An advert went out last week from British Gymnastics and the English Institute of Sport (EIS) offering a year 2 trainee Sport Psychologist an amazing opportunity. Working with elite athletes offering both individual sessions and workshops. A great way to build your ‘hours’ as you head towards your charteredship. The downside. No pay.

To qualify as a chartered sport psychologist you need to show you have completed a huge number of hours and performed in four areas: Ethics, Working directly with athletes, Research and Educating athletes. You need to be able to show you have spent 2,000 hours with athletes or working on their needs. All of this makes a lot of sense – we are working with people’s minds and mental health and so we must be fully competent to do so. The British Gymnastics role is trying to offer some of this training, in an elite environment. And that is to be lauded. But not without any pay at all.

I did an unpaid internship as part of my undergraduate degree. I worked for 4 months for CBS News in Washington DC and it was amazing. I learnt masses and it was a springboard to the rest of my life. But I was very lucky in that I had access to funding to allow me to do so. It was required as part of my degree, I had budgeted for it and was able to take a student loan as we didn’t pay fees back then.

With this ‘opportunity’ I got a real grump on. Having spent years working in the policy and communications sides of the education and training worlds (I helped set up and run the National Apprenticeship Service within the Department of Business) before retraining in psychology I have seen the down sides of employers being allowed to offer unpaid internships.

This internship (asking for someone in year two of their Stage 2 training) is looking for someone who has already spent (purely on fees), £27,000 completing three years of an undergraduate psychology degree, around £6,000 on a MSc in Sport and Exercise Psychology, around £5,000 in fees to the British Psychological Society for their Stage 2 qualification and around £3,000 on supervisors fees. So not only do they have at least 5 years of higher education behind them but £41,000 spent purely on training. And then they are told they need to work for free, giving their time, energy and knowledge to a Company (which from my googling is what British Gymnastics seems to be) which their last financial statement shows they made a surplus of £542,000 after tax.

I know from my years working in Communications that most businesses either shy away from confronting those who critique the way they work or go in all guns blazing to shut down their detractors. Therefore, I was actually delighted when Kate Hays, Head of Performance Psychology at EIS contacted me to put her view forward as to why this is a valuable opportunity and should not be branded as exploitative (as I had done on social media). It is a really laudable approach and to me suggests they really are trying to do their best to find ways to offer training in a landscape that is very unclear.

Interestingly we ended up agreeing on most points:

  • There are far more people coming out of MSc courses than there are jobs for.
  • The MSc programmes (stage 1) are designed to provide the theoretical foundation for applied work but not the skills to do applied work. This means potential practitioners leave an MSc course with limited applied skills and need extensive supervision when working with athletes.
  • The gold standard should be taking a PhD within a team of practitioners so trainee sports psychologists can develop their craft whilst receiving a stipend, complete both a PhD and a stage 2 and be entirely prepared for employment afterwards. EIS do offer these but are limited in how many they can offer.

Where I think we will never agree is on this payment issue creating a divide between those who can apply and those who wouldn’t feel able to. If a 16 year old apprentice who is learning on the job, having extensive supervision and doing their training at the same time must be paid (as the government says) why is a 23 year old who has been through 2 university courses different? They may not have yet developed the full range of skills required but they are offering some skills so should receive some level of pay for that service.

I am not suggesting someone at this stage in their career should be paid a full Sport Psychologist salary but to ask someone to work for absolutely nothing – when the Sutton Trust has estimated it costs an intern between £800-£1000 a month to live – does to me feel exploitative. Unpaid internships are strongly disliked by the public (A 2017 social mobility commission report suggested that 75% of the population think they should be paid) and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility wants them to be limited to four weeks only. And surely we want our profession to be full of practitioners from every background so that we can really reflect and empathise with those athletes and support staff we work with. This won’t happen if only the wealthy can access elite level training.

Kate says this is a role which could be done alongside full employment as the practitioner chooses the level of commitment. I would argue however to get the true benefit of it you wouldn’t want to be working so many hours as the CPD they are offering is extensive and valuable and the reflection required as a trainee sports psychology is one of the best ways of developing your skills and expertise. And this needs clear headspace. Not a full time job to focus on.

Kate is clear their current practitioners are really happy with the routes they’ve taken. I have no doubt that is true. They will have had access to EIS training (which from the limited amount I’m experienced and read about is absolutely phenomenal) and could afford to go down this route. The issue would be we would never hear from those who couldn’t afford to apply for it in the first place.

The guidance from government says the only times companies can offer an internship without paying at least minimum wage:

  • Is if it is for a student required to do an internship for less than one year as part of a UK-based further or higher education course
  • If they are under 16 on school work experience
  • If it is a charity, voluntary organisation, associated fund raising body or a statutory body
  • They are only shadowing.

This all makes sense. But a company recruiting someone into a role where they are asking for at least 5 years of prior training, to someone who will be in their 20s at least, when they are doing real applied work with individual athletes does not fit this. I would love to see British Gymnastics taking a lead, paying their psychologists (perhaps after a short period of work experience to check they are suitable) and showing best practice in ensuring everyone, whatever their background, gets an opportunity to be involved.

I would love to hear other’s thoughts….