As I reflect on the past 15 years I realize that a lot has changed in sport, particularly in the United States. In terms of athletes, I am reminded of Kevin Garnett (drafted in 1995) and Kobe Bryant (drafted in 1996). Both were basketball players who were drafted right out of high school to play professional basketball. While they weren’t the first athletes to be drafted out of high school to play a professional sport, their immediate success had a ripple effect on the sport of basketball and with sports in the United States. Before Kobe and Kevin Garnett, basketball players were encouraged to play four years of college basketball before entering the NBA, now players are either recruited straight out of high school or at most, play one maybe two years of college basketball before going pro.
This trend in drafting younger athletes has lead college coaches to recruit athlete at a younger age. Instead of evaluating the potential and recruiting athletes their junior year of high school, it is now an accepted practice that college coaches seek out verbal commitments from athletes as early as their freshman year of high school. Since college coaches no longer have four years to develop their players and build a team identity, they are now forced to find talented basketball players who can make an immediate impact on their teams as freshmen. As a result, coaches at all levels (youth, high school, and college) are stressing the need for athletes to specialize (play only one sport) at an even younger age. It wasn’t long ago when it was acceptable for an athlete to choose a primary sport in high school. It is now commonplace to see athletes specialize in a sport as early as 5th grade (10 to 11 years of age).
It is important to note here that, while early specialization has become a norm in youth sports, we at SPINw feel that athletes should wait till at least high school before deciding to specialize at one sport. There are many studies that show negative effects associate with early sports specialization, including increased likelihood of injury and burnout. But as the trend continues, the need for sport psychology services increase, and SPINw supports all athletes.
As more athletes become more serious at a younger age, they are also determined to take advantage of every possible resource necessary to get the competitive edge over other athletes. For example, a high school quarterback works with a quarterback coach to help him improve his throwing mechanics (developing his technical skill); he also attends quarterback skills camps to learn how to read different defensive formations and learn different offensive play sets (developing his tactical skills); and he works with a personal trainer or strength and conditioning coach to improve his physical strength, speed, and stamina.
So, how has sport psychology changed in the past 15 years and how does it currently help athletes?
As the competitive environment of sports has evolved, so has the need to understand and develop the mental game. In the past, the services of a sport psychology consultant was stereotyped as a reactive measure that was used to help athletes recover from a slump or to help an athlete recover from a serious injury and return to sport. Now, athletes utilize the services of sport psychology consultants as a proactive measure to help maximize their performance.
Coaches are also using sport psychology consultants to work with their teams. For example, Phil Jackson was known for using a sport psychology consultant when he coached the L.A. Lakers. Jackson’s team used such skills as visualization, relaxation, and present minded focus to motivate his players and to improve their performance. NFL Champion Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll brought in a sport psychologist, as did English Premier League powerhouse Liverpool FC.
Overall, as the number of younger athletes participating in highly competitive and pressure oriented sports environments increases, coaches, parents, and athletes have become more mindful in their approach to sports. There is also a growing awareness to develop mental skills to help athletes thrive in these highly competitive environments.
As we celebrate 15 years as the premier provider of sport psychology services in the Northwest, we are honored to have worked with so many passionate and talented athletes and coaches. As we look to the future, our mission is to continue to educate athletes, coaches, parents, and administrators on the importance of including mental skills training as part of sports. Our consultants also pledge to provide on going high quality service to the athletes and sports minded people we work with. Lastly, we look forward to the next 15 years of serving the sports community and helping to further the field of sport psychology!