October 5th: a day out of Riga and we immediately head out on a 4h bus ride for Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital. That evening we’re already at the National Olympic Committee office downtown on the river Neris, where Lina Vaisetaitė is ready to greet us. Lina has a very impressive CV, with posts as a university lecturer, as a senior manager of Olympic programs at the NOC for almost a decade, as a member of FEPSAC’s managing council, and, perhaps most impressive for me, as the author of a comprehensive website where she introduces Lithuanian visitors to sport psychology. She also has a rich history with ENYSSP which, combined with all her other posts and experience, has turned her into something of a hub in the Baltic network of sport psychologists… you’ll remember she was the initial point of contact for this Baltic blog series after all.
The first unique thing about Lina, as compared to most sport psychologists I’ve met thus far, is that her academic pedigree is psychology through and through: both a BSc and MSc in the field from Vilnius University, the latter specializing in clinical psych. But this isn’t what hits you when you meet her; it’s that she’s one big smile behind which peeks a quick, gentle-but-probing mind.
We dove right into this question, where Lina quickly brought up games like chess, “What do I do with that?” she chuckled. We quickly achieved consensus realizing that sport, at its heart, is about striving to win, generally as measured through competition. Lithuanians frame this difference through the use of two words: sportininkas and sportuotojas, or “athlete” and “exerciser”, with the latter doing the same activity as the former but in the absence of competition.However, the “exerciser” is not really a term one meets outside of a dictionary, and this distinction has somewhat been taken over by that between a professional v. an amateur.
The idea of agreed-upon rules also floated up, where we wondered at what point an activity gets branded a sport. Taking the development of football from a basic game between villages hundreds of years ago to the plethora of official sport variants that exist today, we realized there’s generally no one defining moment when an activity becomes a sport, but rather more of a communal realization that this has already happened long after the fact.
Sport psychology in Lithuania
The general rule of thumb was that participants would go Lina’s route: get the appropriate BSc/MSc training in psychology and then start working in sport because of passion. In general, Lithuanian psychology studies emerged from psychiatry, which in Soviet times was a very strict discipline that often had political or overly conservative overtones (eg: dissenters or those thinking differently were often sent to psychiatric wards either as punishment or with a goal of conforming them back to the status quo). Then there was a pause as the USSR crumbled and Lithuania emerged as an autonomous country once more, wherein Western and especially American standards were slowly adopted. Currently, dedicated sport psychology programs are starting to pop up both in Lithuania as well as abroad, from which education is honoured back in the country.
Lina remembers when she had just started work in this field, when information on it was not freely available and there existed a strong stigma against psychological training for athletes who thought themselves “not crazy”, perhaps stemming from the psychiatric origins of the field. But things have since really developed: she sees athletes as being much more open to using techniques in the field and to googling their own sports heroes to discover what techniques they use in their training… and the media much more open to discussing it all, especially after the last Olympics where sport psychology received a lot of attention. “My phone has been buzzing since the games,” she notes, “a lot! But I’m still surprised that elite athletes — people who have gone to World games or even the Olympics — they are only beginning to train mentally now. When they tell me that they are stressed during final rounds and sometimes they even choke in them I wonder, ‘Where were you in the months before the Games? Why weren’t you training psychologically?'”
Consulting approach & current work
The question above has so plagued Lina that she’s turned to study the phenomenon of choking under pressure, having tagged it as a common problem in her athletes. When an athlete arrives for their first session with her, Lina first assesses their visions and perceived problems, but then also how they are acquainted to sport psychology: what was their first experience with it, and have they already tried some things? Secondly, she is careful to be realistic and to avoid excessive positive thinking, and to underline that the client is free to choose the path they will ultimately take.
Echoing Irina’s advice that the best tools are a pen, paper, and eyes, Lina also finds herself not focusing much on performance profiles or specific questionnaires, rather on being present during work with a client. She does take pre- and post-session notes at times, but these are primarily used to orientate her than to be any definitive markers for progress. If she has some concrete doubts then she may administer a RESTQ-Sport or TOPS questionnaires, and she uses mindfulness tools often to help her athletes deal with intruding thoughts like those of escape.
Since many concepts come from American sport psychology, the problem of translation often pops up as in the concept of mindfulness. There is no real word for this in Lithuanian, the closest being pilnaprotavimas… which is immediately associated with pilno proto, or “full mind”, itself being another way of saying “not being crazy”, enforcing the stigma of sport psychology only being effective for those with mental problems. Lina gets around this through using other phrases that carry meaning better, like sąmoningas dėmesingumas or “aware attention” for example, or through simply using English terms and then explaining them, so “mindfulness” simply becomes “being here and now”.
And something I noted personally was the quiet but persistent presence and honour given to the country’s top athletes. It was not uncommon to see Olympic champions of even the least famous sports lining pathways or smiling from ads throughout the capital; this in direct contrast to home in Canada where it’s generally Hollywood faces we see, with the odd Big-Four’er here and there… but generally only if they’ve entered pop culture in some way.
Additional resources & tips
We talked about the difficulty many of us have in accessing scientific papers and I mentioned Alexandra Elbakyan’s contentious work in this field or, as she is sometimes called, “The Robin Hood of Science“. Lina was quick to quip that the best resources currently are Google and YouTube, both for athletes and practitioners. She’s used Dr. Forlenza’s sport psychology film database before, but notes that — contrary to what you might think — not all athletes enjoy sports movies. In a related vein when asking for a good book recommendation, Lina shared the wise insight that for a book to be good it must not only match the person but also catch them in the right time in their life, to teach them something they don’t know yet:
“I realize that when I read a book maybe it made a big impression when I was in that situation in my life, but maybe another person is in a different situation – maybe if I shared it with them they would be like, ‘I’ve known this for twenty years already!'”
… a good example of being ready to receive a concept is Lina’s history with mindfulness. When she first read of it she wasn’t particularly impressed. It took another two years for her to be ready for the concept, “I had to grow!” she now understands.
However, after some poking and prodding Lina shared that, like her Rigan colleagues, Weinberg & Gould’s Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology is a solid resource: it holds all the basics that you will inevitably forget but really need upon graduation. She also recommends finding supervision or mentorship at the beginning of a career and her best practical advice is getting your feet wet with practical work as soon as possible. When pressed for a movie, Lina admitted to really enjoying Peaceful Warrior, thinking it cheesy at first but finding a lot of valuable lessons within when she finally caved in and watched it after hearing about it so much:
A final piece of wisdom? Again following Irina and Dace further north: be wary of media, they have an uncanny way of twisting your words. Journalists are skilled in lulling you into a sense of relaxation and security so you’re thinking you’re speaking sincerely and commonsensically, but the quotes you’ll read afterwards could certainly get you into some hot water. Wrapping up, Lina shared with us her favourite quote, most often attributed to Mark Twain: “They did not know it was impossible so they did it“.
As with our Rigan friends, Lina’s interview was largely garbled up but I was able to salvage about 15m of it to put a voice to the beaming smile up top. My sister makes a presence here as well, but Lina’s voice is immediately recognizable right from the outset.
Wrapping up, here are some photos from our brief but delightful stay in this wonderful city (further reading includes the Gate of Dawn, Užupis, the Writer’s Wall of Lithuania, St. Casimir’s, the Presidential Palace, the Vilnius Cathedral, Šnekutis’ restaurant, and Milda):