sports psychologist & clinical psychology

Is Sports Psychology a Real Science?

Sports Psychologist Special to JohnFMurray.com – By Dr. John F Murray – September 21, 2010 – As the field of sports psychology evolves and more and more qualified and licensed practitioners hang out a shingle (something that is still moving enormously slow by the way), the media, potential clients and even current clients ask about the scientific validity and reliability of this science and profession. Well, they don’t really use the terms “reliability” and “validity” unless they’ve had some statistics or quantitative analysis classes, or just couldn’t turn off the PBS channel as a child, but these are the questions they are essentially asking: (1) Is sports psychology really a science; (2) Are sports psychologists basing their work on scientific findings, and (3) If sports psychology is a good science then why aren’t there more people using this in sports in the year 2010?

The answer to the first two questions is a resounding YES! Whether you are looking for coach speeches for your football team, to prepare for an upcoming triathlon, or to build your golf game over the coming year after finding out about sports psychology after taking a free psychological evaluation, there is no doubt that the research questions, hypotheses, data collection, and peer reviewed process in the field is every bit as scientific as studies in chemistry or biophysics. Good sports psychologists trained in the scientist practitioner tradition will also base their work on the findings emerging from these journals. It is definitely miles ahead of common sense advise even if many of the principles appear to be quite logical.

People tune into johnfmurray.com to read about many of the discussions in the popular media channels such as the Bloomberg wire, New York Times newspaper, or ESPN television. As a sport psychologist, I am contacted frequently by these outlets to give my opinion on a matter of current news interest. Maybe there was a player suicide or a team on a massive losing streak, and they all want my expert opinion. I gladly give it as any one of several legitimate sports psychologists would because it helps to educate the public and hopefully gives the field a little boost each time a story appears.

There are those who will claim that sports psychology lacks scientific merit because you cannot always predict team and individual behavior and success. The problem, however, has nothing to do with the science. The science, like the traditional field of psychology, has been around and doing well since the 1800s, and the predictability is sometimes hard there too, but the real issue is the subject of study – human beings! We humanoids tend to be very hard to pin down and control. Our behavior and thoughts are extremely variable, and we would want it that way. Add a contest between two highly intelligent tennis players, or even more complex between two teams of 11 of the best athletes in the world, and you are going to have a nightmare of potential variables bouncing around. Even the most famous sports psychologists are going to tell you that it is not possible to control outcome 100%. The best we can hope for is to get that team or that athlete prepared to be their best on game day. Whether they win or not depends on whether the opponent cooperates, and if they are competitive you can be sure they will not. So you can have the best game in your entire history and lose, or perform like the Bad News Bears and win. It’s really about performance and not outcome, even though we all want to win.

The fun and inspiring sports psychology quotes on JohnFMurray.com and the mental tests are ways to get people’s attention and to realize that this great service exists in the first place, because many still do not know about it. Famous coach speeches might grab the headlines and we’ve all heard about one more for the gipper or about winning one for the teammate who died suddenly, but why the hype? What about the day to day training by a legitimate and qualified/licensed psychologist/sports psychologist who just rolls up his or her sleeves every day along with the athletes and coaches and does his or her best job to both teach and inspire, to inform about the science and deliver the tools needs to raise performance.

Like all battles, sports psychology competition is won in the trenches over lunch meetings, late night phone calls, office visits, crisis intervention, and even babysitting of famous athletes at times. Earl Morrall, whom I had the pleasure of meeting a year ago in Sarasota, quarterbacked the most successful NFL team in history to 71% of the team’s plays (1972 Miami Dolphins). Many today do not even know his name because he is such an outstanding and confident gentleman who sought little publicity and just did his job. Earl told me that the difference between going 17-0 and having an average season was not huge, but “doing a little bit more each day.” I have also found this in calculating my Mental Performance Index (MPI) scores. The team that scores at 54% percent of perfection almost always destroys a team riding along at 52% of perfection. Small edges are actually huge! Get the point? Sound like the trenches again?

Given that we are in the trenches and seeking any kind of advantage possible to slightly elevate our performance, doesn’t it make sense to turn to science and years of training and experience found in qualified sports psychologists, rather than wearing the latest energy bracelet, or listening to some wide toothed motivational speaker? How about going to the town psychic? Get real folks. I did in going to graduate school from 1992 to 1998, getting a couple masters degrees and a PhD at the University of Florida, then going to the only sports psychology internship in the country that was also an approved APA psychology internship, and then doing a postdoctoral fellowship the following year. This process took until 2000 before I was able to open my office. I did it the right way and took forever and it cost a lot of money, but at least I knew I was gaining the training needed to do it properly to help my clients. Some of the successes I’ve had together with my clients over the past 10 years were not accidents at all, just solid trench warfare informed by science and inspired by passion.

Great coach speeches are necessary if you are a coach, but think of the value of bringing in a legitimate and licensed sports psychologist who can work at both the individual and team level to help get a team get ready like never before. Even before I opened my practice in 2000 I saw the value of this kind of work on a consistent basis. In working with two tennis teams at two different colleges in back to back years, and seeing each team’s players once a week for 45-50 weeks, each one of those teams had their best season in their entire history. It was no accident. It was just hard work on the mental game. Anyone can do it. But they need to first get out of the 14th century, realize that the science and profession of sports psychology is alive in the right places, and maybe they too can realize the biggest comeback in the history of their sport, win a Super Bowl, or grab a Stanley Cup. Resist the gleaming white teeth, the reputation of the ex-player speaker, the allure of the psychic friend’s network, and slow talking Southern drawl speaker who relates well but offers little insight beyond common sense, the ridiculousness of the energy bracelet … get real and get with the times! Get back in the trench where you belong and where you can raise your game a few percentage points and win a championship!

If you enjoyed this little adventure as we strolled down the avenue of legitimate and licensed sports psychology, call me now to help you or your team at 561-596-9898.

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One Response to “Is Sports Psychology a Real Science?”

  1. Kristie McKinley says:

    Hi, I wanted to know if i could interview you for my class? I can email the questions to you?

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