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date: 23 March 2019

Sport Psychology Considerations in Intercollegiate Athletics in the United States

Summary and Keywords

As a field of study, sport psychology is relatively young, gaining its formalized start in the United States in the 1920s. Then and now, the practice of sport psychology is concerned with the recognition of psychological factors that influence performance and ensuring that individuals and teams can perform at an optimal level. In the past 30 years, sport psychologists have made their way into intercollegiate athletics departments providing mental health and performance enhancement services to intercollegiate student-athletes. The differentiation between mental health practice and performance enhancement practice is still a source of some confusion for individuals tasked with hiring sport psychology professionals. Additionally, many traditionally trained practitioners (in both mental health and performance enhancement) are unaware of the dynamics of an intercollegiate athletic department. The interplay of the practitioner and those departmental dynamics can greatly influence the efficacy of the practitioner.

Keywords: service availability, intercollegiate sports, sport psychology profession, mental skills, depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, substance use


Sport Psychology Considerations in Intercollegiate Athletics in the United StatesClick to view larger

Figure 1. An ecological model of the system around an intercollegiate student-athlete.

College sport-related activities (e.g., watching televised sports, tailgating, attending events, etc.) are a large part of many Americans’ lives with approximately 43% of the country following college sports and over 100 million fans attending college sporting events annually (Learfield Sports, 2012). The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) generated approximately $775 million in revenue in 2015 from its television and marketing rights fees (Statista, 2016). The median total revenues of 120 NCAA Division I (DI) Football Bowl Series universities is approximately $56 million, which includes NCAA and conference distributions as well as the respective institutions’ own ticket sales and alumni/booster donations (Coakley, 2015, p. 485). However, it should be noted that very few athletic programs actually generate enough revenue to finish “in the black” (Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, 2010). At most schools, sport-related revenue is primarily used for coaches’ and athletic directors’ annual salaries and benefits, athletic scholarships, student-athlete health insurance, facilities maintenance and rental, team travel, recruiting, equipment and supplies, and game expenses (NCAA, 2010). In fact, in 2014 the highest paid public employees in 39 states were college football or basketball coaches (Hoffer & Pincin, 2016). Unfortunately, though, little sport-related revenue appears to be available to fund the employment of support staff members, which, in the case of this article, may include sport psychology consultants (SPCs) capable of assisting athletes and coaches in meeting the mental and emotional demands of intercollegiate sports competition. Given the recent increased focus on the mental health of student-athletes (see Brown, 2014), this financial conundrum is one that will need attention in the near future. While a full discussion of the financial constraints of intercollegiate athletics is beyond the scope of this article, we discuss some of the considerations when exploring mental health and sport psychology service provision in an intercollegiate athletic setting.

The definition of a sport psychology consultant (SPC) is a professional involved in the provision of sport psychology services. This person may hold a master’s degree or doctoral degree in a number of fields—commonly psychology, kinesiology, or education.

Current Availability of Sport Psychology Services in Athletic Programs

Interestingly, each NCAA DI institution has its own organizational structure, philosophy, mission, and level of commitment to intercollegiate athletics (Sanders, 2004). Intercollegiate programs differ with respect to the range and types of sport psychology services they provide for participants (Wrisberg, Withycombe, Simpson, Loberg, & Reed, 2012). Some employ SPCs on a voluntary basis or pro bono, others contract with consultants for hourly flat fees or an annual flat fee, and, in a few instances, schools employ consultants as part-time or full-time salaried staff (see Connole et al., 2014; Wrisberg & Dzikus, 2016). The number of full-time salaried staff SPCs increases each year based on job postings and announcements. Other NCAA DI institutions renew consulting contracts on an annual basis with either on-campus groups (e.g., the University of North Texas) or external consulting firms (e.g., the University of Minnesota).

Although there appears to be a growing openness to and interest in sport psychology services among NCAA DI athletes (Martin et al., 2001; Wrisberg, Simpson, Loberg, Withycombe, & Reed, 2009), coaches (Wrisberg, Loberg, Simpson, Withycombe, & Reed, 2010; Zakrajsek & Zizzi, 2008), administrators (Kornspan & Duve, 2006; Wrisberg et al., 2009), and athletic trainers (Zakrajsek, Martin, & Wrisberg, 2016), the NCAA has tended to restrict the activities of SPCs to a greater extent than it does the services offered by other support personnel such as certified athletic trainers and strength coaches (see Bemiller & Wrisberg, 2011; NCAA, 2010). Some have suggested that this is one reason only a small percentage of NCAA DI programs employ SPCs on a full-time basis (see Portenga et al., 2011). Recent research has revealed the percentage to be 28.3% (Hayden, Kornspan, Bruback, Parent, & Rodgers, 2013), with the majority of athletic administrators citing insufficient funds as the primary barrier to full-time employment (Wrisberg et al., 2010). The lingering suspicion among some coaches that athletes’ interest in obtaining assistance with their mental game is a sign of weakness (Olusoga, Maynard, Butt, & Hays, 2014) may also be a factor mediating consultant employment. Regardless, there appears to be a number of variables in the current NCAA DI environment that would appear to have the greatest impact on the employment of SPCs and provision of sport psychology services in the near future. Specifically, these include current support for sport psychology services, the prospects for funding of sport psychology services, clarification of the training of SPCs, and scope of sport psychology services.

Current Support for Sport Psychology Services

In recent years, the NCAA has been involved in numerous, potentially damaging lawsuits over issues like academic fraud and unethical conduct by coaches and athletes (e.g., fraudulent credit for courses, claims of escort use in recruiting), the use of athletes’ likenesses without their permission, inadequate treatment of athlete concussions, and violation of antitrust laws (Davis, 2015; Hoffer & Pincin, 2016). At the same time the NCAA board of directors and university scholars have tried to improve the educational experiences and healthcare provision of athletes, especially at the DI level, by supporting several pieces of legislation designed to balance the emphasis on academics and athletics (Comeaux, 2015). As a result, almost all collegiate athletic departments have developed and/or expanded their support services (e.g., student-athlete academic counseling, career counseling, and athletic training) for athletes (e.g., Comeaux, 2013, 2015; Hudson & Irwin, 2010; Wolverton, 2008). A recent study revealed that at major institutions the median spending on education-related activities is 4 to 11 times higher for student-athletes than for other students (Knight Commission, 2010). For example, the Athletic Study Center at the University of California has an athletic budget of approximately $92 million that provides support for the salaries of 19 full-time staff members, including six academic advisors and three learning specialists and 60 to 80 part-time employees, many of whom are tutors (see Huml, Hancock, & Bergman, 2014). However, in the minds of many sports fans, if not athletic administrators, the primary measure of coaches’ success is their team’s winning percentage and the sport-related revenue their team generates, not the team’s academic progress rate or any other academic standard (Davis, 2015). Such an opinion was voiced by Mack Brown, long-time successful coach of the University of Texas Longhorns football team. In a New York Times interview he said, “When you hear presidents and athletic directors talk about character and academics and integrity, none of that really matters. The truth is, nobody has ever been fired for those things. They get fired for losing” (cited in Davis, 2015). Nevertheless, recent efforts by the NCAA, university scholars, and healthcare providers to improve the overall experiences of intercollegiate athletes may serve to create more employment opportunities for SPCs in athletic departments.

The Prospects for Funding of Sport Psychology Services

Recent research with NCAA DI athletes, coaches, and administrators suggests considerable receptivity to SPCs and sport psychology services as well as recognition that success in sports requires the systematic training of both mental and physical skills (Connole et al., 2014; Hayden et al., 2013; Smith, 2005; Wrisberg et al., 2010; Zakrajsek, Martin, & Wrisberg, 2015; Zakrajsek, Steinfeldt, Bodey, Martin, & Zizzi, 2013). In spite of what appears to be a growing interest in incorporating sport psychology services into the athletic department, several potential barriers still seem to be in play. These include insufficient funds, confusion among athletic administrators regarding the training and expertise of SPCs, and current NCAA regulations. Recent estimates of increasing sport revenue (DeSarbo & Madrigal, 2011) have led some to predict that sport-related jobs will increase 23% from 2012 to 2022. If so, this increase would be much larger than the average increase predicted for other employment sectors (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018). However, it remains to be seen how athletic administrators decide to use any increased revenue that may come their way.

Clarification of the Training of SPCs and Scope of Services

A competent SPC will have completed formal undergraduate and graduate coursework in the sport and exercise sciences, psychological sciences, counseling techniques, ethics, and sport psychology (American Psychological Association [APA], 2005; Association for Applied Sport Psychology [AASP], n.d.; Wiese, Weiss, & Yukelson, 1991). SPCs need to clearly describe their role and expertise while also addressing a seemingly paradoxical existence (e.g., “we can help you become more mentally tough and confident but that would require acknowledging that you currently lack confidence,” which to some indicates a “mental weakness”). However, recently, new perspectives have been offered on how people can embrace failure as part of the process of attaining success at the highest levels (Anshel, 2016). Hence SPCs need to normalize consultation as a positive experience (Sheldon & King, 2001).

Sport Psychology Considerations in Intercollegiate Athletics in the United StatesClick to view larger

Figure 2. Conceptual continuum of psychological functioning and symptom indicators and helping professional types.

Reproduced with permission from Dr. Nicki Moore.

Sport Psychology Considerations in Intercollegiate Athletics in the United StatesClick to view larger

Figure 3. Draft taxonomy of psychological services for college student-athletes.

Reproduced with permission from Dr. Nicki Moore and Dr. Carmen Tebbe-Priebe.

In addition to formal training, an SPC interested in working with intercollegiate athletic programs will have knowledge of the rules and regulations of the national governing body (e.g., NCAA, National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, National Junior College Athletic Association [NJCAA], etc.) and institution (Martin & Andersen, 2014). SPCs will also obtain supervised practical experiences that involve the implementation of mental skills with athletes or non-sport performers (AASP, n.d.; Weinberg & Williams, 2013), which requires satisfactory supervised consulting experience. In the United States, SPCs are trained to teach individual and groups of athletes a variety of mental skills (e.g., goal setting, building confidence, improving focus, handling pressure) and assist them with the mental and emotional demands of their sport (APA, 2005). It is important to recognize the difference between the roles of a SPC and other mental and physical healthcare professionals, such as a licensed mental health professionals (e.g., psychologist, counselor, social worker). The differences and overlaps of these providers is outlined in Figure 2. Dr. Nicki Moore in 2010 (revised in 2015) created a continuum of providers to coincide with the variety of presenting concerns within collegiate athletics (N. Moore, personal communication, 2016). The SPCs, mental health providers, and certified physical health professionals (e.g., strength and conditioning coaches, athletic trainers, dietitians, health fitness instructors) should also be aware of their differences and similarities in serving student-athletes. For example, academic support staff within athletic departments are not typically trained to provide mental skills training related to sport, whereas SPCs routinely help student-athletes handle sport performance pressure (Beilock & Carr, 2001), improve sport confidence (Myers, Payment, & Feltz, 2004), manage sport-related anxiety and emotions (Lazarus, 2000; Mamassis & Doganis, 2004), improve focus during practice and competition (Orlick & Partington, 1988), communicate with coaches and teammates (Sullivan, 1993), and build team cohesion (Carron, Colman, Wheeler, & Stevens, 2002). In a similar manner, licensed mental health professionals are trained to assist individuals in dealing with personal and emotional problems (e.g., eating disorders, depression, substance abuse; Weinberg & Williams, 2013), whereas athletic trainers help athletes prevent or recover from physical injury or trauma (Granquist, Hamson-Utley, Kenow, & Stiller-Ostrowski, 2015). Therefore, in addition to knowledge and training in kinesiology (i.e., sport, coaching, and exercise science) and psychology (e.g., counseling, psychotherapy), SPCs need knowledge of the skills and abilities of other professionals working within the athletic department and the history, rules and regulations, and subculture of intercollegiate sports. Over the past 30 years, AASP fellows and members have debated what type of supervised training should be received, who can offer the training, and which graduate degrees are best suited for those interested in delivering sport psychology related services to individuals and groups in intercollegiate athletic programs. More recently, members of AASP and other sport psychology organizations (e.g., APA, American College of Sports Medicine) have begun to collaborate on a more cohesive plan for training of future SPCs.

Recently, a few contributions to the field of sport psychology have focused on the hiring of SPCs, the roles various professionals play, and the costs associated with having a sport psychology program within an athletics department. Specifically, Connole et al. (2014) provided research behind hiring practices of athletics administrators. Dr. Moore’s continuum is again referenced here as it helps with clarification of the various aspects of sport psychology service provision and those qualified to provide those services (see Figure 2). Dr. Moore along with Dr. Carmen Tebbe-Priebe, in 2015, created a service provider taxonomy outlining the costs associated with having a sport psychology program within an athletics department (see Figure 3; N. Moore & C. Tebbe-Priebe, personal communication, 2016). Regardless of the specific role, SPCs interested in gaining access to intercollegiate sports need to understand the history (see Wrisberg & Dzikus, 2016) and the business of college sports and social norms held by the individuals within this subculture.

Intercollegiate Sport Specifics

Knowledge of the History, Business, and Rules of Intercollegiate Sports

SPCs need to be aware of the uniqueness of various college sports (e.g., women’s softball versus men’s baseball), competition level (e.g., NJCAA versus NCAA), and region of the country in which they operate. These differences could play a very important role in how athletes, coaches, administrators, and other support staff view and interact with sport psychology practitioners (Martin, Zakrajsek, & Wrisberg, 2012). Those interested in sport psychology careers, especially individuals interested in providing services at the intercollegiate level, need to also understand the rules and regulations governing this unique subculture, especially those related to service provision. A complex set of rules and regulations apply to a wide range of behaviors and activities involving intercollegiate student-athletes (see Martin & Andersen, 2014). For instance, SPCs interested in working within athletic departments and with intercollegiate teams will need to know what activities are viewed as coaching as compared to sport psychology consulting. The NCAA has regulations in place interpreting the work of SPCs as services that should occur in a group/classroom-like setting or office (Bemiller & Wrisberg, 2011), whereas SPCs are often trained to go out on the playing field to work with athletes (e.g., helping athletes with onsite self-talk strategies). This interaction at NCAA institutions may lead to SPCs being considered coaches, which is a limited category of individuals per NCAA rules (Martin & Andersen, 2014). Although SPCs who offer groups or teams psychoeducational sessions on performance enhancement topics in a classroom setting are in compliance with NCAA rules regarding the number of allowable coaches, the time spent in these sessions must be included in the weekly allotment of hours for practice and team meetings (i.e., four hours daily or 20 hours per week). General support services such as advisement, personal counseling, career counseling, and tutoring are exempt from the 20 hour per week regulation (see NCAA, 2015). Thus, to reduce the risk of rule violations, SPCs should regularly interact with individuals in the athletic department such as the compliance officers, who can help answer questions about sport psychology service delivery and maintenance of compliance with latest relevant rules and regulations.

Gaining Entry and Establishing Roots

Once SPCs have a basic understanding of the history of the athletic program and NCAA governing body and rules and regulations, and a general sense of the perceptions, roles, responsibilities, and abilities of those involved, then they can attempt to gain entry in the athletic department. For example, NCAA DI athletes had more positive perceptions and were more willing to seek services from SPCs who were physically fit and wore athletic clothing (e.g., clothing similar to their coach) than from those who were unfit and did not dress for the athletic environment (Lubker, Watson, Visek, & Geer, 2005). In addition to “looking the part,” SPCs must be well trained and knowledgeable about sport performance, coaching, communication, and counseling (see Hays, 2012; Martin et al., 2012). Athletes, coaches, and administrators involved in intercollegiate sports have also identified effective SPC characteristics as being personable, relatable, trustworthy, empathetic, nonintrusive, flexible, and confident (Anderson, Miles, Robinson, & Mahoney, 2004; Gentner, Fisher, & Wrisberg, 2004; Gould, Murphy, Tammen, & May, 1991; Lubker, Visek, Geer, & Watson, 2008; Martin et al., 2001; Orlick & Partington, 1987; Partington & Orlick, 1987; Steinfeldt et al., 2011).

Central to effective consultations is establishing rapport and trust, which communicates an understanding and a commitment to help (e.g., Sharp & Hodge, 2013; Watson & Shannon, 2010; Zakrajsek et al., 2013). The emphasis placed on winning (see Davis, 2015) and perceptions of job embeddedness, organizational commitment, and possible turnover (Peachey, Burton, & Wells, 2014) likely influence the willingness and openness of some in the athletic department, which may require SPCs to learn to be flexible in their consulting approach (Martin et al., 2012; Sharp & Hodge, 2013). Hence, SPCs need to be willing to listen to other points of view and recognize that some, especially in a highly competitive environment with high rates of turnover, may be somewhat resistant to share and open up about their beliefs and feelings (Martin et al., 2001). Cultivating rapport and trust with others in the athletic department requires basic communication and counseling skills such as being empathetic (i.e., an understanding of others’ feelings and emotions), demonstrating genuineness (i.e., being real or authentic), and having unconditional positive regard (i.e., care, concern, acceptance of another; Rogers, 1980; Sevdalis & Raab, 2014; Stanger, Kavussanu, & Ring, 2012; Zakrajsek et al., 2013). In additional to these basic communication and counseling skills, humility is an important attribute for building and maintaining relationships (Jones, 2012), which is characterized by an accurate knowledge and assessment of one’s ability or skills, a willingness to acknowledge limitations, the ability to focus on others instead of being self-centered, letting one’s accomplishments speak for themselves, and not seeking the spotlight (Austin, 2014; Tangey, 2005). Recently, Austin defined humility as a component of sportspersonship in that it “deters egoism, fuels athletic aspiration and risk-taking, fosters athletic forms of self-knowledge, decreases the likelihood of an athlete seeking to strongly humiliate her opponents or be weakly humiliated by them, and can motivate an athlete to achieve greater levels of excellence in her sport” (p. 212). Those interested in successfully working in intercollegiate athletic environments will likely have to display these communication skills and personal characteristics. Playing a supportive (and sometimes subservient role) and being humble while promoting sport psychology services may appear to be somewhat paradoxical. Thus SPCs should demonstrate their sport intelligence (i.e., knowledge of the game, business, and associated rules) and sport psychology professional expertise while at the same time display qualities and characteristics that others value and admire.

Determining others’ attitudes, perceptions, and expectations about sport psychology consulting could provide SPCs with additional important information about the current organizational structure and culture of the athletic department, which will help them gain entry with all the individuals involved (Martin et al., 2001). For example, recent reports indicate that collegiate athletes and coaches are initially more receptive to sport psychology services that promote performance enhancement than those that address personal issues (Wrisberg et al., 2009, 2010). Although initially targeting improved performance may be perceived more favorably by sport participants than emphasizing therapeutic intervention, this may be based on the needs of the sport participants involved (Martin et al., 2012). Thus using a multidimensional model for sport psychology provision was recently proposed by Martin et al. that highlights factors impacting individuals’ interest and willingness to directly interact with SPCs. These factors include antecedents (individual and situational characteristics) that likely influence attitudes and beliefs, which in turn produce consequences, such as intentions to use sport psychology services (or not), behaviors reflective of the intentions, and, where there is openness to services, satisfaction with the services provided. These consequences are then presumed to influence or modify subsequent attitudes and beliefs, which in turn influence future intentions and behaviors, thus representing a cyclical and fluid relationship between consequences and attitudes and beliefs.

In an effort to cultivate trust and rapport and develop an understanding of others’ current perceptions and future intentions regarding sport psychology services, SPCs may consider informal meetings with athletic department staff members. An exchange of information around sport psychology knowledge, beliefs, and values could help other athletic department personnel such as coaches, strength and conditioning coaches, and athletic trainers be more supportive and encouraging of sport psychology skills and services. For example, coaches with a clear understanding of what sport psychology skills training entails and what occurs in a sport psychology consultation session may be more inclined to encourage mental training and sport psychology interventions for their athletes and more willing to regularly interact with SPCs. Thus SPCs, when marketing their sport psychology services, may want to learn how to balance truisms about the provision of their services (e.g., their personal skills and training background, effectiveness and efficiency of the delivery of services offered, etc.) to obtain a “buy-in” with the athletic department staff (McGuire & Scogin, 2013; Zakrajsek, Martin, & Wrisberg, 2016). To accomplish this, SPCs could develop and offer sport psychology resources that include, but are not limited to, slide presentations of selected sport psychology skills that contain anecdotal stories and examples, videos of athletes, blogs about current sport psychology related topics, layperson summaries of research articles, aggregate data on use of sport psychology services, and webinars or open discussions and seminars on sport psychology. When engaging in service provision and promotion, SPCs should be aware of the ethics of the field as well as healthy boundaries—at times attempts to gain entry can mean compromising those healthy boundaries. Additionally, it is important to talk with all involved about boundaries around who the client is, whether it be the individual, the team, the department, or even the university.

The Athletic Department: A Multidisciplinary Team

A team of energetic experts with diverse proficiencies who can effectively work together to support high-level performers is needed to consistently achieve academic and athletic success at the intercollegiate level. The right organizational approach is needed for this multidisciplinary (or interprofessional) team to be effective (Hall & Weaver, 2001). The “spoke of the wheel” organizational approach, compared to the typical hierarchical organization (Suttle, 2015), has been used in the past decade to illustrate the various professionals needed to provide healthcare to intercollegiate athletes (see Clement & Arvinen-Barrow, 2013; Granquist & Kenow, 2015). In this holistic multidisciplinary spoke of the wheel student-athlete (i.e., healthcare, academic, and sport performance) team approach, the athlete is the “hub” or center of the wheel and the primary support staff associated with the athletic department (or the “spokes” of the wheel) include coaches (head, assistant, strength and conditioning, etc.), administrators (e.g., director, assistant director, finance, facilities, communications/media, development), general/legal counsel and compliance officers, team physicians, physical therapists, athletic trainers, nutritionists, dietitians, academic counselors, and clinical/counseling psychologists. Despite differences between the training, skills, and competencies of these professionals, they normally have mutually positive interdependent goals related to the health and well-being of the student-athlete. In this approach, the “spokes” or professionals should understand one another’s roles and responsibilities. An ability to recognize and acknowledge others’ skills and contributions while understanding one’s own boundaries and competencies is required to ensure that student-athletes holistic needs are dealt with appropriately (Clement & Arvinen-Barrow, 2013).

Sport psychology professionals, those with primarily kinesiology (i.e., sport and exercise science) and educational psychology training, could focus on performance whereas those with primary training stemming from clinical or medical psychology could focus on clinical issues. Thus, in the best-case scenario, SPCs and other healthcare professionals working with the athletic department (licensed psychologists, athletic trainers, etc.) should represent a specific service delivery specialization rather than trying to fulfill multiple roles (teacher, sport psychology performance consultant, clinical psychologist, athletic trainer, etc.) because “wearing multiple hats” can possibly result in demonstrating or portraying an image that is confusing to others such as athletes, coaches, and administrators and could suggest that one person can do it all, which could increase ethical dilemmas and would likely reduce the potential for resources for other professional staff members. Given the financial concerns alluded to earlier, many athletics administrators face the difficult task of evaluating which services are going to have the most “bang for the buck.” Additional guidance in this area is offered by the recently published NCAA (n.d.) Mental Health Best Practices consensus document.

Sport Psychology Services Provision Location

Student-athletes are faced with the difficult task of balancing athletics with academics and their social lives. Their sport-related demands often compete with academic activities and aspirations (e.g., participating in independent study experiences; Hood, Craig, & Ferguson, 1992; Petrie, Hankes, & Denson, 2010). Although sport training and competition time is officially limited by the NCAA (NCAA, 2015; Wrisberg & Johnson, 2002), additional activities including study hall and viewing game footage are often encouraged (see Martin & Andersen, 2014). The NCAA and certain conferences have begun to attempt to correct these time demands by surveying student-athletes about their athletic demands away from practice and competition (Berkowitz, 2016).

Due to certain negative consequences of the sports-over-academics culture that seemingly exists at many intercollegiate institutions (e.g., Oliard, 2009; Splitt, 2010), some have taken extreme measures to provide academic support centers that house additional academic support services for student-athletes in an effort to facilitate academic success. These academic study centers may appear to replicate similar academic support staff already available at these institutions (Huml, Hancock, & Bergman, 2014). Although it makes sense to centrally locate resources for ease of availability and due to specific needs of student-athletes (e.g., travel, etc.), some literature (e.g., Huml, Hancock, & Bergman, 2014; Martin et al., 2001; Martin, Petrie, Cogan, & Richardson, 1997; Martin et al., 2012; Olusoga et al., 2014) indicates that perceptions and willingness to seek services may change according to (a) the reasons services are sought (e.g., emotional or sport performance issues); (b) concerns about privacy and confidentiality; (c) the SPC’s knowledge, sport science and psychology training (e.g., exercise science or counseling psychology), and past sport experience; and (d) where the session is conducted (e.g., psychology clinic, physical education department, or athletic department). For example, SPCs located in counseling centers or psychology clinics are sometimes perceived as mental health professionals (e.g., counselors, clinical psychologists, psychotherapists), which could be a barrier to sport psychology service use (Blom, Hardy, Burke, & Joyner, 2003; Linder, Brewer, Van Raalte, & DeLange, 1991; Partington & Orlick, 1987; Ravizza, 1988; Van Raalte, Brewer, Linder, & DeLange, 1990; Van Raalte, Brewer, Brewer, & Linder, 1992; Van Raalte, Brewer, Matheson, & Brewer, 1996) and may not truly reflect their sport psychology training, whereas SPCs located within the athletic department send the message that the services are valued by the athletic staff and central to the competition preparation (Martin et al., 2012). Likewise, some student-athletes seek academic advising outside of their respective athletic departments because they believe faculty and academic advisors are more prone to keep their academic goals in mind rather than advising in a manner to ensure athletic eligibility (Huml, Hancock, & Bergman, 2014). In a similar way, some student-athletes and coaches believe that speaking with SPCs outside of the confines of the athletic department will result in a more holistic process, not just focused on athletics but also on other aspects of life (Martin, Wrisberg, Beitel, & Lounsbury, 1997). Hence, SPCs need to be sensitive to situational characteristics influencing the provision of services in order to create a conducive and effective consulting environment (see Martin et al., 2012).

It is also important to recognize that some (e.g., university faculty, staff, and students and residents in the community) involved at these institutions raise the question on whether funds and resources being spent for athletic study and support centers would be better used for all students and the mission of the college or university (Huml, Hancock, & Bergman, 2014). In fact, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics (2010) stated that college athletics “remain part of, not apart from, the central mission of colleges and universities” (p. 9). In this capacity, SPCs could be hired to not only work with the athletic department but to consult with other individuals and groups across the college or university campus such as individuals participating in intramural sports and exercise programs in the campus recreation center.

Mental Skills and Their Receptivity Within Intercollegiate Athletics

Multiple types of mental skills are important for success and well-being at the intercollegiate level and should be available for athletes, coaches, and others associated with the athletic department. Mental skills include foundation skills (e.g., achievement motivation, self-awareness, productive thinking, self-confidence), performance skills (e.g., perceptual-cognitive processing, attentional focus, energy management), personal development skills (e.g., identity achievement, interpersonal competence), and team skills (e.g., leadership, communication, cohesion, and team confidence) and have been widely implemented and studied with national and collegiate-level athletes (see Blakeslee & Goff, 2007; Calmels, Berthoumieux, & D’Arripe, 2004; Horn, Gilbert, Gilbert, & Lewis, 2011; Sheard & Golby, 2006; Vealey, 2007). Common mental training skills athletes find to be useful include improving concentration and focus (Orlick & Partington, 1988), managing anxiety (Mamassis & Doganis, 2004), controlling emotions (Lazarus, 2000), dealing with pressure (Beilock & Carr, 2001), building confidence (Myers, Payment, & Feltz, 2004), communicating with coaches (Sullivan, 1993) and teammates (Yukelson, 1997), performing as well in competition as in practice (Frey, Laguna, & Ravizza, 2003), preventing injury (Perna, Antoni, Baum, Gordon, & Schneiderman, 2003) and dealing with injury and rehabilitation (Wiese & Weiss, 1987), handling personal issues (Papacharisis, Goudas, Danish, & Theodorakis, 2005), improving skills for coping with stressful events (Zinsser, Bunker, & Williams, 2006), preventing burnout (Gould, Tuffey, Udry, & Loehr, 1996a, 1996b), and increasing the enjoyment of sport participation (Scanlan, Stein, & Ravizza, 1989). Coaches have a positive view of mental training skills that help student-athletes deal with pressure, build confidence, improve focus, communicate effectively with coaches and teammates, and manage emotions during competition (Wrisberg et al., 2010). Likewise, athletic directors were found to have more positive perceptions of SPCs’ consulting with student-athletes for performance-related reasons (e.g., building confidence, improving focus) than for other reasons related to quality of life such as increasing enjoyment and preventing burnout (Wrisberg et al., 2010). On the other hand, athletic trainers’ views indicated that the mental skills of greatest importance for injured student-athletes were managing anxiety during rehabilitation, improving coping skills, dealing with personal issues, and building confidence in rehabilitation and a successful return to sport participation (Zakrajsek et al., 2016).

Gender of the individual and type of sport involvement and experience may also be an influential factor in the receptivity to sport psychology consulting (see Martin et al., 2012). For example, some research (e.g., Martin, 2005) indicates that females and those involved in noncontact sports (e.g., golf, tennis) are more likely to seek sport psychology assistance than males and those involved in physical contact sports (e.g., football, wrestling). However, a possible mediating factor is the relative degree of masculinity socialization occurring in these types of sports. Specifically, in sports where combative and aggressive behavior is valued, individuals may reinforce the acceptance of pain and view self-disclosure as a sign of “mental weakness” (Martin et al., 2012). In addition to these factors, there is also some evidence that preference for mental skills training may differ between those involved in team sports as compared to those participating in individual sports (Wrisberg et al., 2009). Specifically, team sport participants were found to be more willing to seek assistance in developing communication skills, whereas individual sport participants were more interested in assistance that would help them perform as well in competition as in practice. Thus it is possible that gender congruence, masculinity socialization, type of sport (e.g., team physical contact sport vs. individual noncontact sport), and a strong athletic identity may make some individuals more reticent to promote, seek, and utilize sport psychology services (Maniar, Curry, Sommers-Flanagan, & Walsh, 2001; Martin, 2005; Martin et al., 2012; Steinfeldt, Steinfeldt, England, & Speight, 2009; Watson, 2005). Knowing information about sport participants’ attitudes, expectations, roles, and responsibilities can help SPCs introduce mental skills that are most relevant to the team or the individual’s respective situation and sport.

Clinical Issues Some Collegiate Athletes Face

While intercollegiate athletes are viewed as a healthy group, in some instances they may be more at risk of developing mental and behavioral problems (e.g., eating disorders, adjustment disorders) than other students due to the pressures they face (see Martin & Andersen, 2014). Likewise, when issues do arise, the impact on the student-athletes can be much greater than their nonathlete peers. Because of the nature of the schedules and time and performance demands, student-athletes may have additional stress and clinical issues such as mood and anxiety disorders (e.g., suicide, panic disorder, depression, stress; Baum, 2005; Brewer & Petrie, 2014; Hays, 2010; Humphrey, Yow & Bowden, 2000). While a full discussion of all of the clinical possibilities within student-athletes is beyond the scope of this article, a few key disorders are especially relevant.

Depressive Disorders

Depression (listed as one of the depressive disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition; American Psychiatric Association, 2013) is one of eight different yet interrelated disorders that involve a “sad, empty, or irritable mood, accompanied by somatic and cognitive changes that significantly affect the individuals’ capacity to function” (p. 155). These disorders are increasingly seen in student-athletes entering college, so athletic departments should be aware of this and ready for the possibility of treating affected individuals. Counseling and psychotropic medication are ways to treat these disorders, and the combination has been seen as most effective in treating depressive disorders (Bader, 2014).

Anxiety Disorders

In 2014, Goldman illustrated the prevalence and perception of the prevalence of anxiety disorders—both in the general public and in student-athletes—specifically stating that almost one in three adolescents in the United States meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder. Generally, anxiety disorders have common symptoms including feeling apprehensive and/or powerless; having a sense of impending danger, panic, or doom; increases in heart rate, breathing, and sweating; trembling; and feeling weak or tired. Similar to depressive disorders, Goldman (2014) recommends both theoretical and practical advice for addressing anxiety disorders in student-athletes.

Eating Disorders

Some athletes, especially those in sports that place an emphasis on symmetry and appearance (e.g., diving, figure skating, gymnastics) or have weight classes (e.g., boxing, mixed martial arts, wrestling), may be at greater risk of developing eating disorders than their nonathlete peers (Andersen & Peterson, 2005; Martin & Andersen, 2014). Increased concern for the health and welfare of athletes by the NCAA has been in large part due to litigation brought against intercollegiate sports departments by athletes who have developed eating disorders as a result of pressures in their sports (see Bickford, 1999). Due to these factors and others, a number of experts in the area (see Thompson, 2014) recommend development of a protocol to address individuals affected by disordered eating and eating disorders in athletic departments. Among Thompson’s chief recommendations is increasing awareness and communication of warning signs and symptoms of eating disorders.

Substance Use/Abuse

A recent demand of SPCs has been to provide or find providers for individuals who may have substance use and abuse disorders. Hainline, Bell, and Wilfert (2014) presented data collected from the NCAA in 2013 that revealed 30% to 50% of NCAA student-athletes report drinking what is defined as a binge (4+ drinks per episode for females; 5+ drinks per episode for males). Those same authors offered data on marijuana and prescription drug use within the previous 12 months, with almost 22% of student-athletes admitting to marijuana use and 4% to 5% admitting to using prescription drugs without a prescription. With the known negative effects on performance, again, athletic department administration and staff should be aware of this information and ready to respond when questions about substance use/abuse arise.

In addition to being able to recognize and effectively respond to these and other clinical issues, professionals must regularly promote healthy behaviors (nutritional practices, etc.), educate others on and off campus, and provide a supportive environment for the student-athletes. Keeping up-to-date on the field through networking and continuing education is very important. This is especially true regarding available resources and effective interventions for clinical concerns if the SPC is not specifically trained and licensed in a clinical field.


The aim of this article was to discuss some of the nuances of working within intercollegiate athletics. For SPCs, there are a number of obstacles and challenges to gaining entry into an athletic department. At the current time, funding is one of the main factors limiting sport psychology service provision. Because of the limited appropriation of funds and concerns about potential litigation, many of the new sport psychology positions coming available across the country are advertised as clinical in nature (e.g., requiring state licensure) with a supplemental role of performance enhancement consultant. This can result in trying to fulfill multiple roles that demonstrate or portray an image that may be confusing to others, which could increase ethical dilemmas. Ideally, the individuals holding positions in athletic departments would be able to expand the services to include an interprofessional team of individuals who have a variety of backgrounds and areas of expertise, especially given the mental skills needed to perform at the college level and the increase in clinical issues experienced by collegiate student-athletes. Despite these obstacles and challenges, sport psychology work within intercollegiate athletics is very rewarding and incredibly exciting.


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