‘In sport 90 per cent of what you do is psychological'

Ian Florance talks to Dr Rhonda Cohen, Head of the London Sport Institute at Middlesex University

Sport dominated English society in 2012 to a greater extent than in any year since 1966. Interviews and articles raised the profile of the psychology of elite sports as well as the issue of exercise motivation in the general population. It seems a good time to talk on the phone to Dr Rhonda Cohen, Head of the London Sport Institute at Middlesex University, about her career in psychology.

Rhonda grew up in Rhode Island, New England. I asked her what initially interested her in psychology. ‘High school sociology introduced me to the way factors such as gender affect people. I also loved reading as a teenager and I was fascinated by descriptions of character development in certain novels. For example, I read I Never Promised Youa Rose Garden, Joanne Greenberg’s 1964 novel about a teenage girl with schizophrenia, in the same year that one of my classmates killed herself by jumping off a multi-storey car park. Obviously that really affected me.’

Rhonda was interested enough in the mind to start her degree (psychology with a minor in education) at Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts: ‘It’s the only US university where Freud spoke, which is why I went there. He was visiting the States in 1909 along with Jung having been invited by G. Stanley Hall. When asked about the symbolism of his smoking, he was said to have replied “sometimes a cigar is only a cigar”. Psychology degrees are sometimes disappointing until you get to specialise. I got fascinated by psychometric testing and abnormal psychology once we got on to them.’

After her second year of university, Rhonda moved back to Rhode Island when she married an Englishman. ‘I advanced into the final year of university though a series of advanced placement tests and began studying for my final year before starting postgraduate work at Rhode Island College. However, the economy was difficult so we made the decision to move to the UK.’ Was that a difficult transition? ‘Moving to London from small, quieter Rhode Island was challenging. English people were harder to get to know than Americans, but once they got used to you were loyal and built deeper relationships.’ Rhonda went through the graduate management trainee programme for HR at Marks and Spencer, ‘…introducing me to organisational psychology. I enjoyed working in business and, though it wasn’t the right route, I learnt a lot about management and organisation, which I found I had a passion for.’

Rhonda’s next career move was an accident. ‘I had a young family and was considering a business making cakes for special occasions. I also thought about doing some part-time teaching because, though I didn’t have any teaching qualifications, it seemed a route into educational psychology. Anyway, I rang up the local college to see if they ran courses in cake decorating. In passing, I asked if they offered any teaching qualifications. When I mentioned my experience in psychology they immediately asked if I could teach A-levels in the subject and, a week later, I was at the college doing exactly that.I stayed for around 10 years . Unfortunately the cake-making course was on the same night so I never got to attend it.’

How did Rhonda’s psychological interests link to sport? ‘I played tennis at high school and university. At the age of 18, I got the urge to go skydiving and loved it. Then on holidays we’d go white water rafting, snowmobiling, jet skiing and kayaking. I’ve been down the bobsled run at Lillehammer and went off-roading for my birthday in order to get a last British Off Road Driving Association (BORDA) licence. I liked pushing it a bit! Drag racing was a big influence. I was a psychologist in a drag racing team for six years – we became FIA European Champions for four of them. The team travelled all around Europe and even raced in the USA. It was exhilarating. Think about the mindset required for a driver who travels at 360mph in under five seconds. My passion for psychology and my love of extreme sport seemed to come together. I’d have done a lot more of those sorts of activities if I’d got interested in them when I was younger. They teach you to trust in yourself. You feel “If I can handle that I can handle anything”.’

During the drag racing years, Rhonda qualified as an advanced fitness instructor and completed an MSc in Health and Psychology. ‘At that time there was no such thing as a sports psychology master’s. My dissertation, on sports addiction, was written under the supervision of Hannah Steinberg, who was a member of the Sport and Exercise Psychology Section within the British Psychological Society. I got involved in writing modules for a health and fitness foundation degree and now I lead the London Sport Institute, which is a department within Middlesex University. I’m immensely proud of it. We have over 500 students, a range of internationally recognised research, postgraduate programmes and consultancy activities. It says something about the growing importance of sports science and the department that we have almost 100 per cent employability.

‘We work with a number of national and international teams and have close links with Spurs and Saracens. I think we’ve really innovative in creating a synergy between education and major sports clubs. We’ve developed degree programmes and even a university technical college with Spurs. We’re now moving our high-performance labs to Saracens’ stadium at Allianz Park.’

Rhonda has also been continuing with her own development. She has a specific interest in psychological aspects of extreme sports. ‘Last year I finished my PhD on the relationship between personality, sensation seeking and reaction time in participation in sport, and I’m writing a book to be published in 2014.’ These interests have led to a number of TV appearances. ‘The media are fascinated by this area, and I found the Society media training very useful. I’ve worked on TV programmes like Daredevils – Life on the Edge and Hidden Talent. I get to meet a lot of different people from different sports. Perhaps the highlight was being interviewed by Michael Johnson for BBC’s Inside Sport on the psychology of downhill skiers during the Winter Olympics. Social media are an increasingly important tool for psychologists, so I’m very active on Twitter and LinkedIn for instance.’

How do you think sport psychology will develop? ‘Sport was once thought of as competition where players abide by rules and regulations, and win according to a points system. Now, it includes people who are BASE jumping off cliffs, flying through the air in winged suits or running ultra-marathons in the desert over five days. Sport psychology is growing because it teaches individuals to challenge their comfort zones through finely tuned skills, such as focus, stress control and confidence. In addition, it is incorporating technology to help us advance the connection between thought and movement. What I would love to see in the future is a real involvement and acceptance for applied sport psychologists developing positive mindsets starting with, for example, children and exercise, youth teams and teamwork, and helping adults with challenge and risk taking.’

Rhonda concludes with a heartfelt plea. ‘Every team at whatever level should have a sport and exercise psychologist working with them. Sport psychology to me is about getting the best out of yourself. It is my passion, and the enthusiasm I have for it gives me so much energy! As they always say, “in sport 90 per cent of what you do is psychological” so post-Olympics, there are plenty of things to do.’

- Ian Florance, the freelance journalist who conducts many of the interviews for the ‘Careers’ section, has a new novel out.
A Glass Rope is available through the usual online outlets.


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