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  • Writer's pictureDarren Britton

Sport Psychologists: Why your interventions don't work...

When training as sport psychologists, we are often strongly encouraged to have a clearly defined professional philosophy.


What does this look like? Typically, sport psychologists (similar to coaches) have philosophies broadly ranging from athlete-led (e.g. using active listening skills, building rapport, and letting them 'work it out for themselves') to active-directive (teaching and instructing, typically with the use of mental skills).


So we are typically encouraged during our professional development to 'set up camp' somewhere along the continuum between the athlete-led and active-directive, as this demonstrates that we have a clear philosophy and identity as a practitioner (what we think works and why).


However, in my time I've fluctuated between either end of that continuum and guess what? I've had successes and failures at either end.


Why? Because the success of either of these philosophical approaches is dependent on one thing outside of our internal theories and frameworks: whether the athletes is ready to engage and change their behaviour if necessary.


Not being aware of this can cause the use of either approach, athlete-led or active directive, to fall flat on its face.


Example 1: An athlete reports feeling anxious, thinks negatively, and hides away from challenges. They're not sure what to do about it. GREAT! With your active directive approach, you give them some mental skills, maybe some self-talk or cognitive re-structuring. But the athlete seems disinterested in your ideas and uncooperative. Despite our best efforts, they are not ready to change. Furthermore, our attempts to persuade them to change merely makes them more resistant. They opt not to see you again. Intervention failed.


Example 2: An athlete reports feeling anxious, thinking negatively, and hides away from challenges. They approach you saying they want some skills are strategies to deal with it. BUT NO! Your approach is athlete-led, so you must not do this under any circumstance! They have to work it out for themselves and you refuse to give anything that might not construed as advice. The athlete seems disappointed that you've approached them for help and not provided any. They opt not to see you again. Intervention failed.


What this illustrates, from my experience at least, is that the athletes we work with (and their own readiness to change) are often more important than our theories and frameworks. What difference would it make if, rather than assessing an athletes 'needs' in the first instance, we focused on assessing their readiness to change?


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