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Ryan Hamilton and the rise of specialized sports science

The world of sports is constantly evolving and growing, making room for new niche roles and opportunities for people who otherwise may have never had the chance to become involved with competitive teams. UNB psychology professor Ryan Hamilton’s recent participation in the Under-20 World Junior Hockey Championships as part of Canada’s gold medal winning team is just one example.

In addition to his role as an associate professor, Hamilton has been working on the side as a sports psychologist with UNB’s varsity teams, a role which has culminated in him being chosen to join Hockey Canada as a mental coach for the 2018 WJHC’s, which took place in Buffalo, N.Y., from Dec. 26 – Jan. 5. He also lists experience working with an unnamed NHL team among his credits.

Hamilton’s rise in the sports realm has not been merely a case of “right time, right place.” In addition to his extensive academic background in psychology, it is clear that he has seen the increased focus on psychology in sports as a natural and inevitable evolution as teams fight to gain any edge on their opposition. Often these edges come in the form of learning new ways to apply existing science to sports.

“We see physios have made inroads, strength and conditioning made inroads, manual therapy has made inroads, sports psychology is doing it too—it’s just trailing those other sports science things,” said Hamilton.

“I really do relate what I do to what a strength and conditioning coach does. [They] work on physical strength, physical flexibility; I work on mental strength, mental flexibility, psychological well being.”

Traditionally, he explained, there has been a stigma attached to sports psychology where it has been dismissed as nothing more than a doctor to deal with problematic athletes or to give motivational speeches before games. The reality is much different more practical than that.

“I view it as a science, I’m an academic in the field. I approach it in that way. I take the best practices from the research and from what colleagues are doing,” he said.

The problem for Hamilton and other sports psychologists is how to present and utilize the science in a way that makes sense to athletes of all ages.

“There are certain skills that transcend age and sport. Then what it becomes is about the cultural knowledge of the sport and how you teach it and how you do it, and also how you have to kind of scaffold it to the age group that you’re working with,” he said, adding, “I might not be getting into all the nuances of mindfulness with a youth but I am talking about paying attention, so it’s just done differently. The skills can evolve in much the same way.”

With the importance of mental skills now being emphasized, opportunities for sports psychologists to become directly involved with sports teams are only going to increase. In fact, according to Hamilton, the demand for qualified mental coaches currently exceeds the supply.

“We’re unable to meet all of the needs to be honest, or at least I personally am, and there are only so many people you can personally refer, so there is room for more qualified professionals in the field.”

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