What started as a routine sideline interview after a typical preseason NFL game between the Miami Dolphins and Atlanta Falcons, quickly turned into a serious, heart-felt discussion of mental illness. There Ricky Williams stood talking about the social anxiety disorder he recently overcame. It was unusual -- but incredibly positive -- to see a tough-as-nails, muscular football star admit to something so personal. And Ricky Williams isn’t the only one.
All across the country, the stigma of mental illness is slowly disappearing. As a result, more and more athletes are willing to discuss their feelings with a professional.
One of those well-respected confidants is Dr. John Murray, PhD, who treats NFL players, professional golfers and professional tennis players.
Interestingly, Murray didn’t set out to be a sports psychologist when he started his career. “I traveled the world coaching tennis,” he says. But he saw something glaring while on the road watching matches.
“Seeing how critically important the mental game was to success, and how few athletes trained their minds properly, I felt this was the perfect "next step" in my career,” he says. “I wanted to do what I was doing in coaching but expand it to a much broader application for all people and athletes in all sports. Sport psychology was a small but growing specialty within psychology and the sport sciences.”
Along with a BA in psychology from Loyola University, Murray went south to Florida and began piling up degrees along with invaluable experience.
“I completed all my graduate work at the University of Florida in the 1990s.
Got two masters degrees (Sport Psychology and Clinical Psychology) and a PhD
(Clinical Psychology). The 1997 national champion Florida Gators football
team was the subject of my doctoral dissertation.”
Now he needed an internship to apply his skills and gain some real world experience.
“I did my clinical and sport psychology internship at Washington State University and a post doctoral fellowship at Florida International University prior to opening
my private practice.”
That practice, which is based in Florida and also includes non-athletes, has blossomed in recent years. Through his professional commitment, Murray’s schedule keeps getting more and more busy.
“My day typically involves seeing clients in my office and talking with them on the phone,” he says. “For many athletes this is the main way I work with them--using phone and email follow-up--as they travel throughout the world.”
However, Murray always meets his new clients in person.
“I always start with a new client by doing a full evaluation to see where their mental skills are, what they are like as a person, what they are dealing with. Then I devise a plan to help them reach their goals more effectively.”
Because of his success, Murray has slowly become one of the better-known voices in the sports psychology community.
“Other things I do are write articles for magazines, conduct workshops, and speak at various engagements,” he says. “I also do a fair number of interviews for newspapers, magazines, and TV occasionally. Most recently, I was called to do interviews for BBC radio, CBS national radio, NPR, Bloomberg Radio, ESPN The Magazine and Sports Illustrated.”
Another big element of his job is attending sporting events.
“I get out to the athletic site quite often. I spend time on the sidelines, on the court and on the course to see the athlete in their natural environment.”
Murray says one of the drawbacks (or at least issue to keep in mind when considering the field) is the constant hours.
“I am available 24/7 to my clients so it is definitely not a 9 to 5 job!”
Yet the benefits, according to Murray, are endless.
“It's exciting work helping people achieve more success,” he says. “And the great thing about working with high performers such as athletes is that you can actually see the performance. Just turn on the TV on Sunday.”
How many people can see such direct results? Hey, there goes my client rushing for 467 yards today. Looks like the sessions are working!
Of course, there’s also travel.
Along with visiting clients and athletic sites, Murray says, “I went to London twice this year to do workshops. The cell phone gets a lot of use.”
Perhaps one of the most intriguing things about sports psychology is that it’s still emerging. There’s plenty of room for newcomers to join and enrich the profession.
Murray’s overall advice to those considering a career is this: “To be a sport psychologist you have to wear many hats and credentials are extremely important. I believe the only way to do it is to become a licensed psychologist first, as the bare minimum level of training. You need to know what makes people tick, how they break down, all of the assessment and treatment training.
But a license in psychology is not enough. You also have to have studied the sport sciences--the physical bases of sport--the movement sciences, the biology, the physiology etc. Then, and perhaps the hardest part to acquire, is the hands-on training by another qualified sport psychologist. I was fortunate to train under a current Olympic sport psychologist when I did my internship. It's a long road with little gratification and a lot of hard work. But now I'm professionally satisfied and challenged, invigorated by what I do, and constantly learning. You never know enough. Performance and competition is always changing so you have to be able to go with the flow, make adjustments with athletes on the fly, and treat clinical problems too when they come up.”