By Andrew Wood
As a newly training Sport Psychologist, bright eyed and bushy tailed, I was armed and ready to impart a toolbox of psychological skills that would change an athlete’s performance and lives for the better! This harmonious state was short lived, and after a few sessions I felt that I was no good and my time as a sport psychologist would be short lived (very irrational!). A handful of ‘learning experiences’ later and a point kindly brought to me by a fellow trainee I was able to negate my irrational belief that I had to provide the magic bullet. It was at this point I found a weight of expectation lift, in turn experiencing greater freedom, enjoyment and dare I say success within my practice – a response mirrored by clients who I have applied REBT with.
Since embarking on a PhD exploring the effect of REBT on performance it was a natural succession to utilise this within my practice. Considering this I am always conscious of the confirmation bias that I harbour towards REBT, therefore conducting a thorough needs analysis to ensure a valid rationale for its application has been vital for my practice, hereby ensuring REBT does not become a hammer where everything then looks like a nail.
Getting better and staying better
I have been impressed with the short-term and long-term benefits of REBT on an athlete’s wellbeing and performance. For those who strongly endorse Irrational Beliefs (IBs) REBT has been a challenging but a rewarding program to apply. Not content with simply making athletes feel better it emphasises the getting better, disputing deeply engrained IBs and replacing them with rational alternatives. For me this is the key strength of REBT, in that it does not provide a sticky plaster solution instead promoting meaningful and enduring changes in one’s beliefs, feelings and actions when encountering adversity – both on and off the field of play. Having athletes who are able to adaptively deal with challenging situations has then provided a springboard to focus on other psychological skills to strive for performance excellence. A quote I recently came across summarises this point eloquently “for flowers to blossom, first you need to get rid of the weeds” (biologically I am unsure whether this is the case – but you get the point).
I am not a crutch
The ABCDE model is a simple and logical framework for clients to comprehend.
It provides an insight into how athlete’s beliefs determine how they feel and then behave across all situations. In the first instance understanding the ABCDE model comes as a light bulb moment for my clients, here athletes have been able to gain a tangible understanding of emotion development, which for some has been an uncontrollable – controllable – ‘something, which just happens’. I have seen REBT instil a sense of control and autonomy over their actions, certainly important as contact between sport psychologists and athletes within elite sport can be limited. I have worked with various athletes who are home for only short periods of time, therefore having a strong understanding and application of the ABCDE model allows them to manage challenges independently, and as a practitioner I am not heavily relied upon. I believe (rightly or wrongly) psychologists should empower and create resilient and independent athletes who are able to manage any challenges they will inevitably encounter along their journey.
Negative emotions are helpful
Within my early practice on more than one occasion I provided athletes with positive self-statements, which came straight out of a textbook and had little success. Upon reflection such methods lacked realism, believability and therefore little effect. REBT instead of advocating positive over negative emotions it highlights healthy vs. unhealthy negative emotions and adaptive vs. maladaptive behaviours respectively. This approach has allowed my athletes to understand that negative emotions prior to or after adversity are normal and vital if they are to attain their respective goals. In turn this shift in perceiving negative emotions as helpful allows the athletes to then manage the situation and return to a normative or positive state in a somewhat swift fashion. An analogy I use with clients is about ‘minimising the dip’, when X occurs how able are athletes in accepting and managing the situation. For example if an athlete experiences a loss, do they ruminate over the ‘what if’s?’ or are they able to accept, acknowledge what has happened and refocus onto a constructive path.
The application of REBT is not without its challenges and neither does it claim to be the cure-all solution, but I hope to have provided an insight into why I started and will continue to use REBT within my practice. Acknowledging human’s biological propensity for IBs, the demanding context of high performance environments and my positive experiences to date, REBT has proven to be a valuable, effective and powerful approach I am able to call upon.
I am a PhD Student based at Staffordshire University investigating the effect of irrational beliefs on athletic performance. I am also training as a sport psychologist with the British Psychological Society, where presently I provide psychological support at regional centres for England Disability Football, as well as assisting with psychology support at Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club.