Theory led or innovation driven practice?

Having attended the ‘Sport and Exercise psychology in action’ 1-day conference in Portsmouth, UK yesterday there was an interesting question that formed in my mind.  Should applied sport psychologists be driven by existing theory and research, or should they be innovative and creative in trying to find new original solutions to the problems that they are presented with?


The academic sport psychology community is very clear that applied practice should be very clearly underpinned by evidence. The notion of ‘evidence-based practice’ is central to this idea. Adopting this approach the consultant will look to ensure that there is a strong literature base to the interventions that they implement. This approach has also given rise to the researcher-consultant who seeks to conduct the research and then apply the knowledge that emerges from this research.

However, contrasting this approach are the applied practitioners who do not have a foot in the academic world. For them they seek to find solutions to applied problems that work. These consultants are happy to try different approaches with the fundamental aim being one of finding something that works. This type of practitioner is happy to ‘think outside the box’ in order to find a solution.


Indeed, often for the full-time applied consultant the sport psychology literature does not offer the solutions that they require. The area of teams is a casing point. The existing sport psychology literature that focuses on teams in relatively simplistic and does not really offer many of the answers for practitioners working in complex team environments.


The literature in the discipline is also part of the problem. While a number of the sport psychology journals claim to be applied, they are really interested in applied research, not the experiences of practitioners working in the real work. There should be avenues available for consultants with experience to share insights into what they did and how they did it without having to articulate a strong theoretical base. Indeed, if these articles started to be published they would in turn provide some clear avenues of enquiry for the research world. Energy could then be invested in trying to understand how and why something worked.


There is a further practical issue for consultants who are not affiliated to Universities. It can be either very difficult, or very expensive to be in a position to keep abreast of the most recent research. Researcher-consultants often take for granted the access to resources they have through the subscriptions of the institutions they work for.

I suppose the ideal solution lies somewhere in-between these two positions, looking at the profession as a whole. Psychologists worthy of the name need to have a very strong psychological base upon which they build there practice. A clear understanding of key psychological concepts, approaches and techniques is fundamentally important. Practitioners also need to, as much as possible, keep their knowledge current and up-to-date.  But, the next step depends upon the consultants approach. It must be equally accepted to generate knowledge through research as it is to generate knowledge through experience. It is as important to know what works as well as why.  If we can either evolve the approach of existing academic journals or develop new professional journals that enable ‘real world’ practitioners to publish the knowledge they have generated we can start to significantly enhance the effectiveness of the literature in supporting our practice. This in turn will move us one step closer to real evidence-based practice.

4 thoughts on “Theory led or innovation driven practice?

  1. Very interesting Dr Cotterill. I have thought, for some time now, that we perpetuate the theories and accepted practices to drive forward what we are trying to prove. It is clear that some of the core fundemental precepts have to be considered but by continuing strand based research are we not just finding ourselves in a cyclical bubble?

  2. Coaches and athletes are not bothered whether you can justify an intervention from a theoretical basis, they simply want to feel that an expert is providing the best advice, support and intervention for them at any moment in time AND that the advice will help them perform better and win more.

    Years of experience can provide the confidence for a practitioner that they KNOW just the right action to take. Years of study of theory can provide a less experienced practitioner with the confidence that they have some excellent guiding principles to use to help deliver something of value AND develop their experience.

    It seems to me that theory should inform practice, but not constrain it (by perpetuating a myth that it has to be THIS way and that the theory must be adhered to at all costs) and Practice needs to be informed by the core theories of human performance psychology but not completely ignore it. Here’s where art and science blend and development journeys for practitioners should build confidence in both the science and the art of consulting, if that is what you want to do.

    Both theory to practice and practice through theory practitioners have positive intent in what they do, there’s probably just different points of reference that drive the psychologist’s perception of competence. One group are seeking to be validated by the pieties of fellow scientists to let them know that ‘you’re o.k.’ and the other group are seeking to make an impact for the bias of their customers to let them know that ‘you’re o.k.’.

    Ultimately, we need to be able to have a positive answer to the question, ‘did I do the best job I could given what I know and what opportunity I had?’

  3. Interesting blog Stewart. Having been on both sides of the fence I have experienced the trials and tribulations of an early practitioner establishing methods of practicing in the real world. It is very much as you say about thinking outside the box. With little access to journal articles you have to rely on what you already have, or indeed friends you have inside an institution to get hold of the articles you need. I remember coming to the end of my MSc and downloading as many back issues of journals I could, knowing that my practice would gradually get further and further out of date. To rectify this it was about adapting the research i did not into new and exciting ways to deliver it to clients, and in some part I did feel successful at doing this, however, there was always a little guilt in the back of mind, knowing full well that I hadn’t been able to consult the literature as much as I would have liked.

    On the plus side of this however, it did force me to develop skills that were more person-centered. left in a situation where i needed to provide answers, i turned to the research I could do, and that was the research of the client, after all, they were the expert in themselves, and I used the evidence they provided me to adapt, adjust and reflect to help them develop an understanding their cognitions and develop their own plans for change.

    In my role at an institution however, I now have access to all the literature I need, and continue to use it develop my applied skills. But, as you say, much of this literature is still applied research, not applied work. Often i find myself reverting back to what i learnt outside of the institution, only using the literature as and when required.

    it’s an interesting debate, and after attending and presenting at the Psychology in action event myself, I feel that the field will need to host more events such as this, and look to present real world case studies in written form, to enable practitioners to share best practice from an applied perspective (such as Hemmings & Holder, 2009).

    I think sometimes as practitioners we get to concerned with keeping our techniques to ourselves, but in the end, does this benefit the clients that we work with?

  4. Thanks for a great blog post Stewart. I think this article raises some really interesting points. In my experience, sport psychology literature is dominated by some fairly cumbersome and stubborn theories – and I say this as opposed to ‘robust’ or ‘well-supported’, because it seems like no one ever attempts to test or disprove them. We just have a literature that exclusively supports and propagates the same old theories (and largely frowns upon/suppresses new ones).

    That’s one problem, and another is that several of the classical theories tend to lack real-world applicability. I’m not sure (still) how much coaches and athletes want to know about task/ego goals or perhaps Nideffer’s attentional styles – it needs to be in plain English and easily understood by the people who will actually be applying it (i.e., when the psych isn’t by their side).

    However, just to be awkward 🙂 I would still argue that there is a place for theory in sport psychology consulting, if we redefine what we mean by theory. Viewing ‘theory’ as just the ones we find in textbooks is, indeed, very constraining and frustrating. However, writers from Hawkins to Popper define theory as having two key properties: 1) offering an explanatory framework for the phenomena observed; 2) making predictions, which can then be tested (to destruction) or at least applied and worked with.

    In this respect, there is still scope for any sport psychologist, with or without access to the journals, to deliberately theorise about their client’s experiences or situation. As a rule of thumb, a working model of causes, mechanisms and effects/outcomes could suffice, ranging from extremely simple to very complex if needs be. It might even ‘look like’ an existing theory, or it might be totally unique to that client.

    At this point in time (and I reserve the right to rethink in due course..!), I would argue that as long as a practitioner can explain the ‘working model’ (i.e., theory) they are using, to a supervisor, colleague, client (ideally) or perhaps in a case study – so as long as they can be ‘transparent’ – then we’re good to go.

    I suppose the danger of rejecting all theory – for the reasons discussed in the article – might be that it produces an anarchic ‘anything goes’ approach, which might take the science (and accountability) out of the the consulting process. This could open the practitioner (and the whole profession) up to some pretty searching questions – i.e., “Do you really know what you’re doing… and if so, can you tell me?”.

    That’s where I’m up to so far…. is that broadly in line with what you were thinking? I’m on @SportPsychAus.

    Thanks again for getting the grey matter working 🙂

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