As fans rushed the Williams Arena court following Minnesota’s upset of top-ranked Indiana last month, Dr. Justin Anderson was tempted to join the throng of students and alumni.
After all, Anderson may have played a part in the Gophers’ biggest victory of the season without scoring a single point.
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Prior to the game, the Gophers met with Anderson, one of two licensed sports psychologists on staff at the University of Minnesota. The team had lost two straight games by a combined 47 points and needed a boost to its psyche prior to hosting the Hoosiers. The details of Anderson’s message to the Gophers haven’t been shared by either side, but something seemed to click for Minnesota in the win.
“It’s not credit to me,” insisted Anderson, whose wife, Carly, is also a sports psychologist at Minnesota. “That’s all their hard work.”
For the Gophers, meeting with a sports psychologist was nothing new. Coach Tubby Smith said his teams have done so every year during his six seasons on campus. But their late February meeting with Anderson came at a particularly crucial time, when Minnesota’s season was starting to slip away.
“We all need somebody to lift us up,” Smith said after his team’s upset. “I look upstairs to the good Lord, myself, and my wife, she can help me out. But yes, especially athletes today, everybody uses somebody or something to help them, especially when you’re going through some troubled times, tough times.
There are times when a sports psychologist can help a team establish the right frame of mind during trying times and get it back to the way things were during previously optimal performances. There are also instances in which the psychologist will simply help set goals before a season.
Assisting with the mental game or attempting to gain a competitive edge is only one part of sports psychology — a term that is a bit tough to narrow down, even for those who practice it on a daily basis. Most will agree, however, that it is most commonly separated into two overarching concepts.
“Sports psychology is one of the hardest terms to define because there’s so many facets to it,” said Dr. Cody Commander, a sports psychologist at the University of Oklahoma. “One is the performance piece, which is used to develop mental skills and motivation and concentration and confidence and all of that stuff. The other side is the mental health part. That one doesn’t differentiate too much from regular psychology or counseling because you’re still providing mental health services.”
Those services may include working with student-athletes dealing with anything from anything from stress management to unhealthy relationships to depression. Most students deal with some forms of stress that accompany the college life. Couple those stressors with the rigors of competing in college athletics, however, and things become intensified for student-athletes.
That’s where universities like Minnesota, Oklahoma and a growing number of others are finding sports psychologists to be a valuable asset. At Minnesota, for example, Justin and Carly Anderson work in the athletic department. Their offices are across the way from the football complex and housed in the same building as many other student-athlete facilities, making it easy for Gophers players to stop by for appointments instead of shuffling across campus to meet with a counselor. The husband and wife team works closely with the school’s athletic trainers and the medical staff, who often have an easier time keeping a pulse on Minnesota’s hundreds of student-athletes.
The Andersons were brought on board in 2011, when the university realized the need for on-staff sports psychologists. The school wanted to hire one male and one female to provide a balance, and the Andersons happened to fit the bill perfectly.
Two years later, they’re part of a growing trend in college athletics.
“Nationwide, college campuses are dealing with more significant and prominent mental health issues,” Carly Anderson said. “That was I think the most pressing piece, not so much let’s improve free-throw shooting or confidence, but let’s help these athletes that maybe have some more mental health concerns.”
The proper credentials
The terms “mental game coach” or “sports psychotherapist” don’t equate to being a sports psychologist, but they’re often confused by the general public as being one in the same. A sports psychologist requires a license as a psychologist, plus training and coursework specific to sports psychology. A mental game coach, meanwhile, might be able to help with in-game strategies but can’t do anything in the way of mental health issues.
That mislabeling of others outside their realm is perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing sports psychologists who are actually licensed and trained in the field.
“I think lots of people use that label and mean lots of different things by it that kind of encompass it,” said Dr. Kelli Moran-Miller, a sports psychologist at the University of Iowa. “I think what I find a lot when I’m talking with people, it’s kind of like, ‘What does sports psychology mean?’ I think the field needs to be including in our efforts to clearly define that.”
Though organizations such as the American Psychological Association and the Association for Applied Sports Psychology (AASP) exist, there is no organizational body that oversees licensing for sports psychology, Commander said. AASP was formed in 1986 and, according to its website, “promotes the development of science and ethical practice in the field of sport psychology.” It includes over 1,700 members and offers certification — but not licensing — to sports psychologists.
Even the AASP, in one of its published position papers, stresses the importance of those seeking a sport psychologist to find someone who is licensed.
“If you’re not doing mental health and you have no interest in doing mental health with athletes and you just want to do the performance stuff, mental skills training, you don’t need to be a licensed psychologist,” said Carly Anderson. “But you also can’t call yourself a sports psychologist.”
The future of sports psychology
In the last decade, the field of sports psychology has continued to grow. More and more universities are seeing the importance of having a licensed psychologist on staff as mental health topics continue to come to the forefront of college athletics.
Even some schools that currently employ sports psychologists are adding more to their staffs. Currently, the University of Oklahoma’s sports psychology department has seven members on staff, including two pre-doctoral interns, two psychology graduate assistants and two staff psychologists. According to the school’s website, OU’s psychological services range from counseling to mental coaching to medication referral. Oklahoma is on the front line of Big 12 teams in that regard, but other schools such as Kansas and Kansas State have followed suit and have hired sports psychologists.
About half of the Big Ten schools have licensed psychologists on staff, while a few others consult with an outside psychologist or counseling centers. Moran-Miller, in her second year with the Hawkeyes, is the only sports psychologist on Iowa’s staff. Even in her short time on campus, she’s had a high demand for her services and believes the school and its athletes have been receptive to the idea of meeting with a sports psychologist.
With that said, Moran-Miller knows it’s hard to predict where sports psychology might go from here.
“What do I think will happen? I honestly don’t know what will happen,” said Moran-Miller, whose father was also a psychologist. “What do I hope will happen? I certainly hope that the field continues to grow. I think that . . . certainly nationally, we have much more conversation, more dialogue around mental health on the whole, not just in the area of sports.”
When asked about the growth of his profession, Commander used the example of how other parts of athletic training have changed over time. Twenty or 30 years ago, athletes scoffed at the idea of strength and conditioning programs. Today, they’re an essential part of any athletic program or professional organization.
“Everybody is training the same way, or has access to the same types of training, the same equipment,” said Justin Anderson, a former college quarterback. “They’ve got great strength and conditioning people. They’re all sort of doing the same things. The real only places that are sort of growing I think in the athletic world are nutrition — what other things can we do from a nutrition standpoint to increase performance — and then what can we do between the ears.”
Student-athletes may be slowly warming to the idea of sports psychology as they learn more about the benefits, both on and off the court. Twenty years from now, a meeting with the team psychologist may be as commonplace as a trip to the weight room.