By Dr Nanaki J. Chadha | Jul 13, 2023, 10:48 PM IST

On the Field and Behind the Scenes: Challenges Encountered by Sport Psychologists During Competitions

Peering through the spectator’s lens, it is easy to be captivated by the exhilarating world of sport psychology where professionals accompany athletes to far-flung destinations, bask in the glory of victory, and the cheers of the crowd generates an electrifying aura. While being a sport psychologist is an intriguing and attractive profession, nonetheless, psychologists tend to navigate through a labyrinthine landscape that defies the glimmering facade.  

The current article unveils a gamut of challenges that sport psychologists face amidst competitive chaos, alongside offering recommendations to professionals to consider their own well-being.

Upholding confidentiality in a multi-disciplinary team

Working as a member of the multi-disciplinary team can often become demanding for sport psychologists, especially when it comes to maintaining confidentiality. In organisational settings where the sport psychologist closely collaborates with coaches, physiotherapists and other team members, it is imperative to find adequate balance between information sharing and preserving athletes confidentiality. Therefore, it is essential for practitioners to clearly outline and communicate boundaries regarding confidentiality within the multidisciplinary team.

Under extraordinary circumstances, where essential information needs to be shared with another team member for the athlete’s well-being and development, one should only disclose relevant information of the athlete (i.e., with the player and parental consent) to another member of the team (while respecting privacy and maintaining confidentiality) who requires that specific information to carry out their own responsibilities successfully. For instance, when working with an athlete, sport psychologists often collaborate with medical professionals such as physicians, physiotherapists, or nutritionists. In such cases, sharing specific psychological insights or strategies might be required to ensure a comprehensive approach to the athlete’s well-being and performance.

Incessant attentiveness and consciousness

Being immersed in fast-paced competitive events for extensive hours on the field can lead to mental and physical exhaustion, as it demands heightened alertness and consciousness on part of the sport psychologist. Continuous observations of every athlete’s performance, actively seeking feedback, along with staying attuned to the players’ needs, both individually and collectively, can be mentally and physically draining, impacting the practitioners own performance and well-being. Thereupon, it is crucial for sport psychologists to manage their own energy levels and take frequent breaks to recharge and rejuvenate in order to ensure that they continue to provide adequate support to the athletes.

In addition, when the psychologist travels with the team, stays in the same hotel, and dines with them regularly, such level of familiarity often results in blurred boundaries leaving the practitioner drained. Henceforth, while travelling with the team, it is necessary to fix and communicate clear engagement hours to the players and other support staff to strike a balance between being available to athletes and taking care of one’s own well-being.

Concurrently managing differing emotions

One of the most significant challenges that sport psychologists might experience on-site would be managing the diverse emotional states of athletes simultaneously. Some athletes would be ecstatic and overjoyed after a successful performance, while others would be disappointed and distressed after a loss. Manoeuvring such varying emotions requires one to be highly empathetic, adaptive, and responsive. In the middle of competition madness, providing validation and supporting athletes through their emotional rollercoasters can be emotionally overwhelming and exhausting for the practitioners themselves. Therefore, while being away for competitions, it is important for practitioner’s to stay connected with their social support networks (e.g., colleagues, family and friends) and share their experiences, vent frustration, and seek advice when required. Regular check-ins and communication with friends and family can provide practitioners with emotional support and maintain a sense of connectedness.

Managing one’s own stress in high-pressure and unpredictable situations

The sporting environment is often characterised as stressful, uncertain, and highly competitive and success oriented, both for athletes and the entire support team, including sport psychologists. The heightened stakes and performance expectations creates a highly stressful environment, where psychologists are expected to think on their feet, adjust their interventions last minute, and provide timely support in response to ever-changing circumstances. While sport psychologists provide athletes with adequate tools and strategies to cope with pressure effectively, it is essential for them to adopt similar stress management techniques (e.g., breathing exercises, mindfulness, journaling or any other interventions) to manage their own stress levels.

Lack of structured routines and timings, inadequate diet and sleep deprivation

Sport psychologists often operate in environments that follow unpredictable schedules, with matches or events running late or starting earlier than planned. Such lack of structure can easily make it difficult for practitioners to establish consistent routines, resulting in disrupted meal times, irregular breaks, and limited time for rest and self-care.

More often than not, practitioners might find themselves relying on quick and convenient food options or skipping meals altogether. In addition, irregular schedules and long hours on-site can result in inadequate sleep. Consequently, impairing their cognitive functioning, attention, and decision-making abilities, that can further impact their ability to effectively analyse and respond to athletes’ needs.

To mitigate this challenge, it is essential for sport psychologists to consciously prioritise their own self-care and get adequate sleep, proper nutritious meals, and maintain a routine that supports their well-being during hectic competition schedules.

To conclude, while working in the sporting ecosystem is fascinating, the challenges experienced by sport psychologists are plentiful. Practitioners embark on a demanding journey, pouring their energy, expertise and unwavering support into the athletes. Hence, amongst the whirlwind of competition, it is important for sport psychologists to practice what they preach and make sure to pause, take a breath, and prioritise their own well-being.

Here’s a gentle reminder for all practitioners spending extensive hours on-ground:

“You can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first”

Image credit: Freepik