There's a Lot to Learn From Sports Psychology—Even if You Aren't an Athlete

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Key Takeaways

  • Sports psychology tools like visualization, making conscious choices about music choice in certain environments, and interrupting comparisons to others can all be applied outside of the sporting environment
  • Sports psychology has key foundational concepts, like building resilience and adapting to changing circumstances, that are applicable in the boardroom as much as on a basketball court

With the NBA well into their playoffs, MLB teams just opening their doors, and the NHL nearing their own postseason, it's worth taking a look at how the mental health strategies derived from sports psychology employed by elite athletes can benefit your daily life, even if you don't consider yourself an athletic person.

Compete in any type of elite-level sport and you’re likely to hear sports psychology enter into the conversation. Often, it’s rooted in performance—the run faster and jump higher version of mental health care. Other times, it’s about taking those psychological skills you learned in the context of training or playing and applying them to non-sporting environments, like work or home life.

Importance of a Mind-Body Approach

Dr. Candice Williams, LPC is a licensed therapist who works with athletes at The Ohio State University, while also supporting NFL athletes with their mental health. She says that for her, “You can't just train your body from the neck down, you have to train from the neck up.” Her message to her athletes, she says, translates outside of the division one sporting environment.

“When you're on the field, and you're standing flat footed, what's going to happen? You’re going to get bulldozed. You have to learn how to run a different route, right, and be mentally agile. This is how we can help translate that into everyday life.”

Dr. Candice Williams, LPC

When you're on the field, and you're standing flat footed, what's going to happen? You’re going to get bulldozed. You have to learn how to run a different route, right, and be mentally agile. This is how we can help translate that into everyday life.

— Dr. Candice Williams, LPC

For Williams that agility can look like guided meditation, grounding techniques, and working towards a growth mindset rather than a scarcity mindset, but preparation can also involve sporting tools that wouldn’t traditionally be considered applicable to non-sportsy people. Two examples Williams gave were being selective about musical choices and using float tank facilities. 

Recent peer reviewed research points to the value of music in performance. As Dr. Christopher G. Ballmann wrote in the Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology, music is quite appealing to athletes at all levels of competition and can have significant impact on performance

“Music provides a very practical means for which to improve acute exercise performance. Music is easily obtainable, cost-effective, and potent as an ergogenic intervention.”

It’s Not Just About Finding Another Gear

Another practitioner, Dr. Joe Galasso, PsyD, says that goal setting, visualization, and developing resilience are all areas of development that contribute to the wellbeing of those who may well be outside of the athletic paradigm.  

“It's certainly going to get tough, life is hard. We don't want to go to the gym every day. Childcare is tough. Relationships are tough. But, what sports psych really teaches us how to do is to keep moving, and to keep moving in a positive manner, and to utilize our tools in a way that allows us to keep accessing new levels of ourselves.”

For Galasso, that resilience isn’t a version of toxic positivity or a push through at all costs mentality, but involves having the capacity and knowledge foundation to reach out when needed. 

“What I'm proposing is, what we have to do to be resilient is learn to identify when those negative feelings occur. What do I have to do in a safe and productive manner to mitigate them, to treat them, to find access to care, to just take a break?” 

The Difference Between Life and Death

In the stressful world of division one college football, Dr. Williams has coined a phrase to support her athletes in understanding just what’s at stake when it comes to sports psychology and mental health. 

“It’s kind of taken off on Instagram by a lot of the student athletes, but I talk about putting the person before the student or the athlete, or we’re at risk of losing all three.”

Dr, Joe Galasso, PsyD

...What sports psych really teaches us how to do is to keep moving, and to keep moving in a positive manner, and to utilize our tools in a way that allows us to keep accessing new levels of ourselves.

— Dr, Joe Galasso, PsyD

For her, it’s about “the whole person” in an environment where athletes—and entertainers, CEOs, business people, plus a whole host of others in the professional world—have increasingly been faced with the risk of suicide. According to research showcased by the National Institute of Mental health, 11.3 percent of adults aged 18-25 had suicidal thoughts in 2020. Overall, they found that 4.9 percent of the total population of US adults had contemplated the act. Meanwhile, a nine-year study published in 2015 found that the rate of suicide among “all cause mortality” for NCAA student athletes was 7.3 percent.

Parallels to Transitioning Out of Sport

As the saying goes, for athletes, Father Time is undefeated. Dr. Williams says that part of her work is to show athletes that the tools they are building are “transferrable” especially when it comes to what she calls stigma: “the invisible opponent.” 

To do that, one of her key tools is to reference the nine dimensions of wellness: spiritual, social, emotional, financial, environmental, creative,  physical, intellectual, and career. It’s a model that’s at the core of OSU’s approach for all students and sits amongst a number of others models in health and wellness research.

At the core of these discussions, Williams said, is the deep ties that athletes have to their sporting identities, in much the same way that a business person can quickly be swallowed by their career ambitions and past accomplishments. For her, growth is about being able to be supported to see the whole picture.

"You have to be able to really take a step back and ask yourself who are you really? And are you impressed with who you are as a person versus the title that you hold in that position? And, by being impressed, I mean are you really satisfied with how you're taking care of yourself?”

For Galasso, an aspect of sports psychology methodology that is easily transferrable out of the locker room is how to lessen the impact of comparing yourself to others and casting yourself in a negative light. 

“I think, first and foremost, you start with validation … So if we can figure out if it's a skill, if it's an ability, if it's part of the maturation process, if we can really drill down to help them articulate what they're trying to acquire from that higher level athlete, then we can help them achieve their goal. But comparing ourselves just to compare ourselves and engaging in that process is not useful.”

What This Means For You

While sports psychology can feel like the realm of only the most elite of athletes, the skills and tools deployed in the discipline can support those who don't consider themselves athletes.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ballmann CG. The influence of music preference on exercise responses and performance: A reviewJ Funct Morphol Kinesiol. 2021;6(2):33. doi:10.3390/jfmk6020033

  2. National Institute of Mental Health. Suicide.

  3. Rao AL, Asif IM, Drezner JA, Toresdahl BG, Harmon KG. Suicide in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) athletes: A 9-Year analysis of the NCAA Resolutions databaseSports Health. 2015;7(5):452-457. doi:10.1177/1941738115587675

  4. Ohio State University Student Wellness Center. Nine dimensions of wellness.

  5. Oliver MD, Baldwin DR, Datta S. Health to wellness: A review of wellness models and transitioning back to healthInt J Health Wellness Soc. 2018;9(1):41-56. doi:10.18848/2156-8960/CGP/v09i01/41-56

By John Loeppky
John Loeppky is a freelance journalist based in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, who has written about disability and health for outlets of all kinds.