The development and the quality of the relationship between the psychologist and the client has been consistently shown as one of the most influential factors on whether the client deems the consultancy to be effective.
Counselling, psychotherapy and sport psychology all stress the importance of close collaborative and trusting relationships. And I am sure we are all in some way looking to be effective in the work we do so why – I ask myself and those willing to reflect on their own work – do we not spend more time and effort on this fundamental part of application?
I have spent over three years of my professional life attempting to develop relationships with players, parents and staff in English football academies. Relationships are the most fundamental part of any psychological and professional work being done – If you have the ability, language and experience to build a trusting relationship with an individual or a group then you put yourself in a very strong position to begin to work.
I encourage those who may not be specifically situated in sport to think of the role relationships play in the work they do, whether you associate yourself within the world of psychology or another area of society, be it education, healthcare or another professional domain. I believe developing and maintaining relationships of some sort all play a key role.
When first entering the alluring world of elite sport as an applied sport psychology practitioner with little to no practical experience, I was encouraged by the support I had around me to forge my own philosophy.
Uncovering writings on existential, person-centred, construalist, and humanistic philosophies, which all emphasised the importance of the professional relationship. So I found myself not advertising the title of a ‘…’ practitioner and straight away living and dying by the principles of a single strand of a humanistic approach but putting time and effort into developing my relationships with the individuals within the environment that I was situated in.
I focused my effort in two main ways: exposure and engagement. Exposure came in a number of different forms such as sessions, games, long journeys to simply just being around the building- corridor, staircase, reception, it all helps. It is within these moments engagement opportunities appear and you can begin to build up a bank of shared experiences.
Learning about the individuals you spend more time with than your friends and family (I am sure other professionals will be able to relate). During these periods, like any other trainee, you are encouraged to consistently reflect on the work you are doing. So I did and realised within the context that I was situated in a certain number of skills were needed to build these close trusting relationships that I deemed as a requirement to be an effective practitioner.
Over time I began to more fiercely adopt the principles of the person-centred philosophy in my applied practice. As my understanding grew I began to look deeper into the skills highlighted as critical when developing and maintaining trusting relationships. Warmth, empathy and unconditional positive regard have been consistently regarded as fundamentals within a range of psychological, counselling and therapeutic domains.
I am sure any applied sport psychologist and also many psychologists will tell you that therapeutic work does not always take place within the traditional counselling set-up of two overly comfortable chairs in a modernist room. In fact, for many sport psychologists this is rarely if ever the case and therefore the features of warmth, empathy and unconditional positive regard may come in a variety of forms.
I would say my best examples are a handshake and a question on how they are coupled with my behaviour of not being too high in the highs and too low in the lows. In the world of elite sport, I have found at times not reacting or overreacting to certain behaviours or actions can translate similar feelings of unconditional positive regard.
Of course this does not mean accepting the client for everything they do, but I have found accepting athletes in both the good times and the bad can very much strengthen the relationship and in parts build a certain degree of trust. And don’t be offended to be labelled as someone who ‘says it as it is’ because often that is what many people are looking for even if they don’t realise it at first.
Relationships are fundamental in all work involving humans, whatever segment of society, and if you are able to focus your effort and time developing trusting relationships with the people you work with the outcomes you deliver will be unlimited.
Adam Bracey is a Sports Performance Coach at West Bromwich Albion Football Club working with academy players, staff and parents. Adam has four years of applied experience stemming from his work within English Football Academies with wider experience working with individual clients from athletics and endurance sports. You can connect with him on Twitter @Bracey_SPsych