Thoughts, Reflections and Lessons from the Field
The below article is taken from James Kneller’s Masters Thesis from 2015. Although it’s not normal for us to publish articles that have been written for academic purposes via our Mental Toughness Digest we feel that James’ thesis (below) is highly relevant to the wider sporting community. Enjoy and as always feel free to add your comment at the very bottom!
What is sport psychology and what do sport psychologists do?
The current paper is focussed on the applied consultancy work of sport and exercise psychologists in Australia. Even within consultancy roles, the work of a sport psychologist can be divided between clinical therapy work and mental skills education (Herzog & Hays, 2012; R. S. Weinberg & Gould, 2007). Sport psychologists preferring to take on an educational role may work exclusively within performance enhancement and mental skills training, providing assistance with specific skills and techniques including, but not limited to; visualisation and imagery, motivation, attention control, self-talk, relaxation and goal setting with their clients (Andersen, 2000; Hanrahan & Andersen, 2013; Morris & Terry, 2011). These psychologists are likely to refer clients presenting with clinical issues to outside specialist providers.
The range of clinical issues that an applied sport psychologist may encounter in their work with athletes will be similar to those found in the general public but most often include issues of anxiety, depression, addictions, sleeping issues and eating disorders (Andersen, 2000; Hanrahan & Andersen, 2013; Moore & Gardiner, 2011). Sports psychologists also often assist athletes to work through career transitions, grief and rehabilitation from injury (Andersen, 2000). According to Robert Weinberg (2014), there are two types of clients that sport psychologists work with; those who are looking to improve their mental game in a preventative approach, and those that are looking for a solution to a specific psychological issue.
Sport psychologists who work with clinical issues in the course of their practice often have the mindset that issues off the field can influence the athlete’s performances on the field, and as such by helping their athletes with clinical issues that may or may not be directly related to their athletic endeavours is also assisting to maintain or enhance their performance (Andersen, 2000; Wall, Kwee, McDonald, & Bradshaw, 2014). Although treating an underlying issue may not be the aim of a sport psychologist’s work, according to Burt Giges (2014, p. 16) “in the world of sport, sometimes the symptom is the problem. Whatever underlying issues there may be, they are not necessarily the focus of the work.”
While it is possible to see a distinction between clinical and educational roles, applied practice may often occur on a continuum anchored by these two poles (Herzog & Hays, 2012). Certainly, it has been shown that achieving positive results with an athlete often involves a balance between education and therapeutic work (Andersen, 2000).
The work of a sport psychologist may be performed in direct contact with individual athletes or teams, or through working as a consultant for a coach either individually or in collaboration with a coaching or support team (Herzog & Hays, 2012). Their knowledge can be applied in many areas outside of traditional sporting fields, such as business and performing arts. Many sports psychologists, and sporting bodies such as the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), prefer to use the professional title of performance psychologist (AIS, 2015; APS, 2015). The AIS performance psychology department outlines the role of their psychologists as being to enhance and restore performance, and promote mental health for their athletes, coaches and national sporting organisations (AIS, 2015). Within this study, the terms sport psychologist and performance psychologist will be used interchangeably to be inclusive of psychologists working with individuals in the performing arts field.
Psychology In Australia
In 2008 the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) established a single national recognition and registration scheme for health practitioners in Australia. Practitioners are required to be registered with their relevant national board under the national registration and accreditation scheme, which is administered by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA). As of July 2012, there are 14 national boards for different health practitioners that include chiropractors, physiotherapists, optometrists, pharmacists, and psychologists. AHPRA assists the national boards to establish and maintain training and registration standards for health professionals in Australia (AHPRA, 2015). The national board for psychology is the Psychology Board of Australia.
At present, there are two levels of practising registration available for psychology in Australia; provisional and general registration. Psychologists with provisional registration must engage in ongoing training and education for minimum specified timeframes before they may become eligible for general registration. Current Australian industry regulations state that for an individual to practice independently and use the legally protected title of ‘psychologist’ they must achieve and maintain full general registration.
The education and training required to achieve general registration consists of a six-year sequence of study and training. This entails a four-year Psychology Board accredited sequence of study in an approved course followed by a further two years of supervised practice. This additional two years can be completed through a supervised internship of two years, a one-year post-graduate course along with a one-year supervised internship, or through a postgraduate professional degree such as a Masters that includes supervised practice (Psychology Board of Australia, 2015).
These variations in the six-year sequence are often referred to as being a 4+2, a 5+1, or a post-grad pathway to registration, respectively. From June 2013 the board has been phasing in the National Psychology Examination as an additional requirement for general registration. The exam is designed to ensure appropriate levels of competence in those attempting to gain registration as a psychologist in Australia. From July 2016 everyone wishing to complete a 4+2, 5+1 or postgraduate pathway will be required to pass the exam before they can be granted general registration (AHPRA, 2015).
General registration allows a psychologist to practice in all areas of psychology that are within their scope of competence. Those who have achieved general registration can, if they wish, apply for endorsement in one of the nine specific areas of practice along with their general registration. These areas are clinical psychology, counselling psychology, forensic psychology, clinical neuropsychology, organisational psychology, sport and exercise psychology, educational and developmental psychology, health psychology, and community psychology. It is possible for psychologists to have an endorsement with more than one of the nine areas at any time. An endorsement in these areas allows the psychologist to use these titles within their practice and indicate additional training and advanced supervised practice recognised by the board. These endorsements, along with all registration details, are visible to anyone browsing the AHPRA website.
There are currently three ways that a registered psychologist may be eligible for endorsement in a specified area. They may have completed an accredited doctorate in one of the approved areas along with a minimum of one-year full-time equivalent supervised practice with a board-approved supervisor. They may have completed an accredited Masters in one of the approved areas along with a minimum of two years full-time equivalent supervised practice with a board-approved supervisor. A board-approved supervisor is one who currently holds an endorsement in the specified area. The third pathway to gaining endorsement is the registered psychologist having another qualification that the board deems to be equivalent to either the doctorate or masters eligibility processes.
Sport and Exercise Psychology in Australia
In 1991 the Board of Sport Psychologists was founded within the APS, with the aim of promoting sport psychology in Australia. In 1994 the name was changed to the College of Sport and Exercise Psychologists (COSEP), often referred to as the College. The College established the current educational and training pathway to endorsement as a sport psychologist in Australia, provided ongoing training for and promotion of sport psychologists, and provided ethical frameworks to enhance the professional and academic standing of sport psychology in Australia (Morris, 1995).
Currently, the APS College of Sport and Exercise Psychologists aspires to “represent, promote and advance the sport and exercise psychology in Australia” (APS, 2015). The College provides advice on the training and development of sport and exercise psychologists and helps set expected professional standards. It provides ongoing continuing professional development programs and acts as a central point for practitioners to communicate with each other. Further, the College provides a focal point for outside organisations such as the media and liaises with international sport psychology organisations (APS, 2015).
In the mid-1990s there were four coursework masters programs running in Australia, along with five universities with established research programs in sport psychology. Up to 66 students were enrolled in either a coursework masters or research program (Morris, 1995). This number has been decreasing since, and in 2014 Victoria University made the decision to cease its coursework masters program in sport psychology, which left the University of Queensland, based in Brisbane, as the only university with an ongoing post-graduate program for sport psychology in Australia. Currently, the University of Queensland has an intake of 25 students per year spread across its Master of Applied Psychology program that includes specialisations in counselling, health, and sport and exercise psychology (University of Queensland, 2015). The most recent intakes of 2013 and 2014 had only six students enter the sport and exercise program each year.
In 2015 there are currently 31,982 non-practising, provisional and generally registered psychology practitioners with the Psychology Board of Australia (Psychology Board of Australia, 2015). Psychologists with general registration make up 26,498 of these, with 3,884 provisionally registered. The current number of endorsements held, remembering that individual psychologists may hold more than one at a time, were 10,473 (Psychology Board of Australia, 2015). Clinical psychology holds the greatest number of endorsements with 6,873 but in sport and exercise psychology there are just 91 endorsements held nationally, this represents less than 1% of all endorsements in Australia (Psychology Board of Australia, 2015). Of the 91 psychologists with sport and exercise endorsement, there are 25, or approximately 1 in 4 of the 1%, that are considered board-approved supervisors whose supervision would be considered suitable for gaining endorsement eligibility (Psychology Board of Australia, 2015).
In contrast, on the web page for the APS College of Sport and Exercise Psychology at the time of writing (2015), it was stated that they have 221 current members. The web page does not provide details on how these members are divided between full membership, which requires similar qualifications and experience as registration endorsement, and practitioners holding an associate or student membership (APS, 2015). The discrepancy in numbers between Psychology Board registered psychologists with an endorsement in sport and exercise psychology and the APS College membership numbers highlight that while there are many individuals who are actively involved in sport psychology in Australia only a small group are specifically registered with an endorsement. Given that a registered psychologist is free to practice in any field they wish so long as it is within their competence, and that the field of sport psychology covers such a wide variety of issues, the difference in numbers is not surprising.
Competency and the Development of Psychologists
The focus on competence for applied psychologists across various specialities has been increasing in the last decade or so. This focus has most keenly reflected in academic programs for the training of psychologists in the UK (Laidlaw & Gillanders, 2011), USA (Knight, 2011), Canada (Hunsley & Barker, 2011) and Australia (Stevens, Hyde, Knight, Shires, & Alexander, 2015), but is also reflected in Australia through the implementation of the National Psychology Examination developing as a pre-requisite for general registration (AHPRA, 2015). This competency-based education is designed to ensure that graduates possess and utilise the full range of knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviours required for effective practise as a psychologist (Hatcher et al., 2013).
The cube model of competence (Rodolfa et al., 2005) advocates the development of foundational and functional competencies, which are developed during various stages of development. Foundational competencies include reflective practice/self-assessment, scientific knowledge/methods, relationships, ethical-legal standards/policy, individual/cultural diversity, and interdisciplinary systems. Functional competencies are: assessment-diagnosis/case conceptualisation, intervention, consultation, research/evaluation, supervision/teaching, and management/administration. Rodolfa et al. (2005) advocated that these competencies were developed through stages of development beginning with doctoral education, through internship and residency, post-doctoral supervision, residency and finally as part of ongoing continuing competency. The cube model has also been advocated for sport psychology but requires work to be done to fully define each of the foundational and functional competencies (Fletcher & Maher, 2013). Also, it currently lacks appropriate assessable benchmarks that can be applied on a consistent and equitable basis across the different development stages (Fletcher & Maher, 2013).
Within Australia, the first four of the five development phases proposed by Rodolfa and colleagues (2005) do not begin until after the completion of undergraduate study. These four phases are also completed within five to eight years of students beginning their post-graduate studies. The use of competency-based education and training is highly relevant, both during and immediately after finishing formal studies, but is limited in its application to the lifelong development of applied practitioners. In a study of over 4000 therapists from more than a dozen different nations, academic learning was afforded an important but distinctly secondary role when considering what was most influential in participants’ development as therapists (Orlinsky, Botermans, & Ronnestad, 2001). This finding indicates that while developing competency is critical during the formal education years of becoming a psychologist, it loses some of its influence on the psychologist once they have progressed from their academic education.
Therapists rated the top three influences on their career development as being: their experiences with patients in therapy, getting formal supervision, and getting personal therapy, analysis or counselling themselves (Orlinsky et al., 2001). No associations were found between these ratings and the nationality of the therapist or their theoretical orientation (Orlinsky et al., 2001). The influence of the receipt of formal supervision also decreased as the number of years practising increased. The experience of therapy with patients, along with experiences in personal life outside of therapy, had a greater influence the longer a therapist had been practising (Orlinsky et al., 2001). These findings would appear to support a number of important elements of the development model for counsellors and therapists proposed by Rønnestad and Skovholt (2003).
Rønnestad and Skovholt’s (2003) Model of Therapist/Coach Development
Rønnestad and Skovholt (2003) presented a six-phase development model for counsellors and therapists that included 14 themes of development. They developed this model by providing descriptions of the various stages of development through which a therapist may transition, and various markers that are present or developed within each phase. The six phases described include; lay helper, the beginning student, the advanced student, the novice professional, the experienced professional, and the senior professional. Rønnestad and Skovholt (2003) stated that interpersonal experiences in both the personal and professional domains were major sources of influence in therapists’ professional development.
The Lay Helper
The lay helper phase involves the period of time prior to any formal therapeutic training or education. The researchers described how people adopt helping roles in their lives as parents, teachers, friends and mentors to others around them in their everyday lives. People regularly find themselves in positions where they may become engaged in helping others to make decisions, understand problems or improve relationships. Typically, the lay helper identifies problems quickly, provides strong emotional support and gives what they consider common-sense advice often based on their own experiences (Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2003). The lay helper will most often be highly authentic and feel natural in their responses and process with their ‘client’. A high level of emotional involvement and strong identification is common among lay helpers. This can lead to a blurring of the lines between sympathy and empathy, and an inclination by the ‘therapist’ to give specific and strong advice (Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2003).
The beginning student
The beginning student phase involves the start of professional training which many therapists find both exciting and challenging. The beginning student becomes aware that the old ways of the lay helper are no longer appropriate, and often begins to question their own aptitude and potential competence for a future role as a therapist (Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2003). The student is highly reliant upon and influenced by the direct feedback of professors and supervisors. This feedback effect is also applicable to initial interactions with clients. The beginning student phase is generally characterised by feelings of apprehension and anxiety around competence, confidence, having control of client interactions and whether they are making any real difference in their client’s lives (Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2003). Positive feedback can calm the student’s anxieties, and intensify their efforts and confidence, but negative feedback can be detrimental to their future development and magnify internal doubts and concerns.
Often, the beginning student will look for counselling/therapy models, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy or solution focussed therapy that can be easily understood. They may then attempt to learn techniques, and frameworks within them, such as motivational interviewing or behavioural activation, that can be mastered quickly with focussed effort that they then hope can be applied to all clients (Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2003). The use of these more accessible models and techniques can ease anxieties around competence and control, but depending on the student’s focus it may enhance or impede their professional development. Students with an open attitude involving an interest in and a desire to explore the complexities of professional work that are present, even in the apparently easy to learn/use models, develop a long term developmental goal that leads to professional development. Students with a closed attitude where they prefer to ignore or avoid the complexities of professional work develop a more short-term impression management goal, where they are more invested in appearing competent to others, which can lead to stagnation in their professional development (Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2003).
The advanced student
Approaching the end of their formal studies students will often find themselves working in internships or field placement positions where they are receiving regular, formal supervision. During this phase of development, the central task is to function at a basic established and professional level (Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2003). During this phase many students aspire to function at a much higher level and rather than just avoiding mistakes, they wish to excel and be perfect in their role. This pursuit of perfect practice means that many act in a cautious, conservative and excessively thorough manner. Typically there is little playfulness, spontaneity, or risk-taking in their work and their work is not relaxed. The high internal professional standards being applied often lead to misunderstandings with regard to their workload and expected effectiveness with clients. Often the advanced student will assume more responsibility than is required and set higher expectations for effectiveness with clients than is reasonable for their level of development (Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2003). The advanced student is often able to acknowledge the effect of their professional training so far, particularly in comparison to the beginning student, but they are also acutely aware that there is still much to learn in their journey to competent professional.
Although the advanced student will tend to have an external focus, such as how to become more effective with clients and how to become a professional themselves, there is an increase in internal focus. Supervision still exacts a powerful influence over the student’s development but conflict between student and supervisor is more likely as the student works towards greater autonomy and evaluates theoretical models more intensely, along with role-models such as supervisors (Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2003). Advanced students may begin to use supervision to examine their own personal identity within their role as a therapist Complex issues such as transference-countertransference, parallel processing, and client and counsellor resistance and defensiveness may begin to influence their work with clients (Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2003).
The novice professional
The novice professional phase encompasses the first few years after graduation. For most therapists, these are intense and engaging with many challenges to master and choices to be made (Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2003). Often therapists will feel quite isolated having left the relative security of academia and may go through three sequential stages of development. Firstly seeking to confirm the validity of the training they have received, secondly, disillusionment with the professional training when confronted with professional challenges they’ve inadequately mastered and third a period of more intense exploration into self and the professional environment.
As Rønnestad & Skovholt (2003) described, the novice professional finds themselves free of external constraints such as exams, and supervisor evaluations and keen to test the validity of what they have learned on their own. But for many, this can turn to become disillusioned with their training as they discover situations and challenges for which they feel inadequately prepared. Reflecting on their training, many novice professionals will begin to identify gaps in their previous course or program. For those who continued in the stagnant professional development pattern described in the beginning student phase of the model, this disenchantment can be even greater as simple models of practice are difficult to adapt to real-world clients. This can prompt therapists to become disappointed with themselves and with the inadequate progress of their clients.
The novice professional increasingly realises the value of the therapeutic relationship and how their personal style or personality can influence and enhance this with their clients. Often the therapist may look to personal therapy to help them explore their own deficiencies and to help them better integrate the personal and professional aspects of their work. They may also seek work roles and situations that are more aligned with their own self-concept. As their experience grows the novice professional is able to better identify the effect of therapy for their clients, and of their own progress alongside that of their clients. Ongoing learning is now more autonomous and directly aligned with the novice professional’s current or future professional goals.
The experienced professional
Typically a therapist in the experienced professional phase has been practising for a number of years and worked with a wide variety of clients in different settings. The therapist has created a role that is congruent with their own self-perception including their values, interests and attitudes. This congruence allows the therapist to practice in a highly authentic manner. The therapist becomes more flexible in their use of models and techniques to help fit both the client and their own personal requirements. As described by one of Rønnestad & Skovholt’s participants:
“I’m looser than I used to be in my approach to the work. Sure, everything must be done ethically and professionally. That’s a given, I’m just not so frantic about answers or even questions. Now I really feel there isn’t a right way to do it, although there is a right process for me.” (Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2003, p. 21)
Most experienced professionals feel comfortable, competent and are able to establish strong working alliances with clients. They have come to trust their own professional judgement. This level of confidence and self-belief allows them to better separate their personal and professional roles, and set professional boundaries around personal involvement, disclosure and feelings of responsibility for client progress or distress. Experienced professionals are more able to accept that often there are no clear answers for challenges presented. They have moved from understanding that the therapeutic relationship plays an important role in client progress to believe that it is crucial (Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2003).
For the experienced professional learning is conducted more through interpersonal reflection on professional and personal experiences than through formal studies. In particular, they reflect upon and learn from previous client experiences, along with personal experiences and relationships (Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2003). Some experienced professionals also felt that they internalised early role models, such as supervisors and professors, who they could ‘consult’ with by asking themselves what the supervisor would say or do in the situation.
The senior professional
The senior professional is a well-established practitioner whose seniority is acknowledged by other professionals. Generally, these therapists have been practising for over 20 years and many are approaching retirement (Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2003). Senior professionals often act as a guide or mentor to younger therapists. This is often a mutually beneficial arrangement as senior professionals regularly felt that they learn as much from their younger charges as they provide to them (Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2003).
Senior practitioners generally feel satisfied with their work and have a high level of self-acceptance; as with the experienced professional, this belief in their competence allows the senior professional to use their skills and experience with minimal anxiety (Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2003). There is a continued commitment to professional growth which is characterised by internal reflection. This reflection is applied both professionally and personally. Professionally it is focussed on their clients and the pleasure the therapist derives from assisting them and having them share their lives with the therapist. Personally, they reflect upon their own lives and the sense of loss of time, family members, mentors and peers that comes with advancing age.
Themes of Therapist/Coach Development
Along with the six phases of therapist development, Rønnestad & Skovholt (2003) also described 14 themes that regularly occur throughout a therapist’s journey from lay helper to senior professional but are not specific to any individual development phase. These themes are:
- Professional development involves increasing higher-order integration of the professional self and the personal self.
- The focus of functioning shifts dramatically over time, from internal to external to internal.
- Continuous reflection is a prerequisite for optimal learning and professional development at all levels of experience.
- An intense commitment to learning propels the development process.
- The cognitive map changes: Beginning practitioners rely on external expertise, seasoned practitioners rely on internal expertise.
- Professional development is a long, slow, continuous process that can also be erratic.
- Professional development is a life-long process.
- Many beginning practitioners experience much anxiety in their professional work. Over time anxiety is mastered by most.
- Clients serve as a major source of influence and serve as primary teachers.
- Personal life influences professional functioning and development throughout the professional life span.
- Interpersonal sources of influence propel professional development more than ‘impersonal’ sources of influence.
- New members of the field view professional elders and graduate training with strong affective reactions.
- Extensive experience with suffering contributes to heightened recognition, acceptance and appreciation of human vulnerability.
- For the practitioner, there is a realignment from self as a hero to the client as a hero.
In a review of the model Goodyear, Wertheimer, Cypers and Rosemond (2003) argued that the anxiety described in the early phases of the model may not be as prevalent as indicated by Rønnestad and Skovholt (2003). Additionally, the move towards education through sources such as movies and literature may be more an indication of a profession that they describe as not being research consumers (Goodyear et al., 2003). Further, they also suggested that Rønnestad and Skovholt’s 14 themes could potentially be further reduced to six clusters due to the close relationship of many of the themes described.
Advocates for the cube model have acknowledged that an area for further improvement is the need for the development of competency standards, and the ability to assess these standards effectively, at the various points in a therapists career (Hatcher et al., 2013). This is particularly relevant for assessing a therapist’s competence after they have been actively working in their area of expertise for some time. Unlike the cube model of competency, which conceptualises the development timeframe for a therapist as being bound to the years immediately around formal training, a major strength of Rønnestad and Skovholt’s (2003) model is that it describes therapist development as being a life-long career development process (Goodyear et al., 2003).
Research on Applied Sports Psychologist Development
When looking at the career development of applied sport psychologists Rønnestad and Skovholt’s (2003) model has been applied and found to have value in much of the current literature (Tod, Andersen, & Marchant, 2011; Tod, Andersen, & Marchant, 2009; Tod & Bond, 2010; Tod, Marchant, & Andersen, 2007). This research has focussed on practitioners still in their student years and up to four years after graduation. In terms of Rønnestad and Skovholt’s (2003) model, these years would likely include the beginning student, advanced student and novice professional phases of therapist development.
Much of the research on, as well as the development of, sports psychologists occurs during their student years and initial forays into applied practice as this is the time that basic competence is developed, and in Australia, it is also the period of initial supervised contact with clients. Along with this, the classroom provides a safe environment for a student to learn and practice (Silva III, Metzler, & Lerner, 2011). Students can explore how theory may or may not translate into practice. It should be challenging to the student, but safe (Silva III et al., 2011). Just as the athletes they may work with can know what to do but struggle to put it into action in their event the student sport psychologist may follow a parallel process with their athletes of being “book smart” but have difficulty transferring this knowledge to their client in a useful applied manner. The classroom provides an opportunity for regular practice of skills and regular feedback providing guidance from peers and experienced practitioners in the field (Silva III et al., 2011).
Australian graduates and teachers were asked about the learning experiences that they believed most contributed to competence in sport psychology service-delivery during post-graduate courses (Tod et al., 2007). Four themes emerged: the value of gaining service-delivery experience via supervised placements and classroom role-plays, research and theory when applied to client needs, social interactions between teaching staff and students, and specific events prior to and apart from the training that occurred in participants own lives. An additional study of a separate cohort of post-graduate students cited interactions with clients, supervisors and lecturers, research, theory, and outside life experiences and events, along with classroom exercises and discussions as being the most helpful sources of learning that enhanced their development as therapists (Tod et al., 2009).
Reflecting on their practice many student sports psychologists admitted feeling high levels of anxiety around their competence and their capacity to influence their clients’ lives, as described by Rønnestad and Skovholt (Tod et al., 2009; Tod & Bond, 2010). They described themselves as having rigid expert problem-solving approaches to service delivery (Tod et al., 2009) and a tendency to rely on input from their supervisors initially when dealing with clients (Martindale & Collins, 2013; Stambulova & Johnson, 2010). As they progressed through their student years and into the beginnings of applied practice, the participants described a gradual increase in confidence with clients and a movement away from rigid practice to a more fluid practise that was more closely aligned with their own personal style (Collins, Evans-Jones, & O’Connor, 2013; Tod et al., 2011; Tod et al., 2009; Tod & Bond, 2010).
One British sports psychologist identified the specific changes included becoming:
“(a) less problem-, and more client-, driven; (b) less controlling and structured, and allowing athletes to direct sessions; (c) more long-term focused; (d) a facilitator rather than advice-giver; (e) more flexible; (f) more comfortable with silence; and (g) aware of the need for strong working alliances.” (Tod & Bond, 2010, p. 40)
The sport psychologists felt better able to integrate their own beliefs and values into their practice, and more confident in trusting and acting on their own judgements (Tod et al., 2011; Tod & Bond, 2010). This change was described by Rønnestad and Skovholt (2003) as a process of individuation that therapists undertake which often happens in the transition from advanced student to novice professional.
During this movement to novice professional, they described periods of realisation of gaps in their knowledge that were due either to gaps in their curriculum or their own lack of exposure, training or depth of knowledge. Many expressed that anxiety was still present in practice, but now it arose not always about client interactions but could be triggered by other tasks associated with maintaining professional competence (Tod et al., 2011). These included issues with finding work, completing required administration tasks, client record maintenance and running a business. Concern around financial security through work in the sport psychology field was also a common issue for those beginning their careers (Tod et al., 2011; Tod et al., 2009; Tod & Bond, 2010).
The majority of students in the early years of applied practice still listed client interactions as being the key learning experience that helped them develop as therapists (Tod et al., 2011). Unlike their time as a student though, those working in applied practice were now directing their own professional development. Some participants advised that the time they spent reading professional literature, and undertaking supervision had decreased. They offered competing time and financial demands as a primary reason for this. Although those who continued to engage in regular supervision stated that when it came to value for money, supervision was the most effective ongoing learning experience for them (Tod et al., 2011). When discussing the development of professional judgement and decision making expertise Martindale and Collins (2013) suggested that as sport psychologists develop they will improve; their perception of problems, available range of options, ability to elaborate various scenarios that may suit the issue at hand, scan for typical and irregular patterns, and manage uncertainty. They should develop the ability to do this all while taking into account their own strengths and limitations.
Advice From Sports Psychologists To Date
A number of topics have been expressed as important to the development of a career in sport psychology by those already working in the field. Mentors have played an important role, particularly in the development years of formal studies and starting out in practice, with their value being not only in the advice given but opportunities they’ve presented (Gordon, 2014; Hodge, 2014; Murphy, 2014). Creating networks and being generous in sharing information and resources was seen as beneficial for creating opportunities, staying up to date and also to combat feelings of isolation that can occur within the role (Gordon, 2014; Hemmings, 2014; Moran, 2014; Murphy, 2014; Symes, 2014). Ongoing learning was not only done through personal contacts, but psychologists acknowledged that they learnt from their clients and from various areas that are not limited to the field of psychology (Gordon, 2014; Hemmings, 2014; Moran, 2014).
When it comes to internal skills and traits psychologists make it clear that a career in sport psychology requires patience and the willingness to do ‘the hard yards’ (Hemmings, 2014; Symes, 2014) but that these need to be matched with the courage to take appropriate risks both personally and professionally (Gordon, 2014; Murphy, 2014). Above all, though psychologists made it clear that relationships are the most important piece of the successful sports psychologist puzzle. The relationships with individual athletes were paramount for successful work (Andersen, 2014; Barker, 2014; Petitpas, 2014; Smith, 2014). For continued work through the relationship with the head coach, and the club or team management is also essential (Cox, 2014; McCarthy & Jones, 2014; Moran, 2014). The recommendations of the importance of relationships, varied sources of ongoing learning, and the importance of early mentors are also compatible with the expectations of Rønnestad and Skovholt’s (2003) experienced a professional phase of therapist development.
The Current Study
McCarthy and Jones (2014) gathered the thoughts of eighteen sports psychologists in their book ‘becoming a psychologist’. The psychologists had varied backgrounds and were at different stages of their careers. Among the 18 only two were from Australia and those two work primarily in academia rather than an applied field. McCarthy and Jones (2014) felt the need for the book because sports psychology lacked autobiographical stories looking at the individual behind the practice, rather than simply techniques and skills, which could provide information and guidance to others within the field. The current study aims to extend this knowledge, but make it specific to applied practice in Australia.
The current research aims to provide advice and guidance about pathways that may occur for those wishing to pursue a career in Australia in applied sport psychology by looking at the pivotal learning moments experienced by practitioners already thriving in the field. The research will explore what practitioners have felt are the most influential learning moments they have experienced and how this has helped develop them as an applied sport psychologist. The study aims to investigate where these practitioners learnt their lessons, where they feel they had gaps in their knowledge and how they overcame these to achieve the positions they now hold. Finally, participants will be asked what advice they would have for anyone wishing to follow in their footsteps. This knowledge may provide guidance and tips for aspiring applied sport psychologists, teaching institutions and possibly peak member bodies for development pathways and training courses to be undertaken or provided for success in the field.
As highlighted there is a decreasing number of applied sport and exercise psychology positions available in Australia for post-graduate studies. Currently, there is only one available course taking new students, located at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. As such the current study includes the progress of applied sport psychologists who have taken a pathway other than post-graduate studies in sport and exercise psychology and how they have achieved their positions and what advice they would have for potential students wishing to follow their pathway.
Secondly, the current study aims to extend previous research by examining how the experienced professional phase of Rønnestad and Skovholt’s (2003) model may be integrated with current Australian applied sport psychologists who would be considered to be at this phase of development. Rønnestad and Skovholt’s (2003) model includes six phases of therapist development, and current sport psychology literature has examined these up until the fourth phase of the novice professional. Rønnestad and Skovholt (2003) describe an experienced professional as one who has been practising for a number of years and worked with a variety of clients and settings. They suggest those in this stage will be confident in their own competence and trust their own judgement. They deal with ambiguity more effectively and often see the therapeutic relationship as key to successful outcomes with clients. Learning is often conducted through interpersonal reflection upon personal and professional experiences, and some may internalise early role models that they can continue to ‘consult’ with.
After receiving ethics approval, a sample of seven currently practising sport psychologists (four female and three male) working in Australia were interviewed. Because the aim of the study was to gather information from psychologists who had moved past the novice practitioner phase, participants were purposively sampled to be actively practising in the sport and exercise psychology field within Australia and to have a minimum of six years of applied practice experience.
Participants were recruited via a posted notice inviting psychologists who fit the specified requirements for current practice and duration of the experience to indicate their interest in participating in the research. This notice was posted at Australia’s Winning Edge conference conducted by the Australian Institute of Sport, which was held in Melbourne in 2014. From the researcher’s initial communications with these psychologists, more psychologists were recruited. Other psychologists not in attendance at the conference became aware of the study through a pre-existing professional relationship with the researcher and indicated interest in participating. Psychologists who did not meet the specified requirements for experience level or current practice were not interviewed. Although a purposive sampling technique was used, participants were also sampled to represent a diverse range of backgrounds, work situations and client populations.
All participants derived a significant portion of their income from work in applied sport psychology in Australia. The participants worked in a variety of employment settings, from self-employment as individual practitioners or consultants within their own businesses, through to employment with state institutes of sport and private employers across a range of social and amateur to elite professional sports. The participants worked with a range of athletes and teams at local, state, national, and international levels of competition.
Three of the participants have completed post-graduate studies in a sport psychology specific Australian university degree prior to embarking on a career in sport psychology. The other four participants began their sport psychology careers without having completed any sport psychology specific course. The backgrounds of the four non-sports psychology pathway participants included two participants with post-graduate studies in clinical psychology, one with a Master of organisational psychology, and one who had obtained full registration through the 4+2 pathway.
After participants had returned their signed consent forms a semi-structured interview was conducted. Interviews were conducted individually, either in person or via a video phone call using the Skype application. Interview times ranged from just over half an hour to just under one and a half hours. No remuneration was offered for participation.
The questions were open-ended to allow participants to fully express their thoughts and opinions and ensure replies were representative of their experiences in practice, as recommended by (Patton, 2002). Participants were sent the Information to Participants document and a copy of the interview question guide prior to attendance at the interviews to allow for considered forethought. The interview schedule was used as a guide to the interview, but participants were encouraged to tell their own stories rather than feel obliged to follow the schedule. Follow up and clarification questions were used throughout the interviews to encourage elaboration on information provided. The interview schedule was developed after reviewing methodologies used in previous sport psychology development literature and adapted to the specific aims of the current research.
Each interview was recorded by the researcher and transcribed via professional transcription services. Interviews were then checked for accuracy by means of the researcher reading the transcripts while listening to audio recordings of the interviews. The checked transcripts were then offered to participants to check for accuracy and intention, and allow for further comment or clarification. At this time participants were offered the opportunity to discuss and omit information from the transcripts. Participants who wanted to omit information could do so without providing a reason, but no participant opted to remove or change any information recorded during their interview. Transcription yielded 128 pages of single-spaced interview data. Data was analysed through the use of content analysis, described by Patton (2002) as the use of any qualitative data analysis or effort to make sense of data that aims to identify and illuminate core themes and consistent messages. Data was then organised based on relevance to the main aims of the current study. This qualitative data analysis process is similar to that used previously with other interview-based qualitative sport psychologist research (Tod et al., 2011; Tod et al., 2007).
Results and Discussion
Qualitative data analysis and interpretation are often completed simultaneously, as such the results and discussion sections have been combined in an attempt to provide what Patton (2002) described as a thick description. Findings are presented with the aim of having the participants’ voices come through in their own words as much as is possible, and to illustrate findings that emerged through data analysis (Koch, Niesz, & McCarthy, 2014; Sparkes, 2002). Where possible quotes have been included verbatim to provide an authentic voice to participants’ points and beliefs. The initial data analysis yielded a number of primary themes including politics, mentors and teachers, and learning after university. As the initial themes were explored various subthemes emerged from the primary themes.
In reporting the advice to aspiring sport psychologists section is presented in three parts: individual characteristics of a sport psychologist, understanding the role of a sport psychologist, and professional practice and managing a business in sport psychology. Comparisons with Rønnestad and Skovholt’s (2003) experienced professional phase information is organised under four key attributes described in the phase. These being the professional and personal self converges, the relationship is everything, learning from clients and experiences, and referencing previous mentors. Potentially identifying names, genders and locations may have been modified in data representation to ensure the confidentiality of participants.
Rebecca has completed sport and exercise masters postgraduate studies in Australia. She has experience working with amateur to professional level athletes in various settings such as state and national institutes, as well as her own private practice. Currently, she is working with state and national level athletes at a state institute, as well as maintaining a private psychology business.
Peter has completed sport and exercise masters postgraduate studies in Australia. He has experience working with amateur to professional level athletes in various settings such as state and national institutes, along with professional sporting organisations. Currently, he is working with athletes attempting to gain selection for the Rio Olympics and preparing to return to private practice after a period of working in academia.
David gained full registration as a psychologist through a pathway other than sport and exercise masters postgraduate studies. He has experience working with amateur to professional level athletes in various sports and has spent time working with national and state sporting organisations as part of his private practice. Currently, he works in his own private business with a mix of sport and general psychology clients.
Kate gained full registration as a psychologist through a pathway other than sport and exercise masters postgraduate studies. She has experience working with amateur to professional level athletes in various sports and teams as part of her own private practice. Currently, she works with a number of national-level professional sporting teams as part of her private practice.
Sam gained full registration as a psychologist through a pathway other than sport and exercise masters postgraduate studies. She has experience working with amateur to professional level athletes from many national sporting bodies in various settings such as state and national institutes, as well as her own private practice. Currently, she is working with professional sporting teams in various sports across Australia.
Alex gained full registration as a psychologist through a pathway other than sport and exercise masters postgraduate studies. He has experience working with professional level athletes and teams in national professional competitions. He also sees clients privately from various other sports. Currently, he is working with a national level professional sporting team and maintains a small private practice at the same time.
Bruce has completed sport and exercise masters postgraduate studies in Australia. He has experience working with amateur to professional level athletes in various settings such as state and national institutes, as well as his own private practice. He describes his current situation as being someone who works full-time in sports-related work, but with variety provided in individual work, team-based work, organisational work and some employee assistance program (EAP) work.
Advice to Aspiring Sport Psychologists
When reflecting on their own journey of becoming practising sport psychologists in Australia, participants provided a multitude of individual stories and experiences, knowledge, skills and beliefs that have led them to be successful. In attempting to distil these into meaningful, applicable advice to those aspiring to follow them into the field these reflections have been separated into three main themes. These themes are identified as: individual characteristics of a sport psychologist, understanding the role of a sport psychologist, and professional practice and managing a business in sport psychology.
Individual characteristics of a sport psychologist
1. Know yourself first
Many of the participants believed that it is essential to explore your own motives for entering the field in the first place. They stressed that practitioners need to be constantly looking at whose needs are being served? Whether it is their client’s needs, or the psychologist’s. They were strong in their belief that the way to ensure it was the client’s needs, was for the psychologist to have a high level of self-awareness of their own motives and reasons for being in the role. Kate stated, “I think a lot of people go into psychology with a fix-it mentality, fix themselves or fix others, which is a noble pursuit but is not the realities of it.” This is similar to previous warnings of sport psychologists who believed that they were the ‘messiah’, or special one ready to bestow their special knowledge upon everyone they came in contact with (Cox, 2014) or who developed what Barker (2014) described as ‘Luke Skywalker syndrome’ where they tried too hard to help everyone and fix athletes.
Bruce and Sam added that the ability to be “self-referenced” and “self-critical” was central to their development as psychologists. David added that the ability to understand his own preferences and work history had led to his decision to remain in his own private practice rather than look for positions as an employee in sporting organisations or institutes. “I guess I come from a place where I don’t take shit from other people. I work it out and get on with it and make it happen. I was probably never going to be comfortable in a bureaucracy.” This understanding of his own working preferences allows him to avoid issues such as hierarchies of control, shifting funding models and fluctuating staffing levels, that he believed were common for employees in institutes and sporting organisations, which he believed would make his work much less enjoyable and autonomous.
Bruce strongly advocated seeking help beyond self-reflection to understand yourself and to enhance your ability to become a more effective psychologist.
“I don’t think anyone should practice as a psychologist unless they’ve had really long-term therapy themselves no matter how sound they think they are because how can you work out what’s yours and what’s your client’s if you haven’t done the work yourself?”
He reasoned that seeking therapy provided a psychologist with a deeper understanding of their own motives by exploring their own issues with an objective third party. Further, he believed that those who had done therapy themselves were in turn better psychologists for their clients through their ability to remain focussed with their client and have empathy for their situation. Bruce also questioned the potential hypocrisy of a psychologist who believes they can help a client through therapy when they do not believe that therapy can help them in any way.
2. Hard work and perseverance are crucial
Each of the participants felt that the ability and willingness to work hard and to persist or show resilience was a major part of their success. Rebecca stated, “I put my success down ultimately to perseverance.” Sam recounted the expectations and reality of the early days of her private practice working by herself as being long and challenging. Depending on the sports she was working on a normal day could consist of early mornings at one sport, followed by long days that went into the night working with a different sport in the evening. She recounted that seeing over 10 clients in a day was not unusual. She felt she had to do that to meet players and coaches needs and expectations, but the long days and workload can have a personal cost on not only a psychologist’s physical health but also their mental health. But as she explained, the hard work in the early days was vital in providing her with a reputation and level of credibility that has helped in gaining further work down the track.
Bruce added that hard work was not just defined by the number of hours put into the role. He commented that the most effective sport psychologists he had worked with or seen worked extremely hard at finding ways to be useful, and reading the needs of those they are working with. But he warned that this enthusiasm needed to be tempered against the desire to be seen to be busy rather than being effective. He was concerned that some sports psychologists acted at times out of a desire to be important and needed, rather than out of service to their client. When a sport psychologist is acting from this desire, all the participants agreed, they are not doing their job and would soon not have one.
Peter and Kate pointed out the potential pitfalls of not being willing to work hard and put in the required hours on the way through their careers. Peter described a sport psychologist he worked with who had been unwilling to get up at 5 am for early morning rides with the cycling team he was working with and explained how this destroyed any relationship forming between the athletes and the psychologist. Kate added:
“I’ve seen a lot of people wanting to go into the sport in either sport psych or elite level sport for the glamour and they never ended up [staying] in it because they’re not prepared to do the hard work. . . . Hard work is definitely an attribute that will set you apart.”
The participants’ thoughts reflect previous advice from established sports psychologists outside of Australia. Hemmings (2014), when describing his career in sport psychology championed the notion of becoming an ‘overnight success’ through a decade of hard work. He outlined that the eventual success he has found in the field of sport psychology, which some believed had happened overnight, had been a result of more than ten years of hard work taking small roles and continuing to do small jobs that led to larger and more prestigious ones. Symes (2014) outlined the reality that most sport psychologists will start in small roles rather than work with Olympic or international athletes and teams upon leaving their studies.
3. Recognise your own limits, but have the courage to expand them
The need for courage and taking appropriate risks in decision making and taking on opportunities when presented has been advocated by other established sports psychologists (Gordon, 2014; Murphy, 2014) and was echoed by participants. Many of the participants discussed how this need for courage and taking risks began from leaving their student career. Most participants commented on how unprepared they felt when they first started out as a psychologist. Bruce stated that “if anybody thinks they can walk out of a Masters fully competent, then their expectations are out of line with reality”. Alex commented, “I don’t think you ever feel completely prepared when you leave university”. Rebecca agreed that “There’s that sense of, shit I’m supposed to be ready to go out and be a psychologist now and you don’t feel ready for that”
Kate explained that “the ability to recognise your own limitations is critically important” to development as a sport psychologist. She advised that she felt that not having a masters in sport and exercise psychology was a “gap in marketing myself” when compared with those who do have the qualification. Also, she was aware that she had not received the same formal training as someone who had been through the sports psychology masters program. She outlined how she had filled this gap through her own self-directed learning.
“When I first started this journey and I knew I couldn’t do a masters in sport psych without leaving the state, I printed off the curriculums and I went to the library and I read every single text that is in there.”
Sam declared that she was constantly feeling like she was out of her comfort zone, or working in areas where she is not already proficient or skilled. She explained that if she had not pushed herself to expand her comfort zone then she never would have progressed to her current position. While she acknowledged that this meant taking on roles that she was uncomfortable in, it had also led to great feelings of pride in herself and a sense of achievement when she had succeeded. When success had eluded her, she had still taken lessons that had been put to good use later.
Bruce also made the point that sometimes courage wasn’t about moving but instead standing firm when being pushed in certain directions. He told stories of instances where he had had coaches and management making requests of him that he considered as unethical, such as disclosing the general nature of interactions with clients, which he would not accommodate. His decisions to stay true to his, and psychology’s, ethical standards had meant risking lucrative contracts and in turn, threatened his ability to keep his own home. He made the point that he would find it easy to understand how a psychologist may feel the pressure to comply, but that the courage to stand firm was part of the integrity he felt was essential to his role as a sport psychologist. In the end, he also felt that standing up for the integrity of his position and protecting his clients had actually improved his personal standing with those in power, and eventually led to an improved relationship with them.
4. Know your stuff and how to communicate it
David felt that when working with an athlete or team a good sports psychologist needs to have “enough range of techniques and theoretical positions to provide them with something that’s likely to work in their environment.” Among the participants, various theoretical models and therapies were mentioned as having being used with their clients. These included cognitive, behavioural, cognitive behavioural, narrative therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, appreciative enquiry, existentialism and psychoanalytic therapies. Many of the participants described being happy to use combinations of these or to alternate between them depending on the client and situational circumstances.
The viability of so many models or therapies being successfully implemented in sport psychology is best explained by Peter who stated that the theoretical orientation is not that important when it came to working successfully with clients. Instead, he felt the most successful psychologists were those “psychologists who have strong commitments to their beliefs”. This strong belief allowed these psychologists to present their potential solutions to clients in a confident and simplified manner that created a belief in the client that the psychologist had a solution that would work for their issue. The shared belief created between the psychologist and client then creates a strong working alliance that can lead to successful work together.
Nevertheless, Peter did offer a word of warning about promises. “I think people who progress are the people that do what they say they can do. Don’t promise too much and not live up to the standard. Don’t promise something and then don’t do it.”
5. Be a good psychologist first
According to Bruce, one of the most important tasks, for any aspiring sport psychologist is to be a good psychologist first:
“Be a really good psychologist first because no matter what you think in your heart what you want to do as far as in the performance area, you have to be a good general psych, number one. Everything gets added on top of that.”
Alex explained that sport psychologists need to be a good general psychologist first due to what he called the “grey area” between on-field and off-field issues for athletes. As she stated “There’s sport psych over here. There’s clinical psych or off-field stuff over there. Then you realize that there are no neat boxes. Nothing sits. You realize there’s this real grey area in between.” Participants stressed that the athletes they work with are also normal people and therefore are prone to the same issues as the general public. Kate nominated depression, anxiety, drugs and alcohol as being among the most common issues she deals with working with her clients. The major difference nominated between their clients and the general public was the potential for media coverage and a lack of privacy in dealing with their issues.
As discussed in the literature review, some sports psychologists prefer to deal solely with clients experiencing performance issues and tend to refer on clients who present with clinical issues that do not fall under the performance enhancement umbrella. However, the participants in the current study felt, as Alex described, that clinical issues do affect performance and thus are a domain for sports psychologists to work within.
6. Understanding the role of a sport psychologist
When discussing the role of a sport psychologist, either as a private practitioner or as an employee within a professional organisation such as a state or national institute, participants chose to focus on providing what they believed to be a realistic picture of the role. Much of the advice provided centred on reducing idealistic expectations of the role or offering warnings of potentially difficult and dangerous situations that may arise in the role.
Think of it as a hobby, at least at first
Participants agreed that even though a few of them were working full-time in sport psychology this was not the normal situation for those in the field. They acknowledged that the more common situation is that a sport psychologist is working part-time or even full-time in another role to pay their bills, and then working as a sport psychologist on top of this. Rebecca recalled discussions early in their careers amongst her cohort at university where “for a while there we thought maybe we just accept that it’s a hobby and it’s something that we do because we’re passionate about it.”
According to participants, finding full-time work in sport psychology was a rarity, particularly beyond work in state or national institute positions, and that the money offered was not comparable with working in roles typically occupied by psychologists such as in counselling, assessment, rehabilitation or health care based positions. As Sam stated “you’re going to get paid shithouse money, like, ridiculously crappy money. But I don’t think, if you’re driven by money, sports psychology is probably not the choice you’d be making anyway.”
David stated that “the reality of private practice in sport psychology is that it’s small bikkies so I reinvented myself as a counselling psychologist.” He also described how the income that does come in can be fluctuating and volatile due to circumstances outside the psychologist’s control. “All of my base stability and security comes from counselling psychology. I indulge myself in sport”.
Bruce described this sporadic nature of income in sports and reflected that it does not provide enough of a stable base of income for many to continue in sport psychology. He reasoned that “you to have a high tolerance for the whole burn and bust and I would totally understand if somebody decided to go somewhere where it was more lucrative.” The thoughts of the participants mirror the advice from other sport psychologists around the world who advocated the need to work in other fields alongside work in sport psychology, and that work can be erratic both in volume and financial rewards (Hemmings, 2014; Weinberg, 2014).
Even those participants who were working full-time in sport psychology acknowledged that this is rarely completed with just one role or team. As Rebecca described, often sports psychologists will be working a “patchwork of roles that you accumulate over time” with a number of different athletes, teams or organisations to be working the equivalent of full-time hours or income. She gave the example of working part-time roles with a cricket club, a football club and an individual athlete to equate to one full-time role. Kate and Sam were keen to point out that getting to the point of full-time paid workload will most often come only after spending years of doing voluntary or underpaid work just to gain exposure, experience and credibility. But like all participants, they agreed that if you are looking to work in a field that offers a large pay packet, then sports psychology is not the right profession to pursue. Sam highlighted that the rewards in the field are often not measured by money, but instead involve more intrinsic motivations:
[If] you’re driven by the fact that, that you can go into a training session, and you can see how that is building towards an Olympic medal, that’s what’s going to drive you. It doesn’t matter. If you’re up at 5:00, who cares? I think that people don’t understand that element of it.
The politics and culture of sport, and where the sport psychologist sits
When it came to potential areas that can influence a sport psychologist’s effectiveness that they were not taught during university, participants nominated the politics and cultures within sporting organisations and teams as a key piece of their education. David mused, “…working into organisations and red tape and financial structuring has been the biggest learning curve. Working with an athlete, I can do that. Getting the environment around the athlete to accommodate? That is sometimes hard.” Alex agreed, stating “One thing you probably use more in sport psych is understanding the club or the sporting culture, and then understanding the individual and how the individual fits within that.”
Participants explained that understanding the politics and culture within the sport could influence not only their client but also the level of commitment and involvement they got from clients, funding support, time available with clients and even whether they retained their positions irrespective of their job performance. Peter and Bruce both told stories where their positions were affected by politics of those in power and around them, and through nothing to do with their work with athletes.
All the participants believed that the most important political ally for a sport psychologist is the coach. As Kate put it: “If the coach isn’t the one bringing in the sport psychology, then you’re pushing it uphill”. Alex also advocated understanding coaching, and being able to empathise with the pressures of their role was important. Working alongside them as a trusted ally, but he warned of the need to remain a psychologist throughout:
What are the …pieces of advice [I] would give? Don’t try and be a coach! I’ve heard some stories where sport psych either operates as a satellite, quite different from everything else or give advice that is counter to what your coach might be suggesting. You might as well plait your own noose, I think if you do that.
Previously Cox (2014) had stated that in his opinion the most important lesson he had learnt as a sport psychologist had “been to work with and report to the head coach at every opportunity” (p62) as it was often they who hired the sport psychologist, and they who’s head was on the block if things went wrong. The advice from the current participants agreed with Cox’s advice and reasoning.
But the coach is not the only part of a support team, particularly in professional teams and institutes. As Sam stressed a sport psychologist needs to have a level of humility and understanding of their level of importance among the support staff for athletes. As she stated the coach is top of the hierarchical tree, but the sport psychologist was no more important than any other support staff member and should act accordingly. Peter made the point that having a strong relationship with the support staff could actually help service delivery as these staff often provided insights to issues athletes may be facing. Bruce advised that at times the sport psychologist may spend as much time working with the support staff as with the athletes, particularly by acting as a “sounding board” for them and being “the steady person who just helps guide everybody through.”
Bruce warned about remembering that while a sport psychologist may be part of the support and coaching team, not all staff work with the same expectations. He explained that the sport psychologist is held to a higher standard of behaviour and always needs to be mindful of maintaining professional relationships with other staff and athletes. This is in contrast to other support staff such as physiotherapists, trainers, and strength and conditioning staff who can be free to move between professional and social roles, including activities such as parties and drinking, with coaches and athletes. As a sport psychologist, a social role is “not a role that is available to us because we’re expected, if shit goes down, to be on the ball. In a crisis, they turn to us.”
Professional practice and managing a business in sport psychology
Participants were specifically asked what they had learnt through their sport psychology careers that was not covered in their university training. Previously running a business in psychology, including the accompanying legal and administration challenges, has been identified as required learning that is not covered in an undergraduate or postgraduate psychology course (Weinberg, 2014), participants in the current study agreed. They felt that aside from the aforementioned political and cultural issues in sport, there was a perceived deficit of teaching on how to deliver a professional service and various aspects of managing a business in sport psychology. Peter stated that most students learn how to be a psychologist in a one to one setting at university, which meant working in an institute job was a comfortable transition. But for those who moved into private practice, there was a lot to still learn that university did not prepare them for.
Sam was passionate about the importance of learning to understand how to operate a business within sports psychology. Reflecting on post-graduate training for sport psychologists, he commented that the absence of this information is “a big problem in the programs”. He identified that many people who are attracted to psychology may not be business-minded, and questioned how realistic their beliefs were on exiting university:
“[If] you leave the Master’s, and you think, “Oh, I’m going to have this massive client base, because I’ve got a Master’s.” Why? What’s your brand? What’s your personal brand? What’s your business brand? What’s your philosophy? You’ve got to think [about] all that. . . . Why would they choose you?“
Sam stated that running a business required a different skillset from those of a psychologist, and as such those wanting to have a private practice will need to upskill in this area. For herself, she advised that this was a major reason why she sought out mentors from business along with those from psychology.
Understand your legal and ethical requirements, and the systems you’re working in
To remain practicing in Australia, psychologists must ensure they meet all their ongoing legal and professional requirements. Participants in the study remarked that this can at times be a tedious process, but understanding and adhering to them is essential to a successful practice. Bruce made the point that contracts can be a potential trap for psychologists when working with organisations. As he explained many hiring organisations have a standard provision of service contract to sign for employees or contractors. Regardless, it is up to the psychologist to check that any contract offered met APS standards, such as the code of ethics, at the same time. He also told of how he ensures that his contracts guarantee he retains all of the intellectual property from a job, and that he retains ownership and control of his own case notes rather than them becoming the property of the employer.
Participants also felt that psychologists need to understand the different potential systems they may work in, whether they are part of a sport psychology role or not. They stressed that understanding the Medicare system was essential, but also nominated systems including workers compensation, private health insurance and the terms of any legal or employee assistance program.
Ethics is a core subject for any APS approved psychology course in Australia, but participants felt that the application of ethics in the real world was something that could only be learnt in the workplace. In particular, they described the pressure that can be put onto a sport psychologist in various settings. Kate stated that psychologists need to be “really clear about ethics. Not because I necessarily agreed with all of them, but you’ve got to be aware of them.”
The importance of networking
Many of the participants talked about how important networking was to their careers and practice. Participants were quick to point out that establishing and maintaining referral networks is a reciprocal process where all involved derive some form of benefit. Bruce made the point that if a sport psychologist is not willing to share their own time or knowledge, but instead just wants information or assistance then it’s not a network but a commercial arrangement. His opinion was that if it’s a commercial arrangement, then pay for it.
Also, they stressed that the networks they are part of are not restricted to other psychologists. As mentioned the need for business skills has led Sam, and others to seek out business networks. Sam stated that she would seek out the ‘right people’ in whatever field she was interested in and seek to form a relationship with them. She felt that this helped her continue to grow as a psychologist and service provider, but also helped in gaining contacts that may provide benefits later on.
Kate and Alex agreed that having the self-awareness to know your limitations, coupled with the humbleness and courage to find the right person and ask for help, was an important personal skill for a sport psychologist but also a starter to creating good networks. Sam, Kate and Alex all stressed that sooner is definitely better than later when it comes to establishing networks and relationships within the sport. Each advocated volunteering with teams, or at university whenever possible to begin building relationships. Rebecca felt that often students are told to work on networking, but not told how. She advised that for her she takes a systematic process, keeping a spreadsheet to accumulate contacts and remembering that “networking is by definition . . . ‘friends for a specific purpose’. You stay in touch with people with a specific reason.”
Bruce likened the process of building networks to that of building a village, full of what he described as wise owls. These wise owls are the colleagues that he can refer clients to when needed, that he can discuss issues with and that he can use as sounding boards. Bruce said that for him, his networks not only provided information and opportunities but also helped in his self-care through knowing he is not alone and has his own support network around him.
The importance of networking and the effects that it can have on a psychologists’ practice are in line with guidance from others. Moran (2014) previously described how he had used his contact networks to assemble an effective support team quickly when working on a large project. Gordon (2014) suggested that sport psychologists should “earn a reputation for sharing [their] stuff” (p72) which he feels includes their knowledge, time and resources Bruce’s concept that his networks help protect from the loneliness of the role is a view shared with previous advice from overseas (Hemmings, 2014; Murphy, 2014).
When it came to finding work as a sport psychologist participants agreed that networks were the best way. As Sam advised, “sport doesn’t advertise, it’s more who you know.” Aside from networking most felt that a sport psychologist should focus firstly on doing the best job they can in their role and that they will then gain a reputation that in turn will lead to more work being offered. As Alex put it “if you demonstrate good work, it speaks for itself.”
But participants disagreed on whether good work spoke for itself completely or whether it needed some form of help in the form of self-promotion or marketing. Bruce and Alex were of the opinion that good work alone will bring more work to the psychologist. Alex described how he had come to hold his current position due to being recommended for the position by previous clients and then being invited to apply for it without the job ever being externally advertised. Bruce said he did not have business cards for many years, and that a colleague had eventually bought them for him. He also advised that he does not have a live website, as he had never needed to advertise for work and that clients had found him without one.
The other participants agreed that sport psychologists need to do good work to continue to get more, but did not believe that the work would come without some form of advertisement or marketing. David advised that in sport “you really have to work hard to let people know that you’re out there and that you’re any good at it.” While Bruce did not believe in the value of having a website David, Kate and Sam disagreed. Instead, they agreed with Weinberg’s (2014) advice for aspiring sport psychologists that building a website was essential and that one of the toughest parts of the role was getting the word out about the good work you are doing. Each of them felt that their website was a strong source of referral to their businesses.
Rebecca had strong objections to the notion of good work being enough:
I get frustrated when I hear some people just talk about ‘do good work, and if you do good work success will come’. I just don’t think that’s the case. There’s no point in doing good work if no one knows about it.
She made the point that being “the best psychologist in the world” possible was irrelevant if you cannot find clients in the first place. In her opinion marketing and advertising would be worthwhile subject additions to university studies, or for aspiring psychologists to develop as soon as they can post studies.
Comparisons with Rønnestad and Skovholt’s ‘experienced professional’
Rønnestad and Skovholt’s (2003) experienced professional phase in a therapists’ development is characterised by a movement towards a professional role that is increasingly congruent with their own self-perceptions (including values, interests and attitudes). They understand the therapeutic relationship to be crucial to their work. Experienced professionals learn primarily through reflecting on their own experiences, both professional and personal, rather than through formal processes. For some, they may also internally consult with previously influential mentors or supervisors on how they may have dealt with the current issue or situation, and how best to proceed.
Professional and personal self converge
Participants’ experiences are in keeping with Rønnestad and Skovholt’s (2003) concepts of professional and personal congruence, increased confidence in ability, and flexibility in practice. Each of the participants was quick to acknowledge that their confidence in their own abilities was superior now to when they left university. Each reported having made a choice to work in sport psychology, often potentially to their financial detriment, which is driven by their interest and passion for the role. When describing how their professional practice had developed from their early days Kate described it as being a journey. Sam reflected on how young psychologists are presented with “a whole heap of different mixed opinions” and that in the end practitioners need to find what style of practice works for them.
Determining the style of practice to which they were best suited took different forms for different participants. Kate explained that individual jobs brought different specific learnings that had ultimately increased her self-confidence. Sam talked about integrating more of her natural language, including swearing, over the use of formal and technical language as being a small example of her merging herself in her professional role. Peter talked about finding a model of therapy to use as a base because it “fits with my philosophy, so it’s a good match.” Alex made the point that there are still times of uncertainty, but that these have decreased in regularity as he has become more experienced and the confidence he has in his own ability has increased.
Participants also talked about how their practice had changed over time because they had begun allowing themselves to be more flexible in their use of different techniques. David commented, “if you’re too tightly defined, then you’re trying to fit the athlete into your knowledge base rather than having a knowledge base that they can be laid out to accommodate this particular athlete.”
Kate discussed the use of stories and self-disclosure with her athletes as something that she had developed and had gradually become more comfortable with. She acknowledged that this may not always be advocated by all and that “the laws of the APS or the rules and the ethics states the things that you must apply, but sometimes, you need to tell a story. Sometimes you need to reflect on something for someone”. She stated that this learning had greatly improved her ability to relate to her clients and improve her practice.
Relationship is everything
Participants agreed with the beliefs of previous sports psychologists (Andersen, 2014; Hemmings, 2014; Petitpas, 2014; Smith, 2014) in valuing the therapeutic relationship between a therapist and their client as crucial to doing good work with their athletes and teams.
“Relationship is everything, everything” Bruce stressed, “to learn [dialectic behaviour therapy], [acceptance commitment therapy] et cetera. That’s not hard. Actually learning to be really present with that person in a way that works for them, that’s really hard.” Peter agreed “there has to be something about the relationship. You got to build your relationship to be effective in the one to oneself.” Kate added a note of caution to how the relationship needs to develop and that “the ability to not overly, personally connect, but to have enough personal connection that people will expose themselves to you” was a balancing act that set the successful psychologist apart from the unsuccessful one. Sam stated that relationships are equally important when dealing with teams or organisations as they are when working with individual athletes. Alex relayed his personal learning experience about the importance of relationships and captured the feelings of most of the other participants when he said:
One of my lecturers at university was an outstanding clinician, I think, and a very inspirational teacher. He used to say to us all the time, it was his mantra, “It’s the relationship that heals, the relationship that heals, the relationship that heals.” He said, “People need concrete strategies. You need fancy bits and pieces. You need all that stuff too, but if you don’t have the relationship first, the rest of it is pointless.
Learning from clients and experiences
When participants were asked about how they managed their learning since leaving university, three main areas were nominated: learning from athletes and experiences, ongoing supervision, and self-directed learning. Each acknowledged that there was constant learning in the role and that leaving university just meant learning was less formal.
Kate described how one of her most pivotal learning moments came through her work with an athlete who was depressed and suicidal. She explained that the signs were extremely well hidden and that they were having a chat one day when one particular question unlocked something for the athlete that had him “melt-down” with her. She arranged clinical care for him but later was contacted by a teammate who had found the athlete readying himself to suicide. She later discovered that he hadn’t been attending the clinical appointments that she had arranged for him.
Bruce shared his philosophy on clients as teachers when he stated “I’ve always taken the stance that the athlete is the expert of their sport… you have to allow the athlete and the coach to remain the experts of that area regardless of what your prior knowledge is.” Learning from experiences with clients support reflections from Moran (2014) and Hemmings (2014) who acknowledged how different clients had challenged them, and offered insights on issues that they as practitioners were then able to share with other clients.
Four of the participants directly credited ongoing supervision as vital to their ongoing practice and learning. Bruce described it as “crucial” and Peter added that he believed that “the supervision gives you an opportunity if it’s done well to really get a third-person perspective on yourself then to maybe ask some questions you couldn’t normally ask.” Kate and Alex both stated they continue with regular paid sport psychology supervision, in addition to that required to maintain general psychology registration, due to seeing large benefits to their ongoing work with clients.
When it came to learning beyond experience and supervision participants offered a variety of methods and topics of interest. Each acknowledged the professional requirements attached to maintaining ongoing registration as a psychologist and confirmed that they met these as required. But participants also described how more often they were driven to further their knowledge because of personal interests or requirements for current roles. Some of the different methods used by participants included reading research papers and books, attending professional development opportunities in other, related fields like medicine or business, working with industry experts in other fields and using online materials such as TED talks. Sam captured the overall feel when she remarked that “I don’t mind the psych [professional development], but I like the other stuff as well because that’s more of the space I sit in now.”
Referencing previous mentors
Unlike Andersen (2014), who stated he has “the voice of my mentors in my head, and I consult with them all the time”, none of the participants made any specific reference to internally consulting with previous mentors or supervisors in the way suggested by Rønnestad and Skovholt (2003). But just as others had previously (Gordon, 2014; Hodge, 2014; Murphy, 2014) each of them recognized the profound effect mentors and supervisors had had on their careers. Some participants spoke of particular teachers that had provided them with sage advice, or direct encouragement that had helped give them the confidence to undertake their current journey. Many participants were able to cite specific ideas or observations that they had come to believe that were originally provided to them by a teacher, such as Bruce and Alex’s beliefs on the importance of relationships to therapy.
Aside from academic teachers, many participants were aware of and grateful for the influence of various people that they considered as mentors throughout their development. Sam and Kate both spoke glowingly of these mentors continuing to have a large influence on them even now that they were established in their field. These mentors are not always psychologists but had been managers at work roles, athletes, and business mentors from outside psychology. Rebecca described how mentors provided her with opportunities as well as guidance. She reasoned, without mentors “I may not have had an opportunity to work with teams, and . . . have got into a master’s program.”
Final Conclusions and Recommendations
Participants had varied advice for those aspiring to begin a career in sport psychology. As a group, they were passionate about their work and drew a great deal of satisfaction from it. The individual qualities of humility, patience, hard work, perseverance, intelligence, generosity and particularly self-awareness that were recommendations for successful sport psychology practice were on display throughout interviews.
Their stories provide insights into the experiences throughout their careers that have led to them being successful sports psychologists in Australia. They also reinforce how or why they came to believe the advice they’ve offered to anyone wanting to work in sports as a psychologist. Participants were enthusiastic about the opportunity to provide assistance to the next generation of sport psychologists in Australia. They were keen to provide an honest assessment of the role and the journey required.
Currently, there are 91 registered psychologists in Australia with sport and exercise psychology endorsement, there are 221 listed with a membership of the College of Sport and Exercise Psychology within the APS. The seven participants were not recruited based on the inclusion of either of these groups and as such the current study represents a small sample of available sports psychologists within Australia. As such any findings should be interpreted with caution
A potential blueprint for success in sport psychology in Australia
For those wishing to pursue a career in applied sport psychology in Australia the advice from participants was simple. Firstly be passionate about the role, second get involved and plan ahead early, and thirdly work hard at everything you do.
It is evident that those in the role currently are passionate about doing good work. For them, the work is the major reward derived, and money is not a driving factor. As many pointed out, sport psychology income is rarely comparable to the money offered in other roles that a psychologist may take up. Instead, sports psychologists get a huge reward from the success of clients. The best in the field are driven to constantly improve. They have a hunger for learning, about themselves, their athletes and anything else that may give them an edge to provide in service. In seeking knowledge they are not content to stay within the field of psychology, but search for contacts and knowledge where ever it may be.
‘Wannabe’ sports psychologists should be brave and generous by volunteering their time with sporting teams as soon as practicable. Getting into working with teams gives them the chance to learn and practice skills, but also develop understandings of team and organisational dynamics, and to create and maintain contact networks. Like developing athletes, developing sports psychologists can begin to understand better the road they have chosen and that missteps are a part of the journey.
Planning ahead potential sport psychologists may heed the advice offered and look at subjects at university, or other learning strategies and pathways, that develop the often lacking business skills needed to run and maintain a successful private practice. Above all else budding sport psychologists need to ensure that a strong work ethic, along with patience and resilience, is interwoven in all they do. The journey to success is not an easy one, nor is it a short one. Instead for most successful sport psychologists it is one that has been a long time coming and has involved many setbacks and roadblocks that have had to be negotiated, often repeatedly, along the way.
Rønnestad and Skovholt’s development model applied to sports psychologist development in Australia
The participants in the current study recounted stories of their current practice and journeys as sport psychologists that mirror the characteristics described in Rønnestad and Skovholt’s (2003) experienced professional stages of therapist development. These reflections add to previous studies conducted with neophyte sport psychologists in Australia covering the beginning student, advanced student, and novice professional phases (Tod et al., 2011; Tod et al., 2009; Tod et al., 2007) that indicate that Rønnestad and Skovholt’s (2003) therapist development model has application to lifelong sport psychologist development..
The experienced professionals have continued and extended the individuation process, present in the novice professional, to now fully integrate their personal-self with their professional role as a sport psychologist. Their increased flexibility and confidence allows for experienced professionals to draw upon previous experiences and alternate between difference therapy models and techniques to find solutions for clients that are individualised. Experienced professionals understand the overriding influence of the therapeutic relationship in achieving results, and are comfortable in using non-traditional boundaries of disclosure and practice settings in order to establish and maintain the relationship while still ensuring a professional relationship.
Learning has evolved from the directed formal process of university studies to being self-directive and reflective of their ongoing practice. Many have forgone set professional development, beyond those required to maintain registration, for more informal and interest-driven learning. The importance and influence of early mentors and teachers is acknowledged, with lessons learnt from them still recounted as the bedrock for their current beliefs and methods. But now experienced professionals have added their clients and experiences to their internal library of knowledge. They reflect upon previous experiences and allow client’s learnings and teachings to re-emerge in their practice as advice for current clients. Supervision is acknowledged as not only a legal requirement, but an ongoing beneficial process.
Limitations of the current study, and recommendations for further research
Offering the interview guide to participants provided participants with the opportunity to become acquainted with the questions, and prepare answers prior to their interview. This pre-preparation may have allowed for some participants to rehearse and edit their replies. This has the potential for participants to be more guarded in their responses, and for spontaneous answers and reactions to be minimised. Many participants however were appreciative of this opportunity, and a number remarked how this had given them time to think about the topics to be discussed and reflect on their experiences in a deeper more meaningful way than may have been possible without preparation.
As with any study involving self-disclosure, there is always the potential for participants to provide socially desirable, or biased responses. While there is no way to determine how candid participants were, attempts were made to establish a trusting relationship with participants prior to their interviews.
Replication of the current study would be advisable for both main aims. Given the potential for differing pathways within the sport psychologist profession, further research with established sport psychologists would likely provide even more general advice and guidance for those aspiring to follow in their footsteps. Further studies would also be beneficial involving psychologists who would be considered experienced professionals, to confirm the findings of the current study. Further studies with those in the senior professional development phase would be beneficial to complete comparisons with all six phases of Rønnestad and Skovholt’s (2003) model.
As noted in the literature review, currently there is just one university offering a postgraduate program for sport and exercise psychology in Australia. As such an investigation into the value of taking a sport psychology postgraduate pathway against other available pathways may provide insights for peak bodies such as the APS and COSEP for future development of sport psychologists.
Recommendations for Governing Bodies
Much of the advice provided focusses on the individual and their pathway to a career in sport psychology. The development of individual characteristics and understanding the role of a sport psychologist are personal journeys for each psychologist. The finding that business and marketing skills are recommended learning for those aspiring to work in private practice, whether as a generalist or sport psychologist, though is an area that can be assisted.
Training in business skills is not part of most university training and offers an area for improvement for peak bodies such as the APS and universities. Participants acknowledged that some courses are provided on running a business in psychology by the APS each year. Nevertheless, they also identified that there were not many of these courses, particularly when compared to the potential number of graduates from university courses each year. Furthermore, they noted that the cost of these courses could be considered as prohibitive to recently graduated students with large academic levels of debt. On top of that these graduates are only just starting out in the working environment and required to pay for professional registration, insurances, and other business or employment start-up costs all before they have had an opportunity to find, let alone receive payment from, a client.
Based on these findings, including business and marketing courses within psychology degrees or making them available as electives for students may help minimise the amount of learning required after graduation. While core subjects need to be maintained to ensure compliance with APS requirements, including and encouraging these as electives may reduce the learning curve faced by many psychology graduates. From a timing point, it would be most effective for these courses to be made available within postgraduate studies, as students within these programs are graduating with full registration rather than undergraduate study where a further two years of the internship is required for registration. It is recommended that the APS provide more targeted training within these areas, particularly for new graduates. These courses could be conducted in sections or topics which allows for pricing per section and for psychologists to enrol in sections as needed or as financially viable. Another option may be to include options for paying over time be available for courses.
The participants’ final thoughts on becoming a sport psychologist
There are a variety of experiences within the sport psychology profession that this study has explored, and it is understandable that different practitioners will react in different ways to some of the challenges described. The breadth of this reaction is best illustrated by the contrast in the final word from Rebecca and Sam. When asked if she would recommend entering into a career in sport psychology in Australia, Rebecca seemed torn:
There’s a real sense of ‘I don’t know whether this journey’s been worthwhile’ and I think people need to hear that. . . . that doesn’t mean that I’m not passionate about what I do. I’m really passionate about the profession [but] I’m concerned about the direction it is heading and I think the role in our profession is under real threat, I really do.
Rebecca’s statements reflect the uncertainties of the profession that were described by all participants at various stages throughout the research. In contrast, Sam’s summary of her experiences reflected the moments of joy and inspiration that each participant credited, in one form or another, for keeping them in the industry.
I think it’s one of the best industries to possibly work in. There’s not a more attractive industry for me, and I think [you are] going to meet some of the . . . most inspiring people you’re ever, ever, going to meet.
Sam and Rebecca’s final comments highlight the passion that undeniably exists within the participants in the current study. Rebecca’s questioning though reminds us that passion alone is often not enough for a successful and fulfilling career.
Training programs in psychology focus primarily on the one to one interaction with a client and ask the developing therapist to regularly reflect upon whose needs are being met throughout the interactions. The take-home message is that the client’s needs must come first. The current study agrees that this is, and should be, the case. It supports the importance of developing as an individual and becoming the best psychologist you can be, as emphasised through formal training in Australia.
Importantly it extends beyond the formal education years and begins to address the potential issue, that if the psychologist’s needs are not being met then this will ultimately affect their ability to meet the needs of their client. Arguably one of the most important needs of any psychologist is to have regular work that provides an income capable of sustaining them. This involves finding work, doing good work, and avoiding potential pitfalls.
The advice is from those actually doing the work, rather than from academics whose livelihood is not reliant on their practical skills with clients. At the same time it provides practical advice on surviving and thriving in an applied practice. It presents a realistic picture of the working life of an applied sport psychologist in Australia. As participants reported, this is often missing from formal courses and something that any potential sport psychologist should know as early as possible if they want to get off the bench and onto the field of play.
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