‘We have a responsibility to go beyond sport’
How did the podcast come about?
Pete: Well, Hugh and I, along with, Rory Mack, a PhD researcher and Motivational Interviewing trainer, have a WhatsApp group. We have some pretty honest conversations about sports psychology, about our training about methods and approaches, about all sorts of things really. And I had this idea of bringing some of those conversations to life, to bring sport psychology to a wider audience.
Until about two months ago, I never listened to podcasts, I just couldn't get into them. A lot of them are just interviews with a single person, and unless you're really invested in that person and their research, it's easy to turn off I think, or to switch off from that. So I wanted to create something for sports psychologists, but also for anybody who's interested in sports… coaches, parents, people who just watch the football on a Saturday night.
I wanted it to be accessible, relevant, not too serious. It’s the first really creative thing I've ever done in my life, so I sat down and wrote down about 50 ideas for episodes based around different topics rather than different people.
I noticed, Hugh, that you have at least appeared on a fair few podcasts. Are they the media of choice for people in sport? There’s that image of athletes turning up for competition with headphones in, a lot of work on audio visualisation, that sort of thing?
Hugh: I don't think that athletes necessarily listen to podcasts to get their sports psychology support pre-competition. Within the sport and fitness industry, there's an emphasis on podcasts being used to disseminate information, but the quality often isn't good. It can be anyone from a complete neophyte giving it the big sell, competing for space with somebody who has a 10-year academic track record. It can be difficult to discriminate which message has more of an evidence base for the general population.
But I do think that blogs and social media come with a short attention span… with a podcast you can sit down and listen to somebody in great detail, get an insight into who they are. It’s more of an honest format.
What’s your advice to psychologists who might be looking to produce a podcast?
Pete: Really figure out who you’re aiming the podcast at. I spent two weeks solid just reading and researching and thinking about that. I was very keen for it to not just be other sports psychologists, hence the format… we’ve tried to be interactive, honest, and the research is in there but it’s fairly light touch.
We spent a good deal of time testing things out, testing different software, different hardware, to try and kind of make it sound as good as we can, all of the advice we had was you have to make it sound good. And there is a bit of a masterplan, a structure there in the background that we are working through. The final thing, though, is just start doing it. If you sit and plan it for ages, you will never do it.
Hugh: One of the things that I've done to develop myself is going to improv comedy course to be able to actually command a stage better. I do think we need to consider the future of how sports psychology is going to be done, the skills required. I've been asked to produce infographics and I don't have that skill. Technology needs to be advanced and used for the betterment of the field.
Have you got a favourite episode so far from what you've produced?
Pete: In terms of just having fun recording it, the mental ‘GOAT’ [Greatest Of All Time] episodes.
Many of the candidates for that, to my eyes, were also supremely fit even by athletic standards – Steve Redgrave, Daley Thompson, Ben Ainslie, Serena Williams… So your podcast is called Eighty Percent Mental , but to what extent do you think the physical and mental are intrinsically linked? When I play football, if I feel physically fit, I feel mentally sharp.
Hugh: The mind is part of the body. Your physical competence and success is most likely going to impact positively on your confidence.
Pete: But in terms of the title, we don't we don't really know that sport is Eighty Percent mental. When I was searching domain names, Ninety Percent was taken, and Seventy Percent is too many syllables to say over and over again. But we do know that there's a vast mental component in competition and in training as well. Like Jonathan Fader said in Episode One, people are awakening to the fact that there is this huge mental component. If the balance seems off in terms of time and resource devoted to it, that’s because we're dealing with tangibles versus intangibles. If you go and lift weights, follow a programme, I can measure how much stronger you are… I can measure how much faster you can run or how much higher you can jump, and that translates directly into performance for a lot of people. But with sports psychology, can we really measure whether or not you feeling a little bit more confident has a direct impact on performance, whether your ability to manage emotions means that you can run faster? Some people will argue that you can, but it’s more complicated than ‘strong legs run fast’.
Yes: in one of your episodes, Dr Joe Mannion speaks about how sport psychology is perhaps uniquely challenging in terms of gathering good quality data to assess interventions.
Hugh: If I'm working with an professional athlete it’s how they put food on the table, I have to take seriously whether or not we can add in something and what the systemic effect would be throughout the performance. That makes randomised control trials at elite level inherently risky. The athlete’s success is always the priority, never advancing research… therefore researchers in sports psychology end up doing research with lower level athletes, and then hoping that it translates into higher level athletes. The level of changes biologically and socially between the mature athlete and developing athlete is massive. I think one of the things that is critical for the development of practitioners is understanding synergistic effects, complexity and systemic therapies… understanding interactions between groups and second order effects of interventions, and how that plays out. Every action has both helpful and unhelpful consequences and then those consequences have further cascading consequences. The best example I use is if you set a world record it has the effect of making you feel good, but unhelpfully it also is difficult to set multiple world records, so suddenly your job just got a lot tougher and the expectations and pressure just has gone up.
Pete: I think maybe we rely a little bit too heavily on experimental designs, randomised controlled control trials. We may underestimate the importance of case studies, single subject designs in our field. I don't think it's particularly challenging to collect that type of data. I just don't think we do it enough, perhaps because of a sort of desperation to be a pure science, to rely on those experiments and RCTs to prove that what we're doing has value.
Hugh, in one episode you quite damningly said, ‘It's typical of sports psychology to jump in before the evidence base’…
Hugh: Well, I pride myself in having an evidence-based approach. I grew up on a farm; I know what bullshit smells like. But within sports psychology you'll find unfounded pseudoscience that has gained popularity, like the chimp paradox, which can act as a metaphor distorting reasoning or reducing autonomy and consequentially have negative effects on performance. NLP is really prevalent… there are BPS supervisors advertising it and they should be struck off the HCPC register for it. Sport psychology suffers from the same things that psychology suffers from… growth mindset, grit, MBTI, these terms are adopted too rapidly without sufficient critical thought.
Pete: I'm glad that you finished by saying that this is a problem for other disciplines as well, not just sports psychology, because I feel like I need to defend sport psychology a little bit… we don’t want to paint it as this undisciplined discipline I guess.
Links with the fringes, the pseudoscience, perhaps with sports psychology if we go back probably 20 years now, that was considered more of an issue. Coaches, managers, players, maybe had less of an understanding of what sport psychology was.
Hugh: If you look at clinical psychology or educational psychology, these mainstream psychologists have a clear, defined role. It matters if you can deliver an evidence-based intervention, but in sports psychology it also matters if you are marketable, if you are trusted.
I guess access is key… a lot of these sporting environments are quite closed, almost secretive structures. In the first episode, Dr Jonathan Fader tells an anecdote about a sports psychologist who was asked by the team he was working with to pretend to be the hot dog vendor, such was the stigma of him working with them. Has that changed?
Pete: It has and it hasn't. There are always going to be people who look at you as a psychologist in sport and think, ‘OK, what can you do for me?’ I remember doing a session with a group of quite young athletes, on the psychological characteristics needed for elite performance. One of them turned around and just said, ‘Look mate, you've either got it or you haven't’. And that was his take on it, you're either born mentally ‘tough’ or not.
Sport is this environment where we focus on strength, grit, toughness, resilience, and I think they are words thrown around far too much. So there's still this idea that if you're working with a psychologist, it's because there's something wrong. But there are plenty of organisations, coaches and athletes who are fully on board with sport psychology… we say the kudos given to Dr Pippa Grange with her work around the World Cup, and you have athletes coming back from Rio talking openly about using mindfulness.
Sometimes there just needs to be a bit of ‘hanging out’… we always get taught that, as a new sports psychologist going into a team, you're going to spend the first six months helping to put out cones… you need the athletes to get used to the fact that you're there and you're a person, like any other person they could just have a normal conversation with. Psychology isn't this weird, wonderful, magical, mystical thing where you’re going to make them lie on the couch and talk about their parents.
Our Deputy Editor, Dr Annie Brookman-Byrne, who came up with some of the questions for this chat, said she listened to your podcast initially feeling that she is not a ‘sporty person’. From your discussions, she realised that there's quite a few things that she does that are, in fact, sporty, such as climbing. That made me wonder whether ‘being sporty’ is a mentality? And if so, can we boost that, and transfer it to other areas?
Hugh: If we were to sit down and define and conceptualise what ‘sporty’ is, there's two elements – the physical aspect of learning and developing the self and the body, but then also the competitive aspect of trying to improve something at a rate, either against ourselves, or against the competitor. That’s different from somebody who's just ‘movey’, they're doing physical activity.
Within climbing, for example, there’s managing emotions, making decisions under pressure, self-regulation, pushing yourself a little bit harder to try and get something. All of those things are acutely transferable into academia, and any other business where there's competition. Ultimately the place of work is a place of competition… that's how you got your job and then you have to continually perform to keep it. The skills in sports psychology are massively transferable into that.
But what me and Pete probably see more value in is seeing people transfer into other aspects of their life, such as their health. GPS systems such as Strava are widely used within health interventions. But it's interesting that some of the long-term data doesn't actually show it's beneficial to overly track your performance. When we're ‘being sporty’, there's the ‘Goldilocks’ place of just right, not too much, not too little… you can be over competitive with these things.
Yes… there's a study we covered recently on the Research Digest by Herman Szymczak from the University of Konstanz and colleagues. They found in a longitudinal study that people only notice they've become more active after more frequent vigorous physical activity… doing more frequent moderate physical activity didn't make people feel that they changed their behaviour. The danger with that is you need to keep pushing yourself to extremes to feel like you're actually doing things and having the benefit.
That probably links in with some of your research Pete, on burnout, the dangers of trying to push too far in that competitive sense against yourself.
Pete: Yeah, absolutely. For me, it comes back again to this idea of what sport is. All of those ‘toughness’ type words, it's the ‘Rocky’ syndrome, isn't it? If you're not training the same way that Rocky does, out in the freezing cold and the snow pulling ploughs around, pushing yourself to the limits, then you're not really an athlete, because that's what athletes do. Absolutely, there is a danger with that mentality.
That push towards being tough, gritty, resilient… they are traits that are often portrayed as very positive things. But there's a dark side to that. We can burn out, we can overreach, if we're constantly pushing, when actually what we need to do is sit down and have a nice cup of tea.
That’s something I learned recently from Ian Walker… he's a psychologist at Bath, who's also into his ultracycling, he's a Guinness world record holder. I was talking to him about the fact that I don't just get anywhere with my running, despite having done it all my life. And he said, Jon, these days, it's all about polarised training. You actually do the majority of your training surprisingly easy, barely out of breath. But then the rest of it is ‘crying for your Mum hard’.
Pete: Yes, I completely get that. I'm absolutely guilty of feeling the need to feel as if I'm really pushing myself. If I'm not lying on the floor, crying at the end of a workout, I feel like I haven't really worked very hard. Having come up playing sport all my life, I'm 100 per cent guilty of that. It's only maybe the last three or four years that I've realised that sport is, as we’ve said, it's just about moving around and feeling good.
Hugh: The Olympians and Paralympians that I work with, when things are going easy, they'll maybe push themselves too hard on a light week, because they feel good, and then they feel as if they can push too hard. So they don't actually end up doing a light week, but then when it comes to their heavy week of training, they're a bit fatigued. So the advice you've got there seems very apt in the performance environment as well.
Do you think people's appreciation of the ‘move around and feel good’ side of it as changed in recent months, with Covid?
Hugh: There has been a group of people walking in my area much more vigorously and much more widely than before, and people are discovering new ways and places to exercise and to do things. The constraints have forced adaptation. You might find there's a lot of people who pick up new habits here that are very useful, and maybe get rid of some old ones as well.
Pete: I started skipping at the start of lockdown… it didn't last very long, because my knees are about 80 years old.
I guess the other aspect of Covid times has been that sport seems to be required to take quite a lot on its shoulders… to ‘give the nation a boost’, to perhaps become something more than it was before?
Hugh: I don't think that there's a changing zeitgeist around sport. The Romans used to have ‘bread and circuses’, as they called it, to control the population, sport as a social method of control. It's been used by every government… in Northern Ireland, because of The Troubles there’s a greater number of leisure centres, to get people to be more physically active as opposed to diverted into other things.
But because gyms have been closed down for quite a long while, people have been restricted in how they can train, sport is perhaps losing its power to control people. And I know of people who are thinking, Well, look, I've gone without watching televised sport for quite a while now, I don't need it anymore. So my experience is that sport can be used for social control, but also at the same time, unless you're actually doing it and enjoying it yourself physically, it has very little benefit.
I remember back in lockdown, the idea that the Bundesliga was going to start again, and there was going to be live football to watch on TV, I got quite excited about that for a couple of days. I switched it on and within seven minutes, I thought ‘this is a bit rubbish, actually’.
Pete: Yes, but you have to balance that experience with the number of people who are frothing at the mouth to be allowed back into football stadiums. But I think my personal experience is similar to yours. I've been dying for the NBA to come back for months. And I watched a bit of it, put it on when I've got nothing else to do, but actually I've been busy doing other things.
Hugh: I think that's interesting. I've only ever been to one professional football game, and it just reminded me of my religious upbringing. You go into mass and everyone's singing.. This is a “culture” and a group of people with an identity and a belief. To those people football is part of their cultural experience.
I'm a season ticket holder with my one of my teenage sons, so it's that family bonding side of it that we missed.
Sports psychology goals often seem quite ambitious. On the podcast, there's talk of building a ‘focus on the right thing at the right time every time’, and ‘creating a manual of what it means to be human’. That got me thinking again, to what extent sports psychologists are dealing with the stuff of everyday life… that it's more than a game.
Pete: The idea that we can focus on the right thing at the right time, every time, is pretty ambitious. But in aiming for that, it's our responsibility, to help people develop skills to be able to manage to respond more helpfully in the times when we don't focus on the right things at the right time, when things go wrong. How do we regain focus? How do we deal with the losses, the upsets? How do we manage the relationships inside and outside of sports so that we can come through those experiences as unscathed as possible?
Hugh: I like Jonathan Fader’s idea of building a manual for performance and the goals. And I think the benefit of sports psychology support is helping people make decisions sooner and make better decisions. I work with Paralympians in the sport of para powerlifting that are trying to add 10 kilogrammes to a lift over a year. And if you break that down into training sessions, that's maybe one or two grams every training session. And it's very easy for one or two grams become zero in terms of their accumulated performance. So sports psychology is actually building the process of people understanding themselves and having that self-awareness so they can make better decisions faster, and maintain progress without hitting the hard feedback bumpers like injury or decline in performance, or digging themselves into a big hole physically that they can't recover from, because they're trying too hard. So preparing for possibilities and understanding the self is critical within performance.
Do you think the ultimate goal of sport psychology, and perhaps of any applied branch of psychology in a way, is to render ourselves obsolete? To instil a psychological approach and basic techniques amongst all coaches, players, staff?
Hugh: I would say it's not… I think that is a hang up from sports psychology evolving out of clinical or health psychology. The example I would use is that a physio should be trying to make themselves obsolete from a patient. Whereas a strength and conditioning coach is always with an athlete… while the relationship may change, it's continually being pushed and evolved and monitored. I think the sport psychologist, performance psychologist, is comparable with the strength and conditioning coach the clinical psychologist is comparable with the physio. So you're not there to become obsolete. Equally, it's definitely not OK to build a dependency. But if you’re an athlete and your performance, your pay check, your medal and your 10-year career goal results in you becoming dependant on your psychologist and you win the medal, then you win the medal, there isn’t an extra medal for the people who came second but didn’t use a psychologist to fuller extent. Those who come second are called the first losers. I think it’s utopian morals from academics who don’t earn their full wage from an athletic performance environment who wrongly push the idea work to become obsolete. But as I said you don’t seek to create dependency, as the goal if you enhance performance then you are doing a good job. You become obsolete to a client when they no longer have a goal that you can help them with.
Pete: Coming up, doing my MSc and training, I was taught exactly what you said Jon: our goal is to make ourselves redundant, to build a self-regulating athlete who is aware of their own areas for improvement, aware of their psychological strength and ability to regulate themselves and navigate their way through that environment. So we teach them the skills to be able to do that. But I think we've moved on from sports psychology being about, ‘here's how you set goals, here's how you do relaxation, here's how you do imagery’. We've moved on to seeing a lot more complex, clinical and subclinical issues among athletes as well. It's become more acceptable to show that vulnerability. And we're seeing a lot more mental health issues. So the role of the psychologist has perhaps evolved. If I could start again, I would probably train as a clinical psychologist and then go and work in sport. I’m doing myself out of a job by saying that! But then you have the skills to deal with the ever-widening range of issues that we are seeing in sport.
What about the context that sports psychologists are working in, is that widening? Or is it still very focused on the elite context, elite performance? I asked because I could regale you with tales forever of being the manager of Birstall United Juniors U7s-U15s, and the psychological challenges that brought. At the grassroots, there's definitely a need for sport psychology techniques and support.
Pete: I'd absolutely agree with that. Clubs at that level are far more likely to pay for a strength and conditioning coach to come in, to help them run faster and jump higher. Again, it's back to those tangible benefits. So what you see is a lot of trainee Psychologists cutting their teeth and gaining experience working with those amateur and youth teams.
Hugh: It's definitely one of the last services to be bought when you've got a governing body that's going to spend money on the services I know how tight budgets are as I have sat on the board of directors for Netball Northern Ireland. But at the same time, it's actually heavily invested within the UK Sport high performance system in funded sport… I don't know of any sport that doesn't have a psychologist of some degree or description.
The other thing is that to become a sports psychologist is financially draining, and you then need to command the price for your work. And I don't think that amateur sport can afford to pay the rates that a psychologist should be getting. So you get more in the way of group approaches, educational cultures.
But again, let's look at a triathlon… some middle aged person will happily spend a couple of grand to remove 5g of weight from his bike, but he won't spend, you know, £200 to go and see a sports psych to remove a kilo of fat through behavioural changes. How you market it could be important.
There’s research that we've covered on the Research Digest that sports coaches with an interest in the brain are especially prone to believing neuromyths. This goes back to what you were saying earlier here about the fringe areas, the pseudoscience. Is there the danger that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, or do we just have to capitalise on that interest and inform?
Hugh: It's a bugbear of mine. The cognitive reflection test and the actively open-minded tests, I used them on a dissertation once. And I find it interesting, how little criticism people apply to new ideas that come to them. We should have a degree of scepticism about new approaches. I sell motivational interviewing training to people, and I think it's a wonderful skill for people to develop especially coaches. But I have to be wary of overselling it, because like all things it has limitations and contexts where it’s not the right tool.
If you work in a people development environment there is always someone is trying to sell you a product it’s not limited to coaches, when I trained as a teacher they had ‘Brain Gym’ and ‘NLP’. So it’s important to develop high level critical thinking skills in performance environments. With some coaches, that critical thinking might not be there. If we think about how coaches develop, a lot get there because they've been in a sport a long time – they're culturally part of the sport. An elite coach once told me that ‘the reason the Chinese are getting away with doping is because they cloned humans. They do the old switcheroo after the athletes have competed’. That didn't mean that his skills as a coach weren't on point, it just meant that some of his other worldviews and critical thinking were maybe a bit lacking. Sports coaches are great, they're wonderful people, because of all the volunteering time they give. I think sports psychology has a role to encourage that critical thinking process.
I know a lot of practitioners in professional football who report a degree of difficulty working with ex-professional players who have been fast-tracked through the coaching process, and as a result their expertise as a player doesn’t translate to a coach. The same way you can’t fast track a secondary school student into becoming a teacher, coaching as a role needs more respect in how coaches are properly developed.
Pete: I want to step in and defend coaches a little bit. The way that coaching is going, there are a lot of institutions around the country offering sports coaching as a high-level degree. So almost formalising that qualification in coaching. That might make a difference down the line. There are a few coaches at the top level who are working full time in sports organisations. In 10 years’ time, if it becomes more of a sustainable, viable profession for people to go into and the education element becomes more important, then maybe we'll see an improvement in those critical thinking skills.
The podcast is full of interesting insight into what it means to be a sports psychologist. Sports psychologists are described as ‘frontier people’, and we hear that psychologists in general have a high rate of satisfaction with their lives, because it means so many different things to be a psychologist. Is that how it feels to you?
Pete: Certainly for me, being able to do so many different things… to be a lecturer, an academic, now a top quality podcaster! But Hugh is the applied practitioner in the room.
Hugh: There’s a paper by Jeffrey Martin called ‘Is the profession of sports psychology an illusion?’. I send that out to people, whenever they ask me about becoming a sports psychologist, to try and talk them out of it!
Sports psychology gives me a massive degree of satisfaction. I really love helping people and making a difference and, it can just be that little insight or curious question that makes a big difference. And when you do hit a home run with somebody with an intervention or an interaction, it makes you feel good regardless of whether or not they win, because you've made that person's day.
But I think there's a serious falling short, in terms of how sports psychology is marketed as a job. I've had friends of mine say, ‘you're the one person who's made it out of our cohort’. A massive amount of people go partway through accreditation, and don't make it. I think it can be over-marketed. Look at the amount of supervisors within the BPS and BASES who are academics only, and not actually applied practitioners. That, to me, indicates that there's a poor health in the job market of Applied Psychology. That's not through any fault of the organisation. That's the constraints of society and financial indications of where people need to spend their money. Pete, what do you think about that?
Pete:I was just going to pick up on something that you said there, actually. You talked about getting the satisfaction from making the difference to people. And I guess that's the same in any branch of psychology. But I've had this conversation a number of times with a strength and conditioning coach friend of ours. We've both talked about the idea that there are a lot more important things than throwing a ball through a hoop or throwing a stick or jumping in a sandpit. I don't want to take anything away from people who have lives invested in that, it’s absolutely fine. But I do think that in our role as sports psychologists, we maybe have a responsibility to go beyond sport, and take opportunities to make a difference to people's lives in ways that might crop up.
We've got an episode coming up that we did in conjunction with the Rugby Coach Weekly podcast. And one of the questions that we ask is about the Black Lives Matter protests. What would we do if we had an athlete who wanted to protest and the rest of the team didn’t: a kind of situational dilemma type thing. This is an opportunity to help those athletes self-reflect and come to understand each other a little bit more as people, rather than just as athletes. And I think part of the satisfaction perhaps comes from that, as well as helping people jump a little bit further into the sandpit. It's about helping people make those changes to their lives, those transferable skills that you talked about earlier on.
Maybe sports people, athletes, don't necessarily have a responsibility to go beyond sport, but they've got an opportunity, as you say. We shouldn't be surprised when people like Marcus Rashford, or Raheem Sterling, take that opportunity, grasp it and do something more something more than the game with it.
Pete: Sport is not in a bubble, it's not isolated. Things that are happening in the real world have an impact on those athletes, and just the same way as they do everybody else. So it would be unreasonable to think that world events don't impact on them and therefore their performances. We have to address that. We have to look at what's happening in the wider world, and how that has an impact on the people that we serve. Otherwise we're doing a disservice to them. It would be remiss of us to say, let's ignore Black Lives Matter, Covid, all of that, and focus on how we can get you to run a little bit faster. It doesn't make sense to me. We have to look at the athlete as a person first, and work on that.
Hugh: It would be great one day if we lived in a society where athletes weren't judged solely by the performance, and people respected them for having their own diverse political views as we should respect all people’s views.
One of the issues I've dealt with was an Olympian who was relatively famous, said ‘I wish people would stop putting me up on a pedestal, and just treat me as a human being’. We need to give human beings and athletes the freedom to be wrong and the freedom to make mistakes. Hopefully they won't be pilloried in the public eye whenever they do. That's something that's incredibly wrong with society at the moment… we put these people on a really big pedestal and then the media and public try and knock them off.
- Listen to the podcast at http://www.eightypercentmental.com
Cesario, J., Johnson, D. J., & Eisthen, H. L. (2020). Your Brain Is Not an Onion With a Tiny Reptile Inside. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 0963721420917687.
Thibodeau, P. H., & Boroditsky, L. (2011). Metaphors we think with: The role of metaphor in reasoning. PloS one, 6(2), e16782.
Yeager, D. S., Hanselman, P., Walton, G. M., Crosnoe, R., Muller, C., Tipton, E., ... & Romero, C. (2018). Where and for whom can a brief, scalable mindset intervention improve adolescents’ educational trajectories. PsyArXiv Preprints.
Ponnock, A. R., Muenks, K. M., Morell, M., Yang, J. S., Gladstone, J. R., & Wigfield, A. (2020). Grit and Conscientiousness: Another Jangle Fallacy. Journal of Research in Personality, 104021.
Vermeren, P. (2013). The unwanted popularity of typologies. Behavior and Organization , 4 (26), 405-430.
BPS Members can discuss this article
Already a member? Or Create an account
Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber