It's All About the Mental Game

The Experiences of Position Specialists in a Collegiate Team Sport Environment


  • Allison Smith University of New Mexico
  • Rebecca Zakrajsek University of Tennessee
  • Robin Hardin University of Tennessee
  • Jeffrey Graham University of Tennessee


sport specialization, position specialists, pressure, confidence, coaching


The exploration of early sport specialization and sport specialization in general have been mostly studied in the context of sport revealing potential risks (e.g., injury, dropout, burnout, stress; Baker et al., 2009; Bodey et al., 2013; Gould & Whitley, 2009; Kaleth & Mikesky, 2010). However, limited research is available related to position specialists (those that specialize within a specific role within their sport, e.g., pitcher in baseball). Understanding position specialization can further assist in understanding the growing phenomenon of specialization that is occurring, and also inform organizations or teams on how these unique positions effect team dynamics.

This study examined the experiences of position specialists in a team sport within collegiate athletics through the lens of niche theory (Hannan & Freeman, 1977). Participants were 21 student-athletes who were considered position specialists (i.e., pitchers, kickers, punters, goalies, and goaltenders) in their respective sports of baseball, softball, football, hockey, soccer, and lacrosse. Constant comparative analysis of semi-structured interviews revealed the emergent themes of history of position specialization, magnification of pressure, unique mental approach, and absence of understanding. Participants’ highlighted they found their specialized position accidentally, but felt this position allowed collegiate sport opportunities. The themes also revealed the importance of maintaining confidence in their abilities, the magnitude of pressure received, and the need for competent specialist position coaches. Position specialists’ face distinct challenges in their positions and thus, better understanding of their experiences is needed to provide adequate resources and training.


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