A Failure in Contextual Intelligence

I was at the fights in Boston on Saturday night (8/28/10).  I had the pleasure of sitting next to a father of two girls (ages 5 and 4), 20+ year vet of a rural police force, husband of a middle school teacher, and MMA/UFC fan.  He had been following the sport for many years now, appreciated the athleticism of the combatants, and was just simply a good guy.  After the first few fights had concluded he asked me what I did for work.  I told him that I worked in sport psychology.  From looking at his reaction to my answer you would have thought I told him I was from Mars.  He had not heard of sport psychology, nor had any sense that there was a role for sport psych in the UFC.

This same week, it was brought to my attention that a “sport psychologist” was featured on a reality television show.  The role of the sport psychology professional was to interview potential mates for an athlete and share conclusions with the employer.

You cannot be serious! (My small tribute to Mac during this year’s Open).  A thoughtful, passionate sports fan has no idea that sport psychology exists.  The reality television show consumer believes that sport psychology professionals should be used like Match.com.  I’m thinking that it is better that the former spectator appreciates the field rather than the later.  Yet this does not appear to be the case.

One really has to wonder if this is a gross failure of a field to have a reasonable level of contextual intelligence.  The science of sport and exercise psychology is better than ever.  The expectations of a competent sport psychology practitioner are solid (in particular, see the AAASP doctoral level certification requirements – http://www.appliedsportpsych.org).  Yet, the field seems to not understand how to relate to and educate its core consumers – coaches, athletes, and those deeply engaged in sport.  Rather than relating to these constituents, cheep laughs and publicity are sought out with reality t.v., Oprah, and weak soundbites for news stories.  Sport psychology is too often seen as a punchline rather than credible performance enhancer.

In the grand scheme of things, this has minimal influence on me.  I’m a grizzled vet by applied sport psychology standards (1st research study done 18 years ago, almost 15 years of applied practice, and a decade post-doctorate).  Yet I still find myself very anxious and frustrated when these failures of a field to grow efficiently show themselves so clearly.  I feel this because I talk to students and recent graduates on an almost daily basis and there seem to be no more opportunities in the field than when I started well over a decade ago.

Yesterday I had two discussions with young professionals who can be tremendous practitioners of sport psychology.  One is in the midst of his doctoral studies and wrestling daily with how to best train himself.  While asking questions, days pass where he is not reading journals, working with athletes, or engaging in sport psychology.  The field has frustrated him to inactivity at times.  The other is already a success in the field.  A master’s level practitioner that sees 5-10 hours of individual athletes a week (maybe not enough for an affluent lifestyle, but more than most practitioners in this field).  He is also engaged daily in a sports medicine clinic and its activities.  Both of these young gentlemen asked me, “Is it possible to make a living in sport psychology outside of academia?”

A very reasonable question.  I hesitate at an answer.  This field has been very good to me and I enjoy the work I do.  But this required an early and focused start, many years of athlete’s hours (nights and weekends), and a wife that gets my passion and shows great patience.  All this being said, the field has grown slowly and too often those in it fail to truly understand the realities of competitive athletes and coaches (lack of “cultural intelligence”?).  I want to tell the young professionals that sport psychology is a tremendous and lucrative career for all.  I’m not sure if that is a fair answer to give.  Heck the passionate sports father has no idea that we exist.

All this being said, I have not given up.  There are too many good coaches out there and too many athletes that are ready to work on their mental game.  Sure a lot of strides need to be made by the field as a whole to elucidate things and educate others, but the optimist in me believes it will be happen.  Many in my era of professionals have been frustrated, but many still continue to persurvere  and believe that athlete and coaches want us… maybe even need us.

This optimism aside, the field needs to do a better job thinking about who we truly want to serve and support.  Consider their needs and their reality.  And extend beyond striving for pop culture popularity, rather searching to be respected and accepted in the trenches where sport is played and passionately anaylzed.

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1 Response to “A Failure in Contextual Intelligence”


  1. 1 ekingston September 1, 2010 at 9:49 pm

    Thought-provoking stuff. Thankfully, there are still sport psych professionals doing good work and representing the field well. In the end, articulating our field and services to coaches/athletes is the responsibility of individual consultants.

    I’m done waiting for AASP to help do this in any meaningful way. How many coaches have heard of AASP let alone AASP-Certification?


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