The person behind the athlete: Considerations for sport psychologists working with talented athletes. Julieanne McAuliffe

Sport psychology has been recognised as having an essential role in the ability of athletes to fulfil their sporting potential (Abbott & Collins, 2004; Macnamara & Collins, 2011; Vaeyens, Lenoir, Williams, & Philippaerts, 2008). Furthermore, psychological characteristics have been highlighted as a key factor during important developmental stages of an athlete’s life such as negotiating a talent development pathway (Newton & Holmes, 2017). During an athlete’s time in a talent development environment such as an elite academy they are faced with numerous challenges including; pressure to perform, expectations from both themselves and family (Beckford, Poudevigne, Irving, & Golden, 2016), the physical challenge of first team training, having to work hard to prove themselves and forming new relationships with new teammates and coaches (Finn & McKenna, 2010). So, how do sport psychologists fit into all this? What do they need to consider when working in talent development environments?  

1.      Be cognisant that they are dealing with young athletes and the skills needed to reach elite level differ to those needed to succeed at elite level (Macnamara, Button, & Collins, 2010a, 2010b). It may be more important to assist the athletes in developing characteristics such as self-awareness, managing performance and process outcomes, setting one’s own goal, the ability to use team skills and general social skills rather than traditional mental skills (Larsen et al., 2012).

2.      Building rapport with the athlete is necessary for effective provision of sport psychology services. Through building this rapport with athletes they can be viewed as people and not just athletes. A sport psychologist should take an interest in the athlete as a whole person and their life situations (Henriksen et al., 2014) as it is considered that performance excellence can only be achieved through optimal personal development (Miller & Kerr, 2002).

3.      The athlete is an individual and must be recognised as such. Working with athletes does not always require treating a problem behaviour but if a sport psychologist does not recognise this it may lead them to deliver interventions that do not necessarily fit the requirements of the situation or the individual (Collins et al., 2013). This was discussed in a paper by Gulliver, Griffiths & Christensen (2012) where athletes discussed how those in their environment were often solely performance focused and that this sometimes extended to the sport psychologist. One athlete suggested that “When you try to talk about other things, they always relate it back to sport, and they relate it back to goals… even if you want to know about something else.”. This highlights the importance of treating the athlete as an individual and considering that the goal of the interaction may be to recognise and appreciate the individual outside their role as an athlete (Poczwardowski et al., 2004). German golfer Martin Kaymer reached number one in the world in 2011 and recently said the following about achieving that goal “When I finally got to the top of the list, when I knew I’m the best golfer in the world, … I felt so empty, sitting alone in this café with this success, that was also sad somehow…” ( He discusses how he as a person was not ready for the situation. This would suggest that we as sport psychologists need to deal with the whole person rather than just the athlete.

4.      Consider how and where to deliver interventions. It is thought that working in the athlete’s environment is more beneficial than working in an office (Henriksen et al., 2014). Furthermore, sport psychologists working in the talent development environment will encounter young athletes in different age groups and because of this they must be aware of the need to match interventions to the age of the athletes.

Julieanne McAuliffe is a postgraduate researcher in the Department of Physical education and Sport Sciences at the University of Limerick.




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