The field of applied sport psychology has a wide variety of titles associated with it – including Sport Psychologist, Mental Performance Consultant, Mental Skills Coach, Peak Performance Coach etc. The training and education of practitioners in this field can also drastically vary from PhDs to someone without an undergraduate degree.

But what makes someone great at this work is their ability to connect and guide their clients to achieve results. The more effective and efficient the practitioner is, the more in demand they will be.

Sport Psychology is Still Growing

The reality is the study and practice of sport psychology became popular in the 1960’s with the formation of International Society of Sport Psychology and many other governing bodies following. So the field has grown significantly in the past few decades – developing evidence-based approaches that deliver results.

As such sport psychology has become a more accepted practice within athlete development.

But many practitioners are still using fluffy and cookie cutter strategies. The key to effectively helping a client get results is getting to the root of the problem – then developing personalized and practical strategies that work for them.

Mental Health vs Mental Performance

One of the other challenges in the field has been the overlap between mental health and mental performance. The best way to think of these fields is that they are two similar and interrelated continuums.

For example, it is possible that someone is high on the Mental Performance continuum but low on the Mental Health continuum – however, the mental health struggles will eventually catch up and they won’t be able to sustain their mental performance.

The field of Mental Health has generally been about helping people that are struggling (eg. anxiety and depression) and getting them back to a good state.

While the field of Mental Performance is more about helping someone go from good to great.

Sport psychology is generally more focused on the mental performance side. However, there are clinical mental health professionals that are licensed to diagnose and treat mental health, that also work on mental performance.

My belief is that if you effectively work on your mental performance, then you are also proactively ensuring optimal mental health – although they are different, they are interrelated.

But to be clear, most Mental Performance Professionals are not clinical therapists and are not licensed to diagnose and treat mental health. This does not mean they are not effective at what they do, but it does mean if you are looking for someone to diagnose and treat a mental illness that you should work with a licensed mental health professional.

So what is the difference between a sport psychologist and a mental performance coach?

These labels are often used synonymously, from society’s perspective a mental performance coach could also be called a sport psychologist.

However, these labels do matter in different parts of the world. For example, the designation of Psychologist is a protected term in Ontario – so a practitioner based here would only be able to call themselves a Sport Psychologist if they were clinically licensed to diagnose and treat mental illness.

There are certainly advantages to seeing a practitioner clinically licensed to diagnose and treat mental health.

However, I believe there are also benefits to seeing a Mental Performance Coach that is not clinically licensed – foremost it can help create a different environment. It can make it feel more like going to a fitness coach or skills coach – they attend sessions where a coach provides feedback and guidance but the athlete has to do the work to get the benefits.

Versus feeling like they are there to be diagnosed, treated, and fixed – which can start the whole process off on the wrong foot.

Broken and Need to Be Fixed

To be clear people going to see clinical therapists should NOT use this tone as it is not true and not helpful.

Jumping to the conclusion that someone is ‘broken’ and needs to be fixed works well when treating a broken arm. But this creates a lot of problems when working on a person’s inner world.

If the story we tell ourselves is that we are mentally broken and the solution is outside of us – then your inner world will be dependent on the external world – and the journey will be a never-ending challenge with little sense of control.

However, the reality is we have the power to influence our thoughts, feelings and actions. Working with a coach is a great way to better understand our inner dialogue and learn strategies to create an inner narrative that works for us.

The coach is the third party that can help you objectively look at your current inner narrative and see your blind spots.

In summary the field of Sport Psychology is still in its infancy and the labels practitioners use are still evolving.

The tide is certainly shifting when it comes to the acceptance of Sport Psychologists, Mental Health Practitioners, and Mental Performance Coaching.

Athletes that are looking to get a 1-on-1 coach should find someone that meets their unique needs. Great coaches have the ability to connect and guide their clients.

Our team of coaches help athletes get results by getting to the root of the problem then developing personalized and practical strategies that work for them.

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