Rebranding sport and exercise psychology for the 21st century
Reflecting on my professional career to date I have always been very interested in how we as a profession are perceived by the ‘real world’ and potential clients. There are broader questions that emerge about what constitutes a profession, but they are beyond the scope of this month’s blog.
So back to the main topic, I have become increasingly interested in the breadth of our specialism / interest. The UK government register for practitioners (HCPC) refers to registered Sport and Exercise Psychologists. The British Psychological Society’s relevant Division is titled ‘Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology’, and run qualifications in ‘sport and exercise psychology’. Finally, most Universities employ lecturers in sport and exercise psychology, and it is this link with and historical emergence from academia in the UK that might be part of the problem.
In my experience no-one in the real world is looking for a sport and exercise psychologist, they are predominantly looking for a sport psychologist, or possibly an exercise psychologist – but not someone who can cover both, indeed there are question marks over whether you can truly be a sport and exercise psychologist, in my experience practitioners are one or the other. At this point it is important to highlight a distinction, which might be in part how we have ended up where we are. In University academic and researcher terms it is very possible to focus on, and be an expert in the field of sport and exercise psychology. Theories of motivation for example can easily be applied across both domains. This is not the same though as being an applied practitioner whose expertise lies in the context specific application of psychological theory and evidence-based approaches to practice. Historically many of the key decision-makers who shaped the development of the profession were from a University background, a place where the linking of these two domains makes sense, but often in the ‘real world’ it simply does not. Even the terminology used as part of our profession can be questioned. For example, eminent expert Professor Nanette Mutrie when presenting at the BPS Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology conference in 2016 suggested we should be talking about the psychology of physical activity – not exercise.
I am increasingly of the view that the profession is in need of a re-brand, though again reflecting on my career to date I think there was never an original ‘branding’ exercise undertaken. It reflects poorly on a profession when its clients do not know who the qualified professionals are and the job (and services) they offer. Maybe part of the crisis is born out of the combining of two very different parts of the psychology spectrum: sport and exercise. Yes, there are numerous similarities, but then there are similarities between other domains of psychology. In terms of the profession-focused service delivery aspect of our discipline maybe it is time to rethink what we call ourselves, how we are perceived by the public, and how we coherently and consistently communicate what we do. Maybe sport and exercise psychology in the 21st Century is in need of a rebrand!