Sport psychologists – are they all the same?
Following a conversation with the Head of Science and Medicine at a professional sports club last week I have been considering whether sport psychology is all the same, and as a result whether some practitioners are better suited to some environments over others. This emerged following the conversation I mentioned previously. The Head of Science and Medicine contacted me for a recommendation for a consultant to work with some of the clubs first team professional players. It transpired that the club already had a sport psychologist working with them, but this was at the Academy level and the view was that this consultant might not be the right person (with the right skills) to work with the elite players.
So this started me wondering, is this an erroneous assumption or is there some truth to it? If it is baseless there are many excellent consultants out there who are being denied the opportunity to be impactful at a higher level due to decision-maker bias. I can think of a number of excellent consultants I know who have been in this position at professional clubs. So the question remains is it a baseless bias?
Part of the problem might be the perception of consultants based upon the roles that they fulfil. Generally at an Academy/junior level the emphasis is on development. That is developing the athlete as a person, developing socially, developing psychologically, and developing key mental skills. As a result there is an educational focus often with group development sessions. This focus is further reinforced in the UK with the provision of National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) as part of the Academy structure (e.g., NVQ Achieving Excellence in Sports Performance). All of which can lead to there being a perception of the consultant being ‘like a teacher’. There is also a greater ‘power’ imbalance between the athlete (usually in their early to mid teens) and the consultant, which makes it easier to tell the athlete what they should be doing.
Contrast this with what the elite performance groups are looking for from a sport psychologist, and the requirements can appear quite different. At the elite level there is generally a focus on results, and the clubs are looking for solution-focused consultants who can help ‘fix’ athletes, and maximise performance under pressure. So, to the Coach, Manager, Director or Head of service it might appear that the two jobs are significantly different.
We know the answer is that the roles are different but build upon the same knowledge and skill base. While I am sure there are some consultants who are more comfortable at one level that another generally speaking consultants have the knowledge and skills to perform both roles. So maybe we need to do a better job as a profession to ensure our clients understand the diversity of applications for our skills to ensure that good competent practitioners working in Academies and with Developmental groups get the opportunities to work with the elite groups in clubs as well.
The potential benefits to the club are significant, not least having a psychology strand that runs all the way up through the club. Also working with the elite groups can also trickle down to further inform the preparation of the next generation.