Participating in sports can have tremendous benefits for an individual's psychological well-being, but the pursuit of athletic excellence carries its own challenges and stressors. Sport psychologist Trent Petrie, a former college volleyball player himself, works to bring the results of solid psychological research to bear on improving athletes' performance and well-being, and to train sport psychologists for the future.
A professor in the APA-accredited doctoral program in counseling psychology at the University of North Texas (UNT) in Denton, and the founding director of UNT's Center for Sport Psychology and Performance Excellence, Petrie came into the field called sport psychology in the late 1980s. At the time, it was a robust aspect of exercise science created by kinesiologists and physical educators to help athletes find reliable ways to "get their head in the game" so they could give their best performances.
That aspect of the field is still going strong under the aegis of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology(AASP), headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana, but mental-health-oriented psychologists like Petrie are becoming more prevalent.
"Sport performance really is a science," in terms of nutrition, strength, conditioning, biomechanics, exercise physiology, and psychology, says Petrie, who is a fellow both in Div. 47 (Society for Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology), and in the AASP. He was Div. 47 president from 2011 to 2014.
The reality is that sports programs at the college and professional level are focused on winning. "If you're an athlete, at some point you're going to be asked in a specific moment to perform your best and, ideally, to perform your best consistently across time," Petrie says. Assisting with that goal is definitely part of a sport psychologist's job, but Petrie says, "My philosophy is that these are human beings first and foremost."
Sport psychologists trained in mental health can help athletes deal with issues related to their overall psychological well-being, and that's no small thing. Athletes often start young, develop an identity that may rest heavily on their athletic ability, and dedicate themselves to a life of striving that is not the norm. Injuries are a constant threat, and relationships of all types can be colored by the elite athlete's high level of talent, status, commitment and possibly earning power. The sport psychologist's job can be complex.
"Sometimes it's clarifying what they really want. Sometimes it's helping them remember and recapture why they started in athletics in the first place, to make it fun again," Petrie says. "People turn over their trust to us, their bodies, their minds, and we want to create as positive a training environment as possible," while still keeping it challenging, so athletes can "move forward in terms of their physical performance goals."
How athletes interpret events can make a big difference in both their performance and well-being, and Petrie does research around these issues. For example, what happens to an athlete after an injury? An individual has to make a real commitment to get back to that prior level of play, or higher, and "part of the discussion is, 'Do you want to keep doing this?'" he says.
After a severe injury, not all athletes answer that question with "yes," Petrie says. A sport psychologist can be invaluable in providing a safe, supportive environment in which to talk through what the athlete wants to do, away from pressure from coaches or loved ones who might have their own stake in the decision.
"For someone who has been known primarily as an athlete, transitioning out of sport might involve a reexamination of one's identity and finding new career paths," Petrie says.
The athlete who decides to return after a damaging injury will have a different struggle, enduring a long course of therapy and training, and then working to overcome fear of another injury once back on the field.
Athletes' relationship with their bodies can be complicated, too. They may have eating disorders if weight is an issue in their sport. "They may be perfectionistic, thinking they have to be and look a certain way, constantly pursuing some unattainable level. We try to help them focus inward and be more accepting of their flaws," Petrie says.
Training future sport psychologists is a big part of what Petrie does; he is the only tenured psychology faculty member in the sport psychology department at UNT. He also supervises his students' clinical work with client athletes at the Center, watching their sessions and talking to coaches about their work. He and Erica Force, PhD, CMPC, an adjunct faculty member, have worked with the Dallas Wings basketball team as well.
Petrie is proud of pioneering a sport psychology program at UNT that is a fusion of counseling psychology and exercise science. Graduates can pursue licensure as psychologists anywhere in the country, and also have the option of becoming Certified Mental Performance Consultants (CMPC), an AASP certification that focuses more on the physical aspects of performance, Petrie says.
Most of the graduates of UNT's program work with athletes in some capacity -- in private practice, as liaisons to athletic departments in university counseling centers, within the athletic departments themselves, with the United States Olympic Committee and even in the military.
Petrie, who grew up in Evanston and Champaign, Illinois, always knew he wanted to go into teaching and training. He was fascinated by human behavior, "why we do what we do." He went to Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus, playing varsity volleyball there as an undergraduate, experiencing "all those highs and lows." He went on to graduate school at OSU, obtaining a PhD in counseling psychology in 1991.
He joined UNT in 1997 and founded the Center the following year. He considers himself fortunate to have been able to work at one institution his whole career.
A sport psychologist doesn't have to have been an athlete, and candidates at UNT who have been athletes initially work with clients in a sport they did not play, to give them a perspective on sport psychology as a whole.
However, Petrie, who has done research himself on the benefits of playing organized sports, says that experience does give psychologists a broadened understanding of what athletes go through, and of the rewards of engaging with sport -- "what it's like to work on a team, how to create something that's more than the sum of its parts, how to work with coaches, how to lead."