I believe that I am currently the best sports psychologist that I can be.
So what stage in someone’s career have they notched up enough experience to start giving advice? Some might suggest that it’s best to wait until toward the very end of their career or even into retirement. The issue with that is you’re likely to be making suggestions well after you were at your best.
If your profession requires a lot of brain power then I am of the view that the ideal time to be giving tips is somewhere in the middle. I started working as a sports psychologist shortly after completing my Master’s degree in Sports Psychology from the University of Western Sydney (Australia) in 2005. I was 28 years old and very keen to start working with sporting clients – some would say I was too keen.
Condor Performance came about due to the lack of jobs out there for qualified sports psychologists. My mindset was simple – ‘I can’t get frustrated by the lack of opportunities if I haven’t tried to create some for myself’.
In the fifteen years since I have gone from being 28 to 43 year of age. I am now married to ‘the only one’, have two amazing kids and now live near Moss Vales (New South Wales) which is half way to Canberra. Oh, and Condor Performance has grown from a one-man band with a few clients to a growing team of performance psychologists who work with hundreds of athletes and coaches from around the world.
If I am right, that the best time to be waxing lyrical about ‘how to be the best sports psychologist you can be’ is about halfway through the journey – then for me, that would be about now. I have worked full time for 15 years and suspect I have about the same number of years left in me.
With this in mind, I have put together a short list of suggestions. Of course, if you are either a current sports psychologist or trying to become one then these will be both immediately and obviously useful. But as I look down at the list that I jotted down on paper earlier it’s already obvious to me that many of the ideas are likely to be handy for sporting coaches too. In particular sporting coaches who are already aware of the huge role that sports psychology plays in terms of helping athletes become the best that they can be.
Quite frankly, I am over trying to convince anyone that the mind (the brain) is an important aspect of human performance and that it can and should be targeted for improvement.
Tip One: Know Your Sports
Having an in-depth understanding of as many major sports as possible is, in my view, the foundation of being an excellence sports psychologist. There are many reasons for this but the most prominent are:
- A good understanding of how sports works will allow you to build rapport with clients of those sports in a way that nothing else will
- If you work less on mental health issues and more on performance challenges (like I do) then it’s likely the conversations will become very “sporty”. From sessions with golfers that are 100% dedicated to improving different types of pre-shot routine for various types of golf shot to workshops with gymnastics coaches who want views on the different mental demands of the different types of gymnastics disciplines and apparatus
My own knowledge of sport comes mostly from my childhood. I remember watching every ball of every cricket test match during my long school holidays. I remember creating my own tennis scoreboard using an old whiteboard so I could play umpire during Wimbledon matches. So you could say that I have been studying the sports side of sports psychology since I was about five or six years old. And South Africa during the 1980s was a great place to feast on live sport – as the bans from international competitions meant that regional and interstate rivalries were at there most frequent and engaging.
Over the years I have employed and supervised dozens of sports psychologists. I have, at times, been dumbfounded by the lack of passion and knowledge that many of them have when it comes to sport. And we’re not talking about boutique sports here like dragon boating or synchronised swimming. We are talking about major sports that at certain times of year are everywhere like golf, tennis, football and basketball.
In fact, so important is sporting expertise for me that I include it as part of the interview process. Nowadays, I am less intense but still require incoming sport and performance psychologists to self-asses their own sporting knowledge.
Universities with sports psychology courses take note – include sport as part of the student’s requirements and thanks me later.
Can you learn a passion and proficiency for sports even if your childhood was not like mine? Of course. If mental challenges like managing emotions and improving motivation can be overcome then so too can your understanding of sports. But it’s not going to happen by accident – you’d better get to work.
Tip Two: Be(come) Likeable and Smart
I know this is a controversial one but I am writing an opinion piece here so hear me out. The best sports psychologists I have met – some of whom I am very fortunate to have to work for me – have all been very likeable and very intelligent. By likeable I mean you’d almost prefer to be their friend instead of their boss. By intelligent, I mean super smart. The kind that doesn’t require a calculator when going through some of the numbers we gather once a month to monitor our own performance as “performance psychologists’.
You would imagine that in order to complete a university degree – the step before pursuing a career as a sports psychologist – you’d need to have at least some degree of mental quickness and people skills. Alas, this doesn’t always happen which of course makes my job of finding suitable candidates when we’re looking to expand so much harder.
Tip Three: Never Stops Improving
The Japanese have a lovely word for it Kai-zen – which loosely translated into English means ‘constant improvement’. Maybe all professions fall victim to this. Once fully qualified is can be frightfully difficult to get some sports psychologists to actively continue their professional development. At Condor Performance we decided that prevention was always better than a cure and have, for as long as I can remember, paid for our psychologists to attend relevant conferences and other CPD events. By paid for I mean we both purchase their accreditation and allow them to attend during working time – not as part of their own leave.
I suspect some of my team think we’re doing it for their benefit but in actual fact, we’re doing is for ours. The best athletes and coaches in the world will only want to work with the best support staff in the world. It’s a horse and cart or chicken and egg thing.
Tip Four: Convert Frustration into Fuel
At the time of writing (2019), if you get a fancy sign with the words “Local Sports Psychologist” and stick it up by your front gate or door very, very few potential clients will come knocking. In the same way that some sports are organically very frustrating (golf and cricket are the first two to come to mind) so too is the profession of ‘sports psychologist’. In other words, nothing comes easy.
Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying there are professions out there without challenges and roadblocks but ours would have to rank inside the top 10% of ‘most difficult to convert years spent studying into take-home pay per week’.
I have had many conversions with sports psychologist colleagues (not Condor Performance employees) where the frustration was so much that it felt like I was in a session with a golfer who just couldn’t win his first tournament regardless of how hard he tried.
In fact, one chat over coffee in particular really sticks in my memory where I used such a golf analogy. Golf is frustrating ‘on purpose’ so that only the mentally tough would ‘find a way’. If it’s too hard for you, take up jogging instead.
Tip Five: Become A Sporting Coach Yourself
Ok, honesty time. This is the only one of my tips that I currently don’t do myself but it’s not due to a lack of motivation but a lack of time (I would like to be around as much as possible whilst my children are still young).
If so much of coaching is actually sports psychology under a pseudonym put your money where your mouth is. Start using your training to help your local sports teams. Of course, three barriers are likely to stop you (excluding the barrier of you never thought about taking up coaching until now).
decsionmakers will let you. That’s right, despite 6 or 7 years of formal training in how to make humans perform better your local netball team is still more likely to pick a former great as their head coach
- You don’t want the accountability that comes with being Head Coach. Rightly or wrongly when we help sporting clients to improve their mental toughness there is rarely, if any, accountability if we don’t actually get the job done. But ask any coach at any level what will happen if they can’t produce results – they’ll know the answer
- No time to do both. This is my excuse. If I didn’t need to work (the majority of my working time at Condor Performance is actually spent growing the business and on essential admin tasks) then one of the first things I’d do is offer my services pro bono at one or two of the local clubs near me in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. By I know that doing a good job – or the best job possible – would take up a lot of time and so this will have to wait until my kids and my company are all a little bit older.