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What Does a Sports Psychiatrist Do?

By Susan Abe
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has completed additional clinical training in the form of a residency, and board certification by examination in psychiatry. A sports psychiatrist specializes in the treatment of amateur or professional athletes and the situations unique to their careers. While psychologists and psychiatrists have always treated individual athletes on an as-needed basis, the recognition of sports psychiatry as a separate specialty of psychiatry is relatively recent. Coping with failure or success, self-discipline efforts, unrealistic expectations and interpersonal relationships are all issues that might be addressed by a sports psychiatrist. Relationships that may require attention include those an athlete has with his family, teammates, coach, agent and fans.

Many successful professional athletes have attained dominance in their respective sports by demonstrating extreme self-discipline. This personality and behavior characteristic can morph into a dysfunctional form of perfectionism under certain circumstances, such as failure to attain goals or continuously resetting an acceptable performance at a higher and higher level. A sports psychiatrist is familiar with these processes and can diagnose an underlying depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder if these mental disorders are part of this scenario. As a medical doctor, a sports psychiatrist can prescribe psychiatric medications as necessary. If an athlete's perfectionism is instead a personality disorder, a sports psychiatrist might begin psychotherapy with the patient or refer him to a sports psychologist for talk therapy.

The adulation many professional athletes receive from their fans can negatively influence their personal relationships with friends, family and significant others if an athlete begins to believe that all of their relationships should follow the athlete-fan model. A sports psychiatrist can recognize martial problems, serial relationships or continuous family disruptions as potential indicators of this misunderstanding on the part of the athlete. Cognitive therapy provided by a sports psychiatrist or psychologist may help an athlete recognize this distortion, if he is open to examining or changing his self-image. Sports psychiatry can promote the stability of an athlete's relationships with friends and family based upon recognition and treatment of this syndrome. Such stability can be an enormous asset to an athlete working in an always-changing work environment.

Other areas of focus to a sports psychiatrist might include substance abuse, eating disorders, recovery from physical injury and issues surrounding aging and money. Aging and recovery from physical injuries will inevitably arise in any athlete's career. His ability to deal with these issues in a constructive way depends upon a healthy self-esteem and stable relationships. In the absence of such, an individual may turn to substance abuse or other areas of addiction. A sports psychiatrist is trained to recognize these unhealthy coping methods and has techniques for successful intervention.

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Discussion Comments
By Sporkasia — On Aug 03, 2014

@mobilian33 - Rich successful people needing psychiatrists may seem strange to you, but I think this goes to show that money and fame can't solve all of our problems. I think we all can use someone to talk to regularly. Most of us lean on family and friends, partly because we can't afford the therapist like wealthy people.

By mobilian33 — On Aug 03, 2014

Doesn't the fact that successful athletes and music stars and other famous people are the people who need the psychiatrists to help them work through their problems seem ironic? I'll tell you who needs the psychiatrist, the person who has just lost her job, and she is the sole provider for a family of three. Now that's a real problem that will test anyone's mental and emotional health.

By Drentel — On Aug 02, 2014

It became common some years ago for professional athletes to use sports psychologists to help them perform better on the field. There was a Major League baseball pitcher who had problems getting batters out in pressure situations. He used a psychologist to help him, and one the things the psychologist told him to do was to visualize himself being successful before he ever got to the mound to pitch.

The pitcher really turned his career around after that, and he said the help he got from the psychologist was the biggest reason he was able to do it. He always had the talent and ability, but mentally he was stuck. If you think you are going to fail at something then you have already set yourself up for failure.

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