Effective sport psychologists – who are they?1 Opinion
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About Charlotte Chandler
I am Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology at Staffordshire University. I have a PhD from Liverpool John Moores University, which explored the personal qualities of effective sport psychologists and how they interact with their work within elite sport environments. Other particular interests within sport psychology include counselling approaches to practice, and organisational psychology in performance environments. I have taught across undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes and maintain a keen interest in developing our curriculum to best prepare our students for applied practice. I have also completed a BSc in Sport and Exercise Science (Psychology) and an MSc in Psychology of Sport, both at LJMU, and I am Fellow of the HEA.
In addition to the standards and competencies that sport psychologists must demonstrate to achieve accreditation with the relevant governing bodies, effective sport psychologists have been well-documented within the literature as possessing certain skills and characteristics. For example, Weigand, Richardson and Weinberg (1999) found coaches and athletes valued sport psychologists who were helpful, knowledgeable, caring, understanding, available, trustworthy, enthusiastic, communicative, task-focussed, maintaining an applied focus, and working as part of the team. Similarly, Anderson, Miles, Robinson and Mahoney (2004) found valued characteristics of sport psychologists to include being personable, a good communicator, a provider of a good practical service, knowledgeable and experienced in sport psychology, and honest and trustworthy.Literature is also beginning to appear which argues that the personal qualities of the sport psychologist are implicated in their ability to be effective in their work. Corlett (1996) recognises that “the demand is seldom on one’s competence in the psychology of sport but often on one’s competence in the humanity of sport” (p. 91) when discussing sport psychologists’ approaches to practice. This focus on the sport psychologist’s personal qualities is an important development, especially if “the sport psychologist is the primary consulting tool and the practitioner-athlete relationship is the main intervention” (Tod & Andersen, 2005, p. 309). Thus the emphasis is placed upon the person behind the practitioner and the qualities that are representative of this person. So what are these personal qualities of effective sport psychologists?
An early piece of research to allude to the personal qualities of effective sport psychologists is that of Orlick and Partington (1987). They noted that sport psychologists who became ‘excellent’ consultants began with certain personal qualities, experiences and good interpersonal skills, and then went on to learn about their field through academic degrees and supervised experience in the field. Nesti (2004, 2010) makes reference to personal qualities such as empathy and trustworthiness in relation to existential counselling in sport psychology, along with presence, authenticity and spontaneity. Jones (2007) also argues that the sport psychology profession requires its practitioners to possess humility, courage, good judgement and integrity and an awareness of the importance of these to ensure they do the right thing at the right time and for the right reasons. The practitioners from a study by Fifer, Henschen, Gould and Ravizza (2008) state that initially, the sport psychologist must pass the ‘good guy or gal’ test, whereby coaches and athletes will be quick to judge whether they are down to earth and respectful. In addition, they perceived athletes to value sport psychologists who are “professional but fun loving, don’t mind being teased, are flexible and adaptable, and respect athlete accomplishments but are not enamoured with famous athletes or teams” (p. 361). An effective sport psychologist will be compassionate, empathic, caring and sincere, will act as a team player, and will quietly know how to help athletes achieve their goals whilst remaining in the background. The culture and politics of an elite sport environment can make it a volatile and arduous one, and it is therefore argued that sport psychologists also need to possess qualities such as resilience, commitment, presence, authenticity and empathy to survive (Nesti, 2004; 2010). Similarly, Simons and Andersen (1995) state that working with professional sports or a large organisation requires a sport psychologist to demonstrate understanding and great perseverance.
When talking to applied sport psychology practitioners, as well as those who work alongside them, I have found all to agree that these personal qualities are essential in effective sport psychology practice and to offer discussion around how these qualities can promote success within, but also be challenged by the environment and culture of, the sport organisation. It would be interesting to hear of others’ perceptions of these personal qualities – what is it about sport psychologists as people that make them effective in their work?