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Olympic Inspiration

Ben Brennan [pictured at left] is a licensed psychologist in the New York-New Jersey area and a sports psychology consultant certified by the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology. He works primarily as a staff and sports psychologist at Montclair High School in Montclair, New Jersey; he also has a private practice in which he counsels athletes and coaches, from amateurs to professionals. However, he has not limited himself to the field of sports; as a general clinical psychologist, he has other patients and often gives presentations and workshops addressing issues surrounding cultural diversity, hazing, sexual harassment, substance abuse, and violence prevention.

The Road to Sports Psychology

After graduating with a Psy.D. degree in clinical psychology from Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1993, Brennan became a clinical staff psychologist at Seton Hall University (SHU) in South Orange, New Jersey. There he evaluated and treated members of the university community, including the university's athletic teams. There he practiced not only psychotherapy but also clinical assessment, preventive outreach, and crisis intervention.

Because many people in the athletic community saw him playing sports around campus himself, coaches, trainers, and athletic advisers started sending him athletes to counsel. But it wasn't until 1996, when Brennan visited a friend who worked for Atlanta Olympic Broadcasting, that the possibility of doing sports psychology became a conscious career choice. "You love sports, and you're a psychologist. Why not put the two together?" he thought to himself. So he took classes in sports psychology at night at SHU while continuing to work there during the day. Although his background in clinical psychology gave him an obvious head start, he now had to learn health psychology and sports science as well.

Sports psychology uses imagery, visualization, goal-setting, self-talk, relaxation techniques, and focus strategies, all borrowed from cognitive psychology. For people going into the field, Brennan also recommends learning psychodynamic psychology, which has to do with the analysis of relationships. "Whenever you work with an athlete, their past relationships are going to determine how they relate to their coaches, how they relate to you, and how they relate to their teammates," he points out. Also important for the profession is social psychology's emphasis on how groups function and how an individual's behavior changes in groups. Brennan says that training in sports psychology isn't easy, because as a relatively new field, there are few opportunities to gain experience outside the classroom. He notes that many people going into the field get their graduate degrees in sports psychology from physical education departments rather than psychology departments, because people in the field of traditional psychology have yet to fully embrace the new discipline.

Getting in the Game

Brennan overcame this difficulty by slowly building a network of professional contacts who gave him opportunities to gain more experience in the field. "You've got to be out there and willing to be turned down a lot before you get positive responses," he says. He found a mentor in Nate Zinnser, a sports psychologist at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He also got a break from the New York Giants' consulting psychologist, Joel Goldberg. Goldberg invited him to work at the combines to assist the Giants in assessing college football players. At the combines, the Giants and other National Football League (NFL) teams evaluate players whom they may later want to select during the draft process. Goldberg also recommended Brennan for a position as a clinician for professional football players (which he did part-time while at SHU and continues to do).

Brennan added a private practice to his clinical obligations at SHU in 1997. In 2000, he left SHU for Montclair State University (MSU) in Montclair, New Jersey. There he found another mentor in Rob Gilbert, who teaches sports psychology.

Brennan says he left SHU for MSU for several reasons. First, MSU offered him more money. Second, he was allowed to continue working with some of the teams at Seton Hall. Third, he says, the appointment afforded him the opportunity to work with a good friend from graduate school who had become director of the MSU counseling center. Finally, he was offered the chance to work with the Montclair High School football team, whose coach, Ed Lebida, allowed him to use performance-enhancement techniques with the team members. The work paid off when the team won the 2002 Sectional State championship.

Brennan continues his work with professionals and athletes at SHU, but "because the parents and kids [at the high school] liked the work I was doing so much, they encouraged me to seek a full-time position [there]. In 2003 he became a student assistance counselor, and although he now works with the entire student body, he continues to act as sports psychologist to the football team.

Brennan says that in adjusting to the switch from counseling college athletes to high school athletes he had to become more proactive; he anticipated that the younger athletes wouldn't come to him on their own, fearing the stigma attached to psychotherapy. Instead he gave presentations to the teams, after which he would invite the students to talk further in his office.

Crediting his success to date to the support of his family and mentors, Brennan says in the future he sees himself becoming a well-established sports psychologist. . (He says he also sees his familiarity with sports, and his skill in relating to athletes and coaches--based largely on his own experience playing high school football--as essential aspects of his success in sports psychology.) At a minimum, he says, a sports psychologist must master social and empathy skills. "If you don't have those personal qualities," he says, "it doesn't matter how good your training is. It doesn't matter what you know. You're not going to connect well with athletes."

He also emphasizes the importance of knowing that many athletes are anxious about meeting with a psychologist of any kind. He says that it's a common mistake for them to believe that a sports psychologist's job is to psychoanalyze them, the way a clinical or counseling psychologist might do. To circumvent that barrier, Brennan originally presented himself as a teacher, not a therapist--by explaining his role to them. "What you're really trying to do is optimize people's performance," he says. "Being a champion or performing at a really high level is abnormal by definition. You learn from the best athletes that a lot of them don't think logically when it comes to sports; they think in a way to maintain optimism and positive feelings."

Keeping a Winning Mentality

Because there are a limited number of openings in sports psychology, both at academic institutions and in the private sector (including even sports organizations), Brennan says that if you're thinking of going into the profession you must similarly persevere. "Initially," he says, "you have to be willing to go and do some freebies." But "if you're really passionate about it and you get good training, you'll make your way."

He also says that sports psychologists need not limit themselves to working with athletes. For instance, performance-enhancement techniques can be used by corporate employees, dancers, and actors.

But he recommends that aspiring sports psychologists increase their marketability by billing themselves not as sports psychologists but as general clinical psychologists who specialize in sports psychology. (On the question of training, he says that neither sports psychology nor clinical psychology with a specialization in sports psychology is preferable.

But Brennan is also optimistic that employment opportunities will soon improve, especially among the bigger schools and professional teams. "We've kind of 'maxed out' in terms of developing people's bodies," he says. Increasingly, he says, people will realize that athletes also need to develop an advantage psychologically.

Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at

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