Q&A with Sports Psychologist, Jim Taylor, PhD
Q: What is sports psychology and how is it different than other types of psychology?
Sports psychology is a subgroup of the field of psychology that applies the theory, principles and strategies used in clinical and counseling psychology to sports, athletes and coaches. Unlike other fields of psychology, [sports psychology] actually originated in physical education, sports science and kinesiology departments. Most of the faculty positions in sports psychology are in the physical education and sports science departments.
Q: What led you to a career in this field?
There's a cliche that people become psychologists to figure themselves out, and I had one of those experiences. I was a high-level ski racer in my younger years. I was quite good - about 40th in the nation in slalom - but I was what was called a" head case" or a "mind job." That is, my head got in the way of my ski racing. I got very nervous before races; I didn't have a lot of confidence in myself. One summer I took a course related to sports psychology at a local college, and it exposed me to a lot of the techniques that I now use with athletes. The following year I had a career year. I jumped into the top 20 in the nation; I competed internationally.
But even beyond the results, what was most compelling for me is that before sports psychology, when I got to the starting gate [before a race], I had so little confidence that I basically assumed that I was going to fail. Following being exposed to sports psychology, I got to the starting gate, and I basically knew I was going to win. It didn't guarantee that I was going to win, but it gave me the real belief that I could be successful, and there's no doubt that it translated into real, tangible results.
Q: In your work, what is an average day like?
I don't have an average day. If I'm not seeing clients on any given day, I'll be in front of my computer writing. I just finished a new parenting book, I've been asked to write two chapters for two sports psychology textbooks, and I blog usually once or twice a week for several sites.
If I'm speaking, I'll usually travel somewhere and then spend some time at a school, an athletic program, or with a sports team. I'll speak to different groups such as the athletes, coaches or parents of athletes.
When I work one-on-one, I will often travel; I have clients all over the country, and I'll go spend several days with them, both in the sports setting and in an office. I work with them on a variety of psychological issues related to what's impacting them in their sport.
Q: What kind of preparation do sports psychologists need?
A lot depends on what people are interested in. If they're interested perhaps in an academic position in which they're working with athletes in a consulting situation on mental skills, then the physical education/sports science [education] is totally appropriate. If they want to have more of a consulting practice with athletes, then a clinical counseling degree is more useful.
Q: In general, are there any specific traits that work well for a sport psychologist?
First of all, it definitely helps to have some kind of high-level athletic experience. A big thing with sports psychology is that the athletes are pretty skeptical about the mental side of sport because it's not something that they can touch or measure. It's important for your credibility to have competitive athletic or coaching experience.
You also have to be very patient; this is a tough field to work in. You're not going to have people knocking on your door constantly asking to work with you. Another thing - you need to have a variety of different skills. As an example, though sports psychology is still quite a large part of my practice, I also do a considerable amount of work in the corporate world, taking the ideas that I have learned about performance and applying it to the business world. The way I'm able to make a comfortable living is by being able to apply my skill sets to a lot of different areas.
Q: What do you wish someone had told you about the profession?
I suppose if I had known how difficult it was going to be to make a living in this field, I might not have chosen it. At the same time, I have a tremendous passion for what I do.
[When I started, I didn't really have anyone to answer my questions]. What's the field like? What do I need to do exactly in terms of my education and training? My biggest piece of advice is, "Do your homework." Really learn about the field. Make sure you have a realistic idea about what it takes to be successful.
As a side note, you should recognize that having a consulting practice is a small business. Take some business courses. I've been fortunate during the course of my career to have people from the business world mentor me and help me think about what I needed to do to sell myself.
Q: What kind of changes have there been in your area of practice in the last few years?
Oddly enough, there haven't been a ton of changes. There aren't major advances in therapeutic techniques. Ultimately, what causes development is simply experience. I remember getting out of graduate school with my PhD thinking, I'm a doctor now; I know everything. And then, I remember, it was about seven years later that I realized I was finally getting pretty good at [my job]. Over these 25 years, I've found that from my interactions with clients and through my speaking and writing, I develop new ideas. It's a very creative, innovative process. So even though the field hasn't evolved dramatically, my own capabilities as a practitioner have.
Q: What do you see for the future of this field?
The field is becoming more accepted. Now, pretty much every Olympic team has a sports psychologist involved. On the pro tennis circuit and the pro golf tour, there are many sports psychologists involved. As far as the big time professional sports teams - NFL, NBA, MLB, pro hockey - there's certainly some [sports psychologists] involved, but not as many. As the pressures become greater and the level of performance gets higher [for athletes], there is going to be a need for more competent sports psychologists. The athletes are so close [in terms of performance] that ultimately what enables one athlete to succeed, to win on the day of his/her Olympic event, or in the World Series, is not physical capabilities or equipment; it's whether he or she has the mental capability.
Q: Any other particular recommendations for aspiring sports psychologists?
Despite the sort of cautionary nature of some of my comments, I feel that I've had an incredible experience in my career. People who are interested in sports psychology and want to have a successful career have to put in a lot of time and make a lot of sacrifices. But, it's an incredible opportunity. I've been able to help people, meet star athletes, travel the world and have financial stability and a lot of freedom.