Friday, 4 February 2011

What is the difference between Sport Psychology & Coaching?

This post should probably have appeared at the very beginning when I started this blog 3 years ago. Back then, I was a raw first time marathoner, blogging my experience, nowhere near the worlds of sport psychology or coaching.

Over time I've refined what I write to cover sport psychology concepts and advice about coaching - tied into my experience as I've developed my practice with athletes in both fields. Crucially (and wrongly) I've taken for granted that everyone who reads this understands what I'm talking about!

So, to be absolutely clear, I'm going to use this post to define both, explain the similarities and differences between the disciplines and where the work of the two professions overlaps. I've shot an interview with Dr Tim Holder of St Mary's University in which he explains how the work of sport psychologists has altered working with coaches over the last 20 years in the United Kingdom.

But first, the definitions.

What does an athletics coach do? According to the good people at Wikipedia, Coaching:

"...is the practice of supporting an individual, referred to as a client, through the process of achieving a specific personal or professional result." I had to use this definition, for when I looked at the UKA website (the body who administers coaching in the UK), it didn't have a definition I could use here!

What does a Sport Psychologist do? and how does this differ to coaching? One of my heroes in the field, Dr Mark Anderson of Victoria University (AU) says in his book'Doing Sport Psychology (Chapter 1 p.6):

“My job is to talk to athletes about how things are going for them to see if there are ways we can work together to make their athletic involvement more enjoyable...to help with some of the mental aspects of training and competition.” Not much different from a coach right? Indeed, Doherty (1976) says “Not all the successful coaches I have known have been effective teachers of techniques, but with no exceptions, all have been effective on this human side of the coaching coin.” But coaches have to do more than teach techniques. They have to motivate their athletes, build team cohesion, goal set, and assist in things that are clearly psychological (Brewer, 2000). 

As Anderson and Brewer point out though, coaches have to be careful being sport psychologists as there may be a conflict of interest if they are simultaneously trying to help for both performance and clinical reasons. That is not to say that sport psychologists work solely on clinical issues (e.g. recovering from injury, retiring from competition, overcoming eating disorders, dealing with depressed or anxious athletes), though some do. More that coaches can't cover everything that their multidisciplinary role requires – e.g. they can advise on stretching/warm up as a physio would, but a physio can advise in greater depth as part of a multi-disciplinary coaching team. Ergo, a good sport psychologist can get to know an athlete in more depth about their motivation, their mental strength, anxieties and goals in a way a coach may not be able to.

In short, Anderson advocates letting coaches get on with enhancing their relationship with an athlete to aid their performance and achieve their 'overall coaching objectives', and allow access for sport psychologists to work with athletes to help the athlete understand about themselves and their (mental) strengths, enhance their mental skills, and where necessary, intervene in clinical issues as anyone would in a 'normal' therapeutic relationship.

The British Psychological Society (the organisation with whom I am an accredited probationary sport psychologist) outlines the following ways in which sport psychologists work: "Sport psychologists work with individuals, teams, and organisations in a wide range of contexts including:"

  • Helping elite performers to develop preparation strategies to deal with the demands of competition and training
  • Applying research into motor learning and psychophysiological processes to maximise practice and fitness regimes
  • Assisting coaches, managers, and referees with enhancing their interpersonal and communication skills
  • Counselling injured athletes during their rehabilitation

Where do sport psychologists do their work? "Some sport psychologists work as private consultants, or hold full-time positions with professional sports teams or national governing bodies of sport, but most combine their consultancy work with teaching and research in University departments." This is the area in which I am trying to move in my career.

To give you an example of what a 'real' sport psychologist does, I was kindly helped by Tim Holder of St Mary's University, who explained how the relationship between sport psychologists and coaches has developed over the last 20 years in the UK. I also asked him how the field is changing and what he is doing with the Endurance Performance and coaching centre at St Mary's University.

The goal of the centre is to "create a performance environment within which athletes are able to live and train together in high quality groups, whilst also offering a variety of educational opportunities.” At St Mary's student athletes train alongside international level athletes who use the facilities as their training base train and obtain support from coaches, nutritionists, sport psychologists, bio-mechanists and physiologists. Thus a multi-disciplinary team can help optimise the whole athletic experience. This is an approach that is on the increase, as described by Alberto Salazar with the US endurance teams use of a sport science team in the US's training for major competition.



Tim gives some interesting insights into the work he has done and how the work of coaches and sport psychologists has evolved. [Forgive the filming squashing Tim into the middle of the screen - this was my first attempt at filming via a phone for the blog!]. Afterwards I asked Tim, "Whats your view on Sport Psychologists conducting coaching as well? What warnings, from experience, would you give?"

Tim Holder: "From my experience sport psychologists can bring a great deal to a coaching situation particularly if they have a skill acquisition background as well. The only issue that can emerge is if you have a dual role as coach and sport psychologist - it is important then to be clear as to which role you are in (or which hat you are wearing) as expectations and responsibilities are clearly different."

This agrees with Mark Anderson's view, particularly for the sport psychologist who also coaches. Personally, I have spent the last six months coaching using some sport psychology techniques in the process (mainly addressing anxiety issues in athletes, and working on athlete confidence and preparation for competition). This is partly because I have been in training for coaching qualifications. Also I have been learning under the tutelage of head coaches at an athletics club and my role has been to support them coaching. Within this work (using the experience I have from my sport psychology training) I bring the appropriate level of psychology to enhance athlete performance. But fundamentally what I bring to all my work with clients, and at the core of my work, is care for the athlete. This covers the approach you take with the person, how you view them and their athletic potential, and ensuring that confidentiality and insurance are adhered to.

In the next blog I will be passing on advice from Tim to endurance runners (predominantly, but not exclusively around marathon) from the UKA open day about mental strategies to help in training and races. I hope you found this post helpful and I welcome any questions or feedback.

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