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The Evolving Field of Sport Psychology in Human Performance

Shameema Yousuf, a psychologist at Brighton & Hove Albion, explains why there is more to it than mere mental skills.
John Portch

Shameema Yousuf is the Lead Women’s and Girls’ Psychologist at Brighton & Hove Albion FC and the Founder/Certified Mental Performance Consultant® of Empower2Perform. She has worked across the globe supporting the growth, performance and wellbeing of elite athletes, business executives and young people, which leaves her well-placed to espouse the importance of philosophy of a performance rooted in wellbeing. In a Leaders Performance Institute exclusive, Yousuf details why psychology is becoming a crucial cog in holistic approaches to player care at the highest level.


By Shameema Yousuf

Sport psychology is not a new field, but its recognition and importance as a field is growing and evolving. Traditionally, one may have thought of sport psychology as synonymous with performance enhancement, helping individual athletes to perform by overcoming mental obstructions. Given however that individuals who participate in the industry are impacted and influenced by all that goes on in society, in addition to the unique elements of their sport environments, the scope of the work has expanded beyond that of a mental skills coach. The field has evolved to support athletes holistically. To this point, we may consider ecological models that not only focus on the athlete’s performance, but on how the environment and wider social systems impact the athlete (Henriksen, K., Stambulovab, N. & Roesslera, K.K., 2010).

The Holistic Approach to Player Care

Given the rising need for more focus and attention to be placed on the wellbeing of athletes, applied sport psychology has gone beyond the performance narrative as the field tends towards holistic approaches. The word holistic is often mentioned with little explanation as to what this means and with many struggling to understand how such approaches are achieved. Viewed in terms of an ecological framework, coaching staff, family systems, peers, the sport organisation, educational environment, media, culture and social systems all influence how the athlete thrives in their sport. It encompasses several systems:

  • Athlete needs (individual)
  • Relationships and interactions between athlete and coaches, family, teammates (microsystem)
  • Interplay between multiple contexts – family/coaches, sport organisation/athlete/physicians (mesosystem)
  • External contexts that may affect the athlete – mass media, sport organisation, educators, physicians (exosystem)
  • Social norms and beliefs – values and ideologies of sport culture, federation laws, national sociocultural ideologies (macrosystem)

To view athletes’ performance in isolation of these systems, may limit the impact a consultant/practitioner may have on athlete performance wellbeing.

“Holistic care addresses environmental and individual needs”

Research in sport psychology has pointed towards integrating applied practices that optimize performance and wellbeing and ultimately support athletes. They may include, but are not limited to:

  • Healthy identity of athletes beyond sport
  • Development of personal qualities, psychological skills and life skills
  • Development of growth performance mindsets where failure and challenge are facilitated in the environment
  • Management of injury setbacks psychologically and not only physically
  • Cultivating a culture of trust and safety in which athletes’ voices are heard
  • Support of athletes through lifestyle changes – transitions through life and athletic careers, family adjustments, home moves, financial management
  • Development and support of people around athletes (coaches, parents/family members and other staff)
  • Support and acculturation for those of diverse cultural belonging as they navigate interpersonal and intrapersonal concerns and interactions, including social justice needs
  • Managing social media presence and the impact
  • Collaborative expertise from several disciplines to ensure duty of care in pursuit of performance
  • Support of athletes with mental ill health and wellbeing concerns
  • Examining a culture that supports unhealthy behaviours, risk taking behaviours and violence, and providing education and support to change this landscape

For athletes to thrive on the performance journey, sport psychology consultants/practitioners are crucial members who help support cultivate the performance culture that is inclusive of the wellbeing narrative. Indeed, my own philosophy is performance with wellbeing, with consideration for how all systems impact an athlete.

Prevention and Intervention in Sport

In a world where social inequality, mental health and violent inhumanity have commandeered headlines even in sport, it becomes ever more apparent that prevention more than intervention, must be emphasized. Worldwide headlines of abuse have dominated. In other sport environments we have Andy Murray, Eniola Aluko and Colin Kaepernick advocating for equality, and as societal norms that underpin stigma are challenged, athletes like Rebekah Wilson and Danny Rose, become more open about their mental health. Some retired athletes like Rio Ferdinand even report that the sport they were immersed in had not prepared them for life beyond sport.

“Performance should not be at the expense of wellbeing – prevention and intervention must be addressed”

Our role as academics, consultants and practitioners in the field has widened as we are key to shaping attitudes and the sport cultural landscape, while supporting athletes navigate the complexities of their performance journey. Prevention and intervention may also require other clinical psychologists, athletic counsellors, psychiatrists and GPs specialised in working with athletic populations, as well as performance lifestyle/welfare managers and safeguarding officers. This provides a team truly dedicated to holistic support.

Educational programs such as the ATLAS and ATHENA programs – preventative approaches to reduce steroid use, substance abuse and disordered eating amongst athletes, Show Racism The Red Card – an education initiative combatting racism in football, WADA anti-doping e-learning and outreach tools for athletes, Athlete Angel Social Media Training, Sport England’s Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme, Player Associations such as the Football Players Association or the National Basketball Players Association, the newly formed English Institute of Sport Mental Health panel are all examples of preventive initiatives that help educate and support athletes, if adopted by organisations within their own structures.

Youth matter. Prevention methods are not only for the elite sport environments. We must work to make youth sport cultures more inclusive and ensure that the narrative is developmentally appropriate. As sport psychology consultants/practitioners, we can also equip youth and the people that work with them with the knowledge and tools to help navigate challenges and develop healthy performance mindsets from a young age. De-emphasizing performance outcomes in favour of challenge, failure and learning for growth, will lead to more resilient individuals better able to adjust to the pressures and setbacks as they progress. This needs to be facilitated by an environment where feedback and collective support are provided. Indeed, when environment, personal development and growth are addressed and moderated by all staff, we know that resilience is cultivated (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2016; Sarkar, 2018). This is achieved only if athletes are engaged in task ownership and are provided with opportunities for healthy competition and risk taking under pressure, and when personal qualities are developed to meet challenges. Similarly, it is important to develop a culture where playful engagement and social interaction amongst peers are positively enabled at this stage of development. They are not adults yet, so let’s allow them to be children!

“Let youth play and be children, but provide them with tools”

Training applied practitioners. In the UK many practitioners have developed their pathway through British Psychological Society or the British Association for Sport and Exercise Science. International accreditation associations such as the Association for Applied Sport Psychology with their CMPC® certification, Division 47 of American Psychological Society, Australian Psychological Society and other European associations all have training routes too. Essentially when doing applied work to support the psychological performance and wellbeing of athletes and performance staff, a practitioner skillset is required. This skillset is quite apart from an academic skill-set honed in essential research from which evidenced based practice is derived. Helping (counselling) skills and some understanding of psychopathology and cultural perspectives, now required for the CMPC® title, can better inform one’s practice when supporting athletes and staff of diverse identities.

“Develop consultants / practitioners with counselling skills, psychopathology and cultural perspectives”

I believe that not only will applied consultants/practitioners with this training be able to recognise presenting concerns more competently, but they will help to develop a therapeutic alliance with athletes who have similarly expressed the need for practitioners to be comfortable exploring the dialogue beyond performance (Gulliver, Griffiths & Christensen, 2012). Furthermore in a recent article I wrote titled “The Myth of Sport Psychology at Wimbledon”, I highlighted the need for consultants/practitioners to recognise the nuances of presenting concerns in different sport contexts, and to practice systemically by drawing upon and integrating knowledge from relating fields: educational psychology, counselling psychology, organisational psychology, and even perhaps forensic psychology.

Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club Making Strides

At Brighton & Hove Albion FC (BHAFC), where I am Lead Psychologist for the Women’s and Girls, we are developing structures to provide holistic care for the players and staff. On my appointment, I highlighted that support for the Women’s and Girls, would stretch beyond mental skills delivery and would be more in lines with a performance wellbeing philosophy. Given my counselling background specialising in sport psychology, I not only deliver tools to enhance performance, but also explore wellbeing concerns. The club as a whole has a leadership paradigm, in which the well-being of the people employed and contracted by the club (including the players), and those within the club’s communities are being emphasized for lasting, intrinsic value. Into my second season with the club that has seen the First Team Women step into becoming full time professional footballers, we have collectively been instrumental in formulating a program and psych-social strategy for the Women’s and Girls teams.

My role is encompassed in a multidisciplinary approach to support athlete performance wellbeing. What this means is we are working on protocols that ensure Welfare (often referred to in other organisations as Performance Lifestyle), Safeguarding, Psychology, Sports Medicine and Performance Coaching staff employed by the club, collectively provide a duty of care to players drawing on each other’s expertise to help provide best practice. This is always with players’ right to confidentiality in mind. Clinical support is provided externally through a referral pathway supported by welfare, and we utilise external partners to deliver education on media training, nutrition, social equality aspects, first aid, mental health, anti-doping, financial planning, career development and tertiary education. All players are members of the Professional Footballers Association with access to additional welfare support and educational material. The club provides training to other staff members on mental health first aid to enable more support to players and we also signpost information from NHS or charity organisations. At BHAFC, player care is a priority and the club’s philosophy is “people first”.

“Nobody gets there alone – surround the players with multidisciplinary expertise”

Alongside this holistic multidisciplinary approach, we have a team culture for performance. Grouped with the club core values of TEAM, the first team and academy women’s and girl squads, and staff members discuss collaboratively what other values are important within the performance domain. These values are underpinned by behaviours and drawn together in a code of conduct that is carried through in and outside of the football club. We regularly discuss the values so that they become part of our DNA, brought to life through our guiding psych-social framework SCORE TO WIN. Each descriptive in the framework has performance behaviours attached to them.

 

 

While ultimately our aim is to score and win matches, our first season in the Women’s Super League 1 (WSL1) has been about emphasizing learning for all players and staff. We know that we are not a seasoned professional team like Arsenal and Man City. This is our first season in the top league and we are on a steep learning curve. Part of this learning requires that we tinker with challenge, so that our ladies are stretched on pitch with coaches integrating competitive pressure scenarios in training that are not beyond their capability, while similarly cementing the simple basics for growth through discursive feedback. This culture is important to help manage the disappointments that come from losses, yet similarly drive development. We are extremely mindful of our language and narrative emphasising errors as essential to our growth as a team, while building upon some of the personal and team qualities to enhance confidence, motivation, sustained focus, commitment and resilience, with high expectations of each other.

“Have high expectations, but facilitate learning”

Wellbeing is monitored daily by tracking a scale we use to monitor mood, stress, sleep, muscle soreness and fatigue, and along with the medical staff, we ensure high scores that appear more than twice are addressed immediately. Not only do I use my mental health counselling background to inform my approach with athletes, but given my high performance experiences as a previous trader and athlete, I draw upon my experiences to impact the mindsets of our players. In both sport and trading floor contexts, athletes need to manage their emotions and focus in dynamic circumstances while making effective decisions. To enable this, mindfulness, compassion and gratitude are integrated in performance, and our ladies have also had input on their recovery sessions by integrating yoga.

We also try to develop talent by ensuring that the academy girls have opportunities to compete with the first team players in training and match fixtures, and are similarly given support in their psych-social development. Whenever I refer to the word compete with the ladies, we talk about the word being derived from the Latin word competere, which is to “strive together”. This is our mindset at BHAFC. We strive as a team in-and-amongst ourselves and try to push our opponents to show up their best.

The Day to Day in Practice

One day is never the same for me. In my small but busy private consulting practice, Empower2Perform, I hold consultations in the sport domain, am present at events to observe my athletes, hold tele-consultations, write articles, speak at conferences, write for journals and prepare for book publications, hold business meetings with prospective clients and partners to discuss their needs, and carry out all the more mundane tasks required of running a small business. I am head of everything department in my small practice!

Similarly, my days at BHAFC with the ladies vary depending on the training schedule for the week, which changes week to week. My delivery is often conducted at the side of the pitch in short bursts, in more of a sit-down individual approach between training sessions, and through small group talks and team workshop delivery. I may sometimes similarly sign post athletes to useful educational material and hold other meetings and chats with staff and partners to help support our players. Pitch-based training sessions and fixtures are attended, and I conduct some video analysis to enable understanding and facilitate discussion in feedback.

Learning and Ethical Responsibility for Self-Care Never Ends

It is incumbent upon any professional in the field to undertake regular professional development. This may mean attending conferences, professional training courses, and will include self-driven education by reading a wide array of journal literature and research, book titles, and online resources. Not only is it about knowledge acquisition, but reflection is very much part of one’s responsibility. Personally, I still engage in peer to peer case and literature mentoring and discussion, inspired by my two graduate school clinical supervisors who meet to glean from each other’s case interpretations over lunch every Wednesday; this after 40+ years of practice.

“Self-care is an essential responsibility for one’s own performance”

Equally important for me in the field of applied sport psychology is the need to exercise self-care. This can be extremely challenging when working in private practice alongside being employed by a sport organisation, as it requires flexibility and adjustability around work at weekends, nights, early mornings while still finding ways to productively cover business aspects during the day. Scheduling essential self-care is not only imperative for my wellbeing, but one of the responsibilities to clients/athletes, since I cannot be fully engaged and authentically present when wellbeing and performance are impaired due to personal neglect.

One of the biggest personal challenges developing a career in the field was barriers to progression due in part to a lack of inclusivity in sport. Progressing my interests in cultural perspectives and wellbeing in the field, has allowed me to impact strategy on multicultural practices within sport, while enabling me to support athletes of intersectional identities with competence. Given daily environmental changes, social challenges and modernisation, we must always seek to better our practices by continuing to learn, refine and reflect with care. Scientific research and discoveries will bring new thought and evidence to light, and the field of applied sport psychology will evolve to reflect these new findings and challenge unhealthy norms.


References

Fletcher, D. & Sarkar M. (2016). Mental fortitude training: An evidence-based approach to developing psychological resilience for sustained success. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 7 (3), pp. 135-157.

Gulliver A., Griffiths, K.M. and Christensen, H. (2012): Barriers and facilitators to mental health help-seeking for young elite athletes: a qualitative study. BMC Psychiatry, 12 (157).

Henriksen,K., Stambulovab,N. & Roesslera, K.K, (2010). Holistic approach to athletic talent development environments: A successful sailing milieu. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 11(3), pp. 212-222.

Sarkar, M. (2018) Developing resilience in elite sport: the role of the environment. The Sport and Exercise Scientist, 55 pp. 20-21.


Shameema Yousuf is a Certified Mental Performance Consultant ® administered by the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (CMPC), Registered Counsellor of British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (MBACP), DSEP Member of British Psychological Society (MBPsS) and Member of American Psychological Society – Div. 47 (APA).

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