There is an intense mental toll of reaching—and remaining—at the pinnacle of a sport. “The top six inches of the body matter just as much the rest,” says Matthew Cunliffe, a sports psychologist, who spoke with Quartz about what goes through the minds of elite athletes and how psychologists can help them win. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Research in sport psychology involves studying and observing athletes in order to find out what motivates them to keep pushing on, and what gives them the thirst for landing in the winner's circle. A sport psychology researcher might also try to find ways for athletes to perform better and with fewer obstacles. The knowledge gained through this research can then be applied during counseling sessions with athletes.
Sport psychology (or sports psychology) is the study of the psychological and mental factors that affect and are affected by participation and performance in sport, exercise, and physical activity. It is also a specialization within the brain psychology and kinesiology that seeks to understand psychological/mental factors that affect performance in sports, physical activity, and exercise and apply these to enhance individual and team performance. It deals with increasing performance by managing emotions and minimizing the psychological effects of injury and poor performance. Some of the most important skills taught are goal setting, relaxation, visualization, self-talk, awareness and control, concentration, confidence, using rituals, attribution training, and periodization.
One study, conducted by Adam D. Galinsky and colleagues at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, found that increased power tends to make one more self-centered and self-assured, but not in a good way: The researchers found that power makes one “prone to dismiss or, at the very least, misunderstand the viewpoints of those who lack authority.” High-power individuals “anchor too heavily on their own perspectives and demonstrate a diminished ability to correctly perceive others’ perspectives,” according to Galinsky and his team, adding that, “As power increases, power-holders are more likely to assume that others’ insights match their own.”
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Sports lovers will likely find the field of sports psychology interesting, but choosing it as a career involves practical considerations—in other words, what’s the job outlook, and what’s the bottom line? As with most jobs, financial compensation largely depends on experience and education level, but as a growing field, sports psychologists have a generally good outlook.
There were a lot of surprises. Foodwise, now I actually crave vegetables. Also, there unfortunately is definitely a difference in how people treat you when you’re bigger versus when you’re smaller. But I think the biggest surprise for me is, physically, it’s crazy how much I can walk without getting winded or how many sports I’ve found I actually enjoy, such as cycling and skiing.

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