Throughout my initial education as a sport psychologist I was treated to a constant diet of four main approaches to working as an applied consultant: cognitive, behavioural, humanistic, and psychodynamic. At the same time I was taught that in sport-psychology the most common approach was cognitive-behavioural, and pretty much instructed that that is the way that it should be, and how I should work.
However, the more I have learnt over the years, particularly since working as a practitioner in the ‘real world’ the more I have found that this really does not tell the whole story. Indeed, the longer I practice the more I feel that consultancy models of practice are not as well defined as the literature would have us believe. Admittedly I would agree that the predominant approach is still cognitive-behavioural in it’s ethos, but that times are changing. In part I think this reflects the unique nature of the sport psychologist and the work that they do. In ‘purer’ forms of therapy and counselling the practitioner is defined by their approach rather than the domain. For example a cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) practitioner deals with a range of issues using a CBT approach, where as in sport we are more defined by our domain (sport) rather than our approach.
I also find it interesting that I was taught about the psychodynamic approach like it is one mode of practice, but on closer inspection the range of registered therapies under this umbrella is surprising. In the UK alone there are over 400 different variations of psychotherapy that are approved for public consumption. So maybe it is less about which therapy club you belong to and more about how you use it.
A single psychological issue such as depression could be ‘fixed’ from a number of different perspectives, each of which might be as impactful as another. This then raises the question ‘is it the specific approach or the ability of the consultant’?
In sport we are seeing a generation of applied practitioners who are not so bogged down in this history, who are willing to employ a wide range of approaches and techniques to elicit the required behavioural, emotional, and cognitive changes. Increasingly existentialists, psychodynamicists, and positive psychologists are far more common. There are consultants who embed eastern philosophies, meditation, and mindfulness comfortably into their practice.
Also unlike other parts of psychology I don’t think that these approaches are as exclusive in sport, increasingly there is evidence that consultants are combining aspects of different approaches to develop their own models of practice. This is similar to the approach adopted in psychotherapy where practitioners have developed their own versions of existing practices that take into account their own beliefs, strengths and skills.
So, sport psychologists should not feel constrained by the historical focus on cognitive-behavioural approaches and instead develop an approach that works for them. On my part, I would say that these days I am a positivist, cognitive-humanist . . . . . now they definitely didn’t teach me about that one at University!