American Board of Sport Psychology: Professional Issues in Applied Sport Psychology
Critical Issues in Applied Sport Psychology, Recommended Sport Psychology Education Curriculum/Training and Collaborating with the American Board of Sport Psychology
In contrast to the physical and technical game about which there is an abundance of scientific information and data along with large volumes of objective performance statistics, when it comes to the mental side there is a paucity of valid and reliable information about its dynamics. The field of applied sport psychology remains mired in a paradigm that is based in part on weak data, questionable assessment methods and interventions that have not been validated at the intraindividual level. It continues to overemphasize findings that were derived from group studies as justification for the continued indiscriminant use of many of its procedures and interventions despite the fact that such findings do not necessarily generalize to the individual athlete. This is ironic, especially since the most prominent theory of peak performance (Individual Zone of Optimum Functioning [IZOF]) stresses the need to establish individual profiles of athlete peak performance; Hanin, 2006). If the field is to make serious and lasting inroads and provide athletes, coaches and organizations with best practices and methods a paradigm shift needs to occur. It must be based on rigorous scientific applications and methods, similar to those seen in certain clinical realms where important advances have been made pertaining to patient diagnosis and treatment. New approaches to the evaluation of athletes must produce meaningful and useful information regarding an athlete’s psychological performance that has a high degree of ecological validity and reliability. Just as a professional scout or coach knows an athlete’s vertical jumping ability, foot speed, performance averages, technical propensities, body-fat index and oxygen uptake, the time has come to develop individualized normative databases of psychological and neuropsychophysiological functioning in athletes for assessment/diagnostic, comparative and intervention purposes. Practitioners should know an athlete’s “attention threshold,” “brain processing speed and reaction time,” “frontal-lobe error rate,” “emotional reactivity and valence,” “critical moment psychological proficiency,” heart rate variability and deceleration response parameters,” and “movement related brain-macro potentials” to name a few important psychophysiological performance responses if they are to effectively advise athletes, coaches and teams. The era of just telling athletes “to relax” or “just imagine” or “shut out negative thoughts” needs to evolve into a new one in which just relax means “generate more high frequency heart rate variability” prior to critical moments, or engage in focus threshold training to improve concentration or manipulate cerebral laterality to suppress intrusive thoughts. The current cliché laden “just do it” approach needs to be replaced with methods that define numerous nebulous constructs that pervade applied sport psychology today (e.g., “zone,” “mental toughness,” “focus”). It is time to delineate the IZOF theory and postulates using instruments and methodologies that allow for the operationalization of states of intensity or physiological reactivity it refers to.
It is no longer tenable for practitioners to speak in vague subjective terms such as “he doesn’t concentrate” or “she’s a choker,” or “he’s not mentally tough” or recommend interventions just because they are the thing to do. “You’ve got to visualize” or “get your intensity up,” or “watch your body language” as slogans to somehow involve a person in mental training are insufficient. Athletes and coaches need to be provided with standardized assessment and intervention methods along with measures and parameters of performance relevant psychological and neuropsychophysiological functioning. The time has come for sport psychologists to use new language, methods and procedures that are based on empirically derived data and operationalizations of psychological processes and their effects on performance.
Claims and Promises
All it takes is a cursory search of the internet using key words like mental training, mental game or sport psychology and one will come up with scores of websites of systems of mental training and practitioners that promise athletes the key to success. Usually these sites and the businesses, services or individuals that they represent have catchy names like Peak Performance Consulting, Brain Game or Ultimate Mental Training with their very titles implying that the answer to an athlete’s mental woes or goals can be found there. Looking a little further one will find descriptions of a system or method that was developed by a key personality who runs the practice who claims to have found the approach to the mental game, a system that is so unique and powerful that it will help struggling athletes or make them better. The more insidious systems make grand proclamations. For example Brain Typing claims to be an infallible method for determining within minutes not only an athlete’s psychological tendencies, strengths and weaknesses, but also the neuro-anatomical and neuro-functional underpinnings of a diagnosed athlete’s mental game, and all this merely by just looking at an athlete.
A web search will also result in the discovery of former athletes, who based on their experience and psychological struggles and self-methods for overcoming them claim to have a major advantage over practitioners who were not top athletes. Less extreme, but just as troubling are credentialed practitioners, many holding doctoral degrees or certification who claim unequivocally that their procedures work and will lift an athlete to new performance heights. Frequently, such practitioners advertise expertise in a particular method like hypnosis, mental imagery, motivation or goal setting. Others may utilize biofeedback, with neurofeedback practitioners (a form of biofeedback) being notorious for claiming that achieving a certain brain wave functional profile in an office setting will take hold and transfer to the playing field to greatly enhance performance. In all cases you’ll find a list of endorsees or testimonials from athletes, all professing to having discovered the Holy Grail for achieving peak psychological performance.
The guru driven nature of sport psychology has contaminated the field and how it is perceived, evaluated and valuated by coaches, athletes and decision makers in organizations who may want to utilize the services of sport psychology practitioners. Yet, on the basis of what criteria are decisions being made as to who will be hired or retained and on the basis of what and how much should they be paid? In a claim ridden market, unlike one that is data, fact or evidence driven, decision making is made difficult. Claims are not associated with transparency or accountability; hence, they can not be valuated. What is their worth? Does the claim that one’s special visualization or neurofeedback protocol have inherent value, such that an athlete or team should pay a certain fee or offer a major consulting contract on the basis of what is promised? Does the fact that a practitioner has used a “special” procedure with hundreds of athletes carry any empirical weight? After-all, how does the practitioner behind a mental training system demonstrate its efficacy; on the basis of having applied it to scores of athletes? Shouldn’t the benchmark for efficacy be data and not testimonial or endorsement driven or experience in delivering services that upon close scrutiny are substandard and devoid of accountability? Can we expect administrators such as general managers of professional sport teams and athletic directors at schools and colleges as well as coaches and athletes to make informed decisions as to who will be their sport psychology practitioner on the basis of personal pitches that to a great extent rest on claims, experience in practicing the procedures that led to a candidate’s unjustified claims and attestations of efficacy by current and former clients? Are such claims to be trusted and should they be at the heart or center of a professional field of disciplined inquiry and practice?
The following critique provides a foundational and fundamental rationale for advancing evidence based and validated athlete assessment and intervention protocols. Although highly critical of the field the points of contention that are raised were not intended to insult or be condescending toward serious and ethical practitioners, most who are apt to have recognized themselves weaknesses and limitations of the field and many of its current practices.
The American Board of Sport Psychology: Position Paper on the State of Applied Sport Psychology
The American Board of Sport Psychology (ABSP) initially presented it’s Position Paper on the State of Applied Sport Psychology at the American Psychological Association’s (APA) annual convention in 2008 in a poster session. It was expanded and redelivered in a paper at the 2011 APA convention in Washington D.C. as part of a broader symposium on the state of applied sport psychology.
The ABSP Position Paper and its observations, perspectives and findings are based on a two year investigation of practices of sport psychology consultants in the USA
The ABSP position paper advances the perspective that compared to practice and evidentiary standards in numerous allied human services fields the field of applied sport psychology and its practitioners are for the most part engaging in antiquated and substandard practices at the lowest level in the evidence hierarchy.
The basis of this critique emanated from anecdotal experiences and encounters with practitioners in the context of the ABSP certification training programs and a follow-up nationwide survey of sport psychology clients and practitioner practices:
1. The American Board of Sport Psychology holds an annual summer visiting fellowship and internship training program in evidence-based applied sport psychology going back to 2006. Dozens of participating practitioners and students were extensively questioned about their experiences as a sport psychology practitioner in the context of previous education and training.
Undergraduate and graduate students and/or student-athletes in the program were asked about their experiences as recipients of sport psychological services. This line of on-going research provided experiential feedback supporting most of the relevant points of critique in the ABSP Position Paper. Respondents frequently mentioned that they did not experience systematic approaches to mental training or were not taught how to administer higher evidentiary procedures with both practitioners and student/student athletes having little if any awareness of accountability methodologies.
2. Accounts of sport psychology practices in the media and practitioner websites:
A review of scores of sport psychology related websites of practitioners revealed that they contained unsubstantiated claims and testimonials and no cautionary language regarding intervention efficacy. Instead of just listing services in a neutral manner the vast majority of websites used misleading language and guarantees of successful outcome was usually implicit. Interventions were often touted on the basis of misinterpretation or embellishment of self-generated research with inflated claims of success without verifiable documentation. No practitioners, regardless of credentials or academic degree could be found that advertised, let alone engaged in gold standard assessment and intervention efficiency and efficacy procedures as set forth in the ABSP Position Paper. This is alarming, a discovery that led to the inception of the ABSP in 2000 and its mission to advance high evidentiary approaches to athlete assessment and intervention and educate the public regarding standards in applied sport psychology.
3. Importantly, the largest database of practitioner acquired brain-heart-mind-body responses in the context of real and simulated competition calls into question claims of universal intervention efficacy.
While intervention efficiency showing mind-body changes as a function of mental training was documentable, intervention efficacy varied highly as a function of three key isolated individual differences measures with more negative or no change findings emerging than performance gains that could be attributed to an intervention. This suggests that something is amiss in light of field-wide claims of high rates of intervention efficacy and but a dearth of reports of negative findings. As a result one could conclude that: 1) either group findings reporting high efficacy do not generalize to the individual athlete as is often assumed by practitioners…2) or, there are design and methodological flaws in many positive group studies (e.g. lack of ecological validity)…3) or, negative findings are not being reported.
As a result, due to a lack of extension or validation studies or practitioner generated high evidentiary data (usually none), claims of high intervention efficacy can be called into question, claims that in the end can mislead athletes, coaches, the public and the field of sport psychology into believing that sport psychology consistently offers intervention solutions that are potent, reliable and universally replicable.
ABSP generated data suggests that this is not the case when gold standard methodologies are applied longitudinally, with consistent high intervention efficacy being very difficult to demonstrate at the intraindividual level.
More non- and negative, than positive results, emerge when high evidentiary approaches to mental training efficacy testing are used.
Identified Issues and Shortcomings in Applied Sport Psychology: Overview
*Prevalent approaches to athlete assessment and intervention are based on weak or incomplete data and even myth (e.g., lack of ecological data on Mind-Body performance responses during actual competition; notion that body language predicts performance).
*Assessment and Intervention strategies are antiquated and often administered in an ad hoc manner devoid of underlying construct validity or a coherent and integrative theoretical context.
*Little is known about psychophysiological responding during actual training and real competition and whether attempts to induce supposed performance facilitative intervention responses occur and importantly; are they really associated with positive outcome? Moreover, the vast majority of practitioners have not been trained to engage in applied psychophysiology/biomarker-guided efficacy testing.
Interventions are assumed to work; however, where is the accountability? Do they really work and how do we know?
*These shortcomings have resulted in part from a failure to validate many of the theories, hypotheses, assumptions and myths that drive prevalent approaches to practice; with untenable and unsupported approaches continuing to persist as though they were valid.
How sport psychology is not being practiced
Prevalent practice approaches are marked more by what they don’t than do include and involve:
Evaluation sessions are often cursory
Practitioners rely to a large extent on an athlete’s input or answers to questions about performance issues or context inappropriate test instruments to arrive at a “diagnosis” or insight regarding performance issues. Important subliminal mind-body response tendencies that often transcend conscious awareness are usually not assessed. They are frequently overlooked despite their relevance to predicting performance, explaining etiology of performance and determining intervention amenability and compliance. Coaches are rarely involved in the interview/evaluation process. Sessions usually last for an hour and resemble clinical or counseling sessions in their content and progression with plans rarely being laid for later ecological evaluations and longitudinal follow-up and analysis.
Practitioners rarely leave the office
On-the-playing field observations and evaluation are not engaged in by the vast majority of practitioners, with many never leaving their office to actually observe a client perform. Major discrepancies between athlete in-office self-report and actual responses during training and competition thereby go unnoticed. Such incongruence between athlete-feedback and practitioner impressions and actual underlying psychophysiology, psychological performance tendencies and their effect on objective outcome measures (obtained in-the-field) frequently render in-office “diagnostic” conclusions incomplete, inaccurate and/or flawed.
Practitioners rarely make referrals
Practitioners regardless of limitations in education, training and expertise in a specific sport tend to take on every case. Most seem very confident that they can handle any performance issue. What is troubling, though, is that very few practitioners are aware of what they don’t know including performance specificities and technical and tactical dynamics of many sports.
Practice approaches are eclectic, lack documentation and accountability
Select ten practitioners at random and one is likely to find ten different approaches to the evaluation and mental training of athletes. The lack of a systematic evidence-based approach to applied sport psychology can significantly hinder athletes from achieving peak psychological performance and obtaining valid and reliable information on their psychological response tendencies and mental performance during training and competition. Unfortunately, many practitioners are not aware that something may be missing from their practice repertoire, training/education and knowledge base or are reluctant to admit to such (even more so among highly credentialed or “experienced,” “star” or supposed stalwart practitioners). Yet, the field and many of its practitioners continue to tout and promote their methods with utmost confidence to the extent of guaranteeing the validity and efficacy of their methods or approach. Such a state of affairs would be untenable in the clinical arena where procedural competence and data-driven accountability is demanded and scope of practice is limited to specialty domains, a concept that is foreign to applied sport psychology where a “wild west” state of affairs pervades.
Practitioners fail to utilize advanced technologies and methodologies
Most practitioners lack training in applied psychophysiology, applied neuroscience, ambulatory monitoring and use of psychophysiological instrumentation/software, procedures and methodologies for real-time ecological in vivo monitoring and analysis of athletes. Most also lack training in biofeedback and knowledge pertaining to its utility as an on-the-playing field intervention that can be used in an attempt to manipulate or shape desired psychological or mind-body responses (attention, physiological reactivity and cognitive processing) and then determine the extent to which such attempts are achieved as reflected in fluctuations in the frequency and amplitude of wave forms that are visible on a computer monitor (e.g., EEG or ECG). These advanced technologically-based procedures allow for the documentation of athlete responding, bringing accountability to the assessment and intervention process in the context of ecologically valid settings and situations; namely real-official competition. Most practitioners also fail to employ single-case longitudinal statistical analysis strategies and generate performance-specific databases in follow-up to or in conjunction with every training session and competitive event that an athlete engages in. These are crucial high-level evidentiary procedures/methods that should be used by all serious, conscientious and ethical practitioners or outsourced to specialists who are trained to use these methods and instruments. The failure to utilize the above methods, technologies and information can be considered malpractice and is no longer tenable. Athletes, coaches, teams and organizations who are not being exposed to these evidence-based approaches (the vast majority) that are critical to informed and best practices are being short-changed. Clients often unknowingly select (hire) or encounter practitioners under the assumption that there is indeed a systematic or universal and validated approach to athlete assessment and intervention that all practitioners are trained in and that they apply these and other important procedures. However, these assumptions are faulty with the vast majority of practitioners lacking training in these advanced evidence-based methods and procedures.
Interventions are applied in a haphazard, ad hoc manner
For example, athletes are taught visualization techniques, cognitive strategies, breathing and other methods in the context of the intake or first session and then sent on their way under the assumption that a client has 1) learned a mental training (MT) technique and is capable of practicing it 2) that the temporal properties of a MT technique are such that they can be applied at any time and then work later or on command and 3) that MT will generalize to the real word of competition. Most MT techniques are designed to “relax” an athlete; yet NO practitioner could be located who actually monitored athletes during training and competition to determine 1) whether an athlete is/was engaging in the prescribed MT technique 2) whether and what sort of psychophysiological responses are/were associated with engaging in MT prior to and during actual competition and importantly 3) whether engaging in a MT training technique really improves/improved performance, and if so, to what extent this assumption of MT-efficacy can/could be validated (on the basis of objective statistical outcome measures that are accrued longitudinally at the intra-individual level)?
Sport Psychology Services Delivery Approaches are Practitioner and Not Athlete-Centered
The prevalent approach to applied sport psychology is practitioner-centered. It is driven by financial and practice realities that supersede what is known about developmental processes and the remediation of performance problems or the enhancement of performance. Yet, promises are made, guarantees are given and claims pervade. It is disingenuous to ever make the claim that a psychological performance issue that probably took a lifetime to develop can be eradicated or performance can be improved on the basis of cursory, time-constrained sessions with a sport psychology practitioner that usually take place once a week for an hour. At worst, such a contention is a seductive claim and could be considered malpractice. Just as physical and technical training have ideal temporal parameters that facilitate technical maintenance and improvement so too can it be expected that achieving enhanced psychological performance will also be contingent on intensive training over the course of time. Coaches and athletes know, technical proficiency and physical fitness requires hours of training, each day. Consequently, for example, a 1:10 ratio of mental to physical training is highly likely to be insufficient to improve an athlete’s mental game. Just as a developing athlete or technically/physically deficient athlete requires supervised coaching for extended time periods, so does the psychologically vulnerable, burdened or athlete who is trying to develop mental skills. An athlete’s improvement or remediation program should not be constrained or dictated by a practitioner’s temporal, financial and other practice realities. This is a critical ethical issue as well since developmental realities pertaining to behavioral change cannot be ignored in light of what is known about psychological remediation and improvement processes. It takes time to ameliorate sport-specific psychological problems or improve an athlete’s mental game. Psychological interventions and mental training frequently must be carried out for hours to achieve consolidation. Ultimately, time-to-achieve enduring biomarker-verifiable change parameters must be established for each individual athlete. Doing so requires a structured athlete-centered delivery of services paradigm even if it means that a practitioner must leave the office and work with an athlete for four hours a day for three weeks straight.
Toward a Gold Standard Approach to Applied Sport Psychology
If the field of applied sport psychology is to provide athletes, coaches and organizations with best practices fundamental changes in the way athletes are assessed and trained need to be instituted. New standardized and validated approaches to the evaluation of athletes must produce meaningful and useful information regarding psychological tendencies and performance that has a high degree of ecological and predictive validity and reliability. Sport psychology practitioners, athletes and coaches need to be provided with evidence-based assessment and intervention methods that generate measures and parameters of performance relevant psychological and neuropsychophysiological functioning for the purpose of predicting performance, guiding interventions and determining their efficacy. The time has come for sport psychologists to engage in a new practice paradigm, one that is based on:
An integrative conceptual and systematic, evidence-based methodological framework for athlete assessment, intervention and efficacy testing that leads to:
- Group and individualized norms for attention, physiological reactivity and cognitive responding that have a high degree of predictive and ecological validity
- validation of standardized, ecological protocols that are designed to assess and manipulate attention, psychophysiological responding and cognitive processing as well as determine the efficacy of interventions on the basis of objective statistical performance and “mind-body” (e.g., HRV) outcome measures
- operationalizations and measurement of psychological performance (e.g., Zone, or Flow states; IZOF) beyond self-report, anecdotal and mythical descriptions
- Longitudinal databases of athlete psychological performance and psychophysiological responding that are derived from micro-analyses of training and actual competition (before, during and after) and include intervention efficacy testing information (outcome data).
ABSP Recommended Educational and Training Curricula: Applied Sport Psychology
Each year the American Board of Sport Psychology hold a summer visiting fellowship and training/internship program. Participants from across the nation including university professors as well as undergraduate students and even non-ABSP certified sport psychology practitioners are questioned regarding their experiences with sport psychology either as an athlete recipient of services, student in a degree or certification program or as an instructor/professor or coach of athletes. The vast majority of these participants noted that they were not sure of what it was they were supposed to do, whether a procedure worked and none systematically used mental training methods one their own once team-based seasonal relationships with a sport psychology practitioner ended. On the other hand all active athletes religiously adhered to physical and technically-oriented training programs. Relative to instructors in sport psychology as well as practitioners seeking additional training in the ABSP summer program all said that they were dissatisfied with educational approaches in applied sport psychology, especially experiential components that are lacking in many degree programs. A common theme was that graduates, certificate holders and athletes themselves really did not know what to do when it came to competently administering or engaging in applied psychological procedures. A sort of learn as you go attitude seemed to pervade with on-the-job training guiding and eventually shaping practitioners’ approach to athlete assessment and mental training. In the end, if ten practitioners from the same graduate or certification program were surveyed a few years later regarding their practices one likely would find ten different approaches to applied sport psychology.
ABSP contends that the vast majority of applied sport psychology education programs are substandard and do not prepare graduates to become competent practitioners and practitioner-researchers. This may be in part attributable that sport psychology is a field, that since its inception has been dominated by and almost exclusively housed in Physical Education and Kinesiology departments. Beyond a few distance-based sport psychology degree programs in psychology departments, sport psychology per se tends to be offered as a specialization or emphasis area within a Physical Education or Kinesiology degree program. Master’s degrees in sport psychology are also offered, but these are associated with potential practice constraints associated with state scope or practice and title laws.
By being housed in Physical Education and Kinesiology departments sport psychology degree programs for the most part are being taught by non-psychologists. That in-of-itself is not necessarily a negative thing. However, it is unlikely that ABSP recommended competencies that are crucial to eventual high evidentiary practice will be considered and taught by faculty whose background lacks crucial psychologically-based educational and training components. Unless the previously mentioned competencies, educational and training program are part of a degree program or sport psychology emphasis area a graduate will be incapable of delivering gold standard applied sport psychological services. Moreover, if legal realities governing scope of practice and title usage laws are not considered graduates with degrees that are not associated with licensure will be seen as rogue practitioners if they chose to work with athletes but are not sanctioned by the state in which they reside. Current Master and lower level practitioners who engage in procedures that are fall within scope of practice purviews of licensed professions including Association of Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) consultants who are not licensed are at risk. Hence, until (if and when) state laws regarding the practice of psychology or other laws exempt sport psychology practitioners from scope of practice laws, the entire education and certification infrastructure of AASP and other non-psychologist centered programs are in serious jeopardy, since a strong case could be made that candidates are being charged tuition, given degrees and certification that in the end do not allow graduates and certificate holders to legally practice most if not all psychological procedures that are used with athletes.
Consequently, the time has come for university and college psychology departments to adopt sport psychology and play an important role in reshaping and defining sport psychology in the context of highest standard education, research and especially applied training programs that lead to degrees and credentials that permit eventual licensure and unrestricted, independent practice.
In addition to standard coursework and requirements for a major in psychology, Master’s or Doctorate in Psychology along with all experience and licensure components the ABSP practicum roadmap should be integrated into the aforementioned degree and training programs (review ABSP practicum content above). It is also recommended that all psychology courses are augmented with a sport psychology component. For example, a course in neuropsychology consisting of three written papers, 3 quizzes and/or a final examination or paper would require (for a sport psychology major, minor, or degree) one paper and/or quiz to be sport psychology topic-specific along with an option to write one’s final paper on, in this case, sport neuropsychology. Curriculum iterations leading to advanced knowledge and eventual applied competencies in sport and applied sport psychology are numerous, However, ultimately, the discipline of psychology, that is, its knowledge base, subject domains and especially its evidence-based procedures, methodologies and analytic approaches, should guide the study of sport and applied sport psychology. The goal of psychology department-based sport psychology education, training and degree programs is to produce a cadre of future practitioners who possess competencies that are crucial to the advancement of scientific applied sport psychology, best applied sport psychological practices and the credibility of the field.
Collaborating with ABSP
The American Board of Sport Psychology seeks to collaborate with colleges and universities who are interested in advancing its mission of higher standards in sport and applied sport psychology. In conjunction with its annual summer visiting fellowship/internship and training/research program in evidence-based applied sport psychology ABSP offers students experience for institutional degree programs that count toward board certification in sport psychology and college credit. Faculty members and athletic department coaches are also invited to attend the ABSP program as Visiting Fellows. Eventually, ABSP would like to hold short-courses at affiliated colleges/universities and certify psychology department-based sport psychology degree programs. It must be again emphasized that to legally practice sport psychology and call oneself a sport psychologist state licensure must be achieved. This can only be done through licensure track professional psychology specific education, degree, training and experience acquisition programs that the ABSP maintains should start at the undergraduate level and continue through graduate and professional degree programs in the context of a systematic competencies-based training roadmap and that legal practice realities must be made known to all students who are interested in becoming sport psychologists. As such, applied sport psychology should go through psychology departments and eventually transition into professional psychology degree and training programs and culminate with board certification as a Board Certified Sport Psychologist or competence to practice sport psychology under supervision as a Board Certified Consultant.