Smarter Fencing: Using REBT to Coach Fencers

Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) has some traits that make it unique in terms of applicability across different fields (including fencing), and allow it to serve different functions. To be more specific, REBT can be used for therapy, prevention, and development. That means that REBT, as prevention and development, can be taught within one to one, and group contexts. This fits the sport setting well, where provision is often divided into both individual and group consultation. Indeed, Dr. Albert Ellis considered that REBT would be best applied if introduced in school programs, teaching children how to perceive and deal with life adversities. So, REBT is not just a therapeutic approach, but also a method for personal growth, helping the individual to foster resilience in sport and in life. For this holistic reason, REBT fits the field of coaching (sport and business) very well.

In my practice as an REBT therapist and executive coach I realize the multi-functionality of the REBT approach. In addition to my practice with executives, I have coached fencers for fourteen years. In my coaching, I have integrated REBT to aid athlete development and performance. For example, my approach towards the athletes I coach, those involved in the sport, and myself, has been informed by the notion of unconditional self and other acceptance (USA). This means that athletes, opponents, and myself, are considered as human beings who are not characterized by their actions, choices, successes or failures, but instead are complex beings with a potential for growth and development, and of course, for failure and transgression.

Also, elements of the REBT disputation process (evidence, logic, pragmatics) are very useful when coaching an athlete to cope with performance pressure. Under pressure, the temptation for some athletes is to engage in self-pity (poor me!) or awfulizing (it’s the end of the world if I fail). But I encourage athletes to consider whether certain emotional and behavioural reactions (called “consequences” in REBT) reactions are helpful, or not. Then, I can challenge the athletes to harbor and use thoughts and beliefs that will lead to helpful reactions for performance. Helping athletes to realize that thoughts lead to reactions, instead of promoting the erroneous idea that events alone lead to emotions, can help athletes to overcome their self-destructive tendencies.

It is true though, that it is often difficult to distinguish between an REBT influence and a more traditional sport psychology influence on my coaching approach (i.e., using The Canon). However, because REBT is non-dogmatic and inclusive, when helping athletes in goal-setting, I can underpin my work with REBT principles. For example, when an athlete indicates that a goal is “too difficult to achieve”, and that they “can’t stand” falling short of their expectations, then it is quite revealing to engage in a short process of assessing what the athletes really means by “cant stand”. Using REBT disputation, I encourage the athlete to understand that the belief “I can’t stand falling short” (Low Frustration Tolerance) is not based on fact, is illogical, and is not useful for their performance. So, even the development and use of psychological skills such as goals setting can include elements of REBT.

Finally, REBT has influenced my personal approach to success or failure within training and competition. It is quite liberating when you do not take failure personally, or expect your athletes’ successes to prove you are worthwhile as a coach or a professional. An REBT attitude allows me to focus on what’s really important, on identifying areas of improvement with athletes, and on focusing on what can be done to address issues, rather than being thwarted by non-functional emotions.

Evangelos Vertopoulos, REBT Therapist, Executive & Athletes’ Coaching

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