The sports psychologist’s competences: Professional knowledge, experience from practice and a strong network

The interaction between brain and body is strangely and in elite sports it is crucial. This realization became clear to me more than four decades ago when I met Lars-Eric Uneståhl from Örebro University, who was a supervisor on a seminar for table tennis coaches, where I was among the participants.

Pioneer with visions and passion

Lars-Eric Uneståhl, who is now 84 years old and remains head of the “Scandinavian International University”, was a former elite athlete and in the late 1960s was educated as a clinical psychologist with a PhD thesis on hypnosis and posthypnotic suggestion. In the following years, Uneståhl began to work closely with some of Sweden’s best national teams and top athletes, including world table tennis champion Stellan Bengtsson. Uneståhl asked Bengtsson to “imagine” that he played the 1971 World Championship final “inside his head” with closed eyes resting on a sofa. It turned out that there was a direct link between the images that Bengtsson “evoked” in the brain and the reactions in his muscles. It was this type of “experiments” which was the background for Uneståhl’s development of mental training. And which opened the eyes of more and more athletes and coaches to the fact that “reality” is not only what happens, but also how we perceive and react to what happens. Lars-Eric Uneståhl was also – as the only sports psychologist – associated with the Swedish Olympic Committee, i.a. at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. Over the past five decades, Uneståhl’s professional knowledge, programs and models have not only gained traction in elite sports, but also in schools and educational institutions, in business and healthcare, both in and outside of Sweden. Over the years, Uneståhl has published 20 books, more than 200 scientific articles and a large number of mental training programs in a number of different languages.

A new team with high professionalism

It was not least my meeting with Lars-Eric Uneståhl and personal experiences with top athletes and teams at international championships, which were the decisive factors for prioritizing Team Denmark’s work with sports psychology almost 15 years ago. Both Team Denmark and many federations had certainly used sports psychology for a number of years in training and at international championships, but this usually happened randomly and unsystematically. In the years leading up to and during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, more than 30 “sports psychologists” were employed with very different professional qualifications and experience – often with very few weekly hours or as “psychological advisers” at the Olympic Games, World Championships or European Championships. There was no – or at least extremely limited – knowledge sharing or networking between the “sports psychologists”. We therefore decided that “… the sports psychology efforts must be strengthened in 2009-2012 with the aim of ensuring to a greater extent that Danish athletes obtain the right mental tools to be able to train and perform optimally at the highest international level. The sports psychology concept has a particular focus on the performance-promoting and practically applicable sports psychology”. The concept focused on three main issues: Mental training, coaching and dialogues as well as psychological assistance, e.g. in connection with injuries and crises. The concept had to be targeted at both athletes and coaches and implemented in daily training. For that reason, talks, supervision and mental training of both athletes and coaches were significantly prioritized in the following years.

Evidence-based knowledge from international research

In autumn 2008, Jakob Hansen, Kristoffer Henriksen, Greg Diment and Louise Sonne Schjellerup were employed as sports psychology consultants in Team Denmark. And together with team leader Jens Meibom, they were given the responsibility of preparing a concept based on evidence-based knowledge from international research. Likewise, the team had to prepare specific concepts and models for the individual sports. It was absolutely essential that the four sports psychology consultants had professional education at a high level, at least a 5-year Master’s degree. It was also a great advantage for the development of the field that the Department of Sports and Biomechanics at the University of Southern Denmark at the same time established a research unit “Learning & Talent in Sport” and later a master’s degree: “Competitive and elite sports” with sports psychology is one of the most central subjects. In addition, the sports psychology consultants had to have at least 5 years of practical experience with elite sports, either as an athlete or coach. Finally, it was a great professional strength that Greg Diment could contribute knowledge and experience from the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), which for decades has been one of the world’s strongest professional environments within applied sports psychology.

Professional knowledge, experience from practice and a strong network

In recent years, more and more federations, clubs and local elite sport organizations have employed professional experts in applied sports psychology, which has led to a significant improvement in the quality of Danish elite sport. Greg Diment and Kristoffer Henriksen are still employed as sports psychology consultants in Team Denmark, which has also continuously hired new employees in the field and, not least, further developed concepts, models and cooperation relationships with athletes, coaches and sports managers. There is no associated authorization – with formal legal requirements – in relation to working as a “sports psychologist”, which e.g. is applicable to doctors, chiropractors and physiotherapists. The purpose of such an authorization is to strengthen patient safety and promote the quality of these professionals’ services. Authorization is not mandatory in order to work as a psychologist, but in certain areas of work, e.g. preparation of psychological examinations of children requires an authorization as a psychologist. Anyone can use the title “sports psychologist” or “sports psychology consultant”. However, all clubs, federations and local elite sport organizations should ensure at least 3 special skills when hiring a sports psychology consultant. Firstly, a solid professional education at least master’s degree with a particular focus on sports psychology. Secondly, several years of practical experience as an athlete or coach – and preferably experience from different sports. And thirdly, the sports psychology consultant should be part of a strong network, where new inspiration and knowledge sharing are a high priority. It may possibly be a national network such as the “Danish Sports Psychology Forum” or international organizations such as the “European Federation of Sport Psychology” or the “International Society of Sport Psychology”. In addition, the sports psychology consultant must be willing to work closely with the other professional experts: the doctor, the physiotherapist, the dietitian, the physical trainer, the sports manager and of course the (head) coach, who has the overall responsibility for the daily training – for the joy and benefit for the athlete and the team.

You can read more here:

Team Danmark – sportspsykologi –

Scandinavian International University –

Dansk Idrætspsykologisk Forum –

European Federation of Sport Psychology –

International Society of Sport Psychology –