Each week I spend time with two sport psychology students or trainees to try to help them navigate the journey into sport psychology (you can book one of these free sessions here). This week someone asked: What do you see as the future for sport psychology? They were prompted to ask this by the BBC piece that came out recently focusing on a statement from Davide Ancelotti, Coach at AC Milan, saying that in the future he expects every football player to have their own psychologist.

I’m not sure the future of sport psychology is actually in sport – daily I see the huge benefits it has in all sectors of life, helping people thrive and hate seeing it thought to be limited to just athletes. But that aside I was surprised that we are not yet at the stage where this is normal.

Reflecting from when I began training as a sport psychologist nine years ago I think we have moved on a great deal. It now feels far more accepted to work with a sport psych and often done with some honesty about the reason why, rather than in the past having to always sell it as purely a performance enhancer. It is of course a performance enhancer but often the gateway in is because there is a barrier that is preventing us performing at our potential.

So, to see it talked about as something that all athletes should be using is brilliant. But it makes me reflect on HOW we do it.

Often simply getting a psych into a team or sporting body was seen as an achievement. Some of us (me definitely) felt we could not rock the boat and had to justify our presence and constantly show our value. That means taking what we could get. This does feel it is changing. And now it is changing perhaps we can show all the facets of using sport psychologists (and others) far more effectively.

Should teams even have sport psychologists?

Within the organisational structure I believe there should be a sport or organisational psychologist who completely understands behaviour and change, can help the team feel psychologically safe and can advise on leaders how to communicate in a clear way that creates stability and surety. Then also maybe someone who can run workshops and teach some mental skills. Outside of that I would allocate each athlete a fund to pick their own individual psychologist. This would mean the athlete gets to work with someone who is the right fit, approach and person for them..

The right focus

A clinician who can genuinely help with the issues that restrict their performance most will be most impactful. There are so many people who could support (and this is just an example):

  • a clinical psych if they are struggling with anxiety, depression or trauma
  • an EMDR specialist to help with trauma.
  • an ACT focused sport psych if they want to explore more about themselves and their values purpose in sport
  • an REBT focused sports psych if they want to control emotional outbursts
  • a trainee sports psych if they want to learn lots of mental skills
  • a multi-disciplinary team if they have disordered eating
  • a psychiatrist if they social anxiety and would like medication for it
  • an ADHD coach to learn some scaffolding skills if they have this condition.

A safe place

An independent psychologist would works for them – not the club. I regularly get athletes come to see me who have formal psychological support from a club psychologist but they don’t feel comfortable being fully open and honest with someone who hangs out with the person who selects the team or someone who also works with their rivals in the club. And without openness and honesty it is very hard to make progress.

Therapeutic alliance

An athlete deserves to work with someone they feel truly comfortable with. I recently heard from a sport psychologist and a counselling psychologist the mode number of sessions is 1. Yes. Just 1 session. Why? Because research has found that what is most important when choosing a psychologist is the relationship and rapport. This study looked for common factors in psychotherapy for successful treatment outcomes and number 1 was the therapeutic alliance. So, if the psych you meet first isn’t the right one for you, if you don’t click or feel comfortable with them you need to move on and find the person who is. If you are in a team and just given the team psych, someone you just may not click with, you may struggle on and you may learn some things, but you’ll never get as much out of the process as you could if you had been given the autonomy to make your own choice.

So – in my ideal Josie world a team would have:

  • Sport / Organisational Psychologist on the management team
  • A sport psych to teach mental skills
  • A pool of experts (clinical and sport psychologists, ADHD or ASD coaches, a psychiatrist, Eating Disorder clinicians) where athletes can spend their psychological allowance as any when works for them.

Who might you add into that mix?