A glimpse into the future of sport and exercise psychology

Anna Martin reports from the British Psychological Society’s Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology Conference.

The British Psychological Society’s Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology Conference was, for the first time, held virtually and saw four keynote speakers present over two days. 

The BPS DSEP Chair, Dr Robert Morris opened the conference and introduced the first ever winner of the Virtual 5-Minute Challenge. Steven Vaughan’s presentation titled ‘Me, My Bike and My Thoughts’ showcased his work using a novel ‘researcher-as-participant’ single-case study design. Vaughan explained how by using a Think Aloud protocol, he was able to explore the subjective experiences and impact of collecting cognitive attention data during cycle training.

The first keynote speech, titled ‘Sex and Sheds and Rock and Roll’, provided an insight into the work of Dr Ruth Lowry, whose research focuses on using physical activity to promote health and wellbeing whilst working with community service providers. Although Dr Lowry introduces researching ‘on the ground’ to her students by saying ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore’, she also questions whether this is actually a bad thing, and suggests there is a lot to be discovered when working alongside community groups. 

For the ‘Sex’ component of her presentation, Dr Lowry described her work on the SHIFT project which focuses on the Sexual Health In the over ForTy-fives. Dr Lowry discussed how sexual health services are predominately youth-centric and are dissociated with older individuals, with often young service providers being uncomfortable having conversations with older adults – only reinforcing the stigma and taboo surrounding older people’s sexual health. 

Moving onto ‘Sheds’, Dr Lowry discussed the ‘Step by Step’ project. This aims to empower older men (who are known for placing importance on their domestic shed during retirement) to move from isolation and poor-health, to healthy, social participation and active community involvement. By providing a community space or workshop (aka community ‘sheds’), ‘Shedders’ can meet others, learn new skills, and engage in activities to improve their health and wellbeing. Covid-19 locked the Shed doors, but Dr Lowry was pleased to report that the Shedders have moved online and are continuing to support each other remotely! 

Finally, Dr Lowry’s presentation on her ‘Rock and Roll’ research provided insights into the Clem Burke Drumming Project, which explores the benefits of rock drumming for young people with emotional and behavioural difficulties. According to teachers, children who engaged in drumming became more sociable, developed enhanced capacities to handle multi-step instructions and had less fear in making mistakes. Here, Dr Lowry suggested parallels to sport in that ‘the music doesn’t wait for you’ just as ‘the game doesn’t stop’, and that this continuation encourages children to keep going and learn to move on after mistakes.

In the same storm

‘We are not all in the same boat, but we are in the same storm’ is how the speakers of the second keynote speech addressed the individual differences in coping with Covid-19. Dr Kate Hays, Dr Danielle Adams-Norenburg and Lara Barrett from the English Institute of Sport reflected on their experiences in supporting Olympic and Paralympic Athletes (and each other) during lockdown. Due to the unprecedented circumstances, the literature base for understanding the impact of nation-wide lockdowns and how to cope is limited, and the speakers relayed how they learnt from research showing how individuals returning from nautical voyages, space exploration and hostage situations re-integrated into ‘normal’ life. 

Dr Adams-Norenburg, through her experiences supporting British Canoeing, explained how encouraging coaches to converse with athletes about their purpose, instigating a daily routine and recognising and dealing with grief (for the loss of training, livelihoods and loved ones) allowed athletes to cope with lockdown. When working with her athletes, Dr Adams-Norenburg used a mixture of wellbeing focused (e.g. supporting athletes to review and reconnect with a meaningful purpose) and performance psychology (e.g. use of imagery to reflect on critical performances and decision making) activities to ‘settle the ship’ and ‘discover the opportunity in ambiguity’. 

British Cycling also focused on empowering and upskilling coaches to help athletes during lockdown, with Barrett describing how a ‘lockdown screening’ survey (including reference to sleep quality, energy, routine, and motivation) was used. Responses were used to both reactively manage issues and proactively buffer future problems, empowering coaches and support staff to manage the new environment as restrictions lifted. Uniquely, within cycling, the ‘return to training’ had to be rebranded as the ‘return to the Velodrome’ as cyclists were able to continue training rides during lockdown at home, with additional opportunities to ride socially utilising online platforms, which wasn’t available in other sports. 

Finally, the speakers discussed how plans intended for the optimal preparation for Tokyo 2020(ne) will be evolving continuously, and must be built around ‘embracing uncertainty, practicing adaptability, and mitigating against burn-out’. Dr Hays claimed that every Games’ has a uniqueness (be that the home-nation status during London 2012, or the outbreak of the Zika virus at Rio 2016) and that this time, the uniqueness will be in developing Covid-specific strategies to maximise performance for both Olympic and Paralympic athletes. The speakers concluded that assisting elite athletes (and their support staff) throughout lockdown could be thought of as ‘riding waves’, with much to be learnt from the experiences of lockdown. 

Racism in sport

Many of us find it hard to talk (and write) about racism and the surrounding issues but that is part of the problem, as discussed by Professor Marcia Wilson in a powerful and thought-provoking keynote speech. As she reminded the audience of the significant tragic incidents that have happened in 2020 (including the murders of George Floyd and Breona Taylor), Professor Wilson discussed how ‘too many people want to believe that we live in a society that is post-racism’, and how this is simply not true. 

In society and in sport, many individuals experience collective trauma in response to racist events, despite being in different cities (or even countries) to where the incidents happened. Even with events being organised in attempts to provide an outlet to process trauma and grief (e.g. marches or services), Professor Wilson explained how these indirect experiences of discrimination and racism can evoke symptoms alike to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

Racism is not new to sport – it has always impacted individual’s abilities to participate in sport, and their ability to do so safely. Professor Wilson provided examples of how today’s media captures racism across sport, citing how the lack of racial diversity in the media leads to the differential reporting of the same stories. She highlighted how the media portrayed Tosin Adarabioyo (a black footballer) as ‘a young Manchester City Footballer’ who ‘splashed out on a mansion, despite never starting in the Premier League’ yet reported how Phil Foden (a white footballer) was a ‘young starlet’ who purchased a ‘home for his mother’ – despite the properties costing roughly the same amount. 

Professor Wilson explained that although actions taken by the Premier League in support of Black Lives Matter (e.g. ‘taking the knee’ before kick-off) go a way to raise awareness of racist issues in sport, we need to ‘move beyond [these] empty symbolic gestures’ to make a real change. This led to the question of what we, as individuals, should be doing?

Firstly, we must educate ourselves – we do not live in ‘a colour-blind world’ and hence we must actively work towards diversifying our workforces and advocate for curriculums that address racism. We must also speak out against all forms of racism and ‘work towards being an ally’, with emphasis on work. Although speaking up in difficult situations can be tough, to be progressive ‘we have to call it out – when, and where, we see it’. By not speaking we become complicit with what is happening, and the onus is on all of us to build a colour-blind society, in sport and beyond. 

A wider view of harm

Dr Emma Kavanagh emphasised the opportunity of sport psychologists to foster safe spaces where all athletes can thrive, and take sustained action towards changing the narrative of abuse in elite sport. Speaking about the prevalence of abuse and harm in sporting environments, Dr Kavanagh discussed how welfare concerns are far reaching and how you don’t need to look far to see athlete welfare in the media. Some cases seem to capture the media attention more than others (Larry Nassar’s guilty plea to ten counts of first-degree criminal sexual misconduct comes to mind) yet welfare concerns are apparent across a range of outlets. Therefore, a multi-level perspective which addresses concerns at individual (e.g. depression, eating disorders), relational (e.g. sexual, physical, and psychological abuse) and organisational (e.g. institutional doping or unhealthy cultures) levels is warranted. 

Dr Kavanagh encouraged professionals to take this wider view of the types of harm, suggesting that the likes of self-harm and peer-to-peer violence should be acknowledged alongside welfare concerns that are often triggered by the power differentials in coach-athlete relationships. The rise of highly digitised athletes with many now having a high social media presence (which Dr Kavanagh called the ‘Rise of the @thlete’) has also presented new outlets for abuse, with the virtual violence of fans towards athletes demanding athletes learn to navigate new online spaces, as well as physical training ones.

Echoing comments made by Professor Wilson, Dr Kavanagh described how the impact of abuse (both on and offline) can persist long after the experience and that psychologists are at the heart of what can be done to build safe sporting cultures. Spaces must be developed where athletes can ‘still train to break records, but from an environment that considers welfare’. This will allow for more emphasis on duty of care and caring for athletes (i.e. performing acts that show caring) rather than just caring about them (which has little tangible output). One way to articulate the duty of care is through safeguarding, where Dr Kavanagh discussed how it is important to ask critical questions of the spaces where you work, be aware of your biases and not be afraid to bring in specialists when matters are outside of your expertise. Ultimately, we should all use safeguarding as a point of planning and reflection within our daily practice and seize the opportunity to keep people safe in sporting places. 


Dr Darren Britton, who organised the event alongside Dr Vaithehy Shanmuganathan,  concluded the conference by saying ‘we have been offered a glimpse into the future of sport and exercise psychology; a future of greater collaboration, a future continuing to support athletes through the current Covid-19 pandemic, a future where we as psychologists take a stand against racism and a future where we play an essential role in safeguarding our athletes’. 

- Anna Martin is a PhD Research Student in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences, Loughborough University

Find more about being a Sport and Exercise Psychologist in our archive.

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