“Don’t be stupid, Stupid!”: REBT with a youth tennis player


Can REBT be effective with youth athletes? How straightforward is it for neophyte sport psychologists to use REBT? The mechanics of REBT are easy to grasp in theory, but a little more difficult to put into practice.

I work as a performance psychologist. Over the years, I have used rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT) with youth athletes in one-to-one situations and in group workshops. This post is based on a case study (Sille et al., 2020) in which my colleagues and I report on the application of REBT with a youth tennis player. The case study also reports my reflections at the time of delivery, as a neophyte practitioner.

When is REBT appropriate?

Cognitive-behavioral interventions have proved effective in a sporting context with novice and youth athletes (Tod et al., 2011). REBT is part of the broad family of therapies considered to be cognitive-behavioral (Turner et al., 2020). Indeed, REBT is the first cognitive-behavioral therapy and predates Beck’s cognitive therapy (Bennett & Turner, 2018). REBT shows how individuals create much of their emotional disturbances and have the ability to uncreate them (Ellis, 1996).

There is a growing literature base on REBT in sport (Turner, 2016), demonstrating how REBT has been used to increase athletes’ functioning and reduce irrational beliefs (Turner et al., 2014; Wood et al., 2017). There is also mounting evidence for REBT’s efficacy with youth athletes to reduce irrational beliefs and cognitive anxiety (Turner & Barker, 2013; Wood et al., 2018; Wood & Woodcock, 2018; Yamouchi & Murakoshi, 2001). Youth athletes often hold rigid, inflexible thoughts and beliefs, which affect how they respond to external circumstances.

“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.”

(Epictetus, Stoic Philosopher)

Dryden (2019) defines ‘Brief REBT’ as lasting 11 sessions or less. As such, it may be particularly suitable for application to sport where longer-term therapies are not always feasible (Turner & Barker, 2013). Indeed, REBT may be most effective on a one-to-one basis, over a brief series of sessions (Wood et al., 2016). In the present case study, I had four sessions with the athlete, due to situational constraints.

A major benefit of REBT is that its general theory and therapeutic process is easy to follow. This simplicity makes it well suited to younger athletes. In this case, I spent little time explaining the process and was quickly able to help the athlete modify the beliefs that were hindering his goal attainment through the intervention. Further, I found the ABC framework to be a useful investigative tool to understand how young athletes think, feel, and behave; a tool I have used many times since.


I offer some critical reflections on the experience, lessons learned and recommendations for future applied practice.

Understand your professional philosophy

An integrated professional philosophy translates into well-integrated and coherent service delivery (see Figure 1; Poczwardowski, et al., 2004). An eclectic approach is a creative synthesis of perspectives and techniques, underpinned by coherent and rigorous theoretical logic (Poczwardowski, et al., 2004). The danger, for practitioners, is when eclecticism slips into an anything goes approach, with no one organizing psychological theory.

Neophyte practitioners should consider how REBT and other cognitive-behavioral tools fit with their philosophy of practice. To provide optimal service delivery, it is important to find paradigms and models of practice congruent with your core values and beliefs (Lindsay et al., 2007; Tod & Bond, 2010). In this respect, I would recommend the Lindsay et al. (2007) paper as essential reading.

Build professional competence in REBT

There is value for neophytes in undertaking continuing professional development (CPD) courses in psychological techniques beyond supervision, teaching, and independent reading. The  Primary Certificate in REBT is an example of accredited CPD. Such formal training in a technique should provide practitioners an extra level of knowledge, competence, and confidence.

That said, attending accredited CPD courses is not the only way to develop professional competence in REBT. Supervised ‘hands-on’ training may be as valuable. Yet, there are difficulties in accessing qualified supervisors and this is something that the Stage-2 practitioner development process to improve upon.

Develop interpersonal skills

The characteristic ranked as one of the most important for sport psychology practitioners is high interpersonal skills (Tod et al., 2017); encompassing qualities such as being:

  • Likeable
  • Approachable
  • Trustworthy
  • Empathic

These qualities are critical to building rapport. Rapport is critical for effective service provision (Lubker et al., 2008). More recently REBT practitioners have demonstrated how Motivational Interviewing (Miller & Rollnick, 2013), a tool which utilises a collaborative and empathetic communication style, can be employed to strengthen the working-alliance (Turner et al., 2019; Wood et al., In press).

A common misconception is that rapport and empathy are non-essential to the therapeutic process in REBT (Ellis, 1981). Yet, successful REBT therapists listen well and are sensitive to and accepting of their client (Ellis, 1981).

Final thoughts

REBT helped the youth athlete to understand how the beliefs he held coming into the intervention were detrimental to his performance. REBT helped him to challenge those beliefs and formulate an alternate and more helpful rational philosophy.

Key reflections for neophyte practitioners.

  • Understand your professional philosophy. Which interventions are congruent with your beliefs and values?
  • Engage in professional training, if you decide on REBT as your ‘go-to’ intervention over the longer term.
  • Fulfil your own high standards of performance and take satisfaction from a job well done.
  • Develop your interpersonal skills – rapport and relationship building are key.

Neophyte practitioners should aim for a flexible and adaptive approach that is able to meet individual client needs. We often encourage flexible thinking in our clients, and we would be wise to follow our own guidance.

What are your thoughts on using REBT as a neophyte practitioner? I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments section below.

The Author:

Rich Sille is a Performance Psychologist and Sport & Exercise Psychologist (In training). He is currently in the final stages of a Professional Doctorate in Sport Psychology at Liverpool John Moores University. He also works as a lecturer in Sport Psychology. His research interests include motorcycle road racing and the psychology of long-term injury. You can find out more about Rich or get in touch with him via LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter.


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Dryden, W. (2019). Brief interventions in rational emotive behavior therapy. In M. E. Bernard & W. Dryden (Eds.), Advances in REBT: Theory, practice, research, measurement, prevention and promotion (pp. 211-230). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

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Sille, R., Turner, M., & Eubank, M. (2020). “Don’t be stupid, Stupid!”: Cognitive-behavioral techniques to reduce irrational beliefs and enhance focus in a youth tennis player. Case Studies in Sport and Exercise Psychology, 4, 40-51.

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Turner, M. J., Aspin, G., Didymus, F. F., Mack, R., Olusoga, P., Wood, A. G., & Bennett, R. (2020). One Case, Four Approaches: The Application of Psychotherapeutic Approaches in Sport Psychology. The Sport Psychologist, 34(1), 71-83.

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Wood, A. G., Mack, R., & Turner, M. J. (in Press). Developing self-determined motivation and performance with an elite athlete: Integrating motivational interviewing with rational emotive behavior therapy. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy.

Wood, A. G., & Woodcock, C. (2018). “Is it really that bad?”: A case study applying rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT) with an elite youth tennis player. In M. Turner & R. Bennett (Eds.), Rational emotive behaviour therapy in sport and exercise (pp. 206-219). Oxon, UK: Routledge.

Yamauchi, R., & Murakoshi, S. (2001). The effect of rational emotive behavior therapy on female soft-tennis players experiencing cognitive anxiety. Japanese Journal of Sport Psychology, 28(1), 67-75.

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