Watching the Abu Dhabi grand prix yesterday, there was an interesting discussion in which the commentators suggested that the engineers also need to be psychologists as well working with the drivers in the race. I thought this was a very interesting and relevant point, and it then started me thinking about what a sport psychologist should actually be doing when working with teams and individuals.
In the UK now the coach education process is very comprehensive, coaches are well versed in both the importance and application of mental skills. Coaches’ are also very good at manipulating the environment to apply more pressure to their athletes. So, if all this is already covered what should the sport psychology consultant focus on?
The answer, in my opinion, is psychology at a deeper level. It is true that to some extent everyone is a psychologist because psychology is about understanding people. You would be a pretty poor coach if you were not able to relate to your athletes and to understand the challenges that they face when competing. Often coaches are ex-athletes, or have a good track record in working with their athletes, and as such have experience in developing mental skills to cope with the demands of competition. This expertise presents a challenge to the sport psychology consultant. If you think you can turn up, teach a few imagery and relaxation skills, and be considered to be a great practitioner, you could well be disappointed.
Increasingly the other staff in teams, or on programmes look at the sport psychologist and legitimately ask the question “what do you do”? What the sport psychologist does should be similar to the role of the strength and conditioning practitioner (S&C). The coaches have a good understanding of the physical development of performers, but recognise that the S&C practitioner has greater knowledge and experience. This ‘respect’ is not automatic though, it is based upon the S&C’s performance. In the same way the sport psychologist will gain respect based upon the job that they do. This should take place with the individual athletes, the team, with the coaches, and in designing the environment.
In many cases it is not about telling the athlete, coach or manager what to do, but in working with them and asking the right questions. Coaches are good at developing mental skills, so why not look to further develop the coaches’ ability to do this. Then, if the coach is helping to develop the athletes’ mental skills the psychologist can look to focus more on other psychological aspects of performance. This might relate to overall psychological health and robustness, or to other important psychological aspects of performance including confidence, resilience and decision-making. This should involve understanding the athlete in greater detail, including their psychological preferences and traits (such as perfectionism, obsessive-compulsive, sensation/risk-taking etc).
It is important for the psychologist to help the managers and coaches to build the right environment where there is greater clarity regarding the requirements of each task. For example, if the session is focused on developing decision-making skills the tasks need to be as realistic as possible. Where as, if it is skill development the representative nature of the task is less important, but clarity is key. So, the sport psychologist needs to have aspects of occupational psychology, clinical psychology, counselling psychology, developmental psychology, and educational psychology in their practice (amongst others).
So what should the psychologist do, well it is probably easier to say what the psychologist should be – an expert is psychology whose knowledge and expertise in psychology goes beyond that of the other practitioners and is applied specifically to sport. The application of psychological research and theory in sporting environments is the core of our practice, and is what differentiates us from the psychologist in everyone. But, we need to make sure that this is all communicated in user-friendly language. This way we can support the engineers to be more effect ‘psychologists’ to the F1 drivers instead of thinking that we should be on the radio talking to the driver instead.