At professional or Olympic levels, coaches are increasingly in the spotlight. "Their job is in many ways harder than the athlete's," Gould says. "They're trying to create an environment for the athletes, and at the same time the coach gets nervous, so sometimes they overcoach." Combine that with nervous athletes and tensions can rise, hampering an athlete's ability to perform at his or her best.
For team sports, of course, creating cohesion and good communication among team members—whether for synchronized swimming, volleyball, doubles tennis or even equestrian events—is key. To excel, players also need to feel confident about their own roles as well as their contributions to the team, notes Craig Wrisberg, a professor emeritus of sport psychology and past president of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP).
Family gain or drain?
Athletes also have people outside of the sport's circle in their daily lives. Friends and family members can provide mental stability, but they can also be a psychological drain. Even for veteran athletes, "one of their greatest supports is their family—and it's also one of their biggest distractions," says Chris Carr, a sport and performance psychologist at Indiana University Bloomington, who has coached previous Olympic teams, including the 2008 U.S. Olympic diving team. Carr had learned this over years of working and talking with athletes. —Long before the team left for Beijing, he and his colleagues held workshops for divers' family and friends to teach them how they could provide the most support—and the least distraction.
Other psychologists have focused their efforts on helping athletes smooth over these support relationships themselves. Adeline Gray, a 2012 Olympic hopeful as an alternate for the first U.S. women's wrestling team, can attest to the powerful role sports psychology can play in helping her support network help her. Gray knows that to do her best she needs to be calm and upbeat before hitting the mat. "If I get too jittery, it's too much," she says.
But her father, who has been one of her biggest supporters and long-time coach, had a habit of trying to pump her up before matches, getting in her face and yelling. This interference was starting to get to Gray. So her sports psychologist helped her work up the courage to ask her dad, instead, for a hug and a smile. Just like that, her dad switched to the hug, and she was able to enter into her matches in a better frame of mind.
Gray, who is 21, has been working with a sports psychologist since she was in her mid-teens. She says she encourages other athletes to find one to meet with—even if they just chat about their dog, she says. "It's one more thing that's going smoothly in your life so you can focus on your sport."
Always an individual sport
Psychologists are focusing more on their own relationship with an athlete, too. Mental preparation is likely to be very different for a weight lifter, who needs an explosive burst of almost superhuman energy and strength, than it is for a marksman, who must calm her mind and even her heart rate while aiming. Understanding an individual’s personality and habits will improve how well the sports psychologist can best help the athlete.
Carr prepared the U.S. Olympic diving team for the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing. By the time the opening ceremonies launched, "I had worked with a number of those athletes for four years—through observations and one-on-one discussions," he says. Benefits accrued not just from his formal sessions with athletes or the team, he says, but casual, incidental interactions, such as "the informal bus ride chat from the training facility to the Olympic Village," where he could check in and see how athletes were feeling and make sure they had their mental checklists ready to go.