Mental Coach vs Sport Psychologist: What’s the Difference?
In professional sports, you often hear about an incredibly talented athlete who just couldn’t perform when it really mattered. This same athlete then makes an incredible resurgence to glory after working with a Sport Psychologist. The question is, was a Sport Psychologist really necessary? Or would a Mental Coach have been equally or possibly even more helpful?
The answer to that question really depends on where you live and where the professional you’re trying to work with practices. For example, in Canada the definition of a Sport Psychologist is different in each province. For example, in Ontario there is no recognized subdiscipline focused on Sport for Registered Psychologists. This means that in the province no one can legally call themselves a Sport Psychologist (i.e., they would just be a Psychologist who happens to work with athletes). In comparison, the American Psychological Association has an entire subdiscipline (i.e., Division 47) devoted to nationally defining who can practice as a Sport Psychologist.
Ultimately, it is the educational background that distinguishes between a Sport Psychologist and a Mental Coach. Regardless of where they are located, a Psychologist is a registered member of the appropriate college or association (e.g., The College of Psychologists of Ontario, American Psychological Association). This means that they meet minimum initial educational standards, usually a PhD in Clinical Psychology and have undergone a certain amount of supervised practice. It is important to note that Registered Clinical Psychologists are legally able to diagnose mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (to name a few). This means a great deal of their training goes into being able to identify and treat mental illness.
In comparison, a Mental Coach is not a registered legal term and therefore has no mandatory educational requirements (i.e., anyone can call themselves a Mental Coach). This does not mean it is a profession without merit or benefit, simply one that in many locations, such as Ontario, is still creating its definition in a legal sense. For example, the Canadian Sport Psychology Association (CSPA) uses the term Mental Performance Consultant to describe its members who meet specific criteria including education (usually a Masters or PhD in Sport Psychology or a related field), supervised practice and background experience. If it weren’t for the CSPA, these very qualified professionals would simply refer to themselves as Mental Coaches. It is important to note that Mental Coaches can not legally diagnose clinical mental health issues. However, this allows their training to focus more on how to help people perform their best in sport (i.e., Peak Performance Psychology)
The educational differences between a Sport Psychologist and a Mental Coach are reflected in the ideal client. A Mental Coach typically works with athletes who are happy and healthy (i.e., they have no clinical mental health issues) but need to learn the mental skills required to perform their best under competitive pressures. Conversely, a Sport Psychologist (i.e., a Registered Psychologist) typically works with clients who have clinical mental health issues (e.g., depression, anxiety) who’s performance has suffered as a result. They then help the athlete return to a state of mental well-being which results in their performance returning to normal. It is important to note that happy and healthy athletes can also improve their performance by working with a Sport Psychologist especially if they have some training in Peak Performance Psychology like a Mental Coach. Despite their educational backgrounds and ideal clients differing, both Mental Coaches and Sport Psychologists often use similar skill sets (e.g., Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy) to help clients achieve beneficial outcomes.
The Wrap-up: What you need to know.
- Psychologist’s are a registered member of the appropriate college or association (ie. Registered Clinical Psychologists, Sports Psychologists) and are legally able to diagnose mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (to name a few).
- Mental Coach is not a registered legal term, and therefore has no mandatory educational requirements (i.e., anyone can call themselves a Mental Coach). As such, they can not legally diagnose clinical mental health issues.
- Mental coaches typically work with athletes who are happy and healthy (ie. no clinical mental health issues), but need to learn mental skills that can help them perform their best.
- Sports Psychologists typically work with clients who’s performance is being negatively affected by a clinical mental health issue (ie. depression, anxiety). They help the athlete return to a state of mental well-being, which in turn results in their performance returning to normal.
Charles Fitzsimmons M.A., B.A (Hons.)
Ph.D Candidate in Sport Psychology at Western University
Founder and Mental Coach at Eclipse Performance
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