Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The 30 day challenge - Day 9. Why do I do what I do?

For today's blog I thought back earlier about why I started into my career as a Sport Psychologist after almost 10 years of online design and web experience. Having done my undergrad Psychology degree at the University of Manchester, I wasn't sure which flavour of Psychology I wanted to pursue. Clinical? Occupational? Educational? Something else? As a naive 22 year old, I didn't know or feel confident enough which path to follow. Rather sensibly, I stepped back and decided to try something else and return to the field when I felt ready and the answer had presented itself. This was 1998, and by luck/design/serendipity, I managed to score a job in the nascent industry surrounding the web, and fortunately built myself a fairly decent career first as a developer and designer and then as a manager and strategist. Having been involved in online since the beginning, I've got a better than average understanding of what makes compelling content and how it works, but more importantly can communicate this in a straightforward manner and manage teams to create good 'stuff' that everyday folk can use and find helpful.

What really makes me tick though, is getting behind peoples motivations and specifically about their interest and application related to sport. If you ask people what got them into a technical career, you may get a short story from a developer about an interest in computing through a relative or just their natural curiosity. Get someone to talk about why they participate in sport, and you'll see someone come alive. Ask them what it means to them? Well, you may want to sit down and let them talk for a while!

As Sport Psychologists and coaches, often reminding people why they first started participating in exercise and competition can have a very beneficial effect, regardless of how well they are performing currently. It taps into something that can easily be forgotten as people incorporate their training into everyday life like shopping, laundry and putting out the recycling. But making people stop for a moment and realise how far they may have come, as part of a 'therapeutic process' or just talking, is very powerful.

Within Sport Psychology, there are two main ways in which we earn our money. The majority of work you see in books, online in advice like this and in consultations, relates to enhancing athlete performance. Helping take the techniques, predominantly from the Cognitive Behavioural approach, such as visualisation, self-talk, goal setting and relaxation strategies into a sport context has helped a lot of athletes improve their performance. The second strand of psychological support in Sport relates to Psychologists help with clinical issues, such as coping with transition and loss, eating disorders, depression, anxiety and other such serious problems that occur in 'normal' life. This is an area I am keen to get into and explore, as these weren't covered in much depth in my MSc, but I was very into during my bachelors and is an area of interest in my adult life. I've worked with and fundraised for MIND, the mental health charity, and believe that there is a long way to go in breaking down prejudice about mental illness in society.

Training to help with such conditions needs to be more rigourous and consider other needs beyond improving the already existing psychological state (such as espoused by positive psychologists). In all cases with athletes, you have to consider the care and well being of the athlete - which is why you'll never find me discussing individual cases on here of people I am working with.

It could be considered that whilst performance issues are generally additive to an individual (italics deliberate); clinical issues are fundamental to an individuals well-being from a health point of view. This makes intuitive sense, but not that many Sport Psychologists concern themselves with the clinical model of care as most athletes just want advice on 'how they can get better' in terms of performance - which this blog tries to address.

So to answer the question that is the title of this post, what do I do and believe? Well, regardless of what someone comes to me with (performance or clinical problems), I put the client at the heart of what I do. I take a stance that their well being is my primary concern and that if I am seeing them for consultations, I treat the individual first and the sportsperson second. I fundamentally believe (and evidence shows this to be the case) that if you get the first part right, the second should follow.

I take a humanistic approach, so I see the person as a whole, which is why I don't just isolate the performance away from a person and try and why I offer on here advice and help, for free, to try and spread sport psych findings to a broader audience. I will admit that I do spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about whether I've covered my claims/research/advice adequately to satisfy the regulatory bodies that I am a member of so that when you read advice, it is both accurate and safe to your well being. If I put you at risk, I'm not doing my job properly. In my academic world, I have to reference everything I claim, whereas I have some leeway writing on this medium. However, I'm clear about what I offer as advice, state my maturity and experience (note a 'Trainee Sport Psychologist' and not a fully fledged one!), but I abide by the rules, and knowing how many readers I have, I am trying to share my experience and knowledge to assist those interested parties in the endurance field about what mental strategies, techniques and theories I can share to help.

I would say that the advice I give is thoroughly researched, checked and that I caveat wherever necessary. The advice on here is generic enough to be shared and tested, and if you need anything more specific, you should contact me directly for a consultation or more detail. Hope that helps outline what I do. This is what us in the caring profession may call 'reflection' - its not a bad thing to do for yourself regardless of your discipline! Look it up online, and I recommend checking Gibbs model.

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