On the Job: Performance Psychology

Performance Psychology

Have you ever wondered how your favorite baseball player felt as they approached the field, bat in hand? Are you curious about how the MVP in your favorite sport is able to consistently reach peak performance? Lauren Abarca, mental conditioning coach for the New York Yankees, had the very same thoughts, which led her to pursue a career in performance psychology. Thanks to her studies at National University under the Master of Arts in Performance Psychology program, Abarca is able to provide an invaluable service to Minor League athletes in need of guidance. Read on to learn more about Abarca’s journey and the available opportunities for students interested in the psychology of performance.

What Is Performance Psychology?

While it’s easy to idolize athletes, the truth of the matter is that they suffer the same blows to their confidence as everyone else. But with the help of performance psychologists, athletes can make the necessary adjustments in their daily lives to achieve top performance. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “sport and performance psychologists focus on identifying and applying psychological principles that facilitate peak sports performance, enhance people’s participation in physical activities, and help athletes achieve optimal human performance.”

The beginnings of sports psychology in America can be traced back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries when psychologists began to perform sports-related experiments. Coleman R. Griffith is touted as the father of sports psychology after his research into how vision and attention predicted basketball and football performance. As a result of this research, Griffith went on to teach the first class on “Psychology and Athletics.”

Years later, Griffith would go on to open the first-ever research lab for athletic performance. Through his lab studies, he accumulated significant research on the following:

  • The relationship between exercise and learning.
  • The effects of extreme physical activity on longevity and disease resistance.
  • How sleep impacts athletes.
  • Methods for teaching psychological skills in football.
  • Measurement of physical fitness.
  • How emotions impact learning habits and capabilities.
  • Muscular coordination.
  • Persistence of errors.
  • How fatigue impacts performance.
  • Measurement of motor skills.
  • Mental variables associated with reaching peak athletic performance.

Griffith’s lab was shut down in 1932, but others were eager to conduct their own athletic experiments despite lack of support for the new psychological field. One such experiment involved psychologist Walter Miles, grad student B.C. Graves, and college football coach Glenn “Pop” Warner.

The trio set out to find the quickest way for offensive linemen to harmonize movement after the center hiked the ball. In so doing, Miles created his own device to measure the success of the experiment. The device was able to test the individual reaction times of seven linemen at once. Whenever a player moved, he would trigger the release of a golf ball into a rotating drum. The drum was covered in paper that stretched over wire mesh, allowing the ball to make a solid impression on the paper, which was used to measure the player’s reaction time. This helped the men to measure reaction times across players and develop methods to encourage quicker speeds in players with slower reactions to achieve better overall performance for the team.

While the main goal of sports psychology continues to be achieving peak performance, the APA recognizes that mental conditioning coaches like Abarca can help athletes with the following:

  • Coping with competition-induced pressures.
  • Recovering from injuries.
  • Enjoying the game.

Despite the obvious value mental conditioning can bring to athletes, many were hesitant to participate in such services when the field first emerged due to a perceived stigma that there is something “wrong” with their mental health. While this negative connotation persists today, it is on a much smaller scale than when the idea of mental conditioning first came about.

“It’s happening less and less, and is becoming more widely accepted,” Abarca says. “The culture of performance psychology has definitely changed a bit. There’s no stigma attached to it anymore, and I really credit that a lot to my associate director and director. I was kind of lucky to come into that culture that was well-established already.”

As the culture surrounding mental health continues to shift towards acceptance, sports psychologists are able to find new ways to enhance athletic performance and promote a positive relationship with the self.

Pursuing a Career In Sports Psychology: Abarca’s Journey

Sports injuries proved to be the spark that ignited Abarca’s own interest in helping athletes reach their best levels of performance. After a series of soccer-induced concussions left her unable to play the game, Abarca was forced into a more supportive role for her college teammates. What would undoubtedly cause an identity crisis in most athletes sparked a lifelong passion for the psychology of performance in the young soccer player.

“I found an elective course in sports psychology and decided to take it,” Abarca recalls. “The only thing I could offer my teammates was my support the best way that I could. That class helped me to support them in ways that I couldn’t before.”

During the course of her studies, Abarca was tasked with interviewing someone currently working in the field and a quick Google search put her in touch with Dr. Castillo, academic program director for the Bachelor of Arts in Sports Psychology at National University.

“We only had an hour time slot and we actually talked for three hours. We had a phenomenal conversation and I just knew this was what I wanted to do,” Abarca recalls. After completing her undergraduate degree at another college, Abarca enrolled in the master’s program at National to pursue her performance psychology degree.

“It’s a very high standard at National,” she says. “They invest in you beyond just making sure you graduate. That’s not an easy thing to find. The program challenges you and pushes you to step outside of your comfort zone. I think it’s hard to talk to a player and challenge them to step outside their comfort zone if you haven’t stepped outside of your own.”

Challenging athletes to step outside their comfort zone is just one of the many skills required to work in sports psychology. In order to be successful, you must be able to empathize, have exceptional communication skills, and possess a tremendous amount of patience.

One of the biggest challenges of the job, according to Abarca, is finding ways to put yourself in the athlete’s shoes to better understand their mental state. For example, as a former soccer player, Abarca wouldn’t understand a pitcher’s description of the moments leading up to releasing the ball from his place at the mound. But because she’s been in high-pressure situations as well, she’s able to access the emotions from similar moments in her own life to better empathize with and provide assistance to the player.

One thing prospective students of performance psychology should understand is that having your master’s in sports psychology is not sufficient to call yourself a sports psychologist. As a mental conditioning coach, Abarca does not diagnose or treat clinical mental disorders. Rather, her focus is on finding ways to get athletes to focus better, find confidence within, and establish healthy routines that facilitate a more positive mental state.

“Sometimes it does veer away from that because life is inevitably part of why we struggle with confidence and performance and some of those things,” Abarca says. However, the main difference between her position and a sports psychologist is that athletes’ discussions about their personal lives are not used to diagnose but rather to inform the strategy to enhance performance going forward.

In addition to working with athletes one-on-one to enhance performance, mental conditioning coaches provide value to sports organizations beyond psychology. Working with the scouting department, Abarca and her colleagues provide guidance to key decision-makers during the drafting season. They also work with players in group settings to not only enhance performance on an individual level but to apply the same psychological principles to the team as a whole.

Abarca cautions that the position is not for the faint of heart.

“There really is no normal day in the life; I wish I could give you an idea of what that looks like,” she says. “A lot of people find our job daunting because it’s not like you can type in a quick Google search for our job. But if you really want it and have a passion for it, the job will find you. It has more to do with doing good work and being passionate about it. Without that passion and hard work, maybe it’s not for you.”

Particularly during drafting season, mental conditioning coaches are challenged by the physical demands of being in multiple places at once. Sometimes this requires an unusual amount of travel, with some coaches boarding as many as four flights in a 24-hour period just to provide input during these crucial decision-making moments. Part of the reason for this strain on coaches’ availability is the fact that there is a significant need for more professionals to join the field, not only within the Yankees franchise but across all teams and sports.

But for Abarca and others who share her passion, the challenges only make the job more rewarding.

“My biggest value is in helping people be the best version of themselves,” she says. “There is a ‘best’ version in everybody, and I think sometimes it does take a lot of digging; sometimes we bury ourselves and life gets in the way. But I get so much enjoyment out of watching people find that in themselves.”

Additional Careers & Job Outlook for Performance Psychologists

Beyond becoming a mental conditioning coach, students interested in the psychology of performance have a wide variety of career choices to choose from after earning their degree. The following are just some of the career paths students can take upon graduating:

  • Clinical Sports Psychologist: These are professionals who work with athletes to overcome mental health disorders that may arise as a result of playing the game.
  • Sports Rehabilitation Therapist: While physical therapists work on the physical elements of recovery after sports-induced injury, sports rehabilitation therapists work on the psychological elements of recovery.
  • Sports Research Specialist: These professionals work to further the field through experimentation in a clinical research setting.
  • University or Professional Team Coach: Some graduates go on to coach teams at either the university or professional level, using their studies in performance psychology to inform their coaching strategies and achieve better results as a team.
  • High School Teacher: A strong need exists for psychology teachers at the high school level — a profession for which studies in performance psychology can prepare you for a lifelong teaching career.
  • Guidance Counselor: Graduates can also find work as a guidance counselor at the elementary, high school, or university level, offering students advice on how to build self-esteem and implement principles of health and fitness into their daily lives.
  • Social Worker: Performance is not only important to athletes but to the general public as well. Social workers can help develop health and fitness campaigns for young people or even help with broader community outreach programs to promote healthy living.

While the job outlook varies depending on your specific area of expertise and level of education, generally speaking, careers in sports and performance psychology are projected to grow at a rate between 8 and 30%, with high school teachers at the lowest growth rate and rehabilitation therapists at the highest growth rate. Across all industries, California has the highest rate of employment for students graduating with a sports psychology degree.

Some careers in performance psychology only require a high school diploma to get started. For example, recreation workers can begin work after high school, but will only earn an annual salary of around $25,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The higher an education you receive, the higher your salary will be. Social workers, guidance counselors, and applied performance psychologists like Abarca who have earned their master’s degree can earn a median salary of $49,470, $56,310, and $79,010, respectively according to BLS. However, these numbers are much higher in California as the state continues to provide competitive salary rates compared to other states in America.

Getting Your Performance Psychology Degree from National University

National University offers exceptional programs for students interested in pursuing a career in performance psychology. Dr. Castillo is the program director for the Bachelor of Arts in Sports Psychology at the university and is an excellent resource for information for the study as a whole.

“I’ve sent a lot of people to National and I always say reach out to Dr. Castillo because she’s such a great resource,” Abarca says.

The Bachelor of Arts Major in Sports Psychology prepares you for a career as a coach, emphasizing performance, motivation, and the psychological benefits of sports and athletics. Through the program, you will explore the factors that lead one to participate in physical activity as well as how emotions and a person’s mental state can influence their performance. Graduates can either pursue a career as a coach or go on to complete their master’s degree by enrolling in National University’s Master of Arts in Performance Psychology program.

Each program at National is designed with the adult student in mind, allowing you the freedom to further your education without impeding on your personal or professional life. At National, you can earn your online degree in psychology, taking one course at a time rather than navigating an exhaustive traditional schedule. Courses are rigorous and designed to give you the same level of education you would receive over the course of a semester in just a few short weeks. This allows you to focus better on your studies while allowing you to retain more information.

Ready to get your online degree in performance psychology? Find out more information by visiting the Master of Arts in Performance Psychology program page or submit an application to National University today.

About Lauren Abarca

Lauren Abarca graduated from the Master of Arts in Performance Psychology program at National University in 2014. Since graduating, Abarca has gone on to use her skills in various positions, including as a mental performance coach at the Walbeck Baseball Academy, mental performance coach at LA Mental Performance, and mental conditioning coordinator for the NewYork Yankees. Currently working as the Minor League mental conditioning coordinator for the Yankees, Abarca provides guidance to athletes, helping them to reach peak performance and make adjustments to everyday routines in order to access the best version of themselves.

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