Last fall I traveled with my sister through northeastern Europe, convincing her to turn her Euro tour into a genealogical and semi-professional adventure. In under two weeks we powered through Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Minsk, Kaliningrad, and Gdańsk, getting a smattering of flavour throughout as we inhaled our way through the Baltic States.
Genealogy and culture aside, our adventures were unforgettable for the simple reason that I interviewed leading sport psychologists in the majority of the countries visited. Hearing I was heading north, a prof-turned-friend, Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis, put me in touch with Lina Vaisetaitė from the National Olympic Committee of Lithuania, and what a godsend she was! Within days of reaching out to her I’d received the contacts of a small handful of sport psychologists throughout the region. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make contact with Estonia’s Aave Hannus from the University of Tartu, nor with any sport psychology professionals working in the Russian oblast of Kaliningrad — no one I met on this trip knew of any sport psychology activity in the exclave. But the remaining discussions were plentiful enough without adding anything extra to the schedule.
We arrived first in the Latvian capital of Riga, on October 4th, and almost immediately met with Dace Eikena and Irina Simoņenkova from the Latvian Sport Psychology Association. Dace had previous training as a pediatrician and only later went into clinical psychology, and is now working for the Latvian Olympic team and studying the Limbic Coaching Method. Irina, originally a student of mathematics but now a psychologist, maintains a private practice in the heart of Riga.
Both women we gifted with the warm hospitality that is a staple of the region. They immediately sat us down, pulled out chocolates (and when we finished those, more chocolates), and started sharing their stories. They were surprised someone had made such a long trek just for a chat on our shared passion, but then the conversation just flowed: I pulled out my questions and we dove right in. Unfortunately, upon revisiting the recordings I made of our 3h+ conversation, it became clear my phone had garbled up about half of it at random intervals. What I’ll be sharing here is what I could remember from our encounter and piece together from the recording.
We started with defining sport. As always, no clear definition emerged, but certain parameters did: “level” was an important one. It seemed a hobbyist who only trains intermittently is not performing sport as much as a professional athlete who trains their sport upwards of 3-4 times a week. This led to the second demarcation, that of conscious intent or purpose: that an athlete is an individual who is consciously putting in effort into their training and not performing these acts simply for fun (something Côté calls “deliberate practice“). Interestingly, Irina didn’t think competition was a necessary marker for someone to be performing sport, though we all agreed it’s often in the background anyhow — be it officially with others or unofficially with the self and chasing personal bests. Reading Wikipedia or Google‘s definitions on this topic later I noted the main element does indeed seem to be the idea of improving oneself in a specific physical activity bound by rules agreed upon by others also performing it, and where the goal is not the creation of something external with that activity (as in art or engineering) but rather of perfecting the activity itself, reminiscent of the Japanese art of ensō. This definition draws in all the secondary characteristics of competition, spectator presence, organized association, enjoyment and even slowly begins to edge me towards an answer in the common physicality-versus-game argument (eg: darts, bowling, bridge, and chess, the last of which I was surprised to learn is a discipline supported by our sport psychology friends in Latvia). I suppose, revisiting this now classic quandary of mine, I can comfortably say sport is the pursuit of excellence in a physical activity bound by specific, objective rules and sharing a community that maintains these standards. I suppose it’s no coincidence Terry Orlick named his classic book what he did.
Working in the field
Administration-wise, I was surprised to learn that psychological studies were unavailable in Latvia until the fall of communism in the early 90s, lending credibility to most Latvian athletes’ distaste for seeing a sport psychologist (the typical “I’m not crazy, I don’t need any psychologist” phrase). Still, as in Canada and most of the world, funds for sport psychology are few and far between, with both ladies supplementing their incomes through more clinical work. Sport psychology is now a branch of psychology in the country, with practicants in the recent past needing a general psychology master’s degree and then completing some sport science work. Now Latvia is adopting EU standards and more and more practitioners are coming in from a sport or teaching backgrounds, with the same issues of sport-versus-psychology polarity being raised as Dr. Davis did in his 2007 interview that helped me contextualize my own trials and tribulations of breaking into the field back home.
After a quick discussion of the detriment caused to athletes who are forced into their positions as portrayed in Friday Night Tykes or Trophy Kids, Dace shared an important nugget of wisdom: it is very helpful–if not crucial–to first understand yourself, and then to help your client understand themselves. From there you can spring into the problem areas. Both Dace and Irina work with members of their athletes’ support networks — coaches, parents — right from the outset, understanding the key role they play. And an easy takeaway for dealing with hesitant coaches who doubt your expertise in their sport: that’s fine, it’s in sport psychology that you are an expert, and that psychology is always the same. And a warning too, of not talking to media, no matter how much it makes sense at the time. Journalists have an unfortunate way of twisting your words to fit their agenda so it’s better to keep a back seat and just watch the ride unfold rather than become a part of it in the national discussion.
We then sprang into a discussion about issues specific to Latvia: that in the past 5 years the 2 million-strong country lost about 500,000 of their youngest, most motivated and energetic citizens to the European job market, and that Latvians generally lack confidence, wishing to be complimented by others instead of going out and bragging about themselves (or, as Dace noted, “I do, but not say.”). This in direct contrast to the 30% Russophones comprising the country — Latvians with Russian, Belorussian, or Ukrainian descent who generally speak Russian at home. Athletes with this background tend to be very confident, so a balance needs to be struck when working with a team that is made up of members of both groups. That for many Latvians being the best in the nation is often an adequate goal is another limitation their psychologists are finding.
An interesting insight was the strong role women play in Latvian culture, from the idea of “Mother Latvia” to freedom being feminine in the country to the figure of Māra in pre-Christian Latvian mythology, and how this matriarchal spin still bleeds into the country and family life today. This insight paired with the fact that Latvian is such a tough language to learn, with its subtleties often floating under the surface such that what is said is sometimes not exactly what is meant, showed Latvia to be a still water with deep currents underneath that beg deeper understanding before just blindly diving in.
Speaking of favourite techniques for working with athletes, both ladies agreed that the performance profile is a good start, especially because it gives an athlete an immediate visual of what’s going on and requires very little interpretation, but Irina then laughingly added that “the main tools for a sport psychologist are a paper, pencil, and eyes”. Speaking of valuable resources, Irina continued that there are very many great articles and books on the topic of sport psychology, but that for very many athletes, the gross majority of them are simply not interesting. She continued noting that very many sport psychologists are not very quick to share their methods, which she found unfortunate. Dace was quick to laud Nideffer’s 70s classic The Inner Athlete: Mind Plus Muscle for Winning (though her Russian translation didn’t have the chapter on hypnosis because the USSR was doubtful of its efficacy and so it didn’t end up getting translated) and Pargman’s Psychological Basis of Sport Injuries while Irina nodded to Weinberg & Gould’s Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Both however agreed that Andersen’s Doing Sport Psychology is a must. Movie-wise, Irina recommends Legend № 17, a recent biopic on the ’72 Team Canada v. Team USSR Summit Series that won the best Russian film of the year in 2013, and is immediately reminiscent of 2004’s Miracle on Ice:
… subtitles available directly via YouTube, you just have to enable them. This movie made me especially excited because, so far, I’d only grown up seeing Russia — and especially the USSR — cast in a particularly evil light. There were good people on both sides of history though, and I love seeing others skating as well as our homebred Canucks. Of course, there is a Canadian counterpart that I now want to get my hands on as well.
Here is a short outtake I was able to salvage from our interview, where we discuss some of the main points above (Irina is the first voice you hear, Dace the second, and the other lady with the Canadian accent is my sister).
And finally some photos from the trip to wrap things up (further reading includes Stalin’s birthday cake, Memento mori, and the Zeppelin garage) and Irina’s favourite quote: “If you can jump the bar, it’s not good for you.”