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FEATURE: How Can I Help?

by Miguel Humara, Ph.D.

As a sport psychologist, I am frequently approached by coaches, athletes and parents who ask about the types of services that I offer. Frequently I find myself answering “It depends on the problem or lack there of.” Usually I get a funny look accompanied by the word “WHAT???” You see, sport psychology services are not just interventions for individuals who have problems, they can be used for the prevention of problems as well.

In general, psychologists divide prevention into three categories – primary, secondary, and tertiary – which are then used to guide the services that are provided. The distinctions can affect the length of treatment as well as its format. This article is intended to educate you about the types of help that a sport psychologist can provide for you.

Primary Prevention

This type of intervention occurs before the outbreak of a problem in the individual or a team. It is one of the most common forms of prevention treatment that sport psychologists deliver and is also one of the most flexible. In fact, most of these interventions are often offered in a group format and are completed in one session.

Typically the topics cover the basics of performance enhancement. Just as you must first learn the basic skills necessary for success in your sport, a sport psychologist can help you learn the basic mental skills that are necessary on the field of competition. Stress reduction and visualization are two of the most frequently addressed subjects in this type of intervention with athletes since they are global to all sports. Goal setting is another subject that comes to mind.

Coaches often can benefit from this type of prevention service as well. For example, first time coaches often need help in figuring out just what to do. How do I run a practice? How do I develop a sense of team unity and purpose? How is coaching girls different then boys? The reality is that coaches must often function as sport psychologist themselves; therefore, it is specially important that they learn how to teach these skills to others.

Secondary Prevention

Secondary prevention services are aimed at keeping a problem which has just begun from getting worse after it has started. Depending on the problem, these services are offered in either a group or individual setting but due to their nature, they are often sport specific. They are often time limited and can be completed in two to five sessions. Several areas are listed below where a qualified sport psychologist can be of help.

Probably the biggest problem that plagues athletes is anxiety. While some levels of anxiety are necessary in order to achieve peak performances, it can lead to problems during competition. The key lies in teaching athletes how to monitor and control their anxiety. For example, if an individual is too nervous before a competition, he probably would benefit from learning some anxiety reduction techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing, visualization or self-hypnosis. However, if an individual typically comes out flat for competitions, he will probably benefit from confidence building exercises or arousal development techniques. As you can probably imagine, the interventions used here should be tailored to the sport. That is to say, a golfer does not get “up” for a match in the same way that a boxer does.

Another area where a sport psychologist can be of use relates to issues of the body. More specifically, recovery from injury and weight management are two problem that are frequently dealt with by sport psychologist in this area. For the most part, interventions will be conducted on an individual basis but group formats are also helpful here. Exercise adherence is a particularly good subject to be covered in a group format since many individuals can learn from the things that other athletes do to stick to their training regiments.

Finally, when coaches notice that they are having team problems, they should actively seek the help of a sport psychologist. We are experts at pin pointing the root of the problem that causes friction between team members and intervening to resolve these problems.

Tertiary Prevention

Tertiary Prevention is usually implemented once a problem is severe and needs to be alleviated. As you can imagine, this type of performance enhancement intervention is typically carried out in an individual format because the issues that are raised are typically sensitive. Often athletes must be by a sport psychologist seen for an extended period of time. So what types of problems require this type of intervention?

Substance abuse and dependence readily comes to mind. Usually this problem arises from the athletes need to alleviate a problem that they are experiencing. Perhaps they are having difficulty dealing with anxiety and they are engaging in self-medicating behavior. Maybe an elite athlete is having problems dealing with being away from home and his support system.

Another type of problem that fits into this category is not achieving your potential. I remember one athlete that I had who was a world class golfer. During practice rounds he would tear up the course but when tournament time came he could never match the score that he had pout up just the day before. While one might think that this was just a case of nerves; after several sessions, it became evident that his problem was a fear of success. Once we worked through the issues that were at the core, he was consistently able to post the big numbers (or should I say the low numbers, this was a golfer after all),

Conclusions

As you can see, my answer “It depends on the problem or lack there of” is not so far off. I believe that any athlete can benefit from the services of a sport psychologist, even if they don’t have a “problem.” A good sport psychologist will base his or her interventions on the model described above to help individuals achieve peak performances consistently.