Sport Psychologists: An interesting bunch but what do we actually do.
March 3, 2015
I get this question a lot. Not from sports people but from lay people. Those that don’t have much interest in sport and those that just aren’t in the know about performance, I thought I would take my opportunity to put my ten pence worth in about what sport psychology is and is not and what as a sport psychologist I do. Finally I hope to de-mystify what happens in a group of consultancy sessions. I hope you find this interesting. I’m going to go through these things in a fairly logical order whilst adding in a few bits here and there.
1. What’s in a name? Sport psychologist or mental skills coach.
If you’re not in the sporting environment you have still probably heard of sport psychology or are familiar with some of the terms that sport psychology involves, after all most of us have heard of setting SMART goals. Yep that’s sport psychology. It comes in other guises as well such as mental toughness, mental skills training, psychological skills training, mental coaching, cognitive coaching, sport counselling, you come up with the title, the chances are someone has used it to describe sport psychology. The reason for this is simple. Up until about 2011 the title ‘sport psychologist’ was free to use by anyone who had a remote interest in the psychology of sport however after this point the term ‘sport psychologist’ was protected under law by the Health and Care Professions Counsel (HCPC) just like a paramedic, clinical psychologist, or physiotherapist. So if you’re not registered with the HCPC, you can’t call yourself a sport psychologist. There is however another title you may come across ‘Sport Psychologist in training’ or some other variation. This title is a training title and confirms that the person wishes to become a sport psychologist, is a member of the British Psychological Society (BPS) and has undergone a specific training route. This route is an undergraduate degree in psychology, a masters degree in sport and exercise psychology and is undergoing two or three years supervised experience with a certified and experience colleague. This process is similar to what your average doctor of medicine will go through after completing their degrees. So to sum up sport psychologists are a highly qualified, well-educated bunch of people that are interested in the psychology of sport.
2. Psychological Skills Training
PST is the bread and butter of a sport psychologist’s arsenal. It involves four specific skills that can be used by athletes and are backed by research (we’re academics remember) to enhance performance and control various problems within sport. These four domains are; goal setting, self-talk, visualisation, and arousal control. Within these comes some skill and knowledge as to why we use it, what it is useful for and when it is useful. This is where your sport psychologist comes in, any coach can teach someone how to set goals or use imagery, it’s the sport psychologists job to know which time of imagery, which type of goal and what kind of self-talk will be beneficial in the situation you are in and for the kind of person you are. This is the tip of the ice-burg. Let’s go deeper.
3. Counselling/Therapy/Mental Coaching
Most sport psychologists will not be counsellors however they will have a significant and in depth grasp of some of the counselling and therapy models out there. There are hundreds of them, the main ones being; humanistic counselling, psychotherapy, cognitive behaviour therapy, solution focused therapy, motivational interviewing. Each of these has a slightly different approach and is underpinned by slightly different methods. Most sport psychologists will be able to use one or two of this to their advantage and help to resolve a number of issues. The purpose of this kind of work is to deal with the underlying problems that are causing an athlete to have anxiety, lack of confidence, low focus etc. PST helps, therapy or counselling deals with the problem below. No sport psychologist however will deal with major mental health problems, we know how to spot them and manage them but often we will refer on to a friend who is much better placed and trained to deal with that.
4. We don’t fix things
From the sections above you could be fooled into thinking we fix problems. Kind of, we help those with anxiety, low confidence or those who are struggling. This is what the overt role of a sport psychologist appears to be if you spend time looking at us through the eyes of the media, but if you delve deeper and talk to use you will find it’s not a quick fix and it takes time and effort to get over these troubles. If I wanted to fix people I would have gone into clinical or counselling psychology. I am not interested in fixing people. I want to make good people better. I therefore will use terms such as MindGym, Cognitive Behavioural Coaching or training. This is because I believe that sport psychologists don’t fix, we train and better people. How many times have you heard ‘if you’re seeing a sport psychologist you’ve got a problem’ well I say that’s utter bollocks? A sport psychologists is there help eliminate that element of chance that is involved with sport, we help take away the element of doubt and we also help people focus on the strengths.
5. We don’t go to Hogwarts
As much as I would like to be able to wave a magic wand and make your confidence problems go away, I can’t. I didn’t go to Hogwarts and I’m not the white wizard. Believe me I would earn a fortune if I could do that. This is a portrayal of us in the media again. I seem to remember that during the Olympics in 2012 the BBC ran a program on sport psychology referring to it as a ‘Dark Art’. I didn’t realise I was on the side of Voldemort but hey ho. The image of a sport psych is getting better and as I hope you can see from our long training route we are getting much more professional.
6. Finally what does sport psychology look like
I think this is the hardest thing to grasp. Sport psychology to an outsider can look a bit mystical. I’m going to break it down into phases. Firstly we do a needs analysis, this usually means we get to know what an athlete is about, what they like and dislike, why they do their sport and what they would like from us. We would then go away and conceptualise what we have discussed and come up with some kind of plan. I often email this plan to the athlete or talk about it at the beginning of the second session. Once that’s all done we go into the training phase, this is where we teach skills or delve deeper into your mind, from my point of view we look at the relationship between the situation, your thoughts, your feelings, your physiology and your performance and see where we can make little tweaks to make you perform better. During and After the training phase there is an expectation that you will think about and practice what we have done in the session and implement it in your training (if you don’t train it, you will lose it, just like working out in the gym) and finally after the implementation plan we then evaluate what we have done and do any troubleshooting (remember we are professional beings). I personally prefer to do this in a minimum of six hours however sometimes if can take much, much longer, but 6 hours is usually the minimum it can take.
So there you have it an whirlwind tour of the woes and tides of a sport psychologist. This isn’t all we do, there is so much more such as research, teaching and engagement but I haven’t got time to go into that today as it’s nearly 4 o’clock and I’m heading home soon. Any questions feel free to get in touch and we can absolutely talk more about it.