The field of Sport and Performance Psychology (SPP) is designed to help athletes become the best version of themselves – both on and off the court. Conceptually, SPP involves addressing overlapping spheres of content—one being performance enhancement and the other being mental health.
In the performance enhancement sphere, student-athletes are taught interventions (e.g., visualization, goal-setting, emotional regulation, activation) to maximize their performance on the field. In the mental health sphere, athletes talk to a trained professional who can treat symptoms of mental health disorders, address relational concerns, identify issues with communication – basically working to help the student-athlete stay or get on his/her center.
In reality, these two spheres overlap. Mental health issues negatively impact performance – more for some than others. For some individuals, the spheres represent an eclipse wherein a breakup with a girlfriend (or persistent mood disorder symptoms) results in poor performance on the field. However, with the help of SPP, athletes can learn to compartmentalize their mental health issues and life concerns off the court so that their on-court performance is minimally impacted, thus reducing the overlap of these two spheres.
Underneath all of this is the reality is that athletes are not robots. They think, they hope, they feel, they hurt. They are people who are susceptible to the same mental health struggles as non-athletes – sometimes even higher levels of those struggles, given the pressures to perform.
A student-athlete’s success stories are public, but when they fail, that, too, is in front of people – in person and electronically. And it is commented on – often harshly – by anyone with a keyboard and opinion on social media. That is where SPP professionals are invaluable – to help athletes manage these realities, to help them compartmentalize the negative aspects of sport performance to move on to the next play or game, and to help them maximize the positive aspects of sport participation.
Whereas SPP has been an established practice in European sport, the United States has only recently begun to get onboard. Olympic, professional and college teams have recently increased the presence of SPP professionals working with their athletes, implementing performance enhancement techniques and addressing mental health issues.
However, these athletes represent the top of the pyramid, whereas high school student-athletes represent the broader base to that sport participation triangle. In high school, a higher number of student-athletes who are going through an inherently difficult developmental process can be accessed – arguably, these adolescents need SPP services even more. So, high school athletic programs that choose to implement SPP services provide tremendous benefits to their student-athletes, coaches and teams.
At Indiana University, we have one of the top training programs in the nation wherein doctoral students and advanced master’s students have the opportunity to gain clinical practicum experiences at local high schools, a symbiotic relationship wherein access to training sites can be exchanged for pro-bono or drastically reduced-fee professional psychological services. Athletic directors like Mike Mossbrucker at Mooresville High School and principals like Dirk Akerman at Edgewood High School are examples of forward- thinking administrators who highly value the well-being of their student-athletes, making them great partners with us at IU.
The utilization data from our program at Indiana indicates that high school student-athletes are using the SPP services at a high rate. They feel better about having someone with whom to talk. They learn ways to cope. They are able to manage difficult relationship issues. They discover techniques designed to help them focus and perform. They are able to communicate better with teammates and coaches. They enjoy sport more. And that joy is the reason they started playing in the first place, and often the reason they push themselves so hard to improve and succeed.
There is great value in having a professional-in-training for the student-athletes to talk to – someone who doesn’t exude the implicit (or explicit) pressure that mom or dad does; someone who doesn’t put pen to lineup card; someone who doesn’t judge them for being honest, vulnerable and strong as they face the stigma of asking for help; and someone who is there for them.
And when they get hurt? The Injury Protocol, a program that involves a collaborative relationship between SPP and Athletic Training, becomes an essential part of the treatment and rehabilitation regimen, given the complex and impactful psychological components of injury and recovery. Orlin Watson and his staff at Bloomington High School North are amazing colleagues who recognize the value of addressing the psychosocial aspect of injury, thereby making their own jobs easier to do.
This symbiotic arrangement is not without challenges. The school day makes it difficult to schedule individual sessions, and it can be difficult to find time to schedule group/team-based programming. Not all administrators or coaches are comfortable relinquishing control and trusting outsiders to deliver their message. And with public schools facing increasing expectations with decreasing funding support, even a nominal programmatic cost (e.g., paying for the one hour of weekly clinical supervision in exchange for the 20-plus hours of weekly services) may cause a reaction. But when SPP is appropriately viewed as an investment in the well-being of their student-athletes, forward-thinking administrators recognize the value and need of SPP, and they make the right decision to partner with programs like ours at IU.
Jesse Steinfeldt, Ph.D., CMPC, is an associate professor in the Counseling and Educational Psychology Department at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. He is director of the IU Sport and Performance Psychology Practicum and is a Certified Mental Performance Consultant (CMPC).