If you’re among the millions of athletes nationwide, at some point you’ve likely struggled mentally with a slump - missing short putts or free throws, or recovering from an injury.
Sport psychologists help athletes overcome problems, enhance their performance and achieve their goals.
Nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population was engaged in sports and exercise daily in 2017, according to the U.S. government.
While many in the sports world focus on physical abilities, a sport psychologist can help an athlete’s mind. They can use similar strategies to help nonathletes in the workplace and other settings.
Dr. Joanne Perry explained her role as Novant Health sport psychologist, in which she’s helped athletes as young as 11, and other patients well into their 70s.
What does a sport psychologist do?
“Some sport psychologists are really only going to focus on performance and addressing mental barriers in a sport,” Perry said. “Others, like myself, broadly address any psychological experience or concern an athlete might have.”
Perry, 28, deals with a wide range of subjects an athlete may be dealing with, including mental blocks, struggles, injury, retirement, a new coach, a new team, depression, anxiety or eating disorder.
Do you have an athletic history?
Perry, who grew up in Charlotte, was a collegiate swimmer at Pepperdine University. Her role doesn’t require an athletic background, but it helps.
“I know what they’re going through,” she said. “They have about 15 stressors, more than the average student. It helps to have empathy.”
What are the most common issues she sees?
“Injury is probably the thing I work with the most. We know athletes are very routine-oriented, and when an injury disrupts that routine, it’s very stressful for them.
“I also work a lot with our post-concussive patients. A lot of depression and anxiety can be the result of that. General stress is fairly common, too.”
Why should I take my child to you?
“A lot of times in therapy, when I’m trying to get through to an athlete, the absolute best metaphor or application of that intervention is saying `let’s look at this in your sport.’
When someone’s having anxiety, they often worry about what’s going to happen in the future. That may not always click with a 13-year-old when you’re talking about school stress or parent stress. But when you say `What about when you’re in the middle of a game and you start worrying about the outcome, or worrying if you’re going to execute this play correctly, or get your technique correct?
I’ll hear them say `Oh yeah, that really impacts me. That hurts my performance.’
We look at what happens there, and discuss if the same process happens anywhere else.
I think sport is a metaphor for so many things, but in therapy the biggest benefit is that you can use that as a way to help people gain insight into how they address other experiences.”
How do you help athletes specifically?
“I pull from a lot. I will use motivational interviewing to help with behavior change. I’ll use cognitive behavioral therapy, in which we look at the way people are thinking about things and how their thoughts, emotions and behaviors are all interconnected.”
“I’m also trained in a newer approach, we call the `third wave’ approach to therapy, which is acceptance and commitment therapy. In this, we’re less focused on controlling or changing negative internal states, and more focused on not reacting to them.
For athletes, that’s a perfect approach. It’s inevitable as athletes that they’re going to face physical pain at some point. We believe it’s far less about the presence of pain and much more about your reaction to it.”
What else does your job involve?
“Another realm of what I do is surgery optimization, which is in line with Novant Health’s value of trying to get the best outcome for our patients. Smoking, depression, anxiety, stress, sleep problems … research shows that they relate to worse surgical outcomes and higher post-operative pain. When someone is struggling with that, surgeons will send that patient to me.”
Perry recently published her first medical journal article as a part of the Novant Health orthopedic service line. "Examining positive body image, sport confidence, flow state and subjective performance among student athletes and non-athletes" was published in Body Image, an international, peer-reviewed journal.
She’s part of a research team at Novant Health examining what individual difference variables, or behavioral health variables, are impacting surgical outcomes.
“Once we identify those, we’re hoping to apply for grants to develop specific programming or interventions to address them beforehand,” she said.
“For example, let’s say stress explains a ton of variance in surgical outcomes. We might then develop a stress management program and give it to every pre-operative patient that screens high on our measure of stress. It’s a way to address everything that’s outside of the surgery itself.”
You don’t have to be a professional athlete to get world-class care for your sports-related needs. Download our guide on common sports-related injuries.
TOP PHOTO: Sport psychologist Dr. Joanne Perry helps athletes and non-athletes deal with a variety of issues.