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Theory led or innovation driven practice?

Having attended the ‘Sport and Exercise psychology in action’ 1-day conference in Portsmouth, UK yesterday there was an interesting question that formed in my mind.  Should applied sport psychologists be driven by existing theory and research, or should they be innovative and creative in trying to find new original solutions to the problems that they are presented with?

The academic sport psychology community is very clear that applied practice should be very clearly underpinned by evidence. The notion of ‘evidence-based practice’ is central to this idea. Adopting this approach the consultant will look to ensure that there is a strong literature base to the interventions that they implement. This approach has also given rise to the researcher-consultant who seeks to conduct the research and then apply the knowledge that emerges from this research.

However, contrasting this approach are the applied practitioners who do not have a foot in the academic world. For them they seek to find solutions to applied problems that work. These consultants are happy to try different approaches with the fundamental aim being one of finding something that works. This type of practitioner is happy to ‘think outside the box’ in order to find a solution.

Indeed, often for the full-time applied consultant the sport psychology literature does not offer the solutions that they require. The area of teams is a casing point. The existing sport psychology literature that focuses on teams in relatively simplistic and does not really offer many of the answers for practitioners working in complex team environments.

The literature in the discipline is also part of the problem. While a number of the sport psychology journals claim to be applied, they are really interested in applied research, not the experiences of practitioners working in the real work. There should be avenues available for consultants with experience to share insights into what they did and how they did it without having to articulate a strong theoretical base. Indeed, if these articles started to be published they would in turn provide some clear avenues of enquiry for the research world. Energy could then be invested in trying to understand how and why something worked.

There is a further practical issue for consultants who are not affiliated to Universities. It can be either very difficult, or very expensive to be in a position to keep abreast of the most recent research. Researcher-consultants often take for granted the access to resources they have through the subscriptions of the institutions they work for.

I suppose the ideal solution lies somewhere in-between these two positions, looking at the profession as a whole. Psychologists worthy of the name need to have a very strong psychological base upon which they build there practice. A clear understanding of key psychological concepts, approaches and techniques is fundamentally important. Practitioners also need to, as much as possible, keep their knowledge current and up-to-date.  But, the next step depends upon the consultants approach. It must be equally accepted to generate knowledge through research as it is to generate knowledge through experience. It is as important to know what works as well as why.  If we can either evolve the approach of existing academic journals or develop new professional journals that enable ‘real world’ practitioners to publish the knowledge they have generated we can start to significantly enhance the effectiveness of the literature in supporting our practice. This in turn will move us one step closer to real evidence-based practice.

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