With the issues of mental health, violence, tough period times that we are living in and activism in sports on the rise, there is a need for our sports industry in the country to seek more expertise in the field of sports psychology.
Sports are a microcosm of society and as the old maxim goes, that’s never been more apparent. It is unfound of Africans in this country admitting to or talking about their mental health as our cultures have no line of defence against the stigma and stereotype that comes after one has admitted to suffering a mental breakdown.
It is even more depressing when one keeps silent about the state of their mental health, as it is during those times when we are more vulnerable to attack. None the less, a few of the elite sports personalities I have spoken to in recent times have admitted to one time having mental health struggles, and also expressed the fact most of their sports clubs were not well equipped to help them.
These sportsmen and women also further expressed that the fear of losing their places on their teams forced them to remain silent about their mental health struggles.
We have all read or heard of the many mental health issues experienced in other developed countries. For example, swimmer and Olympics champion Michael Phelps disclosed his struggles with depression following the Olympics games in London 2012. Lindsey Vonn’s openness in describing her decade long battle with illness, and basketball player Kevin Love all spoke out about their mental health struggles.
All these reflect on the growing issues of mental health in the sports industry but the question that remains and still stands is whether our sports industry in Uganda is ready to usher in sports psychology and can we set resources aside to help our sportsmen and women in times of need.
What is Sports Psychology?
With the above in mind, you should first understand that sports psychology is really an interdisciplinary science. Besides psychology, it is also concerned with disciplines such as biomechanics, physiology, and kinesiology. As a definition, the American Psychological Association’s Division 47 (Society of Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology) states the following:
Sport Psychology addresses the interactions between psychology and sports performance, including the psychological aspects of optimal athletic performance, the psychological care and well-being of athletes, coaches, and sports organizations, and the connection between physical and psychological functioning.
Based on this definition, sports psychologists can participate in various activities, mostly focused on working to understand what motivates athletes and how athletes can improve their performance.
These activities can range from counselling athletes who might have anxiety issues that hamper their performance to instructing athletes (individually or in groups) on methods of mental conditioning (e.g., visualization, concentration, and relaxation) to helping athletes deal with injuries.
As athletes navigate these difficult topics, sports psychologists are playing an expanded, and increasingly important role.
Sport psychologists are best known for helping athletes overcome mental roadblocks and improve their performance: for example, helping a rugby player snap out of a hitting, smashing their muscles with one another or supporting a footballer as she regains confidence post-injury.
While that performance emphasis remains a cornerstone of sport psychology, it’s only a slice of what sports psychologists are now doing to support athletes. Their expanding roles include helping athletes navigate interpersonal issues and addressing mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders.
Sport psychologists are best known for helping athletes overcome mental roadblocks and improve their performance
The practice of sport psychology is also finding fans beyond athletics. Sports psychologists’ skills are increasingly sought out by professionals in high-stress jobs, such as surgeons, firefighters and performing artists.
In fact, the U.S. Army is now the country’s largest employer of sport psychology professionals, who help soldiers learn to focus in combat and deal with stressful situations. “Sport psychology has become more widely recognized as being beneficial to address a variety of needs,” says Sari Fine Shepphird, PhD, a Los Angeles area sport and performance psychologist. And demand is growing, she adds, even among youth athletes and serious amateurs.
“There’s increased demand for sports psychologists to address sports performance as well as mental health concerns, which is fantastic not just for the field of sport psychology but for athletes and for the general population.”
Technically, only licensed clinical and counselling psychologists can describe themselves as “sport psychologists.” (APA approved a proficiency in sport psychology in 2003.) This field is growing as today’s athletes realize that psychologists can help them gain a mental edge that translates to better performance.
Pro sports teams especially in Major League Baseball (MLB) have expanded access to performance psychology resources in recent years, says Courtney Albinson, PhD, a sport psychologist at Northwestern University and president of APA Div. 47 (Society for Sport, Exercise & Performance Psychology).
In 2018, for instance, a record 27 of 30 MLB teams employed a “mental skills coach” to help players deal with the mental challenges of the game.
But stigma has for long kept our athletes from seeking help for mental health issues and yet as I said, the sports association or those who are not doing enough to protect these athletes have made it much more difficult to tackle the problem. Discussing their mental health concerns would open doors for a better and bright sports industry in the country.
Even athletes like anyone else are susceptible to the same mental health issues as non-athletes. And sometimes athletes face unique struggles, including the psychological pressure to perform at an elite level, or dealing with a culture in which eating disorders are common yet sports psychologists are poised to help with such pressures and challenges, including violence and anger issues.
Psychologists can also help athletes manage the emotions and decisions involved in speaking out or becoming activists. When aligning themselves with a controversial cause, athlete activists can experience public backlash, professional repercussions and all kinds of emotional upheaval.
We’re at a time where athletes are given a platform to have a real voice with regard to social justice. Sports psychologists have to be standing side by side with athletes on this.
Isn’t it the right time we thought about sports psychology spaces for our sportsmen and women?
Author: Robin Mugerwa
As a founder of Pearl Generation Uganda, (PG-UG) Innocent, has a profound interest in youth mentorship and leadership. He devotes himself to helping young people around the world achieve their dreams. He has also worked with many different organizations such as the Community Resource Development Initiative, Del Youth Group, Reference Health Service Uganda and Rincol Tech.