And now for something completely different

Jon Sutton reports on a creative symposium at the Society's Annual Conference.
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Above: An example of Kitrina Douglas and David Carless' exploration of how we can make research more accessible through public engagement and performance.

The morning after the gala dinner at my 16th Annual Conference, it’s fair to say I was in the mood for something different. I certainly got it in this symposium, on sport and adventure activity to support military personnel and veterans recovering from trauma or injury.

The work described was interesting enough, beginning with Suzanne Peacock and David Carless from Leeds Beckett University describing their work with The Battle Back Centre for wounded, injured and sick service personnel. For many, the physical and psychological challenges on offer at this residential course represented the first time they felt genuine support: ‘Once they get you home to safety, you are forgotten about’, one soldier commented. Those taking part had expected the course would be ‘just military’, with a non-negotiable, controlling environment; or ‘soft’, with lots of ‘group hugging’. What they in fact discovered was a place that opened doors to new possibilities for the future, for people who had until then felt ‘just nowhere’.

But what really made this symposium stand out was the psychologists’ ‘long term commitment to exploring data through a range of creative processes’. There was a story of surfing and PTSD, performed by Nick Caddick (Loughborough University) based on his interviews with people taking part in Cornwall-based Surf Action. The aim was to ‘evoke the world intensely’, and it certainly did that. Then there was a play, with songs, performed by Carless along with his colleague and collaborator Kitrina Douglas. I was gripped; Carless was overcome by emotion at the end. He was truly embodying the stories of his participants.

To me, this was a real eye opener. The speakers described informal moments with their participants, sitting quietly, sometimes with the tape recorder on, sometimes not… how do they then present that person’s story in a sensitive way? I’ll admit, I’ve sat through plenty of conference presentations where all the researchers have done is slap those words on a Powerpoint slide, read it out, job done. This was something else entirely, showing theory and research findings in an evocative fashion. Importantly, it was a form of knowledge translation, creating a text which audiences outside academia can engage with.

It’s well worth seeking out some of their work and performances on YouTube. Douglas is a former professional golfer, and a very talented musician to boot. This piece on identity development and interpretive privilege is beautiful as are 'Across the Tamar' and ‘Gwithian sands’ which explore the lives, physical activity and experiences of women over 60 living in Cornwall. Or there’s this documentary with Carless on song-writing, sexuality, same sex attraction and growing up in the hegemonically masculine world of sport.

In sum, this was a wake-up call for me, and I hope it can be for others as well.

- Jon Sutton is Managing Editor of The Psychologist. More reports from the Society's Annual Conference will appear on this site over the coming days and weeks, with extras in the July print edition. Find out more about next year's event

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