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Professional Psychology: Research and Practice Copyright 2001 by the American Psychological Association, Inc.

2001, Vol. 32, No. 1, 34-39 0735-7028/01/S5.00 DOI: 10.1037//0735-7028.32.1.34

Applied Sport Psychology in Professional Sports: The Team Psychologist

Frank L. Gardner
Arizona School of Professional Psychology

Professional sports has become a significant worldwide business in which highly paid athletes are
considered substantial assets to be carefully selected, developed, and protected. Psychologists have
become increasingly involved with professional sport organizations, providing a wide range of psycho-
logical services, such as performance enhancement consultation, clinical or counseling interventions, and
psychological testing. As increasing numbers of psychologists enter the sport domain, the specific roles
and responsibilities of practice, unique ethical considerations, and psychological services and profes-
sional demands most often placed upon the team psychologist in professional sports must be clarified and
articulated.

As an ever-increasing number of psychologists enter the pro- Applied sport psychology is practiced in a variety of settings
fessional sport domain, many questions may arise concerning the across a wide range of skill levels, including the youth sport level
differing ways to effectively and ethically work with elite athletes. (Weiss, 1995), college level, (Greenspan & Andersen, 1995),
With the ongoing development of the field of sport psychology, the Olympic level (Murphy, 1995), and professional level (Gardner,
role of practitioners of applied sport psychology has expanded to 1995). As one might expect, the actual roles and responsibilities as
include the wide array of psychological services currently in well as the goals and mission of the "sport psychologist" vary
demand among professional sports organizations (PSOs). across both setting and level (Greenspan & Andersen, 1995;
The professional role of practitioners of applied sport psychol- Weiss, 1995). At the level of intercollegiate athletics, the sport
ogy has taken on many differing forms over the years. For some, psychologist is faced with developmental, educational, and perfor-
applied sport psychology primarily refers to using basic cognitive- mance concerns in working with teams and athletes (Greenspan &
behavioral and self-regulatory procedures and techniques to help
Andersen, 1995). It has been my experience that, in the world of
athletes of all levels enhance their performance (Hardy, Jones, &
professional sports, in which winning and performance success are
Gould, 1996). This approach to sport psychology, based on qual-
clearly the primary mission, most of the issues presented to the
itative and quantitative research suggesting that psychological
sport psychologist, be they clinical or otherwise, are conveyed
factors are significant contributors to optimal performance (Wil-
liams, 1998), views the development of "psychological skills" as a from the perspective of their impact upon performance. The pro-
necessary component, along with motor skill development, in the fessional athlete may be suffering from anxiety attacks or depres-
attainment of athletic performance excellence. sion, confronting the impending end of a career, facing the pain
For others, applied sport psychology includes the delivery of and uncertainty of a lengthy rehabilitation, encountering family
psychological care and development of athletes above and beyond turmoil, or experiencing a significant loss in confidence. The
efforts at enhancing athletic performance. In this model, the de- athlete troubled by such issues is most often referred by coaches,
velopment of life skills, coping resources, and care and attention to management personnel, or team medical staff because of a degra-
both clinical and developmental issues often seen in the athletic dation in performance, not because of personal discomfort.
domain becomes the purview of the applied sport psychologist As applied sport psychology has emerged as a specialty within
(Danish, Petitpas, & Hale, 1995). An even greater expansion of the professional psychology, it is both understandable and quite log-
practice of applied sport psychology has included the use of ical that PSOs would increasingly look to the field for assistance in
psychological testing in such areas as predraft selection and neu- maximizing the athletic potential of its elite performers. Unfortu-
ropsychological evaluation (Gardner & Karp, 1998; Karp & Gard- nately, there has been little empirical study of the psychological
ner, 1999). needs of athletes nor of the needs and opinions of services pro-
vided to PSOs by sport psychology professionals. Although pre-
liminary qualitative research addressing these issues is currently
FRANK L. GARDNER received his PhD in clinical psychology from Hofstra being undertaken, most of the information and knowledge about
University in 1980. He is professor and director of Sport Psychology PSOs is based on the personal experiences and descriptions in the
Programs at the Arizona School of Professional Psychology. professional literature of the few who have worked in this domain
I WOULD LIKE TO THANK Zella E. Moore for assistance with library research (Botterill, 1990; Gardner, 1995, 1998; Halliwell, 1990; Neff,
and for many helpful comments and editorial suggestions regarding pre-
1990).
vious versions of this article.
CORRESPONDENCE CONCERNING THIS ARTICLE should be addressed to Frank This article describes the roles and responsibilities of the psy-
L. Gardner, Arizona School of Professional Psychology, 2301 West Dun- chologist working with professional teams, noting the unique
lap Avenue, Suite 211, Phoenix, Arizona, 85021. Electronic mail may be demands and professional issues that confront the psychologist
sent to fgardner@azspp.edu. working in sport settings.
34
SPECIAL SECTION: THE TEAM PSYCHOLOGIST 35

The Team Psychologist in Professional Sports Performance Enhancement Services


Much like a professional athlete, the roles and responsibilities of The psychologist working in a team setting must be well trained
the team psychologist tend to evolve over time. These roles are in the performance enhancement techniques of applied sport psy-
subject to change based on both personal development and fre- chology. The sport-specific utilization of fundamental cognitive-
quent changes in coaching, management, and player personnel. behavioral and self-regulatory techniques such as stimulus control
Upon initial entry into the environment of professional sports, the (precompetitive plans and routines), self-monitoring, goal setting,
psychologist will feel very much like a novice or "rookie" (in the guided imagery, cognitive restructuring and serf-instructional
terminology of professional sports)—new, inexperienced, and, in training, relaxation training, arousal control, and attention control
many respects, out of place. This will invariably be so, regardless are all critical if the team psychologist is to have a positive impact
of the psychologist's experience as a professional. The profes- on the super-elite levels of performance demonstrated by profes-
sional sports environment is unique and requires a period of sional athletes.
learning and adjustment. Numerous studies have clearly indicated the role and efficacy of
The psychologist needs to become comfortable with informal these psychological skills in developing and enhancing peak ath-
and sometimes short sessions, in elevators, on sidelines, on air- letic performance (Williams, 1998). Both theory and research
planes, and in hotel restaurants at breakfast during road trips. suggest that optimal athletic performance is a result of well-
Consultations are provided when requested or when necessary and practiced, highly developed motor skills that become increasingly
are rarely formally set up as 45-min in-office sessions. Both player automatic over time (Fischman & Oxendine, 1998). However, this
personnel and staff need to become comfortable with the psychol- automatic processing of sport-related stimuli sometimes becomes
ogist as both a person and a professional. Just as rookie athletes less automatic and more conscious (i.e., controlled) owing to a
often feel as though they are on the outside looking in, waiting for variety of competing internal stimuli, external stimuli, or both. As
their moment to shine, so too will the new team psychologist as he suggested by Kanfer and Schefft (1985) in their model of self-
or she awaits the first opportunity to use his or her skills. This first regulation, the disruption of automatic processing results in per-
opportunity can take many forms—ones that are primarily based formance dysfunction in a wide range of human endeavors. Per-
on the reason for the hiring of the psychologist. As I outline later, formance enhancement techniques at their most basic level are
the psychologist will most likely be brought into the organization intended to teach self-regulatory skills to athletes so that they may
with a particular purpose in mind. This can include psychological reestablish the automatic processing that is so critical for optimal
skills training for performance enhancement, clinical or counseling human performance. As one athlete so aptly described to me,
services, predraft psychological testing, concussion-related neuro- "Your job is to get my head out of my body's way!"
psychological testing, or some combination of these services. Performance enhancement services are often provided (a) in an
It is important to realize, however, that if the psychologist does individual consultation format (Neff, 1990), (b) by means of
his or her job well and is seen as an asset to the organization, there formal psychological skills training programs provided in a group
will invariably be opportunity for expansion of the roles and format (Halliwell, 1990), or (c) in some combination of the two
responsibilities mandated to that psychologist. The reason for this (Gardner, 1995). For example, athletes may seek help to restore
is rather simple. Professional sports are, by their very nature, confidence, aid in the development of enhanced attention or con-
people-intensive experiences. Therefore, issues relating to human centration, reduce performance anxiety, overcome the fear of elite
behavior (i.e., psychology) will always emerge. The team psychol- competition following severe injury, or address some combination
ogist often becomes a key resource for these issues of human of these (Petitpas & Danish, 1995). During a recent season, one
behavior, both normal and abnormal, and thus can have much to professional athlete requested assistance for difficulty concentrat-
offer the organization whose success is completely dependent on ing and getting mentally prepared to perform for each game. A
the performance of human beings. For example, when I was thorough assessment revealed no psychological disturbance that
retained by one particular PSO, the professional role initially would explain these difficulties. The athlete, however, did not use
described by the organization was clearly delineated as predraft any consistent pregame routines and admitted to not taking pre-
assessment of prospective player personnel. Over time, staff be- game drills seriously. Working in a collaborative manner, the
came increasingly comfortable and content with the service being athlete described his performance issues and the nonsport demands
provided. Questions about, and finally requests for, direct inter- he faced daily, I clarified the benefits of a clear and consistent
ventions began to evolve. Finally, regular ongoing work with precompetitive routine, and a consistent pregame plan was estab-
player personnel was established for the purpose of performance lished. This pregame plan included set routines from breakfast
enhancement and coach-athlete relationship development. through the beginning of competition (i.e., meals, naps, mental
rehearsal, arrival times, stretching, and warm-up). In addition, we
Three Sport Psychology Roles established goals for pregame drill performance that required a
With Professional Sports Teams greater degree of personal involvement and concentration for them
to be completed effectively. These interventions helped reestablish
As noted earlier, both personal experience and the professional the activation state and concentration necessary for optimal per-
literature suggest that the role and function of the team psychol- formance (Hardy et al., 1996).
ogist can be separated into three broad categories (Gardner, 1995; Performance enhancement services can also focus on overall
Halliwell, 1990; Neff, 1990; Smith & Johnson, 1990). These team functioning. In this regard, the team psychologist can have a
categories include performance enhancement services, clinical or significant role in efforts at establishing necessary levels of team
counseling services, and psychological testing services. cohesion (Carron & Hausenblas, 1998). The psychologist can aid
36 GARDNER

the coaching staff in developing or clarifying necessary team Although paid extremely well, these athletes by and large have
performance norms and in helping athletes understand and accept relatively short careers. Their careers often end owing to more
their respective roles. Several years ago, a team I was working skilled (and often younger) athletes replacing them or they end
with was hindered by player discontent and jealousy. The new prematurely because of serious, unexpected injury. In fact, profes-
head coach had limited experience in the league. Team personnel sional athletes' responses to injury often present themselves sim-
complained about playing time and coaching decisions. The coach ilarly to grief responses. In response to the "death" or "near death"
approached me while on a long road trip to vent his feelings of of an athletic career, athletes often experience symptoms of anx-
frustration and to ask for advice. During a series of discussions, we iety, anger, depression, and even social withdrawal and intrusive
began to focus on the importance of performance norms and role flashbacks (Petitpas & Danish, 1995).
clarity and acceptance in the development of team cohesion. Ul- In addition, the professional athlete is not immune to the normal
timately, the coach arranged for a series of one-on-one and full- range of psychological difficulties facing human beings. Anxiety
team discussions, during which he presented his performance and affective disorders as well as a wide range of family problems
expectations and outlined for each player their specific roles and confront the professional athlete as they do any other member of
responsibilities. The coach and his staff began to demand that a society. The difference, of course, is that the world of professional
certain level of effort and outcome would be required for playing sports does not allow for personal time away from work to get
time and consistently followed through with such demands. Those through the tough periods in life.
few players who were unable or unwilling to accept these require- The clinical services provided by the team psychologist are
ments and roles were soon traded or released. Over a period of 2 typically available for individuals throughout the organization. In
months, the team's performance improved significantly, and they general, the model for the provision of clinical services to a PSO
functioned more cohesively both on and off the playing field. can be conceptualized as similar to an internal employee assistance
Interventions for the enhancement of team cohesion are highly program (Neff, 1990) in which any and all members of an orga-
dependent on the needs and coaching philosophy of the staff and nization have internal access to necessary psychological services.
should be entered into cautiously and only with the full knowledge The responsibility for team selection and the development of
and support of coach and management personnel. Athletic coach- team cohesion and technical and tactical strategies for optimizing
ing, by its very nature, is in many respects similar to the manage- team performance are centered on relatively few individuals in
ment of human resources in a business setting (Gardner, 1995). coaching and management positions. The pressure experienced by
Managers and coaches alike are responsible for selection, strategic such persons is enormous. The team psychologist's professional
planning, and player motivation and performance. As such, their role oftentimes includes helping both staff and those in a manage-
ability to effectively understand, communicate with, and motivate ment position cope with the daily stresses and strains inherent in
players and employees is critical for success. From this perspec- their jobs. In addition, family difficulties are not uncommon
tive, sport psychologists can offer the coach a number of insights among both athletes and management personnel (Coppel, 1995).
about player personalities, communication, and motivation. For Issues relating to domestic violence, substance abuse, and general
example, preseason psychological testing of entire teams can pro- stress management can all fall within the scope of practice for
vide information useful to coaches in the development of a full individuals working as team psychologists.
understanding of their players and can be used to develop specific Additional counseling services may take the form of preventa-
goals for each player's psychological skills training program tive psycho-educational programs in family relations, anger man-
(Gardner, 1995). Rick Patino, former Head Coach of the Univer- agement, financial management, and substance abuse, as well as
sity of Kentucky Men's Basketball team, commented, career counseling for those athletes beginning to think about the
completion of their careers. With respect to career counseling in
We brought in ... a psychologist who had worked with the Knicks, to particular, some professional leagues such as the National Hockey
test the team. I needed to know who was a leader, who lacked
League (NHL) through the NHL Players Association, have devel-
confidence, who wanted to take the big shot. I found that they were all
insecure about what was ahead. I needed to ease those fears. I built
oped formal programs to prepare their athletes for life after sport.
them up; I told them how valuable they were. I didn't try to make Some teams have developed their own career development pro-
them up into something they weren't. But I wanted to convince them grams (J. Goldberg, personal communication, October, 1991),
that even average athletes, playing well together, could accomplish while others have shown no inclination to do so. Career counseling
great deeds as a team. (Patino, 1992, p. 45) with athletes first involves an explanation of life transitions and
their implications to the athlete, followed by systematic self- and
Clinical or Counseling Services career exploration, and finally the development of a career action
plan (Petitpas, Champagne, Chartrand, Danish, & Murphy, 1997).
The psychologist trained appropriately in both sport psychology
and clinical or counseling psychology can offer a great deal to an Psychological Testing
organization whose success depends on individuals performing
physically demanding skills on a regular basis while under intense Little in sport psychology elicits as strong a reaction as does
public and media scrutiny. Professional sports are quite unforgiv- psychological testing. There has been a wide range of professional
ing. Performance is monitored daily and expectations are set at an discourse in this area debating the utility, value, and ethical con-
extremely high level. Additionally, there are always teammates siderations of psychological testing in the sport milieu (Etzel,
waiting in the wings to take the place of those athletes who cannot Yura, & Perna, 1998; Vealey & Garner-Holman, 1998). Others
(or do not) perform. Poor performances result in loss of playing have cautioned that psychologists using psychological testing as
time and even jobs. part of their professional work must be particularly attuned to the
SPECIAL SECTION: THE TEAM PSYCHOLOGIST 37
ethical responsibilities toward the athlete being tested, including believed to be ready to play at the professional level. Manage-
informed consent and appropriate availability of test feedback ment's ability to make correct selection decisions (and, conversely,
(Nideffer, 1981). avoid highly visible and expensive failures) is often a major
Early efforts at determining empirical predictors of athletic determinant of their teams' success and their own longevity on the
success were largely unsuccessful (Davis, 1991), and, as such, it job. Scouts can only evaluate player talent and physical ability. Yet
was thought by some that psychology should abandon the use of frequently, players with tremendous athletic potential are ulti-
psychological testing for selection purposes in the sports milieu mately unsuccessful.
(Vealey & Garner-Holman, 1998). Despite these initial findings The team psychologist is often asked to evaluate relevant psy-
and criticisms, the use of psychological testing in professional chological factors that may enhance or interfere with an athlete's
sports continues to be used and highly valued by PSOs. Until likelihood of attaining his or her potential. Included in this eval-
recently, the results of psychological testing have been presented uation may be an assessment of clinical concerns and issues as
in a standard clinical manner, with each individual personality well as normal personality and behavioral style. This may include
described in depth. More recent studies, using somewhat different structured interview, behavioral observations, and psychometric
methodologies, have begun to find empirical support for the ability evaluation of personality by means of objective tests (Gardner,
of psychological testing to accurately discriminate (and thus pre- 1998). Psychometric instruments used in this context vary a great
dict) between those athletes more or less likely to achieve predraft deal but typically include objective measurements of personality
expectations (Gardner & Karp, 1999). Such issues bring the pos- and interpersonal style such as Cartel's Sixteen Personality Factor
sibility of objectivity in the prediction of athletic success into Questionnaire (16PF; Cattel, Eber, & Tatsuoka, 1980) and Nidef-
focus. This would be in keeping with a recent meta-analysis that fer's Test of Attentional and Interpersonal Style (TAIS; Nideffer,
suggested that mechanical (i.e., statistical) predictions of human 1976). Because the costs of selection errors are great, it is quite
behavior are generally superior to clinical prediction methods rational for those who make selection decisions to consider psy-
across a wide range of circumstances (Grove, Zald, Lebow, Snitz, chological test results as a component of their selection process.
& Nelson, 2000). One could easily argue that the use of psycho- When psychological testing is performed in this manner, it is the
logical testing as part of a comprehensive selection process in psychologist who must carry the burden of informing the athlete
professional sports is not at all different from the well-accepted use and the organization of the nature and limitations to testing.
of testing as a selection tool in corporate settings.
Regardless of philosophy, psychological testing is a professional Unique Demands on Team Psychologists
function used by a large number of PSOs (Neff, 1990). In fact, in Professional Sports
informal discussion among psychologists working in professional
sports suggests that more teams use psychologists in this predraft The world of professional sports is in many ways a closed, and
testing role than any other professional function (F. Neff, personal somewhat paranoid, system (Gardner, 1995). People are viewed by
communication, August 17, 1999). In my experience, administer- athletic personnel as either insiders or outsiders. Earning trust and
ing psychological testing is a highly valued role for psychologists becoming accepted as an insider is a process, not an event. Again,
in the world of professional sports. to use the previously noted rookie analogy, the process of becom-
Psychological testing of professional athletes may include neu- ing an accepted and useful part of the sport world is an ongoing
ropsychological testing and predraft testing. In recent years, much developing process that has numerous ups and downs, much like
public scrutiny and media attention has been given to the issue of the career path that most athletes themselves face. There are times,
mild traumatic brain injury (i.e., concussion) and athletics. An especially in the beginning, when both the psychologist and the
estimated 250,000 head injuries occur per year in contact sports professional athlete feel frustrated and unappreciated, believing
(Pellman, 1998). In addition, the cumulative effects of concussion that they can offer much more but recognizing that they must
in athletes and issues relating to return-to-play decisions have patiently await their opportunity. When that opportunity finally
become recurring themes in sports medicine (Burke, 1998). As arises, there is often but one chance to prove one's worth. This
such, both the National Football League and the NHL have intro- high-stakes work environment appeals only to some highly trained,
duced formal ongoing neuropsychological baseline and postcon- highly educated professionals.
cussion testing programs into their study of this issue (Burke, In certain respects, those in professional sports are suspicious
1998; Pellman, 1998). In these programs, brief (20-30 min) mea- and cynical about the value of psychology. Many in the field have
sures of short-term and delayed memory, nonverbal fluency, at- previously oversold the value of their services or have been less
tention and concentration, and problem solving are administered to than open and honest in describing the limits of their training and
all team members prior to training camp. Following any mild head education. This has resulted in a situation in which those psychol-
injury, players are retested. Information from these tests is then ogists seeking to work in professional sports have had to overcome
incorporated as an element in the sports medicine staff decisions the negative experiences and misconceptions of others before even
about return-to-play parameters. In addition, this information is having an opportunity to demonstrate their skills.
used to educate players and their families with regard to head Once on the job, the team psychologist is confronted on a
injury, long-term consequences, return to play, and possible retire- regular basis with issues of boundaries and professional behavior
ment issues. unlike any seen in the traditional day-to-day practice of profes-
Making correct selection decisions when choosing new (young) sional psychology. Interventions are more likely to be performed
entrants into the sport is of critical importance to team manage- informally—on the sideline or in the locker room and rarely in the
ment. The yearly event commonly referred to as the entry draft is psychologist's office. Team members, whether seeking help with a
the process in which each team selects college-aged amateurs performance-based issue or a more personal concern, do not want
38 GARDNER

to see themselves as patients. Accepting invitations to team func- for those individuals working or interested in working in profes-
tions, holiday parties, and even championship celebrations need to sional sports.
be well thought out. Issues relating to accompanying teams on road The team psychologist must also be cognizant of the team's
trips, team meals, and charter plane flights, not part of standard reporting structure and maintain awareness of the person to whom
clinical practice, are regular events. In essence, the ability to he or she should directly report: Coach? General Manager? Team
interact as part of the team, while at the same time maintaining Physician? Or, possibly, all three! In many respects, the reporting
professional boundaries (and providing direct psychological ser- structure is dictated by one's role. Working with team personnel on
vice), is a mode of operation very different from standard clinical performance-based issues would clearly place the psychologist
practice. into a direct report to the coach. The reporting structure for clinical
When hired by a team, the psychologist must be aware that it is issues could require report to the coach, general manager, and team
of critical importance that issues of confidentiality and privileged physician. Predraft testing would likely result in direct report to the
communication be addressed, discussed, and agreed upon by all general manager. Working with injured players or testing for
involved parties. As someone who would most likely be remuner- postconcussion effects would clearly place the psychologist in
ated by the PSO, the psychologist cannot assume the same confi- direct report to the team physician.
dentiality with athletes employed by the PSO as would exist in
private practice. In my experience, PSOs are realistic and under- Conclusion
standing regarding issues of confidentiality if these are discussed
openly and directly at the outset. The psychologist desiring work in this milieu must always
An example of the need for early discussion of these issues remember that when a team physician performs poorly, the orga-
occurred in my first year as a consultant with a National Basketball nization maintains its involvement with medicine and replaces the
Association team. In an early discussion of confidentiality, man- practitioner. However, when a team psychologist performs poorly,
agement pointed out that the league substance-abuse policy re- not only the practitioner but the profession as well is, at least
quired that any team personnel with knowledge of a player's drug temporarily, eliminated. In the world of professional sports, sport
use must immediately report that information to the league office. psychology is essentially in a probationary period, still striving to
Failure to do so could result in the suspension of that personnel and prove its value and demonstrate its efficacy.
a major fine for the team. From the league's perspective, a psy- Thus, as a novice sport psychologist enters the field, it remains
chologist consulting for a team is considered personnel. After our imperative that he or she fully understands his or her professional
discussion, the team sought clarification from the league and was roles within the athletic environment. To facilitate therapeutic
utility within the sport domain, the team psychologist must first
given a written waiver regarding this issue. This concern had never
recognize that the sport environment requires flexibility, sponta-
been addressed previously and was easily handled with fore-
neity, and the ability to adapt to the changing needs of an entire
thought and open discussion. It was clear that if a player was to be
organization of potential clients. Subsequently, it remains neces-
expected to share personal information and seek help for addictive
sary to establish, communicate, and maintain professional bound-
behavior, the player and the team members needed assurance that
aries; adhere to the demands of the team and the guidelines
this communication was confidential and would not jeopardize the
instituted for professional psychologists; establish therapeutic al-
status of the player, the team, or the psychologist.
liances with player personnel; and develop rapport with manage-
The psychologist must also consider that situations will invari-
ment and staff.
ably arise in which the interests of individual athletes may conflict
Once this is accomplished and the sport psychologist has dem-
with the mission and goals of the client (i.e., team or organization).
onstrated competency in performance enhancement techniques,
For example, an athlete may need some time to deal with a serious
clinical or counseling skills, and psychological testing procedures,
family problem at home, just at the time when the championship
the team psychologist can ethically remain integrated into the
playoffs are scheduled to begin. The interest of the player may be
athletic environment and provide the multifaceted services neces-
to go home and address his personal situation, yet the team clearly
sary to enhance successful participation in professional sports.
requires his services immediately (and at 100% of functioning). It
is impossible to consider all eventualities in this regard. It requires
professional skill and the ability to recognize not only the letter of References
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