Secrets of Sport Psychology

As always, I had a blast presenting at the CYSA Soccer Expo. It’s a great event, as you would expect with an entire conference center full of people who are passionate about the world’s game. When I present, I usually leave plenty of room for discussion, as I want to learn from the experiences of the coaches, parents, and players who come to hear me speak, as well as share my knowledge. This year was no exception. So thanks to all of you who came and participated.

As it was Karl’s theme for the Expo, the topic for my presentation was the, “Secrets of Sport Psychology.”

As sport psychology is a relatively new field, there are a lot of misconceptions about it. Thus, in order to reveal the secrets, I begin with Three Myths Of Sport Psychology:

Myth #1 - “I don’t need Sport Psychology, I’m not crazy!”

Unfortunately, our society tends to look down on the field of psychology. This attitude can be even more so in sports, where athletes are told they need to be strong and fix for themselves any problem they might have.

The fact is, sport psychology is for everyone who wants to improve on his or her performance. You can be the best dribbler in the state, but if you are nervous in front of a crowd, you can’t fully utilize your talent. Working with a sport psychologist is for the sanest among us!

Myth #2 – Sport Psychology is only useful when things aren’t going well.

Many athletes wait until they are mired in a slump to consider working with a sport psychology consultant. When things are going well, it generally doesn’t come to mind. This is like not taking your car into the shop until it breaks down. A little knowledge and some preventative upkeep go a long way towards ensuring peak performance!

Myth #3 – Sport Psychology is a quick fix for problems.

I frequently get calls from parents that go something like this: “My daughter has ODP tryouts next weekend, and she is very nervous. Can you help out?” This is like asking a coach to teach someone a complex skill like shooting in a week: it is possible, but not probable. Sport psychology consultants are mental skills trainers, just like a coach is a physical skills trainer.

Now that I have debunked these myths about sport psychology, I will let you in on the secrets.

Secret #1 – The existence of Sport Psychology

When I tell people what I do for a living, the most common response goes something like this: “That’s interesting. What is sport psychology?” So, educating people on the ins and outs of the field is part of my job description.

The mental part of the sport becomes more and more important as the athlete ages and the level of play increases. Most coaches are amateur psychologists, but there are just some things that the coach cannot do. In a holistic approach to athletics, sport psychology is a key piece of the puzzle, along with nutritionists, strength and conditioning coaches, and athletic trainers.

Secret #2 – Who can benefit by working with a sport psychology consultant?

Anyone who is looking to improve his or her performance can benefit from working with a sport psychology consultant. The main skills: goal setting, focus, visualization and positive self-talk, are fundamental skills for any athlete.

I have worked with athletes for a wide variety of reasons: from the ODP player who simply wanted to learn new ways to improve, to the aspiring ODP player who was lacking in confidence. From the player who was timid when coming back from a serious injury, to the player who was just not having fun playing soccer anymore. From the player who pushed herself too hard, to the player who didn’t push hard enough. All of these athletes benefited from our work together.

Secret #3 - Working with a sport psychology consultant

The vision most people have of a psychologist (see Myth #1 above) is lying down on a couch explaining your dreams as a guy with a grey beard and glasses nods and takes notes. This is actually pretty far from what we do.

As a sport psychology consultant, I see myself as part teacher and part counselor. To begin with, I generally meet with athletes for six weeks. It is important, for the first couple of sessions, to understand the athlete as a person, and begin setting goals for our work together. As I discover more about the athlete’s past and present experience, we begin working on the future by implementing mental skills.

Again, this is just like a coach would do with a physical skill: once I teach the skill, the athlete puts it into practice over the week. The next time we meet, we evaluate whether or not that skill helped and then progress to the next step.

The ultimate goal is that the athlete will incorporate these mental skills until they become second nature, and ultimately they will not need me anymore. Sometimes six sessions is enough to help the athlete to where they want to be, mentally. Often, it takes a little longer than this depending on the situation. Other times, athletes simply enjoy having an unbiased ear to talk about their experiences and continue working with me for longer periods of time.

Hopefully, these secrets won’t be so secret in a few years, and the myths will be replaced by the truth. I have been involved in youth soccer for over 30 years now as a player, a coach, a referee, a sport psychology consultant and a parent. The game has grown by leaps and bounds in that time, for better and for worse.

The better is that more and more kids are exposed to the game and are learning to love it. The skill level is not even in the same ballpark (I can already tell my five-year-old will be better than I ever was)! The flip side of this coin is that kids are asked to do more and more at a younger and younger age — more training, more travel and inevitably more pressure. This is where sport psychology can be such a helpful tool.

The secret is out: sport psychology works!

Brian Baxter is a Sport Psychology Consultant living in Portland, Ore. He works with individual athletes in person and by phone, and is available to travel. He is available for team sessions, coaching workshops, parent-education workshops and organizational facilitation. For more information, please go to, email at or call at (503) 309-3347.