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Life Coach vs. Sports Psychologist

Mark Seliger of Jeff Levin at Holy Cross

How is a Life Coach Different from a Sports Psychologist?

Working with athletes is a regular part of my practice, so one question I get all of the time is “how are you different from a sports psychologist?”

Like a sports psychologist, I deal with the mental side of the game, but our approaches are quite different. Say a player is missing shots. A sports psychologist talks with the athlete about the problem or challenge the athlete faces on the field and then provides ideas and interventions on how to manage that problem. The operative word is “how” because that’s what sports psychologists focus on: how can you focus better so you stop missing shots?

I, on the other hand, am more focused on the “why.” Why is that player missing shots? Are they nervous? Worried they’re going to miss? Thinking about what their teammates, or the refs, or the opponents are doing? Or is their grandmother dying of cancer?

Although discussion centers, naturally, around the game, the athlete’s approach and experiences in the game and so on, I’m always listening for and learning about the tapestry of the person’s whole life and experience. It’s clearly not just about performance on the field; for me, that performance has to be seen in the larger context of the athlete’s entire emotional life.

After all, baseball players don’t strike out repeatedly in a vacuum. Defensemen in hockey don’t fail to cut down angles or miss empty nets in a vacuum. Tennis players don’t miss easy shots in a vacuum. By learning about how a person works as a whole, I find I can help him or her execute x, y or z skill on a field, court or sheet of ice much more effectively. It’s like trying to remove a grease stain from your shirt vs. laundering the whole garment, grease and all. The life-coaching laundry job leads to success and happiness on and off the field as well as greater connection and joy in all of the things an athlete does, including their sport.

In addition to the whole-life approach, life coaching is also about possibilities, about change, about a wonderful future. The entire atmosphere surrounding the relationship I build with an athlete consists of figuring out how to move their entire game—and, often, their entire life—forward, not just dealing with one problem.

As with all of my individual clients, the first, critical step for me is that the athlete trusts me and that, simply put, we like one another. We have to feel connected. Trust is key: There’s too much on the line for this thing to feel too clinical. For anyone, but particularly a young person in his/her teens or twenties, to put it all out there and become great at something takes courage. It’s not to be taken lightly; it’s to be respected, lauded, admired. The person deserves honest, loving feedback and connection.

I am genuinely interested in him or her and in his or her life—their whole life. I don’t shy away from talking about anything, and, as I was a therapist for thirty years, I’m absolutely comfortable talking about booze to bullying to suicide: anything!!! So many times, it is these kinds of things that are impacting the athlete’s game.

There are nine lenses through which I help athletes look at themselves that bear upon their success in sports. You’ll notice that the last two circle back to the macro territory of the whole emotional life.

The Nine Lenses for Success

Mental Steadiness – How level-headed do I stay during the highs and the lows of the practices, games, life?

Presence – How is my ability to stay in the moment, to live in the present tense? (Being in the present tense, you can’t feel tense!)

The Ability to Shed Failure – How easily do I get to the “onto the next play” mentality?

Focus – What methodology do I have to get in the Zone?

Ability to Strategize – How strong is my ability to objectively analyze myself, my opponents and my gremlins*?

Confidence – Do I hope I’ll succeed, or do I know I will?

Drive – How strong is my compelling desire and need to succeed and from where does it come?

Trust – How much do I rely upon my own abilities, talents and attitudes vs. my teammates’ and coaches’ abilities, talents and attitudes?

Ability to connect – Do I have the ability and inclination to relate to others and to myself?

Contentment – What is my ability to accept reality and find contentment there?

Each of these points speaks to worlds of emotions and avenues of different possibilities in different people. The answers to these questions form the basis of the work I do with athletes.

The athlete’s success is my success. I absolutely love helping athletes figure out how to be successful and become great. Unconditional positive regard and the ability to calmly discuss anything go a long way, and once those dynamics are established, the way is paved for real change on and off the field. With my athletic life coaching, it’s a concentrated, loving look at you, your emotional life and your dreams and finding a way to steadily climb the enormously satisfying mountain that leads to their realization and that burgeoning contentment we all seek.

* My work teaching people about gremlins builds on Rick Carson’s great book, Taming Your Gremlin.