Humanism originated as a psychological framework in the 1950’s as a response to the negative outlook on humankind by Behaviourism and Psychoanalysis, the dominating frameworks at the time. Humanism became known as the “Third Force” among the psychological frameworks. In contrast to the teachings of Behaviourism and Psychoanalysis, the founders of Humanism, Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and Rollo May, explored the positive aspects of humankind such as love, individuality, creativity, hope and actualisation. Their primary focus was on the innate goodness of human beings, the drive and potential of humans to achieve personal growth, human responsibility, and the actual lived experience of the human person. Humanists argue above all that each human is a unique being, who has the ability to choose and change themselves and the way they live their life, also known as free will.

Abraham Maslow, one of the fathers of Humanism, is best known for his “Hierarchy of Needs” (figure 1) which is a model used to explain his theory of human motivation. This model was constructed to satisfy the theoretical demands of the world and at the same time conform to what Maslow believed as known facts. In the original model, there are five basic needs that determine humans’ motivation; physiological needs, safety needs, belongingness needs, esteem needs, and the self-actualisation need. The physiological needs consist of the basic things that humans must have in order to survive such as food, water, and shelter. The safety needs are slightly more abstract but still physical. They include things such as security and protection as well as freedom from fear and anxiety. The belongingness needs involve the giving and receiving of love, and also the need to feel accepted and part of something such as a family or group. Next are the esteem needs, which are the desire for not only self-respect and self-esteem but also for the respect and esteem of others. Finally, the self-actualisation need refers to the human desire to be self-fulfilled, doing what you are meant to be doing and everything you are capable of. It is a hierarchy in that in order to the meet the needs at the top, those at the bottom must first be satisfied. For example, someone who does not have a home and is forced to sleep on the street will not have the need for love or acceptance until they find some shelter.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is still used today in a number of ways. There have also been several modifications and additions to the hierarchy. One of the most notable changes to the model was made in the 1990’s with the addition of transcendence  (figure 2). That is, once self-actualisation has been achieved, humans have a need to help others also reach that state of actualisation too. This reinforces the idea that humans are inherently good and not only want to be the best they can be, but also want those around them to reach their full potential as well.

Therapeutic Methods of Humanism

Humanistic therapy techniques are designed to guide a client to make alternative choices about their life or personal ideals. The therapeutic approach that is most fundamental to Humanistic psychology was developed by Carl Rogers (1951) as he pioneered the Humanistic principles in what is known as client-centered therapy. This approach focuses on the client’s self-concept and how they can achieve ultimate fulfilment (self-actualisation). Central to client-centered therapy is a strong, trusting relationship between the client and therapist. There are several characteristics that a therapist using client-centered therapy must possess; congruence, acceptance, active listening, empathy.  In order for client-centered therapy to work, it is of vital importance that the therapist shows the upmost respect for their client as an individual. This means the therapist does not dominate with their own views and respects the client’s right to self-direction. Rogers argues that it is important for the therapist to look at each client with an individual hypothesis and not with a purpose to try to change them. The role of the counsellor using this approach is to accept the client for who they are, and encourage the individual to view their choices objectively without imposing their own views and ideals on the client which they then simply follow. Another key aspect to the client-therapist relationship is empathy. The self-concept can best be expressed with a therapist who demonstrates accurate empathetic understanding.  Empathy also creates a learning environment that allows clients to relate to themselves in new ways. Along with empathy, Rogers emphasises the importance of being an active listener. As an active listener, it is the role of the therapist to clarify and objectify the client’s feelings. This is often done by the therapist repeating or rewording what the client has just said to them. This allows the client to hear back what they have said and can give them a better understanding and clarification of their own thoughts and emotions. It also gives them the reassurance that the therapist is really listening and what they have to say is important.

Gestalt psychology is a subset of humanism, and uses some similar techniques in the therapy setting. One of the therapeutic techniques more unique to Gestalt is psychodrama (the empty chair), which is where the client engages in a dialogue with different aspects of themselves. It is common for the client to switch seats as they take on the two different components of the self. This technique has also been used to deal with anger directed towards someone else, in which case the client takes on the role of that other person.

Humanistic Psychology in Sport

Sport psychologists and coaches adopting a humanistic approach should allow the athlete to be an active participant in the process. It should be athlete-centred and focus on the athlete developing self-awareness, growth, and development. According to Lombardo’s humanistic model of coaching (1999), the goals of the athlete should always take precedence over those of the coach. The coach, who should merely serve as a guide and not an authoritative figure, should demonstrate empathy, understanding, and remember what it was like to be an athlete. At the same time, it is also the coach’s responsibility to challenge their athletes by asking them “meaningful questions” and figure out strategy on their own. As a result of humanistic coaching, athletes remain more enthusiastic and passionate about their sport, which can also reduce the chance of burnout at a young age (Lombardo, 1999). Gestalt therapy has also been used in coaching athletes in several ways, but particularly through the development of self-awareness (Simon, 2009).

Csikszentmihalyi’s (2002) concept of flow has also been related humanistic sport psychology. Flow is a state of consciousness where one becomes totally absorbed in what they are doing, so that all other thoughts and emotions are excluded. Flow has been associated with peak performances where the body and mind work effortlessly as one. There are nine dimensions of flow in sport; clear goals, concentrating, loss of feeling of self-consciousness, distorted sense of time, feedback, balance between ability level and challenge, control, activity is intrinsically rewarding, and being absorbed in the activity. A swimmer who had just won a big race and was clearly in a state of flow, described it as being one with the water and her stroke. She felt in complete control of the situation and knew exactly what her body needed to do to pass up the competition and win. In order to achieve flow, it is also important to have a balance between skill and challenge. That is, the task set cannot be too challenging but can also not be too easy. Finding the perfect balance is difficult but necessary (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). The feeling of being in control of the situation is one of the things that stands out the most to athletes who experience flow, and is a key aspect of humanism as well as it emphasises humans’ ability to make their own choices and take responsibility for those choices.