Within sport psychology practice, we often illustrate with our clients the snare of adopting perfectionist tendencies. Perfectionism creates a ‘knot’ or ‘paradox’ that the pursuit of unrealistic ideals becomes self-defeating as it constantly undermines our learning (Bannister 1966). Winnicott (1988) highlighted, albeit in relation to parenting, that ‘good enough’ was a better determinant of our work. In essence, this ‘good’ involves getting the job done at a moral and pragmatic level rather than look for perfectionism as a rule. However, as sport psychologists we too can look to deliver ‘perfect’ practice in our work with clients, and perhaps should follow our own advice by identifying what ‘good’ looks like. Identifying this ‘good enough’ however, is an extensive reflective process (Bolton 2010).
In order to support such reflectivity, and illustrate how sport psychologists can fall prey to perfectionist tendencies, I wanted to draw on my favourite paper by Albert Ellis titled, ‘How to Deal with Your Most Difficult Client – You’ (Ellis 1983). The beauty of this paper is the manner in which Ellis details how our own beliefs as psychologists can stray into the irrational. As he states, ‘in spite of their aspirations to godliness, still human, psychotherapists often indulge in the same kind of irrational absolutistic beliefs that other people hold’ (pg. 4). There is no loss of the usual Ellis sardonic wit here of course, but it nicely highlights how we should remove ourselves from any pedestal in order to illustrate our professional fallibility. In his article Ellis points out five comprehensive irrational beliefs (IBs) that psychologists can hold. Here, in order to indulge in some reflective writing, I wish to explore how three of his IBs relate to sport psychology work.
The first selected psychologist IB of Ellis’ states:
‘I have to be successful with all of my clients practically all of the time’. This belief essentially states that you must succeed with your client irrespective of the conditions on offer. Ellis continues by highlighting that one of the counterproductive corollaries here is ‘If I fail with any of my clients, it has to be my fault’. Within sport psychology this perspective places us into some murky water. We know in psychology in general that the most important element in success is ‘client factors’ e.g. their desire for change, their openness to learning, the space within their lives to explore themselves and so forth. (Cooper 2008). Within sport therefore the manner in which the client engages with you is a key determinant for success. For example, they may be referred on to you by a coach/governing body or approach you with the wrong idea of what form of ‘psychology’ is on offer or seek to ‘win more’ without seeking to change themselves. So the client is potentially engaging owing to some external factor ensuring that they are not primed for a process of behavioural adjustment never-mind self exploration (Andersen, Van Raalte et al. 2001). Furthermore what is ‘success’ is hard to tell. For some athletes they may have a desire to transition out of the sport and look for help from the psychologist with this exit (Salter 1997). However, it is unlikely the coach or funders will see such ‘exiting’ as a success, particularly if that athlete is still at the height of their powers. There is therefore numerous social, economic and political factors at work that question if an athlete’s psychological goals are possible, or cast doubts on what psychological ‘success’ may look like.
The second selected IB by Ellis is:
‘Since I am doing my best and working so hard as a therapist, my clients should be equally hard working and responsible, should listen to me carefully, and should always push themselves to change’. Again this has a number of dangerous corollaries but another one that stands out is, ‘They (clients) should work very hard in between sessions and always do their therapeutic homework!”. Any applied practitioner will smirk at that one and not from an arrogant position of ‘we know best’. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that athletes may or may not thrive in the completion of homework between sessions. For example, many have busy lives and legitimately struggle to complete exercises if they are formulated on week to week sessions. Others get frustrated by such exercises as it doesn’t match their desires in terms of engaging with sport psychology. Some athletes do want high structure and homework, while others prefer a ‘space to roam’ as one remarked to me. This ‘space’ is the hour in the week that is not structured, and they can begin to make sense of their lives from a broader perspective (Nesti and Ronkainen 2015). The point is what we deem to be ‘working hard’ may come from a distinct philosophical trajectory, and we should perhaps not become upset when clients do not wish to engage in our idiosyncratic views on hard work.
The last selected psychologist IB from the paper is:
‘Because I am a person in my own right, / must be able to enjoy myself during therapy sessions and to use these sessions to solve my personal problems as much as to help clients with their difficulties.‘ It is this last one for a sport psychologist that is the most important for one of the corollaries suggests we can look to ‘indulge’ ourselves through this belief. Certainly sport has a monetary and glamorous narrative attached to it – this view is unsurprising considering it is a highly funded (at times) and highly public industry. However, this particular IB hits at the heart of whether we feel our raison d’être is to help all sportspeople deal with their psychological concerns or only some of them (Anderson 2005). For example, is it an indulgence to only work with clients who we feel have a higher public image or can provide us with a greater financial return? Is it an indulgence that we use our profession to meet our own needs at the expense of what the clients may require? Is it an indulgence to not refer on a well known athlete even though we are aware the work required is outside our competency? There is no definite answer to these questions in a generic way, but what Ellis illustrates is a process in which we can utilise these ‘psychologist IBs’ to ask some difficult moral questions around how we work.
Overall, Ellis conveys these difficult irrational beliefs in his usual everyday and breezy language. Yet, the questions he is posing to us as sport psychologists are deeply reflective. To suggest that we never fall victim to these IBs is not what he asking, for indeed we will always be ‘unfinished masterpieces’ as practitioners (Rogers 1980). Instead, Ellis is asking us to have a greater awareness of ourselves. He finishes his article with some suggestions but the one I like the most is when he states that we should ‘consider these irrational beliefs as hypotheses, not facts, that you can dispute and surrender’. These IBs provide practitioners with lenses to investigate their work, thus helping us to become ‘good enough’ sport psychologist in the application of our discipline.
Dr. Will McConn-Palfreyman is a chartered sport psychologist at an institute of sport alongside acting as a private consultant. He practices in a number of elite and professional sports coupled with conducting research and a number of writing projects.
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Anderson, M. B. (2005). “‘Yeah, I work with Beckham’: Issues of confidentiality, privacy and privilege in sport psychology service.” Sport and Exercise Psychology Review 1(2): 5-13. http://vuir.vu.edu.au/2690/
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Salter, D. (1997). Measure, analyze and stagnate: towards a radical psychology of sport. Sport Psychology in Performance. R. J. Butler. Oxford, Reed Educational and Professional Publishing Ltd: 248-260. https://www.abebooks.com/first-edition/Sports-Psychology-Performance-Richard-Butler-Arnold/22202916683/bd
Winnicott, D. (1988). Babies and their mothers. London, Free Association Books. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/the-british-journal-of-psychiatry/article/babies-and-their-mothers-by-d-w-winnicott-london-free-association-books-1988-125-pp-695/98EFD0FDB2917365CBCE71C304FA2DCF