What is Sport and Performance Psychology?

Post 1: The Continuum of Mental Health

By: Sarah Castillo, PhD, CMPC, UWS sport and performance psychology program director

Let’s face it – there are plenty of options when it comes to pursuing a graduate education and choosing a career. If you’re interested in working with performers, you might choose sport management, sports marketing, coaching education, athletic training, strength and conditioning, or a host of other options. If it’s mental health, you might consider clinical psychology, psychiatry, or social work. If it’s kinesiology, the scientific study of human body movement, career fields range include exercise prescription, biomechanics, and motor development? But, there’s only one field that lives at the very center of them all – sport and performance psychology. The name is intriguing, it’s popular and it sounds like it might be exactly what you want! But what, exactly, is it? In this blog series, we’ll address the basics of sport and performance psychology and help you to understand where you might fit.

First and foremost, sport and performance psychology (SPP) is a mental health profession. In 2020, Delphis, an organization dedicated to management organization on mental health and well-being, proposed a continuum of mental health in an attempt to expand the traditional belief that that mental health was nothing more than the absence of mental illness.

At University of Western States, (UWS), we agree wholeheartedly with this conceptualization of mental health. Even better, individuals trained in sport and performance psychology may be able to work with performers at various points along the continuum.

Let’s take a look at the training required for this work:

When working with performers “in crisis” or “struggling,” training in sport and performance psychology must be paired with clinical licensure in psychology. Individuals with this dual training are able to diagnose and treat mental illness with a clear understanding of how competitive sport and performance environments must be considered.

Working with performers who are “surviving” requires, at minimum, substantial training in sport and performance psychology and significant counseling skills. While the performer’s presenting problem may not be clinical in nature, it’s essential that the SPP practitioner be able to immediately recognize any future appearance of clinical issues, as they may be just below the surface. When clinical issues arise, it is essential that the SPP practitioner make an appropriate referral to a clinical practitioner.

Performers who are “thriving” or “excelling” are able to manage life’s challenges with well-developed coping skills and are able to perform at their peak. Working with performers at this end of the continuum requires extensive training and applied experience in sport and performance psychology.

It’s critical to recognize that not every SPP practitioner wants to, or is qualified to, work with individuals at every point along the continuum. Therefore, when considering a career in sport and performance psychology, the first order of business is to determine what it is that YOU want to do. Which points along the continuum are you passionate about? Your choice of program coursework and supervised experiences all depend on where your passion for the field truly lies.  Sport and performance psychology is gaining popularity, but it’s your passion for the type of work that will make you a dedicated student and competent practitioner!

Be sure to check out the second installment in this three-part series, “What is Sport and Performance Psychology.” In part two, we’ll talk about the similarities and differences between clinical and performance-based SPP practitioners.

In the third installment of the series, it’s discussed how the UWS SPP and CMHC programs prepare students to build their careers in these growing professions.

Want to learn more about the UWS sport and performance psychology degree programs? Visit the program webpage for more information or contact the admissions department virtually, by emailing [email protected] or calling 800-641-5641.