Helping an Athlete Step to a Higher Level of Competition

Specifically, how can Sports Psychology help athletes? The athlete in this case is competing in Golf and is progressing to compete at senior level for the first time. The athlete has been successful as a youth athlete winning national and European titles. The athlete wanted to work with a sport psychologist to prepare for competing at senior level and work on how they can cope with the challenges they will experience as a senior athlete. 

A picture of a golfer taking a swing

Following the athlete making initial contact with the Sports Psychologist, and the Sports Psychologist identifying that they could help the client with their presenting issues, the athlete and practitioner agreed to arrange an intake interview.

Session 1: Intake Interview

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An intake interview is where the Sports Psychologist establishes ethical boundaries with the athlete, establishes a working relationship with the athlete, generates a comprehensive history of the athlete, and the approach to the support is clarified. A strategy often used during an intake interview is to ask the athlete to draw a timeline of their life from birth to the present moment highlighting high and low points. This provides the sports psychologist with a background on the athlete and their experiences. This provides the basis for how a Sports Psychology can help an athlete improve performance. During and following the intake interview the sports psychologist and athlete agree the goals for the support that will be provided. In this case, the goals were:

  • To help the athlete cope with competing at senior level
  • To learn to forget about mistakes 

The approach adopted by the Sports Psychologist was an Acceptance Commitment Approach (ACT). Instead of attempting to change thoughts, ACT aims to change the way a person relates to their thoughts. Once the support model is chosen and the goals are agreed, the client will fill in a pre-evaluation form so that the changes over time can be assessed. There are six key processes (acceptance, defusion, committed action, values, self as context and present moment).

Following the athlete making initial contact with the Sports Psychologist, and the Sports Psychologist identifying that they could help the client with their presenting issues, the athlete and practitioner agreed to arrange an intake interview.

Session 2: Helping the Client Deal with Mistakes

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The second session looked specifically at how the Sports Psychologist can help the athlete. 

Acceptance in ACT refers to accepting the positive and negative emotions that we experience in life. The client referred to getting frustrated when not playing to the best of his ability and as a result his performance would deteriorate further. The aim of the process of acceptance was to help the client notice their inner experiences (e.g. the feeling of frustration) and instead of allowing the feeling to control their performance, the aim was to help the client accept what they were feeling. 

The concept of clean and dirty emotions was explained to the athlete. Clean emotions are ones that occur in response to the environment, in this case the feeling of disappointment after a mistake. In contrast a dirty emotion is one where the feeling occurs in response to thoughts. In this case the dirty emotion of frustration was in response to the thought of “I should have done better”. 

A quicksand metaphor was used to explain to the client how we deal with emotions and affect our response to them. In quicksand the more we struggle the harder it pulls us in, whereas if we move slowly and deliberately, we can get out of the quicksand (Harris, 2012). If we try to struggle and fight the emotion it can make it worse leading to frustration, whereas if we accept the feeling of disappointment as normal we can refocus on the next shot. 

Session 3: Helping the Client to Compete at Senior Level

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The second part of the intervention was focused on helping the client make the step up to senior competition. This part of the intervention was focused on helping them identify their values and engage in committed action in line with their values when competing in senior sport. 

It was explained to the client that values are like a compass, they provide direction when we are uncertain. Values are different to goals, a goal would be trying to reach a certain destination, whereas values would be heading in the direction of west. To clarify the clients values the client was asked to describe an end of career ceremony. The client was asked to identify three important people in their life and to imagine they are at the end of their career. These people will describe the athlete using values the behaviours the athlete engaged in. The client was asked, what would they like them to say? 

The sports psychologist took notes on the values and behaviours the client mentioned. These values and behaviours were discussed and used to help the client identify areas they can put them into practice when competing in their first senior event. These values and behaviours would be used when debriefing the client following their first senior event. This was used as a reference to evaluate how Sports Psychology has improved the athletes performance.

Session 4: Evaluation

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This is where we answer the question, “How has Sports Psychology helped the athlete?”. This is where the client fills in a post support evaluation form and the comparisons are made between the first and last session. This provides evidence for the client and practitioner on the areas that might have changed during the support process. The key learnings from the support provided are reviewed and potential future barriers to implementing the changes the athlete has made are reviewed. The evaluation is key in understanding how Sports Psychology can help athletes. If provides a means of understanding the client’s progress and potential areas they can focus on after the support process ends