This may seem a bizarre and controversial statement for someone who has studied sports psychology to make but I am continually faced with the same procedural issues when dealing with athletes. Let us clear up some misconceptions with respect to psychology and how it improves performance within the athletic field.
It is not magical, those who utilise it do not have, some quasi spiritual insight ; it is, at its most effective, the application of “common sense” procedures based on counselling.
By definition it requires the individual to accept their frailties in order to improve.
Although every intervention will be SUBTLY tailored to the individual’s need, this is a one size fits all programme. The skill in producing plans and interventions that “hang on the hooks inside an individuals head”.
Athletes look to sports psychologists to produce an intervention, which will allow clarity of thought and action, we can do this. However, the way that we will do this will require the athlete to identify and accept their failings and rather than magically remove these frailties they will learn to manipulate their performance to reduce the negative effect. This is a vital distinction, a psychologist will never remove the natural traits that an individual exhibits rather minimise the effects that these traits have on performance or change the mode of performance so that these negative traits no longer affect performance. This means the rarely will a psychologist cause the “epiphany” that the athlete is looking for rather a gradual imperceptible change to a more functioning performance.
I have worked with many individuals, and teams, who do not wish to face their shortcomings. I worked with one professional football team where I was not allowed to discuss any form of failure as this was seen to promote the idea that failing was alright. Failing is alright, failing is how we learn. Whether we learn or not from our failures depends upon how damaged our self esteem and or self efficacy is by an event. It is important at this juncture to define these two terms: Self esteem is how an individual feels about themselves; self efficacy is how able an individual feels that they are to perform a certain task. A performance psychologist is more interested in self efficacy, as this can be directly manipulated with respect to a specific scenario, this is what drives the level of self esteem with respect to a performance outcome. To this end the level to which an individual is comfortable to risk failure and learn from it is a key aspect to how they will perform.
The skill of a psychologist is based in their ability to see which of the many tools, they have available to them, are going to best suit their client. This has even been termed within the literature as the Psychological Skills Toolbox. This slightly quaint idea is often over looked by zealous psychologists who believe imagery or goal setting are the ways forwards for all athletes, at the expense of counselling and other techniques which require the practitioner to actually listen to the needs of the performer. It is vital that a psychologist takes some time to listen to the athlete and see the areas in which self esteem and self efficacy may be improved and choose suitable methods to do this. However, rather like the general practitioner (Doctor) sitting in their office, for whom, there are few surprises very few unique cases come through a psychologists door and so a procedural approach may be used but requires enough tailoring to appeal to and work for the client.
To this end, the self-help style, literature that abounds is of little, practical, use to the individual and does nothing more than muddy the waters bringing psychological interventions a bad name. It is possible, though unlikely, that a broad based piece of literature will have useful effect on a wide number of individuals. Rather a procedural use of treatment based upon the symptoms of the individual will be used, this treatment will be tailored to the needs and understanding of the athlete by a skilled practitioner.
So back to my initial question of how a sports psychologist can work for you is still valid because to be effective the relationship between client and psychologist needs to be empathetic. Sports psychology can bring great positive changes to performance and be an invaluable aid to lead to greater understanding of the athletes self efficacy and esteem. But to do this the relationship must be more personalised than an article in a magazine, or a seminar with 30 people in it. It must be a relationship which is tailored and balanced with respect and understanding on both sides, with a willingness for the practitioner to listen and work for their money, and the athlete to face sometimes unpalatable truths about their own methods, performance and ability. In many ways this is a more personal connection than that between coach and athlete and so I repeat:
“Do not ask what your psychologist can do for you, ask what you can do together.”