In psychology, a “literature review” is a comprehensive summary of what current psychological research says about a certain topic. Since they are supposed to be comprehensive, they typically gather and summarise everything there is to say on a very narrow subject. One subject that is an ongoing theme in the world of sport is perceptions towards sports psychologists; although this may be a rather large topic, there is surprisingly little data published about it! In 2018, several psychologists from Canada’s Université Laval wrote a literature review titled “Experience, Effectiveness, and Perceptions Toward Sport Psychology Consultants: A Critical Review of Peer-Reviewed Articles”.
The review demonstrates how sports psychologists, referred to as Sports Psychology Consultants (SPCs), are received by people in different positions in different sports. The review examines perceptions from three separate angles: the experience of the SPCs, how people feel about SPCs, and their overall effectiveness. To accomplish this, they consulted six databases and one search engine: SPORTDiscus, PsycNET, PubMed, Web of Science, ERIC, Physical Education Index, and Google Scholar.
The single most interesting part of this section is that all the data comes from interviews with or the self-published reports of a few famous SPCs. That means that the top SPCs in the world heavily influence all research data about the subject, and low-level SPCs are not included in published research even though they represent the vast, vast majority of international practitioners. “Most available data about the experience of SPCs are based on the subjective work experiences of one or a few well-known SPCs obtained from interviews or self-narrative papers”. (D. FORTIN-GUICHARD ET AL., page 5). Moreover, based on a comprehensive review of all peer-reviewed articles out there, there is very little data about SPCs who work with youth athletes! Therefore, if SPCs emphasise that they use only evidence-based practices in their methodology, it is highly unlikely that their evidence comes from peer-reviewed sources as applied in sports.
The Experiences of SPCs
A few of the review’s conclusions are much less surprising. For example, most SPCs adopt a cognitive-behavioural approach with mental-skills training. These interventions aim to affect self-confidence, motivation, goal setting, stress management, adaptation, performance pressure, and concentration issues due to external distractions. But due to the reality of the industry, SPCs are required to be flexible. So, even though they are trained in specific interventions, effective SPCs realize sooner or later that they need to be flexible to get results, which means learning entirely new interventions. Most SPCs report the need for an athlete-centred approach, and though this sounds self-evident, not all SPCs put the athlete
When it comes to challenges in doing their work, there is a common and expected list of constraints. For example, many organisations lack the financial resources to allocate for SPC interventions on a frequent basis, if at all. Sometimes, these constraints are more logistical, like when there is a lack of places to meet privately. The most surprising normal constraint was a frequently cited inability to meet with head coaches. This comes as a surprise, since one would expect head coaches to work hand-in-hand with SPCs if there is to be any benefit. Finally, perhaps the most shocking constraint was that some SPCs reported how hard it was to deal with media attention! At the largest tournaments and sporting events, these SPCs not only have to manage their athletes, but they have to manage the media while respecting the confidentiality of the teams and athletes with whom they work. This constraint seems like one that should be avoided entirely: does a respectable SPC have a place in front of the media during big events? Is that not a self-aggrandizing distraction that could impact their performance as an SPC, and therefore the performance of an athlete. It calls their motives and professionalism deeply into doubt.
In the next part, we will discuss athlete/coach attitudes towards SPCs and the overall effectiveness of SPCs.