Why You Should Consider a Clinical Perspective to Athletics

Counseling and psychology have become an important part of sports. With an increase in students participating in sports and increased commercialization, student athletes are faced with increased demands, both in the game and away from the sport.


Students can face high academic expectations, increasing performance demands, and emotional difficulties related to sports participation.


Sports psychologists and counselors provide students with the tools and therapeutic interventions they need to overcome these common psychosocial problems. While both sports psychologists and sports counselors work to improve the overall well-being of the athlete, each specialist takes a different therapeutic approach.

Sports Psychology: This approach to the mental, behavioral, and emotional well-being of athletes is a combination of applying psychological skills and techniques within the sports industry. It requires specialized knowledge that aims to address optimal performance of athletes, developmental and social aspects, and systemic issues common in the organization of sports. A sports psychologist works with student athletes using cognitive and behavioral skills for improving performance when in the game. They work on improving team building, athletic motivation, and leadership skills and development. An education in sports psychology covers various aspects of factors including psychology, sports science, and medicine.

Sports Counseling: In comparison to a sports psychologist, sports counselors focus more on a holistic approach,taking the mental well-being and emotional needs of the athletes into consideration. While many specific goals overlap between the two, sports counselors tend to provide both in game and out of the game counseling. They focus on both personal and clinical issues in sports. Sports counseling might include developing coping skills, decision making, crisis intervention, and even family and marital counseling.

History of Sports Counseling

The first organized discipline of sports counselingof sports counseling was established in the 1960s. But, it was researched as early as 1918 by Coleman R. Griffith. However, it was the increased commercialization of sports throughout the 1970s and 1980s that really contributed to the emergence of sports counseling. It was first recognized by the Association for Counselor Education in 1985 and the Association for the Advancement for Applied Sport Psychology (AAASP), now known as the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP), was formed. In 1986, the American Psychological Association (APA) developed an entire division dedicated to exercise and sport psychology.

Counseling to Help Student Athletes

When taking a holistic approach to sports counseling, there are many things that a sports counselor might work through with a student athlete.

  • Lifestyle Consultation: Sports counselors focus on the individual lifestyle of the athlete, including both personal and clinical issues associated with sport performance.
  • Developmental: Transitional periods are often difficult when it comes to sports. Transitions occur when the athlete is moved to another team, has come to the end of their sporting contract, or will soon be graduating. Sports counselors are an effective part of identifying and working through these phase of life concerns.
  • Career Development: Differing life goals can affect a student athlete’s emotional health. Some might want to take their sport professional, while others want assistance transitioning into a career. External pressures from coaches, parents, and peers can also be a factor.
  • Stress Management: Student athletes are often under a lot of stress. They are balancing sports, school, and personal lives. They also risk facing burn-out. Sports counselors can use stress relief techniques to battle these stressors. Some common interventions might include identifying stressors, relaxation techniques, and the use of cognitive behavioral therapy to challenge faulty thought patterns.
  • Diversity Awareness: Counselors should be aware of individual and group differences in correlation with athletic participation. For example, women and minorities may have different needs to participate in sports. Counselors should be particularly aware of these inclusions and understand that there are diversity concernsat both the individual and group level.

Supporting Mental Wellness for Athletes

While sports psychology focuses on the performance of student athletes, this practice does not meet the psychosocial needs of the athlete. According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the following challenges prevent sport counselors from effectively helping the student athlet:

  • Stigma and minimization of mental health in the sports industry.
  • Limited mental health resources available.
  • The confusion between sports psychology and sports counseling.
  • The unique competency required from sports counselors.
  • Lack of training models for sports counselors/psychologists.
  • The “mental toughness” mind frame pushing resiliency and self-reliance.

These factors can be addressed by connesting students to external support systems, outside of their coaching and training staff. Sports counselors are an important part in helping student athletes in overcoming these struggles by providing these students with a holistic counseling approach to mental health. It is estimated that 10-15% of American college student athletes are dealing with issues significant enough for professional counseling services. John C. Watson recommends that sports counselors help students overcome these barriers by being proactive. Combining both a working knowledge of these challenges and understanding the unique situations present in sports is crucial.

Pursuing a Career in Sports Counseling

There are two requirements that will lead to a career in sports counseling.

Professional Counseling or Psychology Degree: It is important to first have a strong basis in psychology or counseling before pursuing a career in sports counseling. The specific counseling techniques and skills that are learned in a counseling education program will become the foundation for a sports counselor. This requires first completing a master’s degree in counseling or a doctorate in psychology.
Certification: Following the completion of a degree in either psychology or counseling, post-graduate education should include a certification in either sports counseling or in the psychology route; a sports and exercise psychology certification. These certifications prepare counseling students for the sports specific dynamic of counseling. Counseling or psychology, with a sports certification, graduates will be trained to increase awareness of common issues in sports, develop techniques and skills for working with student athletes, and learn to proactively handle sports-related concerns.

After completing the career requirements in sports counseling, a sports counselor might work in a high school or collegiate environment. These counselors may act as academic advisors, offer sports counseling services in a private clinical setting, or hold a full time career position with a professional sporting organization.