Jones, Evans and Mullen (2007) recently suggested that texts which choose to adopt the perspective of trainee practitioners within sport psychology “have the potential to not only inform the supervision of trainee sport psychologists but also enhance the effectiveness of sport psychologists’ professional practice” (p.211). Amongst others, Holt and Strean (2001), Tonn and Harmison (2004), and Tod and Bond(2010) have all provided fascinating insights into some of the issues encountered first-hand by practitioners at the onset of their professional careers. To my mind at least, the implications of such work stretch far beyond the shaping of the individual researcher’s practice alone, as it will be their work and the work of their peers which arguably determines the evolutionary pattern that the domain of sport psychology adopts throughout the coming years.
As an undergraduate and postgraduate sport psychology student, I often sat in lectures and seminars imagining the day when I myself would be fortunate enough to work within the ‘real world’ of sport psychology. My time at university was highly enjoyable and I learnt a great deal from my tutors and my peers throughout my academic studies. I longed to be in a situation in which I could utilise the theories, frameworks, and interventions which had been taught to me within an applied sporting context. Reading past literature and accounts of the applied experiences of other professionals within the domain was all well and good, but I very much wanted to attain my own experiences and extend my knowledge base by putting sport psychology into practice for myself.
During the completion of my Master’s degree, I actively sought out such opportunities by volunteering as a trainee sport psychologist at a number of swim clubs, local to where I lived at the time. This experience enabled me to utilise the aforementioned techniques, with imagery, goal-setting, self-talk and relaxation all becoming essential components of my sport psychology ‘tool-box’. Whilst this first exposure to applied practice was extremely satisfying and rewarding from a personal point of view, it was not until I began to work with the academy players at a Super League rugby club that my perceptions of effective sport psychology practice began to change somewhat.
As has been documented in a recent publication (cf. Rowley et al., 2012), my current applied work has been much more challenging and complex than my previous work with the swimmers had ever been. Being involved with a high profile sporting organisation and trying to conduct any form of structured sport psychology training programme with the academy players at the club, presented a number of significant challenges and professional dilemmas. Issues with timetabling, miscommunications with coaching staff, the players’ interest in sport psychology, and their lives outside of rugby are but some of the complex problems which have presented themselves over time. Whilst it is not my intention at present to dissect these factors in greater detail, I would like to bring this current article to a close by considering the pedagogy of sport psychology and making a link back to the way in which my academic studies had prepared me for work within the applied sporting world.
Gilbourne and Richardson (2006) remark that “trainee sport psychologists in the UK are typically exposed to many years of scientific training and undertake (in the main) scientific writing and research exercises. As such they occupy a clean, linear world that seeks to control variables in order to find a specific answer to a specific question” (p.332). In discussing the authors’ experiences of working within professional football (soccer), it is suggested that the footballing world, and the world in general, is in fact unpredictable, sometimes irrational, and often emotional (Gilbourne and Richardson, 2006). Whilst it is by no means my intention to critique the academic programmes of study I have undertaken in recent years, my own experiences as a trainee sport psychologist have opened my eyes to the highly complex environments within which we as practitioners work. Performance enhancement may rightly remain a key objective of our collective work within the sporting domain and the ‘tools’ which we are equipped with will continue to serve us accordingly in the majority of cases. Every now and then however, a situation is likely to present itself in which no amount of imagery or goal-setting will help to provide a solution. It is in these moments where we have to draw upon our tacit knowledge and ‘think on our feet’ as practitioners. As I now look back and think of myself sitting in those lecture theatres and seminar rooms I wonder what, if anything, could have been done to help better prepare me for the ‘real world’ of applied sport psychology. To those who are tasked with the running of educational programmes up and down the country in the present day, I pose this same question to you also. It is one which I have not been able to offer a fully comprehensive answer to thus far.