Castles by Ants – Episode 6: SPORTS PSYCHOLOGY AND PSYCHOLOGICAL SYSTEMS
An ongoing series about psychology in the world of sport.
These are the fields with the most potential for developing new perspectives for mental preparation. Most assume that these areas are bound together since they share common goals. There are countries where this is exactly how it works. Psychologists use the evaluations of psychological systems to further the athlete’s personal management. It is important that all of this can be done during individual coaching, so the role of a psychologist in individual sports is vital. The degree of mental success achieved depends largely on the psychologist’s professional skills and experience. We should not forget that after all, psychologists are humans, not robots, and they cannot be completely objective during the implementation of theoretical knowledge into practice. Every sports psychologist develops preconceptions on which they build their practice. More specifically, if the specialist deals with an athlete whose personality is like another who became successful, their experience is perfectly applicable. Obviously, a good psychologist will not be confused by a new type of personality, but in that case, they also need to find their own path to success. Not to mention that humans can be wrong, and if there is no objective, analytical system in the background to check the decisions under all circumstances, errors can occur. Of course, everyone uses some kind of test with clear results, but the practical application of those results is inherently subjective. There’s no problem with that! The problem is if a given sports psychologist believes they are infallible! This happens frequently. But let’s suppose that a professional is extremely gifted and provides perfect mental preparation for the athlete. With all due respect to the notable exceptions, the knowledge of most sports psychologists fails in the case of team sports. Indeed, it is exceedingly difficult to place an individual’s development ahead of the team’s. Likewise, it is problematic to say that we are deprioritising a player’s individual development because it is the most successful solution for the team. In fact, managing a team is far more challenging than one-to-one therapy. This is why teambuilding is such a specialised field; it requires profound professional knowledge. Sports psychologists stick to psychological advice, of course, but psychology alone is far from sufficient to achieve true success. In teambuilding, the important elements cannot be missed, such as communication, acceptance, understanding of one another, and respect of hierarchy.
There is one more critical element that has fundamentally shaped the past decade and the near future of sports psychology: idolism. For the members of the younger generations, just like in the business world, it is absolutely essential that the people providing solutions, suggestions, and training can be considered idols. Every time I’ve worked with a team, the first workshop was always a make-or-break event. Before this workshop, the coach had to fight to get the players to attend! At the end of the first, usually 3-hour teambuilding and self-evaluation workshop, we always ask the players for their opinions. 96% of the players interviewed said something positive, usually along the lines of “Honestly, when I heard it was going to be a psychological session, I didn’t want to come, but I was pleasantly surprised and enjoyed the three hours”. Within the first 5 to 10 minutes, we have to contend with negative attitudes towards sports psychologists among players. The countless reasons for this deserve a separate study and are not the subject of this book! How do we overcome this resistance? By introducing ourselves and telling them who we are. I’d like to point out right away that a person who has not achieved outstanding business results should not try to work with teams in this capacity. In addition, these results must be properly conveyed to the players. It is always easier for a good businessperson to become an idol in the eyes of an athlete, or at least this has been my personal experience. Of course, when you are an athlete, you choose an athlete as your role model, and you want to grow up to be like them! But life after sport is much longer than a typical athletic career. And athletes know very well that the transition to a business career poses an enormous challenge. For them, business is the great unknown. It is fascinating to see how managers admire athletes, and athletes admire managers. Managers admire athletes because for them, athletes embody many things that the manager cannot achieve. Likewise, athletes admire good businesspeople because successful managers already have careers that athletes want to build for themselves. This is why a professional with the right character, with a proven track record in organisational development, is easier for a team to accept than a psychologist. And there is no room to be offended: this is just how it is with the younger generations, and the effect is only getting stronger. The best solution is if the management, especially the head coach, can eventually take over this teambuilding role from the professional, and they can make the process started by the professional all the more effective.
Considering the information above, it may no longer come as a surprise that the relationship between sports psychology and professionals dealing with psychological systems is not always free of conflicts, and the level of cooperation varies considerably from country to country. With the most sophisticated sports psychologists, the work goes perfectly. But since the psychological system can help with player selection, opposition research, team strategy, and tactical variation, the sports psychologist should focus specifically on individual mental development. But the clever psychologist understands this and does not want to interfere with team-level activities. In addition, businesspeople using the systems can work more effectively with head coaches. Of course, this is only true if the coach can look up to the businessperson and accept their previous success. When that happens, there will be more and more common points between the coach and the system, because the coach needs to do the same thing as a strong company leader: build a team, motivate them, create the strategy, and apply tactics.
The biggest conflicts between sports psychologists and psychological systems occur when mediocre psychologists obtain well-paid positions. It is not the real professionals that attack systems, but the dominant, opinionated psychologists — the “Ruler” personality according to our system. The Ruler is superficial and doesn’t care about the details, so Rulers don’t make the best psychologists, but they try to hide this via communication, and can often do so successfully for decades. There are countries where such characters are not even found in the upper levels of sports psychology, and where the use of psychological systems is not even a question. On the other hand, there are regions where resistance occurs due to envy or self-preservation. Which, of course, is understandable, because if a system, or a businessperson, can do more for mental success, it can be a tough pill to swallow. Although it should be noted that behind every businessperson and system there is a psychologist (or sports psychologist in case of sports tests), but at the end of the story, the sports psychologists fear they will be made redundant. If, of course, they were dealing with an area they knew less, then this fear would not be so palpable. To write the book, I asked colleagues to describe the characters and locations of the sports psychologists who had shown serious resistance against our system during presentations or meetings. Well, there have not been too many examples. Without exception, the resistance has come from Ruler types from post-Soviet countries who were once athletes — they repeatedly refer to this as indisputable evidence of their professionalism — who never quite reached the top international levels in their sports. Then, towards the end of their sporting careers, they went back to school to become sports psychologists. The profile is quite simple and easily identifiable. Unfortunately, they can do grave damage to a given federation or club, because they have a good PR sense and put a lot of energy into being the “face of the profession”. And true sports psychologists do their jobs in silence, so they don’t get enough exposure, and the teams in the given area can’t take advantage of the real opportunities from the psychological profession. These bad apples have discredited the profession in the eyes of teams and coaches. Their common feature is that when they are successful, they take centre stage, give interviews, and take credit for the victory, all of which are difficult or impossible for coaches and athletes to bear at the team level. Then, when the result is negative, they “vanish into thin air”, to quote several national team captains. In sport, the loyalty of the teambuilding professional towards the team is essential for team development and mental preparation. If the team is successful, then the success is because the team has worked for it, and the mental preparation is just a vital component of the process. If, on the other hand, there is a failure, the teambuilding specialist must be there and stand by the team. Only in this way can a truly trustworthy and beneficial relationship be established between the professional and the players/coaches in the long run. But to reach success, continuous relationship-building is a must; this happens over time, and the same specialist has to complete the process. To achieve this, the confidence of athletes and coaches cannot be betrayed!
This profession is also not free from human factors. For me, sport has always been a passion. I never looked at it as a source of income and only started working in the field when salary was simply no longer important to me. Therefore, under all circumstances, one must be objective, outspoken, and direct; there is no room for flowery words, because, at the end of the match, the team has to seize the opportunity! However, many people ask me why I need this extra risk in my life, because I have an excellent image in the business world and people look up at me internationally in the business development profession. And when it comes to sports development, the whole professional background can be questioned by a single defeat. I have been thinking a lot lately about whether this Russian roulette is worth it. But obviously, by virtue of my personality, I always said yes to those sports professionals whom I respected, because seeing the belief, dedication, and discipline of players and coaches is extraordinarily uplifting. Moreover, it is even better to experience all this with different age groups, as I have developed teenage club teams and the world-leading adult teams as well. And the icing on the cake is when you watch a match with the feeling that “my daughters” or “my sons” are there, and when you can help these athletes achieve great things. In that case, it’s worth all the risks! There is a lot of sadness, energy, and fun in sport, even as a teambuilding and coaching mentor, and experiencing it all is truly extraordinary.