As a clinical psychologist who works with athletes, I am often asked what the difference is between clinical psychology and sports psychology, and what a clinical psychologist can do to improve athletic performance that a sports psychologist can’t.
Before I answer the questions, let me briefly distinguish the two fields. Both clinical psychology and sports psychology deal with mental health and well-being, however, they differ in their focus and approach.
Clinical psychology is a much broader field of study than sports psychology that focuses on the diagnosis, assessment, and treatment of mental health disorders across the life-span and all facets of life, not just sports. Clinical psychologists work with individuals, families, and groups to provide therapy, counseling, and other interventions for a wide range of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and trauma. They may work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, universities, clinics, private practices, and even sports academies!
Sports psychology has a more narrow approach that focuses on helping athletes and sports teams improve their performance and overall well-being. It involves working with athletes to improve their mental skills and abilities, such as focus, motivation, and confidence within their given sport. Sports psychologists may also help athletes deal with stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues that can affect their performance, but for the most part, their scope and expertise is more limited than a clinical psychologist.
On the surface, it makes a lot of sense that an athlete would want the more narrow focus and specialization that working with a sports psychologist offers, and for the most part, sports psychology does an amazing job addressing the performance issues that so often plague athletes. However, in my experience, in order to more fully resolve those performance issues, I have found the broader perspective of clinical psychology to be more effective in the long run.
In my opinion, clinical psychology paints a more comprehensive picture of what might be getting in the way of athletic performance by looking more deeply into the motives of the athlete outside of sports. I am a firm believer in the saying “we take ourselves wherever we go”. Whoever you are on the course is who you are off the course and if in our work as psychologists we fail to consider the entire person and focus only on their identity as an athlete, we are most likely going to miss critical information necessary for long-term success, development, and well-being.