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Behind the Scenes at the Olympics: Sports Psychologists and Positive Psychology


Behind the Scenes at the Olympics: Sports Psychologists and Positive Psychology

Written by: Rodney L. Lowman

They christened themselves the “Final Five” in recognition that they would be the last U.S. gymnast team coached by Martha Karolyi, who will be retiring after the 2016 Summer Olympics after coaching gymnasts through 11 Olympic contests. As the required routines progressed, the U.S. gymnastic team’s scores became nearly insurmountable, winning 12 of 12 routines. The team beat out its closest rival, Russia, by a whopping 8.209 seconds.

Outstanding Olympic Athletes

All of the members of the gymnastics team were superstars delivering dramatic, near-flawless performances, but one, Simone Biles, particularly stood out. She has been dubbed the best gymnast ever but was not born into a life of privilege. Her single mother (now clean and sober) gave up her children due to drug addiction; her father, also an addict, had abandoned the family. Adopted by her maternal grandparents and subsequently raised in Houston, Biles owns more Olympic and world gold medals than any other female gymnast ever. She is 19.

There’s more. The “Final Five” (Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez, Madison Kocian and Aly Raisman) work together remarkably well as a team. They get along with and support one another, celebrate each other’s victories and console their misses.

Then there are the swimmers Michael Phelps, age 31, and Ryan Lochte, 32, having won to date 25 and 11 Olympic medals, respectively. And let us not overlook Kristin Armstrong, who just turned 43, and who just made history by winning her third gold medal in timed cycling.

Behind-the-Scenes Champions: Sports Psychologists

We rightly credit the Olympic winners for their victories but behind the scenes are a myriad of coaches, trainers, medical staff, supportive families, and yes—sports psychologists. Little known fact: the U.S. Olympic Committee includes a Sport Psychology Team. It’s now become widely accepted for athletes to have a sports psychologist or performance coach.

Sports psychology is not new. Coleman Griffith worked in the field in the 1920s. Today, sports psychologists use a variety of techniques with athletes: relationship building, arousal regulation, mental imagery, focus-building and goal setting, enhancing self-efficacy and resilience, self-talk and support. Athletes, who face extraordinary stress and high stakes, where fractions of a second determine outcomes, perform better with psychology.

Many contemporary sports psychologists such as Joan Steidinger (running and cyclist), Gio Valiante (golf), and Caroline Silby (running and triathlon) were themselves accomplished athletes. Others, like Steven Bucky, have been counseling NFL athletes for years.


Positive Psychology Can Improve Your Career Too

All of this work reflects a move in psychology to focus on performance and achievement not just deficit and dysfunction. This is often called the positive psychology revolution, whose founders include Donald Clifton and Martin Seligman (“Learned Optimism”)—and those before them like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow who concerned themselves with human happiness and well-being.

Salutogenesis – the promotion of health and well-being – is rapidly becoming an important theme in psychological research and Psychology is a remarkably broad field and its premiere professional organization, the APA, and its Division 47, Society for Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology, reflect that diversity.

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