I have been working with athletes for ten years. I am a HCPC registered and BPS Chartered Psychologist. In that time, I have had the pleasure and privilege of working with some incredible people who have represented and won major honours for their country.
Recently, we at InnerDrive advertised a potential work opportunity for a sport psychologist early in their career. As such, I have spent much of the last two weeks talking to young practitioners. This process has made me reflect on, if given the chance, what advice I would have given myself ten years ago. Here are four things I now know:
1. If You Don't Ask, You Don't Get
In the last few months, there have been a number of fantastic jobs advertised in Sport Psychology. These include full time positions at Premier League Clubs such as Arsenal, Man City and Stoke City. Ten years ago, this was not the case.
Any work experience opportunities that I got were opportunities that I secured myself. Following my Masters, I wrote to all 92 football clubs offering my services for free. Two got back to me, with one of them just with the intention of telling me they thought sport psychology was nonsense. The other was over 200 miles away.
Doing that first presentation was nerve wracking (and probably not helped by the fact that in my nervous state, I forgot to plug in my laptop charger, resulting in it turning off halfway through the presentation). But it went well. And sport is a small world - and you never know where opportunities might lead you to.
This was the start of me working in professional football. To date, I have now worked with international players from England, Scotland, Wales and Japan, and held positions with two Premiership Clubs. None of these came through advertised jobs. The more proactive you can be to create opportunities, the better.
2. Stick to Your Area of Expertise
It is tempting when working in sport to offer an opinion about things outside of your area of expertise. Early in my career, if the conversation would go that way, I would happily offer my opinion on tactics and even technique. This was a mistake. Over the years, I have learnt to stick to my area of expertise. Compared to players and coaches, I literally know nothing about the intricacies and nuances of the other parts of the game. What I do know about is how to apply psychological research in order to improve performance. Getting the players or coaches to apply that knowledge to their area of expertise is where success happens.
To start with, I think I ventured outside of my area of expertise as a) I was still in 'fan' mode, and b) I was worried that my clients would doubt my knowledge if I didn't offer an opinion. This is not the case. If anything, the opposite is true. If you stick to what you know and are honest about what you don't, it increases your credibility as their sport psychologist.
3. Don't Worry Too Much About Self-Promotion
They say that 'success has a thousand mothers, but failure is an orphan'. Early in my career, I would tweet about my clients' successes. The not so subtle implication being that I was part of (and indeed partly the cause) that success. I think I also wanted people to know that I had a high profile client. However, on reflection, anyone who was impressed with this was not worth impressing.
To start with, working with high profile athletes acts as a sort of validation. Something along the lines of 'they are really good at what they do + they work with me = I must be really good at what I do'. It is important to always remember that you are not your client's success. Some of the best practitioners work with people you may have never heard of. On reflection, it is far more important to get good at your job, rather than having other people thinking you already are.
4. Get a Good Life-Work Balance
This is a hard one. Especially at the start of your career, as you are so desperate to make it in such a competitive and often closed environment that you work very hard to 'make it'. Maybe too hard. I remember one ski holiday in particular, where I told my clients I was going away for a week for a much needed break. Yet I still took a phone call at the top of a mountain, as I thought I was the only who could fix this particular crisis. Of course, it wasn't a crisis nor was I the only one who could have supported, as plans were made in advance on who was filling in for me. I don't think my girlfriend (thankfully now my wife) was too impressed with me.
The habits you create early on in your career can stick with you. This is still an area I still need to get better at. Indeed, in a book written by a nurse that I recommend all practitioners read, working too hard was rated as the biggest regret by people on their deathbed. Not checking work emails at home when I am with my family is the next area for me to target.
For all new sport psychologists, the first few years working in sport psychology can be tough. It can be a lonely place, filled with doubts about your abilities. But it does get better. You develop more skills and you learn from your experiences.
If you ever want to talk to someone and want a bit of guidance and mentoring, you can always email us. My personal email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. If possible, I will do my best to offer you some sort of work experience. And if not, you will always be welcome at InnerDrive HQ for a good cup of tea.
Want to know how sports psychology can improve your football skills? Head over to our handy guide to get the lowdown.