People performing in exceptional ways

Ian Florance interviews Alan MacPherson, Co-Depute Head of the Institute for Sport, Physical Education and Health Sciences.

During a web search I came across the MSc in Performance Psychology based in the University of Edinburgh’s Moray House School of Education. I’d interviewed several performance psychologists over the years, but the description of the course piqued my interest.

Alan made it quite clear that ‘any interview must look at issues surrounding the course – I see myself as the course’s caretaker, not its originator’ [Dr Amanda Martindale has since taken over the programme directorship]. He also stressed that the course is not accredited by the British Psychological Society. These issues established, Alan proved to be a fascinating interviewee, excited by theories and ideas.

The course description reads: ‘Drawing extensively from research and practice in sport psychology the programme examines how psychology can contribute to maintaining and enhancing high-level performance across a variety of domains such as sport, business, performing arts, military and emergency services.’ I asked Alan whether, in fact, this was really sports psychology under any other name. ‘No, it looks at the experience of people performing in many different areas. As you might expect a lot of the literature is based on sports experience, but that doesn’t always help – for example in group dynamics – we’re trying to draw on a much wider spectrum of people, roles and areas of study.

‘Furthermore, there is a Dance Science and Education MSc course based here and students can do elective modules with us. The cross-fertilisation that results is one of the real rewards of the sort of work I undertake with colleagues Hugh Richards and Amanda Martindale. Many of the dance students are taken aback by the ideas of motor control – an area I’m particularly interested in. Whereas their dance experience, particularly classical ballet, tends to be based on teaching “Don’t do it like that; do it like this”. Performance psychology provides perspective on how traditional approaches to instruction might be reappraised and approached differently. Another example of cross-fertilisation is my first job which was about enhancing decision-making by elite rugby referees. The ideas for that came from naturalistic decision-making theory, not from sports science.’

To give me a more precise idea of what the students cover I looked at the programme content: learning, reading and seminars in seven areas focusing on research methodology, professional practice and then on topics ranging from peak performance, stress, coping and control, and dynamics of performance teams. Students – if successful at the taught part of the course – work on dissertations. Recent topics have included: transplant surgeon’s decision-making; an air traffic control case study; talent development in classically trained musicians; actors’ pre-performance routines; as well as areas of sports psychology, teacher training, ballet instruction and mindfulness.

‘The students reflect this diversity. We have students in their sixties who are high-level instructors – those with military backgrounds, teachers, nurses – who are looking to extend their knowledge. One thing that many of our students have in common is that they are not eligible to join the Society. Yet, they are passionate and interested in this topic.’

Alan says that after the course, students go on to work in a range of areas as diverse as sporting organisations, the military, airlines, or may decide to study for PhDs. ‘Two of our most recent graduates are working as management consultants – another is working in talent development with a multinational based in Scandinavia. As you can imagine our students’ breadth of experience means that academic staff can learn a lot from them – in terms of my own practice, I value their insights on what will and will not work in specific contexts.’

This description leads into a topic Alan feels strongly about. ‘Psychology shouldn’t be the unique preserve of people who have taken an undergraduate degree in the area. For example, research in talent development is of real importance to any number of interested parties – in a plethora of different spheres. The person who initiated this programme (along with Hugh Richards), Professor Dave Collins and his colleagues, are very active in this area. Performance psychology is pretty good at explaining why and how people perform at a high level, and importantly identifying skills that can be learnt and practised. Derived from material taught in the MSc in Performance Psychology, we teach our undergraduate physical educators about talent development in the hope that these psycho-behaviours permeate across the schools in question. However, the effect is indirect and the outcome unknown, which is somewhat unsatisfactory. But there is one obvious question – Why should someone go to university to study this rather than going on one of the thousands of less formal courses which claim to improve your performance? Whatever you think about it, many people claimed to have got great benefits from programmes such as NLP. Apart from anything else, university study is pretty expensive. However, I think the answer to that question is quite clear. On a university course we teach not only what works, but the evidence that underpins claims that something does work and how it works. Crucially, we also teach the skills that allow you to make your own informed evaluations – research methods for instance – and stress the professional and ethical use of these techniques.’

Although Alan was anxious to keep the spotlight off his own experience I asked him to describe briefly how he’s come to such an interesting area and what fascinated him about it. ‘I didn’t thrive academically at school and was lucky to study applied sociology and psychology at university. In my third year as an undergraduate I became fascinated by psychology, and that led to a master’s degree in research methods, an MSc in Performance Psychology and a PhD examining the role of rhythm in the execution of movements in performance environments – which I found utterly absorbing. I’m fascinated by the theories psychology develops and being near scientifically informed practice is genuinely exciting!’

I asked Alan if he could ‘turn off’ his interests when he was at a concert or sports event. ‘Rarely – I only relax when I do something. Otherwise I want to understand what’s going on. The Edinburgh Festival is on as we speak, and I am always fascinated by how creative some performers can be, often with seemingly random objects such as a cereal packet or a scarf. I suspect performance psychology will pay more and more attention to creativity as the subject develops. Then I get interested in watching groups of musicians work – how they organise, how certain musicians lead an extremely complex enterprise. A meeting with a former conductor at the Royal Opera really opened my eyes to how unimportant to him the actual score was. I was awestruck by the level of skill this person possessed that enabled the score to be reduced to a guide… a resource, really, a platform upon which to construct and co-ordinate an entire performance. It really brought home to me what expertise is.’

This led to a long conversation about music performers we like, including a conductor who produces stunning results while seemingly doing nothing and my experience of watching from Row 2 of the O2 Arena as Bob Dylan organised his band with hand signals and exaggerated facial expressions. But time was running out.

The future for the course is bright. ‘It needs to evolve, though. We have 22 competitors and there is an issue about pricing. We need to decide if we continue, in effect, to sit outside the accreditation structure and to follow our own path or change… watch this space!’

- Might you have an interesting story to tell about your career path, the highs and lows of your current role or the professional challenges you are facing? If you would like to be considered for a ‘Careers’ interview in The Psychologist, get in touch with the editor Dr Jon Sutton ([email protected]). Of course there are many other ways to contribute to The Psychologist, but this is one that many find to be particularly quick, easy and enjoyable.

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