Congrats Grads: Practice What You Preach

Ed Kingston started the ball rolling on the PSPS annual wisdom for those graduating with a degree in sport psychology. Expect the rest of the gang to pour in a few thoughts on this topic as well. It looks like an annual tradition – we’re all a year older… and continue our quests to be a bit wiser. Enjoy.

Some of the simplest, bright ideas that sport psychology professionals share with athletes on a regular basis get neglected when considering building a career in the field. The oversight is at times comical… here are a few things you probably know, but forget to turn them on yourself regularly:

Task/Mastery Orientation – Being grounded in self-referenced, controllable goals leads to high performance, facilitative anxiety, confidence, effort, and persistence. Not many surprises in the previous sentence, yet every year when it’s time to get a job I have at least one student tell me they need to make X dollars in their next job. Sounds a bit outcome-oriented to me. What type of work are you going to do? How are you going to do it? How are you going to get better each day?

10 yr/ 10,000 hrs of Deliberate Practice – It is fairly well known that it takes this long to achieve true excellence in any given domain. Many have tried to speed this up, few have succeeded. Yet there are plenty of websites out there promoting “world renowned mental training experts” – perhaps some are, others likely have not put in the 10 and 10 yet seem to be a rush to wear the varsity letter of expertise without playing at the freshman or JV levels. Strive to be an expert, but rushing to the label is a hubristic landmine. Association for Applied Sport Psychology Certified Consultant status is perhaps the best measure of competence in the practice of sport psychology. This being said, “CC” status in and of itself falls short of the 10 and 10 necessary for expertise (doesn’t even get you a 10th of the way there). Taking this one step further, do not neglect the “deliberate” in deliberate practice. It may be unpopular to say, but extensive sport coaching experience where mental skills are preached and team cohesion sought is not quality deliberate practice in sport psychology hours. In the same vein, the practice of clinical psychology, counseling, or psychiatry with a non-sport population is not quality deliberate practice in sport. This is not to throw water on a freshly earned degree in sport psychology. Competence is an excellent thing, rushing to the label excellence and failing to commit humble deliberate practice seems too often to lead to a very short lived career in applied sport psychology.

Strive to be an expert, but rushing to the label is a hubristic landmine.

Team cohesion (or collaboration vs. alienating competitiveness) – I witnessed a graduate student once sit in a room of 19 of his peers and proclaim, “I am not going to share details of how I work with athletes in this room. Everyone in this room is my future competition.” (I am relieved to say that this individual has grown beyond this stance in the years since.) Can you imagine a truly successful soccer player on a truly successful team standing in a team meeting and saying, “I am not going to share or show any of my preparation strategies or experience with my teammates. They could take my spot in the line-up.” Desire to get ahead and look out for one’s self is a common human urge. Furthermore when one has a mortgage, a family, and a lifestyle they hope to achieve it is easy to see fellow professionals as threats rather than teammates. This all said, there are pages upon pages of sport psychology research that shows that collaboration trumps alienating competitiveness any day. Run towards competent peers, don’t put up walls blocking them out.

(This doesn’t mean peers don’t compete… By 1999, Dr. Gardner interned with the Cleveland Indians and in Penn State Athletics prior to completing his doctoral degree. As I was 2 years behind him in my studies, he looked at me and said, “Beat that before you graduate.” A handful of months later I moved to Florida for 10 months, set up a comprehensive sport psych program at the International Tennis Academy USA, worked with top international juniors through a few top 200 pros, and found myself the next September sitting courtside watching a client at the US Open. I’m not sure if I managed to trump Doug’s pre-doc exploits, but surely I gave it a shot. More importantly, we speak almost daily and hide no professional secrets.)

Run towards competent peers, don’t put up walls blocking them out.

Get Flow – Flow is not simply about great feelings… great feelings can facilitate it or can be a consequence of flow. Yet, flow is about embracing challenge – on the developmental journey, getting after the stresses of differentiation while knowing the calmer waters of integration will exist soon (and then doing it all over again). When we harness our efforts appropriately and the planets are aligned we may find flow… a great place to be. The rest of the time we are trying to wrap our arms successfully around challenge. Don’t forget that. Making a living in applied sport psychology is about “trying to wrap our arms successfully around challenge.” The challenge to be competent, the challenge to clearly articulate and show coaches why your work matters, the challenge to negotiate a reasonable contract, the challenge to survive in a field where very few “help wanted” adds exist, etc. Some days you’ll flow… more importantly commit to embracing challenge in your professional life.

These are just a few textbook sport psych ideas that strike me while writing this post. Sometimes we forget to apply the most important ideas to our own professional practice. Please add to this list and let it serve to steady you as you navigate the field. My thought for class of 2011 sport psych grads… keep your textbooks close at hand and theories close in mind. If you believe they are important to an athlete’s career success, it is likely that they are important to yours. Congrats grads.

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