Transition Into Sports Psychology

Transition Into Sports Psychology

by Joan Steidinger
Dr. Steidinger discusses the benefits of joining the growing field of sports psychology.
Filed Under: Athletes


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Coming Home to Sports Psychology

Sports involvement has been an integral part of my life since childhood. As a psychologist, the transition of my private practice work and teaching at University of California, Berkeley, to include sports psychology has been a natural process. When searching for a dissertation topic 18 years ago, I had considered studying marathon runners but instead chose a "practical" topic, employee assistance programs. Interestingly enough, both these areas of interest were directly impacted by my childhood experiences.

As a child, I participated in a wide array of sports and grew up in a corporate family that was often moved to different locations in the United States. Sports became a mainstay for meeting and establishing relationships wherever we lived. Sports became a familiar and comfortable venue for connection. I participated in such sports as swimming, golf, equestrian, canoeing, tennis, and badminton. In elementary school, I competed in hunter jumper events with horses. As a high school student, I played on both the tennis and badminton teams. Entering high school in the sixties, I encountered resistance from my parents to participate in non-traditional women's sports. I tried out for the school's first girls cross country team, which I was asked to join but my parents didn't allow me to participate in. Their (mostly my mother's) rationale was that the sport wasn't ladylike. I particularly thought of this as I was running the Western States 100-mile race across the Sierras in 1993. As you might imagine, sports have become an integral part of my life as an adult. Thus in the last several years as I've shifted the focus of my practice to include a greater sports orientation, I've felt a sense of coming home.

Building a Practice

Working with both active and injured athletes, I've seen individuals from such sports as running, track and field, cycling, golf, tennis, and equestrian events, to name a few. In order to begin the shift to working with more sports-oriented clientele, I started brainstorming about ways to promote my sports psychology services and selected several directions to take. Since I myself have been a runner for over 20 years, I first reached out to the running community to offer my sports psychology expertise. For several years, I initially volunteered my time and worked with the cross-country and track and field teams with San Francisco City College. I knew the coach through my personal involvement and suggested this pro bono service to him. He had me speak at an afternoon meeting with his track and field team and immediately seized upon the value of sports psychology. In addition, I joined the Association for the Advancement of Sports Psychology (the major association of sport psychology professionals) and began attending their conferences. In addition, I approached my boss at the University of California, Berkeley Extension where I had been teaching in the Alcohol and Drug Studies Program since 1986 and suggested offering an Introduction to Sports Psychology Class that I still teach.

When I did my first doctoral internship at Cal State Hayward Counseling Center in 1982-83, I was lucky to obtain supervision with Dr. Betty Wenz, one of the grandmothers of the sports psychology movement. Dr. Wenz was instrumental teaching me about basic sports psychology principles and brought me along to assist in some of her work with synchronized swimmers. She also gave me guidance about the fundamental skills essential for providing thorough and competent sport psychology services as well as the specific areas of knowledge that I needed to acquire and develop. The next two years of internships were in places where I could build my repertoire of skills that built a foundation for later application of sports psychology principles. I learned about using biofeedback for managing stress and promoting intervention/performance enhancement as well as the extensive use of cognitive-behavioral techniques. Also, training in group dynamics helped assist in working with team sports and a general knowledge of the physiology of sports was essential. In addition to the specific clinical training, each psychologist needs to have a intimate and complete understanding, knowledge, and appreciation of sports and athletes, whether it be recreational, competitive, or elite level, when working with athletes.

Working with Athletes

When dealing directly with athletes, you may need to be flexible by varying your work settings when doing individual sessions or presenting to groups or teams. Often, I've presented in gyms, playing fields, parks in the howling wind, or even gone out to where the individual athlete is competing to get a look at their appearance while they are directly involved in practice or competition. One factor that I usually emphasize is that the primary focus of our work will be on the mental skills applicable to the sport and not the technical skills that is the domain of their coaches.

An example of one client whom I worked with was an accomplished Iron Man–level triathlete who appeared to be intimidated at the prospect of running the Western States 100-mile race even though she had fully trained for the event relatively pain- and injury-free. Upon reviewing her past accomplishments, recalling previous successful performances, and connecting the feelings and thoughts associated with them, she was able to regain her sense of self confidence, and have a great time at Western States with the successful completion of the race in 26+ hours.

Another client was a older scratch golfer who was considering retiring from his current job and playing golf professionally. He had been plagued for years by his short game (particularly putting). In gathering information about his current approach, we discovered that when he approached putting he powered into it just as he did his long game (irons and woods on the fairway). He often thought about putts just like long 250-yard drives down the freeway. He thought: Power! Power! Power! We worked on changing his thoughts toward putting as more of a mental strategy–driven rather than a power-driven part of the game. His new thought: Contain and Direct! Needless to say, this took focus and concentration even to adjust to the differences in the game, which also helped him improve.

Training Requirements

As you might have noticed, I've referred several times to psychologists working with athletes. This is due primarily to the criteria that the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sports Psychology has established. They require a doctoral degree as part of their criteria for becoming a certified consultant. The general feeling is that the skills lie within the scope of an individual trained at this level. A large number of sports psychology professionals work within academic or organizational settings and are involved in both applied and research work. They view sports psychology as a specialty for doctoral-level therapists only who must have the aforementioned skills and training as well as enthusiasm, excitement, and a positive manner toward athletes.

Sport psychology is an exciting area of specialty that is in a period of new and challenging growth. Part of our task as sports psychology professionals is to educate the public about the usefulness and applicability of our skills for athletes of every caliber. To further educate yourself about "fitness," you might utilize University of California, Berkeley Extension's offerings in Fitness or even take the Introduction to Sports Psychology class next spring. In addition, to learn more about the Association for Applied Sports Psychology, you can go to their web site at and possibly attend their next conference which is in Nashville, Tennessee in late September.

Copyright © 2000 All rights reserved.
Joan Steidinger Dr. Joan Steidinger is a licensed clinical psychologist who first trained in sports psychology in the early 1980s and is currently in practice in San Francisco and Mill Valley. Her work focuses on optimal performance, injury concerns and adjustments, and personal issues with a variety of athletes and performing artists.

She has recently competed as an endurance athlete in ultrarunning, ride and tie equestrian events, and ultradistance cycling.

She may be contacted at