Existential Therapy: Why it is so Relevant to Sports Psychology

existential therapy

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Many people deal with anxiety and stress that can come from daily life and existential fears. However, sometimes, this rise of existential dread can cause individuals to breakdown and becoming unable to function properly or resolve their issues. Existential therapy tries to focus on experiences and is ideal for those who want to tackle their problems head-on.

Existential therapy can work for a variety of issues, ranging from stress and anxiety to fears of inadequacy, meaningless and death. In this article, we will cover everything you need to know about existential therapy and why it is so relevant to sports psychology and therapy.

What Is Existential Therapy?

History of Existential Therapy

Existential therapy got started when a few practicing therapists incorporated existentialism into their cohesive therapy techniques. Some of these “founding fathers” include Otto Rank, Paul Tillich and Rollo May. Rank initially combined existentialism with psychoanalysis, and at the beginning of his career, he combined Freudian theories of psychoanalysis. However, he became increasingly more focused on the present emotions inherent in humans and published many essays on his work.

However, it was the work of Tillich and May that brough existential therapy to the mainstream. According to Tillich, existential psychotherapy has the ability to honestly and fairly help individuals confront the “ultimate concerns” that humans face in life, such as suffering, loneliness and meaningless.

Another important figure of the existential therapy movement is Irvan Yalom. The contemporary existential psychotherapist characterized these ultimate, and universal, concerns to encompass: death, isolation, freedom and emptiness. Yalom incorporated existentialism into his “eleven therapeutic factors” for group therapy, which emphasized the importance of both learning and accepting existential fears in daily life. All these individuals added to the existential therapy movement in more ways than one and helped bring it into modern day therapy techniques.

Existential therapy tries to focus on experiences such as relationships, love, commitment, authenticity, acceptance and self-actualization. Existential psychotherapies use a variety of approaches, but underlying each is the focus on self-responsibility and freedom. Many therapists will base their main ideas behind existentialism as a philosophy. Existentialist thought has been around since the mid-1800s, when it was first coined by the likes of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and has grown in popularity particularly after the 1940s and 1950s.

When Is Existential Therapy Used?

Existential therapy is recommended for a variety of psychological problems, epically for those dealing with substance abuse or those in need of an intervention. From the existential approach, therapists say problems like substance abuse arise from an inability to make meaningful and self-directed choices about how to live a positive and authentic life. Interventions are also an option for existential psychotherapists helping clients with substance abuse problems because interventions seek to bring self-awareness and understanding to the individual struggling.

Like any other form of therapy, existential therapy may not be right for every situation or individual. However, it is a good method for many emotional and psychological instabilities that can stem from everyday life and circumstances. Existential therapy is most effective for people who have an open-mind and willingness to resolve their issues and explore them on a deeper level. Apart from substance abuse issues, the existential therapy approach can also help ease a multitude of issues, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Guilt
  • Rage
  • Purposelessness
  • Violence

Since existential therapy bases so many of its ideas behind the philosophy of existentialism, it will often focus on notions such as being responsible for our own choices and that, with our choices, we are constantly in a state of remaking ourselves. They also try to focus on coming to terms with the anxiety we face in our daily lives and hone the idea that this anxiety is simply a natural occurrence in life and something we must face. Another essential element to existential therapy is the focus on creating our own meaning in life and overcoming existential fears such as:

  • Death
  • Freedom
  • Guilt
  • Isolation
  • Meaninglessness

Existential psychotherapists theorize that when an individual comes to face any of these existential dilemmas, they can be met with an overwhelming sense of anxiety or dread that can lead to psychological and emotional stress, which can make it difficult for individuals to function in their day-to-day lives.

How It Works

Existential therapy is likely to bring about substantial, long-lasting change in individual perspectives instead of short-term changes that the client won’t keep up with. Since existential therapy focuses on overarching anxieties in human life, it can often overlook more specific problems with clients.

For example, if someone is struggling from paranoid schizophrenia, then trying to overcome existential dread should not be the priority in the face of other, more serious mental health issues. Other individuals may be purposely trying to avoid thinking about death or meaninglessness because it may bring about depression or even suicidal thoughts, so it’s important to make sure existential therapy is right for you and your needs.

The relationship between an existential therapist and their client is also unique and unlike other forms of therapy. In this type of therapy, the therapist is not a distant figure who only guides their client to self-exploration. Instead, they are seen as a fellow human being who also understands what it is like to struggle with existential fears and anxiety just like them. Existential therapists are not a neutral or passive force when in therapy. Instead, they actively participate in sessions and are fully engaged to helping their clients on their individual journey to self-discovery, acceptance and healing.

Existential therapists help guide clients to find meaning in life in the face of anxiety by focusing, thinking, and acting responsibility in the face of negative internal thoughts that may arise from themselves or from external forces such as societal pressures and stressors. Therapists like to help foster notions of love, authenticity and creativity in their clients to help them move forward and overcome existential fears and anxiety, while also making sure clients recognize their role and responsibility for their actions.

Existential therapy is a practice that focuses on purpose and existence, both of which people can often be pessimistic about. However, existential therapists try to turn them into a point for positivity. An existential therapist will focus on the anxiety that occurs in their client when they think about these potential conflicts, and it is the job of the therapist to help instill a sense of personal responsibility not only for their client’s thoughts but also their client’s actions and reactions.

Those who are right for existential therapy are people who currently find themselves in what is a known as a “restrictive existence.” This means someone has a limited awareness of not only themselves but also the issues they are facing and their source, often making them feel trapped or helpless. The objective of all existential therapy is to help the clients understand their subjective world and find new coping options. Existential therapy first helps clients centralize their focus and become aware of both their feelings and actions. After this, clients then must confront their anxiety before they can finally develop an authentic relationship with the world around them and true acceptance.

Why Existential Therapy Is so Important in Sports?

Sports psychology is an interdisciplinary science that combines knowledge from a variety of related fields, such as physiology, biomechanics and psychology. The primary focus of sports psychology is to study and understand the multitude of psychological factors that impact performance. Sports psychology and therapy have gained increasing attention from professional teams and athletes who are looking to improve their performance, and existential therapy is slowly starting to be incorporated in sport therapy sessions.

Goal setting and mental skills training are traditionally offered in sports psychology and have shown to improve some aspects of performance abilities, but modern sports psychology could greatly benefit from incorporating existential psychotherapy principles that would contribute towards an athlete’s personal development, growth and self-realization.

Existential therapy seeks to assist athletes in their personal growth so that they can then better cultivate and develop their physical strengths through effective sports coaching. As a result, they will end up becoming mentally stronger and more aware, which will, in turn, make them more likely to end up achieving their ultimate sporting potential.

Many athletes can experience extreme anxiety when it comes to sports for a variety of reasons, which can then end up affecting a players ability and performance. Since understanding anxiety is a key aspect for existential therapy and is strongly related to other key existential issues such as isolation and the inevitability of death, using an existential approach to confront this anxiety conflict in sports can prove to be extremely beneficial.


Existential therapy is a great tool for those confronting existential issues involving anxiety, depression, isolation, meaninglessness, and much more. Due to the intense nature of professional sports and the high levels of stress athletes can face, they can often feel boggled down with the high amounts of pressure that can then result in feelings of existential dread. Existential therapy offers a means at confronting and dealing with this anxiety that traditional sports psychology doesn’t.

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