No Nonsense! Using REBT with adolescent footballers

It takes a little while to figure out the dynamics of an academy football team – in my view an environment truly like no other.  It’s a world in which young footballers, full of hopes and dreams, arrive as early age 9 – showered with professional kit, where they mingle with up and comers as well as established ‘star’ Premier League players.  An environment housing dozens of grass pitches, 4G pitches, state of the art gyms, gourmet canteens, and even spa facilities.  Moving through the age groups, players become immersed in ‘day-release’ and full-time regimes – earning a wage and learning, performing, and recovering, as elite athletes.  This bank of youth players compete for less than a handful of elusive professional contracts.  As one of my very first applied roles, it got me interested.  I found myself somewhat unexpectedly able to link-in with this environment, as well as the players and staff immersed within it.  Many coaches and professionals within this world demand the co-work of ex-players or managers, yet despite a distinct lack of footballing talent myself, I felt an understanding of this world.  I felt sympathetic of the environment itself – its apparent need for brutality (e.g., decisions being made about players, injuries), its apparent need to demand the best.  Yet still I felt a link to the players and people within – players away from home, players competing against their friends, players being driven day in day out to strive for excellence, even perfection, from their coaches and in many cases, their agents too.

Whatever approach I’ve explored whilst developing as a practitioner, I tend to spring right back into REBT in some way or another.  Venturing through full qualification status as a Psychologist, I experimented with various approaches and methods – be it person-centered, or psychodynamic.  Yet I felt that a cognitive-behavioural approach was most natural in practice, in part because it is akin to my personality and characteristics.  That is, REBT suited my personality – authentic, with the capacity to be somewhat blunt when required!  I think that these personal tendencies, and the philosophy of REBT, work particularly well in this ‘strange’ world of academy football…

Why REBT?

I think there is a great deal of congruence between the world of academy football and an REBT approach.  I work primarily with a male under-18 age group, and this group throws up some definite challenges – testing attitudes, tricky social dynamics, and many aspects of adult life that are starting to enter a player’s world.  My rapport with this collective on a group and individual level relies heavily on being relatable and being in touch with them – ‘getting it’.  And I don’t fake that, I do ‘get it’, I’ve worked hard to understand their environment and the demands placed on them – the stuff that throws up challenge for them during the week and on match days.  In an elite football program, you hear and see a lot of strong messages being relayed to and between staff and players. This could include irrational, extreme language, or the communication of a results-driven ethic with very small margins for error.  It’s important to view these strong messages within the context of the environmental demands of football, because in some cases the language of irrationality might be accurate and appropriate, and may not reflect deeply held irrational beliefs. The next game might just be a ‘must-win’ in order obtain 3 points (a conditional must). As REBT practitioners, we don’t just walk around spotting ‘musts’ so that we can dispute it!

It feels in some way that REBT has afforded me the opportunity to ask a frank and direct question, to get to the underlying crux of a thought or behavior quickly – no nonsense!  Thus, ridding myself of some of the flaws associated with the stereotypical indirect, ‘fluffy’ conversation of many therapists, which throw up connotations that academy players seem to have grown both wary and tired of.  Yes, misconceptions of the Psychologist most certainly still exist in football.  What has guided me in my practice within this setting is often a players’ preference to be met with strength and support – rather than an overtly maternal nodding listening ear.  REBT certainly allows the player to feel collaboration and direction – with a degree of practical help achieved largely through using direct questions that drive to the root of an issue.  The strength and clarity of direction entrenched in REBT is definitive for the player – and I think that’s golden.  As an REBT practitioner, being able to keep on topic, having gained permission from the client to interrupt or steer them back on track for example, is helpful for both parties.  This can be unusual in other methods of therapy, where free association and limited input from the practitioner is common. 

From a personal standpoint, REBT has helped me to be more direct, keep conversations on track, focus in and go deeper into the more relevant factors of a conversation – rather than trying to address innumerable points of potential interest.  This helps to keep things specific, allowing the client to stay focused on what matters most in the work with me; but it also helps me to keep to a framework, a guideline, and to not deviate when I may otherwise be tempted to.  It helps me to curb the endless problem-solving of each and every issue in a superficial, short-term, and relatively meaningless way. 

Within a football academy, time is not always afforded to the Psych as regularly or predictably as we might like, and REBT has helped me to bridge the gap between structured intervention and short sharp effective therapeutic relationships.  REBT gets to the point, and quickly.  It also focusses on single instances in many cases – one example, one irrational belief, and therefore one alternative message. Not that REBT is simplistic or rushed. On the contrary, its complex but efficient. Simple, not easy.

When does REBT work?

In my experience, having a strong relationship which allows for deep honesty and trust – where the player might also know you a little too – allows for a genuine openness between both parties.  There is a respect of sorts, and it allows the therapy to work deeply with purpose, perhaps allowing an acceptance from the athlete of some challenging questions and rebuttals.  That said, I have also found REBT methods effective with new relationships – utilizing the well-defined boundaries to create quick yet strong rapport.  Good work also comes from a place of resistance and challenge – stretching a player who might be a little more entranced in his irrational beliefs – more bullish and immovable in relation to his attitudes.  Using such direct challenge to pose difficult questions can really open the door for self-exploration and change.  This certainly takes courage from the practitioner – in my experience it can feel risky and against the instinct to support the player when you throw a strong comment aboard! So, in my experience REBT works well if at least some rapport has been developed, in order to pave the way for challenging conversations.

When doesn’t REBT work?

If you have a player who wants a ‘half-hearted’ conversation, a player who might want regular contact, a check-in, a summary of life for him.  This might be because they are not ready to delve deeply into their belief system, or it could be because they enjoy and benefit from a general debrief or reflection.  Specifically, I think REBT fails to work when players have no willingness to be deeply honest and express true feelings or views.  The kind of matters they may bring to the practitioner may not require interrogation by either party, and may be resolved for the player by discussion very generally.  REBT methods keep a very specific focus, and do not always work well with a meandering loose-fitting conversation.  In these instances, it’s up to the practitioner to understand what might be best for the athlete; an empathetic ear and sounding board without pursuing REBT principles, or an empathetic ear and sounding board whilst pursuing REBT principles. Good REBT practice is about choosing when to and when not to apply REBT based on the athlete, context, and issues. When we force the use of REBT regardless of these three factors, we set REBT up for failure.

How is he going to take this?

One question I often ask myself when using REBT is – how is REBT going to be received?  Sometimes it’s too much challenge or truth, too soon.  Sometimes it’s exactly the right pitch at the right moment for a player.   There have been times where the player has arrived at a conclusion that has been a mammoth challenge for him to address.  For example, a player who comes to a conclusion that he feels he “must have acceptance from his peers”, and that he “cannot tolerate” not receiving that which he demands, may not have realized this by himself prior to the session.  There may be ‘big moments’ that come from a realization that emotions and beliefs are connected, that beliefs can be challenged, or that there is an alternative way of viewing the world.  Don’t take these big moments lightly. The athlete might receive these insights with amazement and hope, or with guilt and anger. It’s not easy to realize that some of your emotional suffering could be self-perpetuated.

The poignancy is sometimes about where you leave the session – not overworking the dough so-to-speak.  This works well in the academy environment AND with under-18 players.  For example, you might strike a chord fairly early on in a conversation, and then let’s leave things there perhaps.  Let that concept digest with quality, refraining from diluting it with more content or overworked or overelaborate conversations about the same point.  Essentially, the player leaves perhaps ‘wanting more’, and also leaves with something quite specific to go away and reflect upon. If, for example, the athlete leaves the session with the new insight that event alone is not causing their emotions, then that’s quite a big deal and it might be prudent to let that sink in until the next session.

So what?

Two words I’ve used a lot in the footballing environment! 

Two words sometimes not gratefully received!

Okay so the coach thinks you’re rubbish – so what?  The sheer confusion that might be met with.  “I can’t believe my psych is agreeing with how unfairly the coach is treating me”.  This is key.  Often a therapist may decide to challenge this negative thought (which displays a mind-reading cognitive distortion) with the player by searching for reasons that may prove that the coach does not think they are rubbish.  I liken this to a supportive parent – who might not want you to entertain the idea that your best friend doesn’t like you!  This parent might discourage you away from this thought and try to allow you to think everything is fine and your best friend does in-fact like you after all.  In REBT we avoid this, because it is inelegant to alter perceptions of unenumerable life events.  Instead, we assume that the activating event (A) is true. Rather than question the validity of the perception at A, we question what the athlete is telling himself (B) about the coach not liking him.  This is about not making excuses for the player – empowering them to believe that even if this A is true, they still have the capability and the responsibility to deal with the emotions that arise, and to move forward constructively.  REBT allows the practitioner to be clear in not reinforcing what may in-fact be a truth. It is not our role to sanitize the world for athletes.

Sometimes I’ll balance it off – “I’m not agreeing that the coach thinks you are rubbish, I don’t know either way, but lets assume he does for a moment”.  This is where rapport can really come into its own.  If a player finds me relatable and they have an awareness that I ‘get it’ this can help when asking those all assuming questions which are there for stretch and challenge and not necessarily from a place or personal belief.

Sometimes I’ll agree – “Fine – let’s say the coach thinks you’re rubbish and therefore the world will end!”.  Sometimes there’s a balance to be had with po-faced seriousness, and sometimes using jest and sarcasm. Its ok to use humor so long as rapport is strong.  Using sarcasm can also form a paradoxical argument against an irrational belief. By agreeing with the irrational beliefs and presenting them sarcastically, I allow the athlete to dispute and critique their own utterances and not treat them as precious and sacred beliefs. The athlete can see that there is an argument against their narrative for a situation.  Helping the athlete to develop critical thinking skills allows in some ways for a continuation of the work by the athlete, in the absence of a practitioner.

Summary

The rapport I spend much time cultivating with the group collective does mean that invariably they feel that I’m ‘with them’, but that might not always be in overly supportive ‘I’ll catch you if you fall’ kind of way.  Perhaps I’m like the parent who lets their child fall over, to gain a greater lesson.  I don’t try and change the situation for them; or reinforce an idealized false narrative. I dissuade them from buying into the notion that their actions and emotions are caused entirely by external events.  I help them to venture into the uncomfortable territory of emotional responsibility, sometimes even gently and empathetically pushing them into this territory, to face the world as it, not as it ‘should’ be.

Betsy Tuffrey owner of Seed Psychology Ltd. (www.seedpsychology.co.uk). 

Direct email: betsy@seedpsychology.co.uk,

Contact: 07585 707638

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