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S earching for a passion
My first real exposure to sport science came about during a year off when I spent a summer coaching soccer in the United States. There I met several university students who were studying sport science–a discipline I previously didn’t realize even existed! So although I had already accepted a place to study geography at Liverpool University in the United Kingdom, my home country, when I came back I talked to my PE teacher who recommended Loughborough University as the best place to study sport science in this country. When I discovered I could even combine sport science with geography there, I thought this was the perfect opportunity to have a degree in a ‘proper’ academic subject and pursue my passion for sport.
I completed my combined BSc in geography with physical education and sport science in 1995. I loved my course, especially the diversity of attending a lecture on, say, climate change in the morning and leadership behaviors in the afternoon. I tend to get bored easily, so having lots of different areas to study was good for me. Many people in my cohort went on to become PE or geography teachers, but I didn’t want to teach in a high school. Somehow I landed a position as a trainee manager with a multinational corporation in the paper and plastics sector. Not only did this job have no connection to my degree whatsoever, the company’s exploitation of forests was in direct opposition to my beliefs about environmental protection and sustainable development. It was a decent job with a good salary, company car, and expense account, but I was clearly selling out. I was determined that I would do something I enjoyed no matter what barriers may lie in the way. After some soul-searching, I decided I would do a master’s (with a view to a PhD) in sport psychology, the discipline I enjoyed most at university.
Research and Practice
I chose Exeter University for my MSc in exercise and sport psychology on the basis of the taught and research components of the course. For my dissertation I conducted an ethnographic study of team cohesion, which was subsequently published. This gave me a great boost because it demonstrated that I was capable of conducting independent research of publishable quality at a very early stage.
In retrospect the focus on research during my MSc was crucial in helping me to develop as an investigator. However, at the time I was disappointed in the low level of applied practice I had been exposed to and felt that a formal supervised experience program should have formed a cornerstone of the course. In my naiveté I had expected to find strong connections between university-based researchers and practitioners, who are working with athletes on a daily basis. I decided I would try to fill this gap with my PhD thesis project.
Bringing Research and Practice Closer
As I was searching for a suitable question I would like to research, I began to reflect on my own experiences in sport. As a teenager in Wales I had been playing soccer with the youth section of a professional team, and I later also got involved in coaching. One of the teenagers who eventually got a professional contract had made a particular impression on me. He was strong and fast, but he was definitely being selected ahead of more skillful players. It made me wonder, “What does it really take to make it in professional sport?” This was to become my research question. Talent development was an issue that was not only personally important to me, it is pertinent to sport psychology research, and relevant to the ‘real world’ of sport.
So in 1998, I started my PhD at the University of Alberta in Canada. I had chosen to go all the way to North America as I thought sport psychology was more advanced there. This belief probably arose from the time I spent coaching in the US, where the mental side of competition seemed to receive far more attention than I ever felt it did in the UK. In hindsight I think I was right, although now I feel that sport organizations in the UK have caught up.
My research drew on classic areas of psychology such as giftedness and expertise, following the steps of other researchers who have examined the developmental activities of the world’s highest achievers across a range of domains from science to music to sport, sparking classic “nature versus nurture” debates. I looked into defining characteristics that may predict an individual’s likelihood to become a professional soccer player and the varying influences of coach and parental support on elite junior tennis players.
During summer 2000 I interviewed professional adolescent soccer players in Canada, which I was able to recruit from my own involvement in playing and coaching soccer there. But, for my theory to be taken seriously I thought it was necessary to sample talented players from a major soccer playing nation–the UK. I asked for help from all the contacts I had made as a player and coach there, and actually found that most people were willing to get involved in my work.
Fortunately, the timing of my data collection also seemed to coincide with a period of growing interest in sport psychology among British soccer coaches. Whereas most of the Canadian coaches possessed master’s degrees in sport science and had at least some understanding of psychology, very few British coaches had postsecondary academic qualifications. I was struck by the enthusiasm of the British coaches to learn more about how sport psychology could help them to develop players. I also found that confidentiality was extremely important to coaches in both countries, however these concerns were heightened in the UK. There I was often asked by coaches before conducting any interviews to name the other professional clubs I had visited. Of course, had I started listing other professional clubs, I would have been shown the door immediately.
With these data in hand I produced my own theory of how talent may develop in soccer players. My work was well received, and I was awarded the 2003 “Dissertation of the Year Award” by the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology ( AAASP). AAASP is an international organization, but the bulk of its membership is drawn from the US, reflecting the strength of sport psychology in that country.
Being a practitioner
As I said earlier it was very important for me to combine new theories with practice, and a series of events helped me to become a practitioner during my PhD. I found a supervisor who was willing to spend about 2 hours a week working closely with me. Next, the players on the University of Alberta’s football team (North American football rather than soccer) expressed their interest in having a sport psychology consultant. Finally, the football coaches were prepared to embrace ‘new’ ideas. So I worked all day on my research and every evening and weekend with the team in one way or another, which amounted to about 20 hours a week.
I must admit, I did find it very hard when I started working with athletes because I had received less ‘clinical’ training in comparison to my research background. But the fact that I had myself been a competitive athlete as well as a coach helped me to initially understand the demands athletes were facing.
Most of the issues that arose related to conflicts between teammates or between players and their coaches. So during my team meetings I spent more time doing team-building activities (e.g., role clarification, team identity, accountability) while I worked individually with those athletes who wanted help with mental preparation. I also tried to help the athletes become more disciplined in their training and playing habits.
The team did not win too many games, but my personal success was how much I learned about developing trust and rapport, understanding each player’s unique perspective, and most importantly, being myself. I have also learned that to be effective in a team setting, it is important to spend time ‘hanging out’ with athletes and coaches, getting to know them and observing how they interact with each other.
Moving up the career ladder
Since I graduated I went back to England and worked for a 1-year postdoc at Leeds Metropolitan University, and then back to Canada at Brock University for another year. I found that in Canada there is a wider range of funding opportunities for sport psychology research, in particular several funding agencies have systems in place so as not to disadvantage young researchers (as long as they have good ideas!). To be honest, I thought that it was very difficult for young researchers in the UK to get into the funding cycle. Still, I have developed and maintained research collaborations in both countries, and this is one of the most rewarding aspects of my career so far.
I am just starting a new position at the University of Alberta, still working in the area of talent development and youth sport but this time as an assistant professor. There was intense competition for this position, and having previous experience at the University of Alberta probably helped me. But I had also shown that I could conduct independent research at other institutions, publish my research, and obtain some grant funding. I think what else may have distinguished me from other candidates was that, because of my supervised experience, I am accredited as a sport psychologist with the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences ( BASES). Fortunately BASES and AAASP have a reciprocal accreditation agreement that facilitates the movement of sport psychologists between the UK and North America. Here at Alberta I will also be working as a practitioner with the university teams and in the community.
What have I learned along the way?
I am perhaps in a unique position to be able to step back and apply my research into talent development to my own career. That I am committed and passionate about my field enables me to be disciplined in my work, which I have found in my studies is a prerequisite to success. Also, I am most productive when I have supportive (yet challenging) colleagues around me, but I also need friends away from academia with whom I can relax. It is also very important that I keep my applied work going as it helps me to keep in touch with what’s happening in sport.
Sport psychology is a young and dynamic field and opportunities are there, with federal funding being available in Canada from agencies such as the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council ( SSHRC). I find the diversity of my work energizing–my typical day might involve teaching in the morning, research in the afternoon, and a couple of hours consulting at night. I love all three tasks and I feel that they are complementary in the role of a sport psychologist. It’s a great career, and I feel fortunate to have found that I can make a living pursuing my passion.