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The Sport Psychology Stigma and How to Break it

I’m not a psychologist, but as a mental skills trainer with two university degrees in the subject, Sport psychology is a subject that has always been close to my heart. It’s not without its challenges though. Throughout my studies at university, I discovered that one of the biggest challenges Sport Psychology faces is its shortcomings in marketing itself.sports-psychology-sportageous

Here in South Africa, if one wants to legally practice as a Sports Psychologist, they must first obtain a master’s degree in a related field and then register themselves with the Health Professionals Council of South Africa (HPCSA), so that they can be governed and kept accountable in their practices. Registering with HPCSA also legally prevents them from directly advertising their services which can limit the industry from making itself known to athletes who need those services.

On top of that, because the scope of practice in Sport Psychology can include therapy, psychological diagnosis, and psychological testing services, it can bring about the stigma of “only for those who have mental health issues”. This is not the case as Sport Psychology has been assisting athletes of all performance levels to perform optimally for decades regardless of whether those athletes had been at risk of poor mental health.

Should Sport Psychology, therefore, begin to portray itself as a performance-enhancing tool (with added therapeutic intervention if necessary), rather than a form of Psychology?

I’ve been providing mental skills training workshops to the athletes, parents, and coaches at many different sporting organisations over several years. These events aim to educate participants on the practical mental exercises and drills athletes can do to ensure that they are focused, confident, and disciplined in their respective sporting endeavours.

While writing this, I pictured an ambitious young boy with aspirations to be a professional footballer. I imagine him having both male and female role models. He wants to be as fast as Cristiano Ronaldo, but he wants to have the same mental skills that Alex Morgan has utilised for her success.

At every one of these events, I need to stress that while what I offer is based on the best in Sport Psychology research and theory, it is in no way therapy, but rather a means to enhance performance on the field.

Yet, I’ve often been erroneously referred to as a psychologist, life coach, or motivational speaker which are titles I’ve never given myself. I always have to spend time educating new audiences and clients about what I do (and what I don’t do) before working with them because there’s often a stigma associated with Sport Psychology and Mental Skills Coaching that implies therapy or mental health interventions.

Throughout the years of working with athletes though, I’ve noticed a very interesting phenomenon when it comes to the demographics of most of my clients.

The overwhelming majority of them have been women. Studies by Breslin and colleagues (2018), Steinfeldt & Steinfeldt (2012), and Martin and colleagues (1997) all suggest that this is due to women being more open to asking for Sport Psychology interventions and mental training for sport than men.

Whether or not this is due to a mental health stigma, this creates an amazing opportunity for women to set an example in growing their mental toughness for competition and become role models for future athletes of all genders.

If women are more likely to assertively seek these services, then we’ll see more women showing the focus, resilience, and emotional control associated with a mentally strong athlete. This can help the world to see female athletes differently.

After years of seeing men as the main ambassadors for most sports across the world and role models to so many, this is an opportunity for women to be ambassadors for the mental game, which is of paramount importance in any sporting endeavour.

While writing this, I pictured an ambitious young boy with aspirations to be a professional footballer. I imagine him having both male and female role models. He wants to be as fast as Cristiano Ronaldo, but he wants to have the same mental skills that Alex Morgan has utilised for her success.

Sport should be for everyone, and it would be amazing if Sport Psychology could take this opportunity to empower women to be the faces of mental strength and resilience in sport and thus encourage us to take a step closer to valuing their contributions as much as we value men’s. This is an amazing opportunity for all top female athletes, and I am in full support of them taking it.


Dave Roebuck is a Mental Skills Trainer and Sports Nerd helping young athletes of all backgrounds to train their mental muscles for optimal performance.
You can follow Dave on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn
For more articles like this, visit Sportageous.
Saqib Tanveer assisted in the curation of this article. You can follow him here on LinkedIn.

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