This is Part 2/2 of Judy Van Raalte’s lecture sum-ups.
Academic subjects behind us, Judy turned to practical counselling advice for her final lecture. She set the groundwork by first allaying our worries about working with clinical cases like suicide or schizophrenia: the chances of running across an athlete with severe psychological problems is quite small because these people do not stay in sport long. Even if we do encounter such extreme cases, we have quick recourse available through referral to a specialist.
Judy is a proponent of us first understanding ourselves before helping others, since we are such an important part of the therapy process. Here are some guiding questions she provided:
- What assets do you bring to your sport psychology consulting?
- What do you lack or need to become the consultant you would like to be?
- How will you gain these skills and experiences?
- How will you know if you have been and effective counsellor?
When working with an average client, more important than your main theoretical basis or the techniques you use is the relationship you build with them. With a good relationship, asserts Judy, good things will happen. Because of this, she is a proponent of a holistic, positive psychology counselling style, looking at development not just from within the sport context, but also from her client’s entire lifespan, focusing the whole time on their strengths and assets rather than on their weaknesses. However, she has found other approaches also work well in certain situations. For example, a cognitive behavioural framework is sometimes effective because it is very solution-oriented (identifying and changing thoughts to change behaviours), and athletes like this, while Gestalt psychology works when you are not tackling any specific problems. She has found the family systems approach useful in cases when it was important to consider the athlete within the greater context of their relationships, especially in team sports where psychological changes in one athlete can be halted by the mindsets of others. For example, athletes are often viewed as “the … one”, with the blank filled by descriptors like “pretty”, “athletic”, or “problematic”. In this last scenario, a full change is difficult because every time the athlete returns to her team, she is again labeled and treated as the part of her identity that she is trying to change, making this process all the more difficult. Raising the team’s awareness of things like this is crucial, because this enables the psychologist to eventually draw back and leave the team with the amazing resource that is itself for support. Judy capped this section off by recommending Meier’s The Elements of Counselling, a great resource on introductory counselling and on the many different approaches available.
Judy understands that when an athlete comes to her for help, it is often because their own attempts at self-help aren’t working — they have tried everything before finally buckling and asking for professional help. The pattern often followed is research, discussions with coaches, waiting for the problem to go away on its own, more research, then giving up… and only then coming in to see a professional. Luckily, this desperate state is balanced by athletes being usually very motivated in getting better (so malingering is rarely a problem). However, a problem must first be understood from an athlete’s perspective before any intervention can begin.
Judy therefore fosters an environment of equality between her clients and herself so they do not feel inferior, building up their confidence through asking them to tell her about their strengths. Confidence built, she then goes through the following questions to get a bearing of where her work lies:
- What have you tried so far that didn’t work?
- What have you tried in other areas that was successful — in work, relationships, school?
- What have others told you to try?
- Where are you now?
With the above answers in hand, she starts building a portrait of her client’s tendencies. Sometimes with this image a clear direction emerges; for example, Judy once had an athlete who, it quickly became clear, simply had too much going on in his head. In this case a simple relaxation strategy proved successful in quieting him down so he could perform properly. Judy sums this up in one key phrase, “I’m a great psychologist because I listen well.”
One activity Judy tried with us that was quite effective was exploring mindfulness. She has found it useful in cases where stress must be immediately relieved and time is limited. For the activity, she handed out chocolates to our group and then verbally walked us through each sensory element of the treat, describing at length each of its facets and leading us into a state of higher awareness, silence, and focus. In these types of activities, Judy underlined that it is most important to be there with the participants, being ware of the sensations they are feeling and the things that are happening within the participants as the exercise unfolds.
Our discussion after the activity confirmed its effectiveness: we felt more quiet and focused, and — through it — we enjoyed the chocolate more. Wrapping this session up, we talked a bit about different strategies for handing items out to a group. Doing so personally is alright when there are few participants, but getting one of them to help or handing things out from two directions rather than just one can expedite the process. Asking for help might be especially useful when the goal is to raise the autonomy of an individual. Another option is having items at the front and inviting the class to come up and get them, which is especially useful when you’re looking to create a quick break from activity.
A worry many of us had was that, since we’ll be being paid for counselling sessions, we’ll likely feel pressure to start tackling issues and analyzing our client right from the outset. “Don’t,” says Judy, “Instead, listen first. This allows you get a more detailed picture of what might be going on, shows respect for your client, and builds the counselling area as a safe space for them where they can explore their issues.”
We then discussed cultural differences as far as nonverbal feedback goes. Nikita from India would often nod to show encouragement during discussions, which Nuno from Portugal read as her maybe having a question. My own experience with Julian from Germany was similar: I would often try to encourage his speaking by saying, “Mhm” , which he later told me would be taken quite differently in Germany. There, this “mhm” assertion is interpreted as, “Mhm, I know what you’re saying, you can stop talking now.” Novice psychologists aren’t often aware of these cultural differences, but, through mindfulness and through creating a very supportive relationship in sessions, can come to notice them.
Another question that arose was the issue of writing v. not writing during a session. Pros of the first included that doing so helps fill in awkward moments of silence with white noise, and that some therapists listen better when they write. Umut from Turkey noted that it feels good, as a practitioner, to have something in your hands when initially embarking on an activity. Judy is a proponent of keeping notes, though she reminds us it is important to tell our clients why we are writing, that the notes we make are not personal but rather to keep us on track, and that the client is more than welcome to read them at any time. In her own sessions, Judy often frames her preference for note-taking as a supplement to her poor memory with details like names. Students in our class then piped up with some of their own counselling experiences and techniques, with York from the UK sharing an interesting alternative to note-taking. When something interesting would come up — to remember or to revisit later in the session — he would pick up his pen or take a sip of water, “anchoring” the idea. When he’d see the pen or cup later, he would be reminded of his mental note and would be able to tackle the issue then. This ensured an uninterrupted session, but also a complete covering of all that needs to be covered. Chris from the US, on the other hand, favoured an “information dump” approach, writing as much as he needed immediately following a session so as to have it available for analysis as needed.
- Understand the problem before trying to fix it.
- Be inquisitive but avoid mind-reading.
- Encourage, but avoid discounting (be able to sit with clients in their sadness).
- Listen for the “but”, and put doubts in their self-doubts.
- Listen with both your ears and your eyes.
- Athletes will lead you to where they believe they need to be. Follow the trail of “but”‘s to see what really lies under their surface presentation. If you are convinced their main problem is not where they are seeing it, then still address what appears to be their most important concern so they do not feel discounted. Once this is taken care of, you can then move on to where you feel the problem truly lies.
- Acknowledge that change is difficult and prepare for the process, planning for plateaus and setbacks. Beware the “What the Hell” effect!
- Train for generalization: help the athlete master the skill from this situation enough to apply it in different circumstances as needed.
- Maintain contact (asking first if it’s okay to do so).
Working with groups
From time to time, working with a group may be indicated. For these eventualities, Judy recommended starting each session off with activities because they break the ice, and they allow for the counsellor to observe group dynamics, for example picking out the leaders, the shy, or the industrious. A neat exercise to do when the group consists of strangers is having them mix and shake hands with those around them in characteristic ways (eg: like a dead fish, like a lady) while answering a predetermined question (eg: “What is your favourite sport?”).
A central question that needs to be answered by all of us is the issue of who we are serving while counselling. Judy advocates always having the interests of the client as number one, addressing any issues from coaches or management by explaining that when an athlete is in a good mental state then performance will naturally improve. On the other hand, Judy warned us against showing too much emotion to a client, especially when they show drastic improvements or present with huge successes in performance. If they see how happy their improvement has made you then they might be less willing to see you when they aren’t doing well, for fear of disappointing you.
We also talked of the importance of sincerity in building trust with clients, one element of which was avoiding fake expressions. A well-known example of this is the now-classic Duchenne smile. Often called a “real” smile, this differs from a fake one through the activation of muscles around the eyes. Fake smiles — sometimes called “Pan Am smiles”, after the airline whose advertisements featured stewardesses with lifeless eyes — are distinguished through only involving oral musculature, thereby seeming forced and disingenuous. It is important for us as counsellors to be real and to avoid expressions that could impede our clients’ trust.
A philosophy that is very close to Judy’s central tenet of having her clients’ best interests at heart is her “you are the expert on yourself” approach. Even if an athlete confesses to doing something that Judy feels is incorrect, she understands that it must have made sense at the time or else it wouldn’t have happened. If shocked, she hides it through asking, “That is surprising — tell me a bit more about it?” She also consistently asks for her athletes’ perspective, asking, “How was that for you?” instead of immediately inferring the answer.
Related to this, Judy is also very clear to tell any coaches with whom she is working about her personal philosophy — that she works for the athlete — right from the start. She also tells them of her strict policy of keeping all information shared during sessions confidential. This raises the trust level between her and her athletes, something that she finds crucial. That said, she is also sure to have her athletes sign a consent form, saying they understand Judy is obligated to report whenever she feels a risk of harm present to the client or others. All these caveats, Judy says, explain acclaimed sport psychologist Ken Ravizza‘s sum-up, “If you want to do this work, expect to be fired.” However, Judy has found that with the proper outlining of one’s personal philosophy and role to a coach, things actually can run quite smoothly. Explaining to a coach that information can successfully flow to the sport psychologist without moving further ensures she can deflect information and not provide it, and that she never finds herself in the middle, accused of taking sides. When a coach asks her for insight into athlete dynamics, she can neatly reply with, “What do you see? Are you seeing the results you are looking for? If there is a specific issue that is bothering you, please let me know because I would really like to address it.”
For the above reasons, Judy avoids being both a coach and sport psychologist simultaneously; the first is concerned primarily with performance, the second with athletes’ personal development… and these two goals don’t always jive.
Ethics, boundaries, and relationships
As the session neared its end, we discussed the issue of boundaries, especially romantic relationships. Judy painted a reality for us that we really appreciated, not skirting around any subjects, however awkward they may be. She told us that it is normal that we’d be attracted to some athletes with whom we’d be working, and that ignoring this and pretending it doesn’t happen is just silly. After all, a huge chunk of our clientèle consists of driven, young athletes, and we will be developing deeper connections with them, genuinely asking about their lives and problems… much like an ideal boyfriend or girlfriend might. Because of this, it is also possible that some of them might develop feelings for us, so it is important to understand this as a potential eventuality and be prepared to deal with it as it happens.
Judy told us of some cases — always anonymous — of psychologists who had found themselves falling for their clients, and of some who had acted on this impulse. She was careful to — even here — apply her characteristic, nonjudgmental style, simply explaining the situation and not passing value calls on its participants. She told us of how many of these relationships do not last long after treatment is over, if only because of the tipping of the power scales after the transition out of treatment. She informed us of a few cases where the relationships worked — and indeed, I can think of one or two of my coaches who followed this path — saying that these are the exception rather than the norm. To protect both clients and therapists from pain, she explained, unofficial guidelines exist as to when pursuing a relationship with a client may be allowed. In the States, this is two years after the therapy is over, because at this point the power scales are much more level and both people would be entering into the relationship as equals. However, she continued to caution against this because it does send a mixed message to the population at large, and a fledgling profession like sport psychology really must strive for excellence across all fronts.
Three final items were addressed, the first touching. Since many of us had coaching backgrounds, touching seemed a natural supportive gesture. However, we became aware that it might be negatively viewed — as an unnecessary placating motion indicating a status difference, for example. The second was that of interfering parents, especially during competitions. One genius tip Judy shared was that of giving particularly disturbing parents lollipops: it eases the tension and makes it more difficult for them to yell in the immediate future. Lastly, Judy gave us a great protip regarding finding work: sell counselling sessions in bulk, eg: “If you buy four sessions you get one free, and then we reassess your needs.” This way you get a chance to make changes in your program and actually have an effect on the team, and the team has time to see this effect.
Similarities to Els’ approach
In reflecting all the above, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Judy’s advice and advice given to us by Belgium’s Els Snauwaert in her keynote delivery in Gothenburg, during ENYSSP‘s annual conference last fall. Entitled, “Do’s and Don’ts as a practitioner: a journey through 15 years of applied work”, Els had the following thought-provokers to share with us:
- When you combine exercises with theory it seems to give each individual session a dynamic touch… but what kind of impression do you want to leave, and what do you want your clients to remember?
- Promoting and advertising yourself and your work: can you do that? And are you okay with sharing information or doubts or new tools with “the competition”, otherwise known as your colleagues?
- How do you profile yourself and your work — in, or out of the spotlight? The office? The field?
- The higher the level of athletes you work with and the longer you work with them, the more specific and cutting edge sport psychology techniques you need. This is a parallel process between experience and ongoing learning. What choices do you make?
- Can you learn what you haven’t experienced? Can you help an athlete who doesn’t want to work with you?
- What is your relationship with the coach? How openly can you share information? Is there one set way to proceed, or does each situation have to be tailored to everyone in it?
- If you join an athlete during important competitions, is that contrary to the idea of making them mentally tough and independent?
- Your intuition, creativity, and guts are often the key to success, and in elite sports, success is what counts, even though the risk of failure is never far away. How far do you trust yourself?
These are all things that, for Els, came together into a clear counselling approach over the years, and all things I am struggling with at the moment as I come to grips with my own philosophy.
Q & A:
- One career regret? I wish I were multilingual, especially Spanish in the States. Secondly, I would consider getting proper psychological credentials. The field of sport psychology is shifting to view a training background in clinical psychology as fundamental — universities are hiring people who are first licensed and reimbursable as psychologists, and only secondly who have expertise in sports.
- One thing you’re glad you did? Focus on my goals, and provide service to the profession. Networking was huge too, as was taking work seriously but also striking a balance between it and the rest of life. A big theme was “Show up for life”.
- What book would you recommend? Exploring Sport and Exercise Psychology. Not because it’s mine, but because I really think it’s good!