Who Do You Think You Are? Reflections on the Foundations of Being a Sport Psychologist

Blog Editors’ Note: In the following two posts we first republish, with permission*, an article from 2009, and then the author, Mark B. Andersen, provides an update and comment on what he wrote almost a decade ago.

 

Performance Enhancement as a Bad Start and a Dead End: A Parenthetical Comment on Mellalieu and Lane

*First published in The Sport and Exercise Scientist, 2009, Issue 20. Published by the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences – www.bases.org.uk

Mark B. Andersen
University of Halmstad (Sweden)
and
Private Practice, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Recently, I read with considerable interest the debate between Steve Mellalieu and Andy Lane published in the March 2009 issue of The Sport and Exercise Psychologist. What struck me most was not the arguments about often fuzzy anxiety constructs and the arbitrary metrics used to assess them (see Andersen et al., 2007 for a discussion of the problems of arbitrary metrics in applied sport psychology research), but rather the parenthetical statements about performance enhancement that opened and closed the debate. Mellalieu stated in his opening paragraph, “As sport psychologists, our principal goal is, arguably, to enhance performance” (p. 28). I like the “arguably” part of that sentence. This principal goal statement is not countered until Lane’s penultimate paragraph (closing the debate with a broadside shot) where, bless him, he cites me and suggests that the principal focus of psychologists working in sport settings should be the health, welfare, and happiness of those we serve.

In 2008 I presented a keynote address at the Australian Psychological Society titled, “Sport Psychologist as Performance Enhancer: Pulling the Plug on a Terminal Patient,” which may have ruffled some feathers. So my prejudices about what is wrong with sport psychology are clear, and I would like to “arguably” argue that the focus on performance enhancement started us out on the wrong foot and that the continued emphasis on that goal will keep sport psychology in its marginal (and nearly dead end) position as a sport science and a professional practice.

I think a little history is in order. Two major sports professions, athletic trainers (a sport physiotherapy-like profession) and strength and conditioning professionals, developed in the 1960s and 1970s from humble beginnings (e.g., the National Strength and Conditioning Association had 76 members in 1978), but now, the major associations for these professions each have over 30,000 members worldwide. Sport psychology started out equally humbly in the 1960s and 1970s, but today, the two most visible organisations (i.e., Association for Applied Sport Psychology [AASP] and the International Society of Sport Psychology) combined could probably not boast more than 2000 members (considerable dual membership). So why have athletic training and strength and conditioning flourished over the years, while sport psychology remains a relative backwater that appears to suffer from a retarded development (by about a factor of 15!) in comparison to these other professions? I don’t know the answer, but I have some suggestions.

One serious problem is that sport psychology seems to attract an inordinate number of self-promoters and charlatans who leave trails of alienation behind them making it a continuing slog for trained professionals to gain respect. There are too many poorly trained people and media glamour hounds who tarnish the field’s reputation. In Australia we have a couple of sport psychologists who appear often in the media, especially when a famous athlete is in some sort of crisis. They are more than willing to comment about these athletes’ mental states even though they have never met them. They perpetuate the damaging and weirdly self-serving myth that psychologists are mind readers. I cringe every time I see them on television; too many sport psychologists seem comfortable discussing publically their work with famous athletes. Even if permission was granted from the athlete, it is still exploitation in the service of the sport psychologist. The most bizarre charlatan I met was a man who called himself a sport psychologist and claimed that he could adjust the misaligned “psychic auras” of athletes in order to enhance their performances. Even among the “legitimate” sport psychologists I have encountered over the last 25 years, about half of them leave me wondering whether they would be of any help to athletes and coaches. They have too much personal baggage they are working out (at the expense of their athletes), or they are just plain incompetent. That sounds harsh, but I would say the same thing about clinical and counselling psychologists. The psychological professions seem to attract well over their fare share of exploitative, needy, and narcissistic folks. The above problems, along with societal prejudices, stereotypes and media portrayals in film and TV of crazy or sexually exploitative psychologists may account for some of the limited growth in the field. Such external problems are not something we can do much about, so we might want to look at some internal professional issues over which we have some control.

The other more fundamental problem is the focus on performance enhancement. Back in the 1960s and 1970s we set ourselves a trap with our claims to be able to enhance performance. If we had delivered on those claims, then I would think there would be much more than 200 AASP certified consultants (approximate current number). When the research on our claims of performance enhancement is closely examined there are relatively few studies that use real competitive athletes (not analogue samples) undergoing psychological skills training interventions in randomised controlled trials, with actual real-world competition performance (not laboratory tasks or simulated competitions) as the dependent variables, showing a direct connection between our interventions and performance improvements. And for those studies that do meet such strict evidence-based criteria, the results are equivocal. And that’s just the first problem with a performance enhancement focus.

Sport psychologists claiming their interventions will enhance performance smacks of professional hubris. A softer kind of claim would be that sport psychologists may help some athletes learn some mental (and physical) strategies that might be useful for athletes when it comes to the acid test of real competition. On the day of competition, however, as every coach knows, all bets are off. Performance in real competition is “multi-multi-determined” and having some mental skills under their belts is no assurance that things will go to plan. Yet, sport psychologists still insist that their interventions will work. Strength and conditioning professionals would claim that their programmes will increase strength or fitness, and they have the numbers to prove it (e.g., lifting more weights, jumping higher, longer time to exhaustion), but the claims stop there. The strength and conditioning professional can say to the coach ”You asked me to help the athlete become stronger and fitter, and here are the numbers to show I did my job. I certainly hope the athlete can tap into these improved abilities on the day they are really needed.” What can a performance enhancing sport psychologist say? ”You asked me to improve an athlete’s mental skills, and here are the numbers to prove it?” And what numbers are those? Scores on a facilitative anxiety scale or a mental toughness inventory? Those numbers are arbitrary metrics and have no clear meaning, whereas increasing one’s vertical jump by 8 cm is both a meaningful and significant improvement for sports where jumping plays a role. Making the softer claim would be wise, but too many sport psychologists make the stronger claim, and such claims rest on sandy foundations.

Foregrounding performance enhancement as our métier places a behaviour above the person, and that placement sits on a slippery slope that can lead to dehumanisation, exploitation, and other forms of abuse. Why isn’t our focus on the full range of what may be encountered when we look at whole people rather than specific behaviours? Even when we focus on performance, we have to see how sport behaviour fits, or doesn’t fit, in the lives of those we serve. An 800-metre run does not take place in a vacuum. All the relaxation exercises, or attempts to change beliefs that anxiety helps performance, in the world will probably have little effect on competition anxiety if those fears are tied to some dire imagined and real consequences of failure such as parental psychological abuse, the withdrawal of love, and feelings of worthlessness and emptiness.

There is also the problem of performance enhancers not understanding that interventions may or may not work because the core of behavioural, cognitive or emotional change is probably not the interventions. Positive (or negative) outcomes of sport psychology interventions most likely have more to do with the quality of the relationships between athletes and practitioners. We know this is true in psychotherapy and counselling (Sexton & Whiston, 1994). Some practitioners in our field have addressed this “relationship core” of service (e.g., Petitpas et al., 1999), and my colleagues and I have made it our professional mission to spread this relationship litany.

Performance enhancers seem so focused on maladaptive behaviours and emotions (and interventions to ”fix” those problems) that they leave themselves out of the equation. Sport psychologists, their personalities, and their abilities to form caring, non-contingent, positive relationships (I would even say ”loving” here, but I might be misunderstood by some) are what fuel change, not some cognitive restructuring intervention per se. Not understanding these dynamic interpersonal processes in service almost amounts to professional myopia.

In an athlete’s world, the sport psychologist who focuses on whole athletes and their worlds, their happiness, and their welfare may be one of the only people who doesn’t have a contingent agenda (e.g., enhancing the athlete’s performance). Such a sport psychologist may be the only haven the athlete has where weakness, doubt and fear can be expressed and then embraced and cared for. In our collaborative efforts with athletes we hope to model what a caring non-contingent human relationship is and possibly combat the other pathogenic contingent relationships we find in many other areas of sport. If we are performance enhancers, then we are not much different than a coach with a performance agenda.

In defence of performance enhancement, I must say that I have met several athletes who wanted only to learn mental skills and not explore any other aspects of their lives, and I was happy to teach them those skills. And then they went on their way. More commonly, however, athletes start out expressing a desire to learn mental skills and then a few weeks or a few months later, they begin to want to talk about what is really bothering them. Learning mental skills was a means to plucking up the courage to talk about an eating disorder, dealing with an alcoholic parent or relationship problems. In time rapport, trust and liking grow as the working relationship develops, and it is the caring, holding relationship that helps the athlete get to the heart of the matter. Shane Murphy, probably the most famous Australian in sport psychology and former head of sport sciences at the US Olympic Committee Training Centre in Colorado Springs, once wrote:

“The sport psychology literature is filled with texts that describe techniques and interventions. Although many of these works are excellent, they leave the lingering impression that sport psychology is the sum of such interventions as goal setting, visualization, and attention-control training. Yet the practicing sport psychologist realizes that knowledge of such techniques is but the first step in a long journey toward gaining proficiency in actually being able to help athletes. . . . [reflecting] on my own work with elite athletes, . . . [I] observe how infrequently I ever do straightforward interventions such as those we see studied so often in our journals (Murphy, 2000).” Shane is one of my models for what it is to be a sport psychologist.

We have had over 40 years of performance enhancement, and where has it got us? In comparison to other sport-related professions that grew up during the time of sport psychology’s development, we haven’t come very far at all. It may be time to switch focus. One of the most respected (and loved) exercise physiologists at the Australian Institute of Sport, Dr David Martin, believes that the main goal of applied exercise physiology service delivery to Australia’s top athletes is their happiness, and that the key to success is the relationships the physiologists develop and nurture with those in their care. If an eminent exercise physiologist can take such a stance, then why can’t we?

I’ll end with a story about psychological services to athletes in Australia. The Australian (Rules) Football League Players’ Association (AFLPA) hired a graduate of a professional doctoral sport psychology program to direct and coordinate psychological services to current and former players and their families. The service is strictly confidential so even coaches do not know who is receiving care. The approach is the health, welfare and happiness of footballers. The director contracts a raft of psychologists around Australia to provide service. Business is booming, and the director is constantly looking for more psychologists to help meet the AFLPA’s needs. What percentage of the service is performance enhancement-related? It may not be quite 0%, but it’s not more than 3%. Like the AFLPA’s programme and focus, let’s try something else and then maybe we will develop a widespread positive reputation and make substantial contributions to the lives of athletes and coaches.

References

Andersen, M. B., McCullagh, P. & Wilson, G. (2007). But what do the numbers really tell us? Arbitrary metrics and effect size reporting in sport psychology research. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 29, 664-672.

Murphy, S. M. (2000). Afterword. In Doing Sport Psychology (edited by M. B. Andersen), pp. 275-279. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Petitpas, A. J., Giges, B. & Danish, S. (1999). The sport psychologist-athlete relationship: Implications for training. The Sport Psychologist, 13, 344-357

Sexton, T. S. & Whiston, S. C. (1994). The status of the counselling relationship: An empirical review, theoretical implications, and research directions. The Counseling Psychologist, 22, 6-78.

 

Reflections From an Island in the Tasman Sea

Mark B. Andersen (2018)

Much has happened in the almost nine years since I wrote this article. I have retired from academia, except for a 10% professor position at University of Halmstad (Sweden). I no longer train future Australian psychologists with expertise to work in sport, health, and exercise settings. Leaving that rewarding work has been both a poignant loss and a welcomed relief, but that’s a long tale. The short version is that I made my exit from my university on mainland Australia in 2014 and moved to the Jewel in the Crown of the Antipodes: Tasmania. Here I work as a clinical psychologist and supervisor, engaging in my two great loves: psychotherapy and supervision. I am a long, long way, both literally and figuratively, from sport psychology service delivery.

I haven’t seriously looked at this article in years, and as I read it over for this blog post, I was a bit taken aback by how indignant, self-righteous, and arrogant I sound in places. I am fairly positive I was angry at the time I wrote it, but that would be nothing new. I get angry with the field of sport and exercise psychology (and some individuals within it) on a regular basis. I probably need to get myself back into psychotherapy (once again) to figure out the roots of some of my emotional dysregulation. These days I, of course, still get angry and righteously indignant over what I perceive to be boneheaded ideas in research (e.g., mental toughness, mistaking maps for territories) and practice (e.g., mindfulness as a performance enhancement tool in a sport psychologist’s toolbox), but after years of meditative practice I can (sometimes) watch that indignation and anger rise and fall away and recognize their essential emptiness. At other times I still get hooked into indignation (it kind of feels good to be pissed off) and can’t seem to let go. But I am working on it.

In re-reading the 2009 article, I think I overemphasised the importance of relationships in service probably because of the under-emphasis of these interdependency and transference and countertransference configuration dynamics in much of the sport psychology literature. There are plenty of situations where the interventions are probably much more important than the working relationships and positive transferences. For example, if an athlete came to me with a fear of flying and was headed to her first international competition that would involve several connecting long flights, and she said, “I really have to get over this, or I am going to be a wreck when I get to Europe,” then I would say, “Well, you are in luck. We have a great treatment for fear of flying. It’s called systematic desensitisation, and here is how it works . . . ”

Her relationship with me will naturally play a role in the treatment’s success, but what will probably most determine how well she does is her daily practice of relaxation and how diligently she applies the simulated behavioural “exposure experiments” such as packing her bags, driving to the airport, and sitting in the terminal while returning over and over again to her relaxation (autogenic self-suggestions, mindful breath, PMR, or whatever other down-regulating practices fit best with her). The quality of our relationship will undoubtedly help (e.g., her faith in me and my faith in the treatment), but it will almost certainly be the intervention, more than the relationship, that will get her to Europe in good shape.

I think, however, that the message about relationships in service still stands up after nearly a decade. Much of trauma and damage (e.g., low self-esteem, not being good enough, unworthiness), and much of healing occur within social contexts (e.g., having a loving coach, working with a compassionate sport psychologist). For example, it would be hard to argue against the influence of the coach-athlete relationship on an athlete’s happiness, well-being, self-esteem, and even performance. For me, the development of a positive, caring, compassionate model of what is best in human relationships between a sport psychologist and an athlete sits as a transtheoretical goal for service regardless of what model of treatment is being used (e.g., CBT, PST, ACT).

Back on mainland Australia, when I used to coordinate a master degree course for training students to become: (a) psychologists first, and (b) psychologists with expertise in working in sport and exercise settings second, we started out with two closely intertwined overarching foundations (yes, I know overarching foundations is oxymoronic, but I like it because it goes all the way from the top to the bottom): (a) initiating, maintaining, and growing positive, caring non-judgemental human relationships with clients, and (b) developing the intra- and interpersonal qualities of the students to resemble, in as many ways as possible, those therapeutic aspects of helping professionals that Rogers (1957/1992) described several decades ago. In various more recent interpretations, those qualities would be congruence, genuineness, authenticity, unconditional positive regard, non-judgement, presence, and empathy. That is a tall order for a trainee (or even a senior) psychologist, and Rogers recognised that these qualities are aspirational. As he stated, “It is not necessary (nor is it possible) that the therapist be a paragon who exhibits this degree of integration, of wholeness, in every aspect of his life” (1992, p. 828). The goals with these foundations are not to become amazing, perfect psychologists, but rather to become, in a Winnicottian (1971) sense, good enough psychologists with all their strengths and weaknesses and still doing their best.

Much of the article I wrote in 2009 railed against, what I still believe, is a narrow, problem-focused emphasis on performance in sport psychology, but that emphasis is a product of how we have been trained, how we are training, and how we will train sport psychologists in the future. If one’s training is primarily performance enhancement then that becomes one’s hammer and one’s nail. And that is fine. I know a lot of people who do only PST with their sport clients, and they do great work. I think most all of the models used by sport psychologists from PST to existential psychology are all paths to the same place: helping athletes and coaches develop more integrated brains that function better in daily life and in the high pressure environments of competition. All our brains are highly social organs, and the story of what happens to brains between clients and therapists (and athletes and coaches) is a tale for another time (see Cozolino, 2017).

Another problem with a performance-enhancement agenda is that it may bleed over to the sport psychologist’s ”performance” in helping athletes get better results, and then our evaluations of work (and worth) as psychologists may become dependent of our clients’ performances. Many neophyte sport psychologists secretly feel that they are crap at their jobs (”I don’t know what I am doing”, ”I don’t have enough knowledge”), and if a measure of a psychologist’s skill or worth is something like ”improved sport performance,” which is determined by a whole hell of a lot of other things besides time spent with a psychologist, then the professional self is going to end up taking a lot of big blows. Here again is the trap of marketing oneself as a performance enhancer. If the athlete or team doesn’t improve, then the psychologist obviously isn’t capable of doing the job he was hired for and may be at risk of losing it. More feeling like crap.

I didn’t have room to focus on training in the 2009 article, but training is what determines what sorts of questions are asked and answered, what sorts of services are delivered and which ones are not, and if we, as a profession, want to change our perspectives and models of service, then we have to start at the education and training levels. One path that my students and I have found helpful to address both the professional-client relationships and the therapeutic qualities of the sport psychologist is intra- and interpersonal mindfulness. I just about cringed when I wrote the word mindfulness.

The proliferation, commercialisation, marketing, and general touting of mindfulness as a kind of panacea (du jour) has left me bemused, alarmed, disappointed, and, my go-to response: angry. In the sport and performance psychology literature, mindfulness has entered the scene, primarily, as yet another “technique” to improve performance, as something one “teaches” clients, and not so much as way for sport psychologists to be in their lives and in their service to others, but there are some exceptions. For example, in a recent text on mindfulness and performance psychology (Baltzell, 2016), most of the chapters are about using mindfulness in service of performance, which is what one would expect, but three of the chapters (e.g., Giges & Reid, 2016) are dedicated to the mindfulness of practitioners and how mindfulness may help with self-awareness, staying present with clients, empathy, and non-judgement. Seeing this shift, or expansion, of focus when it comes to mindfulness in sport psychology service delivery is heartening. I hope it continues.

Almost Done Ranting (again)

Here near the end of these reflections comes some quite mindful, but shameless, self-promotion. A couple years ago, my good friend and long-time colleague, Sam Zizzi, seduced me into editing a book on mindfulness in sport psychology (Zizzi & Andersen, 2017). He knew of my antipathy toward narrow-focused, performance-based uses of mindfulness, and he promised that we would write and edit a book that had a much more practitioner- and student-training focus along with the many pathways opened up by mindful approaches. He pushed all the right buttons, and I am so pleased that we have a book that speaks to the intra-and interpersonal mindfulness of practitioners and students, and the chapters that do have a focus on performance also include the mindfulness of the practitioner working with the athlete (see Waterson’s chapter). There is a case study of the mindful sport psychologist and how he got that way (see Sebbens’ chapter), and there is also another study of a sport injury researcher and his interpersonal mindfulness with his participants in his doctoral research (see Ivarsson’s chapter). Mindfulness can be a tool in a performance enhancement toolbox, but it can also be much more. And so here I am again ranting about limited foci in applied sport psychology, but, I will finish this section with something Sam and I wrote in the preface (Andersen & Zizzi, 2017) of our book about mindfulness:

We [Mark & Sam] are logically inconsistent in that, in many ways, we are both idealists and realists. Our internal (nonexistent) idealist homunculi see mindfulness as a path to helping alleviate human unhappiness, and Mini-Sam and Mini-Mark balk at its use for performance enhancement and its diminished application in sport and exercise psychology. Our realist selves, however, counter that position with statements such as, “Give it a rest! Get over yourselves, and stop being so precious. Who cares how mindfulness is being used in sport? A little mindfulness is better than no mindfulness at all.” And maybe that is our hopeful resolution to our internal contradictions: that students and practitioners who read this book take some mindfulness, no matter what the form, and make places in their hearts and in their interactions with those they serve for this compassionate, human, and humane path. (pp. xiv-xv)

Final Reflections, or Maybe Refractions?

                      To be honest, the piece I wrote in 2009 for The Sport and Exercise Scientist was a bit (well, maybe more than “a bit”) of a tirade about what I felt had gone wrong, and was still going wrong, with applied sport psychology service. In writing this piece in 2018, as a type of reflection on 9 years ago, I am pulled back to the optical meaning of reflection, which is light hitting a surface and changing direction (as in a mirror), and it seems that after my self-righteous rant, I did suggest a “reflection” or change in direction from performance enhancement to the health, happiness, and welfare of those we serve and to the strong, caring, and compassionate bonds we form with them.

For this blog post, I seem to be more in a refractive mode. In refraction, light moves from one medium to another and gets bent in some ways (I like the word bent). A simple example is light moving from air into water, but a metaphorical story of refraction that resonates with me is a light beam of applied sport psychology hitting glass. If it hits a flat pane of glass at a 90° angle, it doesn’t get bent much, and what comes out the other side is the same old, same old. If that same beam of white service light hits a metaphoric prism of mindfulness glass at 45°, then its component light waves get spread out and bent at literally millions of different angles that illuminate all sorts of applications, theories, and possibilities for applied sport psychology practitioners and students such as: the mindfulness of the sport psychologist; interpersonal mindfulness and neurobiology; relationships and interdependency; Buddhist philosophy; Islamic or Christian or Judaic prayer and meditation; presence, attunement, and resonance with clients; paying attention to muscles in PMR; using the mindful, observing self to listen to self-talk; sitting in observation and non-judgement; realisation of no-self; applications to coaching education and training; self-awareness, Freud’s stance in therapy of evenly suspended attention; William James’s stream of consciousness; modelling acceptance for clients; making room in love for hate; and for performance enhancement, opening to this moment, right here, right now with curiosity and fascination; and this list goes on and on. In another word: a rainbow.

References

Andersen, M. B., & Zizzi, S. J. (2017). Preface. In S. J. Zizzi & M. B. Andersen (Eds.), Being mindful in sport and exercise psychology: Pathways for practitioners and students (pp. xi-xv). Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.

Baltzell, A. L. (Ed.). (2016). Mindfulness and performance: Current perspectives in social and behavioral sciences. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Cozolino, L. (2017). The neuroscience of psychotherapy: Healing the social brain (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Norton.

Giges, B., & Reid, G. (2016). Awareness, self-awareness, and mindfulness: The application of theory to practice. In A. L. Baltzell (Ed.), Mindfulness and performance: Current perspectives in social and behavioral sciences (pp. 464-487). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Rogers, C. (1992). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 60, 827-832. (Original work published 1957)

Winnicott, D. W. (1971). Playing and Reality. New York, NY: Routledge.

Zizzi, S. J., & Andersen, M. B. (Eds.). (2017). Being mindful in sport and exercise psychology: Pathways for practitioners and students. Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.

Self-Promotion Section

Even though Mark has retired from academia, he is still writing and editing books and articles. Here are his latest three books and links to more information about them:

Andersen, M. B., & Hanrahan, S. J. (Eds.). (2015). Doing exercise psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Gibbs, P. M., Andersen, M. B., & Marchant, D. B. (2017). The Athlete Apperception Technique: Manual for sport and clinical psychologists. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

Zizzi, S. J., & Andersen, M. B. (Eds.). (2017). Being mindful in sport and exercise psychology: Pathways for practitioners and students. Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.

Prof Mark B. Andersen
University of Halmstad, Sverige

Clinical Psychologist
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Email: mark.andersen@hh.se

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