Should Your Sports Psychologist Be Your Friend

Sports Psychology Special to – Should Your Sports Psychologist Be Your Friend – June 18, 2015 – One of the earliest principles in psychotherapy, and a long held position since the early years of Freudian psychoanalysis, is the notion that strict professional boundaries must be maintained between a client or patient and his or her psychologist. Ethical guidelines have long warned against becoming too chummy or friendly with clients, and for good reason.

For one, the client is seeking the special expertise and experience provided by a doctor. Maintaining that respect with healthy personal distance is beneficial. The client is paying for an important service. As a society, we would not want professional judgment or professional respect to be eroded by temporary likes, dislikes, or other transitory personal factors. These elements can and often do change rapidly in a friendship relationship and its far better for both parties to stick to the work at hand. It’s actually analogous to the principle that a surgeon is unwise to perform an operation on a family member. We would prefer our surgeons to be 110% professional and non-emotional in making critical decisions on where, how, and when to cut which limb or organ. With fear of failure removed, the surgeon is freer to make impartial clinical decisions with a greater chance for success. The same holds true in psychotherapy. Much of therapy also involves critical decision making and strategizing for what is best for the client.

Another strong tradition in psychotherapy is the need for confidentiality. Going to a ball game with a client or chatting socially at the supermarket just doesn’t provide that level of security and aura of sensitivity that a client needs to bare his or her soul comfortably and/or reveal information needed in the process of change or recovery. This principle is so ingrained in our professional ethos that psychologists are trained to not even say hello to a client in public unless her or she says hello first. I get this. It may seem odd, but it ensures a level of comfort and safety for the client who might not enjoy letting the world know that her or she is seeing Dr X for suicidal thoughts and impulses.

Now let’s change the focus to the world of the sports psychologist/client relationship. I have been doing both general psychotherapy and mental coaching for performance in private practice for 16 years and have noted some very important and significant differences between the two that often change the outlook on “friendly behavior” entirely.

For one, the sports or business client usually comes to me for improvement in their craft not for clinical recovery from illness. Sure there are occasional serious clinical issues such as depression and anxiety, and having the background as both a clinical psychologist and sports psychologist is essential in my view, and it allows me to be aware of and treat these problems when they exist. Mental distress is hardly a recipe for performance or well-being so it must be treated. However, this is often not even necessary as the top athlete and business executive is usually healthier than most of us! In the majority of cases, the client is not disturbed mentally or in need of clinical psychology services. In sports psychology work, the client who finds their way inside my office or on the phone usually feels excited and privileged to do this exotic yet very important training to enhance success. What a far cry from the general client who comes in saying “please help me recover” as opposed to the mental coaching client who says “please help me win!” In the latter case, not only is the client not embarrassed about seeing a sports psychologist, he or she is often proud of maximizing talent through a specialized service. It’s much more analogous to going to school where everything is done in public. Imagine how strange the world would be if all learning took place in private.

Another aspect of the sports psychologist/client relationship is that critical observation of performance is often done in public, whether in a team or individual sport context, with many others watching during training and competition. The athlete or top performer is already used to the social aspect of sport, or they should be as it is so important, and there is just no way to get around that fact that mental coaching is just another solid part of sports training. There is little need to hide the fact that you are working with a sports psychologist. Doing so also keeps this needed profession hidden, which does little for society at all.
Still, I always start with the default presumption of confidentiality and make sure the client is comfortable with me watching them in public and interacting with them in public. I respect the client’s wishes and in 95% of cases they usually end up wanting to talk publicly about their work in mental coaching. They also usually want me around more rather than less in public and ask me to travel to them quite frequently.

There is also the importance of developing social and often public rapport with the sports psychologist in a more relaxed manner than would ever be considered in a more traditional clinical psychology context. I’ve traveled many times with clients, whether to the Summer Olympic Games, UFC fights, the Australian Open in tennis, or to pro football games, and there is rarely getting away from the fact that sport is public and that mental coaching is just coaching. Again, however, keep in mind that this is all discussed upfront with the client and solid professional savvy is always needed to decide what is in the client’s best interest. That must rule the day.

As a result of these major differences, I do not converse with or even acknowledge the presence in public of my clients who are primarily seeing me for clinical problems unless they shout out first. On the other hand, for clients being seen primarily for mental coaching, and given consent with my judgment that it is also in their best interests, it is not at all uncommon to go with the client to a hockey or football game and we’ll often make a session or two out of it in the process. Traveling to where the client is performing also offers the obvious opportunity to have sessions before and after the event. This helps greatly in establishing the bond between professional and client.

The key in all of this is to be experienced and professional and to always do what is in the client’s best interest with proper consent. However, Sigmund Freud would be rolling around in his grave if he were aware of the way sports psychologists  and clients often interact in public today! I am fine with that. Siggy knew less about sports psychology and what is best to encourage success in performance than I do, and thank goodness I know less than he did about subconscious conflicts, oedipal impulses, and the need to resolve these conflicts by having clients talk about dreams for 5 years on a couch while he blows cigar smoke in their face.

In sum, while I would never become friends with my general clinical clients or break into their houses late at night to observe their personal interactions, I might very well encourage a more collegial relationship with a purely mental coaching client whose success hinges on public performance in areas such as improving confidence and focus, reducing distractions, realizing specific performance and process goals, and developing increased resilience in the face of adversity. Being there when it happens is not only important to see, but it further encourages the client to be oblivious to needless distractions.

Having a friendly public rapport with my sports psychology clients, while not the same as being their best man at a wedding or hanging out together, is often not only not discouraged, but often greatly encouraged.

I hope you have enjoyed this little glimpse into the world of sports psychology!