duve, 2006; Wrisberg et al., 2012). Of those who did not have access to sport psychology services, the following responses were provided regarding their intent to develop a sport psychology position in the next five years: 

Response

Count

Quotes

Yes

14

“We are developing a plan to add a position.”

“[We] want to start a center in conjunction with a graduate program”

Maybe

35

“Will be based on available budget support”

“We are noticing that this is a legitimate need for staff and student-athletes given the changing dynamics in the athletics culture and the current generation of student-athletes and their ability to balance societal/social/academic/sport demands.”

No

23

“Budgets are limited, it would be a great service but not feasible - probably even 5 years from now.”

“[We] do not have the money to hire.  There are greater needs for our department and college.”

Exploring the need for more than one sport psychology professional
Budget has historically been the primary issue cited by athletic administrators to explain why their universities did not have sport psychology services (Kornspan & Duve, 2006).  Therefore, to understand departmental needs independent of finances, the question was asked, if budget were not an issue would there be a need for more than one SPP in order to meet the needs of their athletic department. It is clear that taking budget off the table is never truly possible. Even when asked to consider needs alone many athletic directors cited budgets as the explanation for why they do not feel more than one SPP would be needed. Alternately, there were numerous athletic administrators who cited a need for division of responsibilities related to specific sports, mental health vs. performance, male vs. female sports, team vs. individual sports, various specialties (e.g., eating disorders, alcohol and other drugs, learning disabilities) and sheer numbers of teams, coaches, and student-athletes. Here are a few representative quotes for or against the need for more than one SPP:

Response

Count

Quotes

Yes

37

“Between performance and mental health, more than one is needed on all campuses.”

“With 600+ student-athletes and in order to be truly effective it is about creating opportunities.  One person can not truly serve all those teams and students.  You need to have 2-4 on staff if budget were not an issue in order to be truly effective.”

“As is our current situation, we likely would use a menu of sports psychology professionals covering a diverse range of expertise and specialization”

No

25

“I think one would be busy and consistent with the patient care load unless they would need to travel with a team then a second individual would need to utilized.”

“I think our student-athlete population is such that one would be full-time person would be sufficient.”

“Probably not the first couple of years until the athletes got used to dealing with a [sport] psychologist.”

Speaking Freely: Open-Ended Comments
Athletic administrators also provided a host of additional comments regarding sport psychology and NCAA athletics. These comments represent the individuals who were particularly interested in sharing their experiences with sport psychology. Comments fell in the following primary themes:

Response Theme

Count

Quotes

Position Information:
Detailed the specific position and services at their universities

26

“At our institution, we've distinguished between our Sports Psychologist and our Psychologist.  It's been an important distinction.”

“I like our model where our sports psychology pro is employed by the campus counseling center (but funded by transfer of funds from athletics) he is full time with athletics in practice.  [He] definitely does general counseling as well as performance coaching.  Our staff, coaches and athletes utilize our Sports Psychology Pro.  He has made a tremendously positive impact on our department.”

Supportive:
Positive statements in support of sport psychology services

22

“Sport Psychology services can make [a] meaningful impact on student-athlete performance and welfare.”

“Hugely valuable.  Working on getting a new one - hopefully full time.”

Recommendations: Suggestions for effective sport psychology services

7

“It is important that sport psychologist understand how to communicate effectively with not only athletes, but coaches as well.”

“It is very important to make sure you have the RIGHT person.”

Budget:
Statements that the budget is the largest barrier

4

“Budget is the biggest obstacle in our case.”

“Most who do not provide more robust services are unable, from a resource standpoint, to do so.”

Unsupportive: Negative statements in opposition to sport psychology services

0

None

Questions
The Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) recommends searches for sport psychology consultants begin by identifying the types of sport psychology services you wish to receive8.  This can be easier said than done. In order to navigate this process the following questions might be useful in determining the needs, niche, and structure of sport psychology services that would be the best fit for your institution:

  • Could bringing in a sport psychology professional enhance athletic performance and/or personal well-being of our student-athletes?
  • Is there a greater need for mental health services for student-athletes than is currently being met by existing university services?
  • Is there a greater need for enhancing performance related psychological skills (e.g., confidence, composure under pressure, concentration, team cohesion, leadership) than is currently available at my institution?
  • Are coaches and student-athletes interested in having performance or mental health related services available?
  • Who will the sport psychology professional(s) work with (e.g., working with coaches and administrators on leadership development, early identification and treatment of mental health issues, integrating psychological skills into training or with the student-athletes directly)?
  • Can one professional meet the various needs of our department or are multiple individuals needed (e.g., one for men’s and one for women’s sports, one for mental health and one for performance, or a head SPP and team of graduate students or interns)?
  • Can we include a full-time or part-time position in the athletic department budget?
  • Can services and salary be shared with another department (e.g., an academic department, sports medicine, or counseling and psychological services)?
  • Are there speaker, student-athlete development, or other yearly funds available to bring in sport psychology professionals for short-term consultations?
  • Are teams interested in having their own sport psychology professionals? If so, do team budgets provide enough resources for teams to bring in individuals who are unaffiliated with the university?

There is no one size fits all position or sport psychology professional, but if universities are truly interested in finding a way to integrate sport psychology services, it can be done. These questions, department wide discussions, and surveys of student-athletes and coaches are great places to start. In the end it is important to consider all the departmental needs and really ask, “Are we doing enough to promote excellence and provide psychological support on and off the playing fields?”

Administrators, coaches, and any individual seeking qualified sport psychology professionals can contact AASP [info@appliedsportpsych.org] for help designing positions and job postings, advertising to sport psychology professionals, and ultimately finding qualified candidates that meet your needs.

The Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) promotes the ethical practice, science and advocacy of sport and exercise psychology. Founded in 1986, AASP is an international, multidisciplinary, professional organization that offers certification to qualified professionals in the field of sport and exercise psychology. With more than 1,700 members in 42 countries, AASP is a worldwide leader, sharing research and resources with the public via its website, www.appliedsportpsych.org.

References

By Ian Connole
K-State Athletics

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