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date: 25 September 2018

Counseling and Communication Skills in Sport and Performance Psychology

Summary and Keywords

Although many sport and performance psychology (SPP) practitioners are not specifically practicing psychology or counseling, there are numerous counseling and communication skills that should be incorporated into one’s SPP practice for effective consulting. There have been numerous calls within the SPP profession to integrate concepts from counseling psychology because of the similarity of the two domains. One starting point is the use of theory-driven practice. There are a myriad of theories from which a SPP practitioner could operate, but the person-centered, cognitive-behavioral, and psychodynamic theoretical orientations provide useful foundations for effective consultation. Second, the counseling psychology literature is rife with skills that are useful for therapeutic change. Many of these skills appear to have applicability within the realm of applied SPP. One of the most robust findings in the counseling literature is the importance of the working alliance between the therapist and client. Generally speaking, research has consistently found a strong working alliance to be associated with improved client outcomes. Given these findings, many SPP researchers and practitioners have called for a stronger focus on alliance-building techniques within graduate training programs. Several additional characteristics of effective consultants have also been identified in the literature. These include being honest, trustworthy, respectful, approachable, and likable, and possessing good communication skills. Finally, there are several microskills that have been identified as important for effective SPP consulting. These include the use of attending behaviors (such as listening, questioning, paraphrasing, and reflecting meaning), confrontation, and self-disclosure. The incorporation of these skills and characteristics within a consultant’s practice is likely to improve the overall consulting process. However, unlike in counseling psychology, the outcome research in SPP is sparse. Therefore, the challenge for researchers is to examine how the use of these various skills influences outcomes in an applied SPP context.

Keywords: communication skills, consulting effectiveness, therapeutic development, counseling skills

To date, limited research has been conducted to determine the importance of specific counseling and communication skills on the efficacy of sport and performance psychology (SPP) interventions. However, researchers have identified positive relationships between counseling and communications skills and consulting effectiveness in more traditional counseling and psychology-related settings. Because of this related research, it is widely assumed by researchers and practitioners alike that these skills are essential to the overall effectiveness of consultations in SPP (Cropley, Hanton, Miles, & Niven, 2010; Petitpas, Giges, & Danish, 1999; Poczwardowski & Sherman, 2011; Rosen & Lipkins, 2016; Sharp, Hodge, & Danish, 2014, 2015). To better understand the importance of these skills on consulting effectiveness in SPP, it is important that we first operationally define what these terms mean.

Throughout time, numerous scholarly definitions have been proposed for the term counseling. However, in 2010, several counseling organizations joined together to create a consensus-based definition that would be appropriate for all counseling professionals and organizations to use with their specific external constituencies (Kaplan, Tarvydas, & Gladding, 2014). This meeting resulted in the creation of “20/20: A Vision for the Future of Counseling,” and the consensus definition for the term counseling. Accordingly, the term counseling was defined as “a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals” (p. 366). This definition has since been adopted by 29 major counseling organizations.

An Internet search for the definition of communication skills leads to many different, but similar, definitions for the term. Although not generated from one specific source, the term communication skills may be generally defined as the ability of an individual to create, transmit, receive, and interpret information to or from another individual effectively and efficiently. As can be seen from this general definition, effective communication involves one’s ability to not only generate information and send it to others, but also receive and interpret information from others.

From these definitions of counseling and communication skills, it seems clear why so many professionals believe that these are both skills that are essential to the effectiveness of the SPP consulting process. Research has shown that the relationship developed between counselor or consultant and client strongly impacts the client’s ability to reach his or her goals (Horvath, Del Re, Flückiger, & Symonds, 2011; Horvath & Bedi, 2002; Horvath & Symonds, 1991; Martin, Garske, & Davis, 2000; Shirk, Karver, & Brown, 2011). It seems clear from these definitions that both counseling and communication skills affect the relationship development process within the SPP consulting process, and therefore would likely influence the effectiveness of consultations. An overview of the potential impact of counseling and communication skills on the practice of SPP will be presented.

Counseling Theories

With recent calls for more accountability in the sport and performance psychology (SPP) profession, one issue that has been frequently discussed at conferences and in journal articles is the need for theory-driven practice. Recent studies with experienced consultants (Poczwardowski & Sherman, 2011; Sharp, Hodge, & Danish, 2014) have made clear the importance of consultants operating within a theoretical perspective. Additionally, it appears that clients may also have some level of concern about consultants operating with theory in mind. In one study, a coach stated that he was “someone who always wants to know why, I don’t want someone to sell me short on the ‘why,’ I want to know there’s some depth of understanding” (Sharp & Hodge, 2013, p. 318). The “why” being mentioned by this coach ultimately stems from theoretical knowledge. A wide review of counseling theories is outside the scope here; however, there are three worth mentioning with regard to SPP practice. Principles from person-centered, cognitive-behavioral, and psychodynamic theory can be used to inform and strengthen SPP practice and provide a solid foundation for the use of counseling skills.

Person-Centered Therapy

Person-centered therapy largely derives from the work of Carl Rogers in the 1950s (Jooste, Kruger, Steyn, & Edwards, 2015). It stems from humanistic philosophy and places the client as the expert of his or her own life and views the therapist as a facilitator of self-discovery. Rogers believed that the client’s goal is to ultimately reach a process called self-actualization, but this must be facilitated in the right environment (Jooste et al., 2015). Ultimately, Rogers (1957) believed that there were six conditions that were necessary and sufficient to create therapeutic change, often referred to as facilitative conditions: (a) two persons in psychological contact; (b) an incongruent client who is vulnerable or anxious; (c) a therapist, who is congruent in the relationship; (d) the therapist experiences unconditional positive regard for the client; (e) the therapist exhibits an empathic understanding of the client’s internal frame of reference and communication of this experience; and (f) the communication of the unconditional positive regard and empathic understanding is to a minimal degree achieved. Three of these six conditions that are closely aligned with the concept of communication skills have been subjected to the most research: congruence, unconditional positive regard, and empathic understanding.

Congruence, or genuineness in the relationship, implies that the therapist acts as his or her true self and genuinely engages with the client during the session (Rogers, 1957). Rogers further stated that it represents an awareness of oneself and is an experience of being freely and deeply engaged. This authenticity allows for the client to explore and express a range of feelings that may be present in the relationship (Corey, 2013). It should be noted that this does not require the therapist to be fully self-actualized or fully integrated in every aspect of his or her own life; rather, the therapist is simply who he or she actually is in that moment (Rogers, 1957).

Unconditional positive regard refers to a warm acceptance of the client without any conditions or requirements (Rogers, 1957). Rogers stated that this caring is non-possessive and does not meet the needs of the therapist, but rather shows acceptance of the good and bad expressions of the client. Having unconditional positive regard requires holding a non-evaluative stance toward the client’s behaviors. In this way, clients know that they are able to express themselves and explore freely without concern about being judged by the therapist.

Empathy, or empathic understanding, represents the ability of the therapist to deeply understand the private world of the client and his or her experiences (Rogers, 1957). Specifically, Rogers wrote that having accurate and empathic understanding is to experience the client’s emotions as if they were your own. However, Rogers noted that the therapist must be able to do this while remaining a separate being, if constructive change is to occur. Within sport psychology, Petitpas, Giges, and Danish (1999) have commented on the importance of empathic listening for the consulting relationship. Other research has identified empathy as being a moderately strong predictor of therapeutic success (Elliott, Bohart, Watson, & Greenberg, 2011).

Cognitive-Behavior Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is probably the most commonly used theoretical orientation in SPP, and this reflects the trends in general psychology. A follow-up validation survey of SPP consultants conducted as part of the recent Job Task Analysis for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) revealed that the largest percentage of practitioners (35%) identified cognitive-behavioral therapy as their primary theoretical orientation for practice (Rosen & Lipkins, 2016). Cognitive-behavioral therapy has become a popular choice of treatment for practitioners due to the empirically validated support that it has accumulated (Hofmann, Asnaani, Vonk, Sawyer, & Fang, 2012). The cognitive-behavioral model focuses on the concept that dysfunctional thinking and maladaptive thought processes influence behavior and mood (Beck, 2011; Huppert, 2009).

Identifying and examining a client’s cognitive distortions and maladaptive behaviors is a crucial part of cognitive-behavioral therapy, as these thoughts are often untrue or have no basis in reality (Hofmann et al., 2012). When individuals are able to systematically analyze their thoughts and understand the dysfunction these thoughts cause, they are more likely to realize that the thought may be maladaptive and untrue. Through a process known as cognitive restructuring, the therapist can help the client identify dysfunctional thoughts, often through a thought record, and create plausible alternative interpretations. Although this may be a slow process, ultimately the client will develop the skills to be able to identify when thoughts may be dysfunctional and be able to identify alternative thought and behavioral patterns.

Although many practitioners in SPP espouse the importance of a cognitive-behavioral orientation (Rosen & Lipkins, 2016; Sharp et al., 2014), little research has systematically examined the effectiveness of this approach directly within SPP. However, some researchers have provided empirical support for the effectiveness of rational-emotive behavior therapy across different cultures, a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy commonly used in sport settings (Deen, Turner, & Wong, 2017; Turner & Barker, 2013, 2014; Turner, Barker, & Slater, 2014; Turner, Slater, & Barker, 2014).

Overall, the cognitive-behavioral model posits that negative core schemas and dysfunctional thought patterns underlie many mental disorders and maladaptive behaviors. To incur change, identification of core beliefs and automatic thoughts must be recognized and challenged, and alternative beliefs must be adopted. By improving the interpretation of thoughts, individuals can decrease the emotional distress that arises from their cognitions and begin to eliminate undesirable behavioral and emotional responses.

Psychodynamic Theory

The psychodynamic tradition has a long and rich history in the lineage of psychology and continues to have tremendous clinical relevance in the early 21st century (Shedler, 2010; Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2012). Applied SPP has not drawn extensively from the canons of psychodynamic thought, but the depth of theory and training needed for proficiency with psychodynamic work should not dissuade applied SPP practitioners from avoiding its core principles altogether (Andersen, 2013). There is, however, a clear distinction to be made between using psychodynamic concepts to inform a performance-related consultation, and practicing clinically oriented psychodynamic therapy (Giges, 1998).

A key principle of psychodynamic theory that could inform an applied SPP consultation is that unconscious motives and desires can, at times, exert a negative influence on behavior and performance (Andersen, 2013). As insight to the effects of the unconscious can be facilitated, clients can learn to respond to barriers in more adaptive ways (Strean & Strean, 1998). Within the psychodynamic tradition, this insight is often generated through free association and working through defense mechanisms and resistance (Andersen, 2013; Blagys & Hilsenroth, 2000; Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2012; Strean & Strean, 1998).

Apitzsch (1995) described defense mechanisms as, “the mental equivalent to white blood cells” (p. 115). Likened to how white blood cells protect the body by resisting foreign objects, defense mechanisms are conscious or subconscious processes that serve to ward off a sense of threat or other unpleasant internal states. In the service of resilience and growth, defense mechanisms can be adaptive. For example, Apitzsch (1995) suggested that denial of adversity could propel an athlete to maintain a high level of effort and intensity in situations when defeat seems imminent and others give up. However, just as too many white blood cells can be problematic (e.g., leukemia), the excessive use of defense mechanisms can be maladaptive. Denial of reality, for instance, could lead an athlete to completely underestimate an opponent or act with reckless abandon in dangerous situations (Apitzsch, 1995). In addition to denial, other common defense mechanisms include repression, projection, and sublimation (Andersen, 2013; Apitzsch, 1995; Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2012). Nicolas and Jebrane (2008) emphasized the absence of research on defense mechanisms as they pertain to performance outcomes. After finding that mature defense mechanisms were associated with higher levels of performance among competitive kayakers, Nicolas and Jebrane (2008) indicated that “practitioners should take into account not only coping strategies but also defense mechanisms to improve the process of adjustment in sport performance” (p. 742).

Blagys and Hilsenroth (2000) identified additional features of psychodynamic theory that could be applied in SPP consultation. For instance, they pointed to the importance of emotional insight and expression over and above the intellectual insight characteristic of cognitive-behavioral approaches. Likewise, while cognitive-behavioral approaches to counseling focus on the effects of current thoughts and beliefs, the psychodynamic approach explores the current influence of past relationships and childhood experiences (Blagys & Hilsenroth, 2000). In a similar fashion to person-centered counseling, psychodynamic approaches see the helping relationship as a crucial medium for change. The key components of the psychodynamic relationship are transference and countertransference (Blagys & Hilsenroth, 2000), and these concepts may be of particular relevance for SPP practitioners (Andersen, 2013; Strean & Strean, 1998).

Transference “refers to the client’s attachment to the therapist based on unconscious redirection or projection onto the therapist of qualities and emotional responses that stem from past relationships (real or fantasized) of the client” (Andersen & Speed, 2013, p. 4). Strean and Strean (1998) added that transference can also be seen when clients “[ascribe] to the practitioner their own psychic structures: id wishes, ego defenses, or superego mandates” (p. 215). As SPP consultants observe these patterns and convey them to clients, insight can be generated and more adaptive ways of relating to others can be taught and practiced (Andersen, 2013). In general, Petitpas et al. (1999) suggested that “the more both participants are aware of the dynamics of the interaction, the better the counseling outcomes” (p. 348).

Countertransference occurs when the helping professional projects or redirects past relational material onto the client (Andersen, 2013). Consultants’ emotional reactions to clients could be positive or negative. For example, consultants might begin to over-identify with athletes whom they like, compromising their objectivity as helping professionals (Strean & Strean, 1998). Romantic or erotic reactions to clients, which may occur more frequently than many like to believe (Moles, Petrie, & Watkins, 2016), are serious and dangerous matters that need to be addressed in supervision instead of swept under the rug as taboo subjects (Andersen, 2005; Stevens & Andersen, 2007a, 2007b). Consultants’ reactions to clients might also take more overtly negative forms, like hostility, disgust, frustration, or boredom. Because consultants are “not supposed” to experience such responses, they may be prone to hiding or stifling them (Strean & Strean, 1998). Whether they seem positive or negative when taken at face value, transference and countertransference reactions are valuable for reflective practice and helpful to explore in supervision or professional consultation.

To assess transference in their applied work, SPP consultants might try to gather information about the dynamics of clients’ past and present relationships, and concurrently observe whether or not clients appear to hold accurate perceptions of them as the consultant. Sommers-Flanagan and Sommers-Flanagan (2012) emphasized that strong self-awareness is needed to ascertain whether clients are responding to the practitioner’s authentic personality or through projections of past interpersonal patterns. To explore countertransference, supervision and guided reflection might explore questions such as if the consultant likes the client, if the client reminds the consultant of anyone, or what reactions the consultant experienced in response to clients’ stories (Andersen, 2013). Observing these dynamics and communicating them to clients requires keen attention, good summarizing skills, and compassionate confrontation, all of which are important counseling microskills.

Counseling and Communication Skills in Sport and Performance Psychology

In order to engage in effective sport and performance psychology (SPP) consultation, it is necessary to utilize various counseling skills. Regardless of theoretical orientation, there is a growing body of literature that has identified characteristics of effective sport psychology practitioners (e.g., Gould, Murphy, Tammen, & May, 1991; Lubker, Visek, Geer, & Watson, 2008; Orlick & Partington, 1987; Sharp & Hodge, 2011, 2013, 2014; Sharp, Hodge, & Danish, 2014, 2015). Although it is imperative that practitioners distinguish between performing clinical counseling as an SPP consultant and utilizing counseling skills (Anshel, 2003; Giges, 1998; Longstaff & Gervis, 2016), even those educational SPP consultants with a focus on performance enhancement should utilize counseling skills. As a means of clarifying any potential discrepancy, some professionals and organizations have started to use the term helping skills synonymously with counseling skills when referring to those skills used by practitioners when interacting with clients. We use the term counseling skills.

Authors have argued that counseling and sport psychology need to be more integrated because counseling skills are a necessary component of applied sport psychology (Petitpas, Giges, & Danish, 1999; Poczwardowski, Sherman, & Henschen, 1998). Thus, it appears to be of considerable importance for practitioners to understand effective counseling skills and how to utilize them in their consultations. In fact, many sport psychology bodies require training in counseling and communication skills as part of the educational process (e.g., Association for Applied Sport Psychology, 2017; British Psychological Society, 2015). Despite the growth in knowledge about effective SPP consultation since the late 1990s, the clinical and counseling psychology literature appears to provide a broader picture of effective therapeutic practices. Although there are certainly differences between therapy and sport psychology consultation, there are elements of the therapeutic process that are important for the SPP consultant to understand. Quite possibly one of the largest bodies of research surrounds the working alliance and the therapeutic relationship.

In the general psychology literature, the relationship (i.e., working alliance) between the therapist and client has received enormous attention. It is considered to be of such importance that a special issue of the journal Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training (2006, Volume 43, Issue 3) was devoted to the working alliance. Regarding the working alliance, Bordin (1979) argued that it might be the key factor in the change process, and emphasized its generalizability across theoretical backgrounds Thus, Bordin’s conceptualization is a pan-theoretical model consisting of three parts: consensus on goals, agreement about tasks, and bond between therapist and client. Additionally, he hypothesized that different theoretical orientations would focus on different parts of the alliance, depending on their tenets. This model was used as the basis for the creation of one of the most commonly used instruments to measure the working alliance, the Working Alliance Inventory (Horvath & Greenberg, 1989).

Research using the Working Alliance Inventory, and other measures of the construct, have consistently found positive associations with therapeutic outcomes (e.g., Horvath, DelRe, Flückiger, & Symonds, 2011). Smaller lines of research have also found benefits for the working alliance related to areas such as staying in treatment and adherence to treatment activities (Kazdin, 2016). However, a majority of the research has examined the relationship between working alliance and therapeutic outcomes. The positive associations between the working alliance and therapeutic outcome are some of the most robust findings in the literature with small to moderate effect sizes (Cohen, 1988) between r = .22 and .28 (Horvath et al., 2011; Horvath & Bedi, 2002; Horvath & Symonds, 1991; Martin, Garske, & Davis, 2000). Given that working alliance is a concept present in all professional relationships regardless of therapeutic modality, it appears that understanding how to build and strengthen it is important for all practitioners. Unfortunately, the mechanism of change for how a strong alliance affects outcome is still unknown (Kazdin, 2016), and the way in which therapist and client variables interact to affect outcome is still debatable (Horvath, 2006). A better understanding of how the therapeutic alliance might influence the outcome of therapy could provide insight into how therapist and client variables interact, as well as which variables may be malleable during the relationship and which ones (such as dispositional traits) are unlikely to be able to be changed.

Despite the abundance of research suggesting that a stronger working alliance is associated with more positive outcomes, some have argued that the working alliance is not a central component to change. Kazdin (2016) argues that research finding symptom improvement after only one or two sessions, when it is unlikely that a strong working alliance has already formed, suggests that it may not be central for change. Further, he points to the changes through self-help and online interventions with very little professional engagement as evidence that a strong working alliance is not necessary to have a positive treatment outcome. He notes that an instant alliance may still be important, and others have argued that the concept of a “good enough” alliance that at the very least keeps the client in therapy is important for helping to produce change (Horvath et al., 2011).

Nonetheless, the working alliance continues to be an important aspect of the therapeutic process, and several authors have called for graduate students to be trained in ways to build and strengthen the working alliance (e.g., Crits-Christoph et al., 2006; Horvath et al., 2011; Petitpas et al., 1999). Further, there is empirical evidence to suggest that therapists can learn how to improve the working alliance. In one small study, five therapists were trained in Alliance Fostering Therapy and although statistical significance was not reached, which is unsurprising given the sample size, the results did find a moderate to large improvement in the alliance from pre to post training (Crits-Christoph et al., 2006).

A final limitation of the working alliance literature is that a majority of it has focused on the working alliance with adults (Kazdin, 2016). It is possible that the results of previous research are biased by developmental differences between adults and youth when it comes to defining and describing the working alliance. Using the model by Bordin (1979) as a basis, Shirk, Karver, and Brown (2011) detailed considerations when attempting to understand the working alliance with children and adolescents. First, the concept of agreement on tasks may be beyond the cognitive competence of youth. Second, the bond may be unclear if the child sees the therapist as a playmate or an ally. Finally, parents are also typically involved with child therapy, and often the goals of parents and children are misaligned. Similarly, the therapist has to deal with multiple alliances, which includes alliances with the parents as well as the child. Despite these considerations, meta-analyses with children and adolescents have found medium-sized effects for the relationship between alliance and therapeutic outcome effectiveness (e.g., Shirk et al., 2011). Thus, it appears that in the general counseling literature, the working alliance is a construct that has positive relationships with treatment outcome for both adults and youth. Although these studies were conducted with a clinical population, the working alliance also appears to be an important concept for the athletic population as well.

Working Alliance in Sport

Applied sport psychology practitioners have recognized the benefits of having a strong practitioner-athlete relationship and several have called for this to be an important part of the sport psychology training and service delivery process (e.g., Petitpas et al., 1999; Poczwardowski & Sherman, 2011). Recently, a working definition of effective practice was created through multiple focus groups with sport psychology consultants and resulted in applied sport psychology being defined as a multidimensional construct, where the first component was described as developing a working alliance between client and practitioner (Cropley, Hanton, Miles, & Niven, 2010). Further, many sport psychology professionals reported that a strong working alliance is critical for effective consulting (Longstaff & Gervis, 2016; Poczwardowski & Sherman, 2011; Sharp et al., 2014). The working alliance has gained enough steam as an important part of the consulting process that during the revision of their sport psychology service delivery heuristic, Poczwardowski and Sherman (2011) added the working alliance as a foundational element of effective practice. Further, in their seminal article addressing the relationship between athlete and practitioner, Petitpas et al. (1999) discussed the importance of forming a strong working alliance with clients. Additionally, in a follow-up survey conducted as part of the validation process for the recent job task analysis by the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP), 95.88% of Certified Consultants who responded indicated that establishing rapport with the client or performer was “very important” and 90.32% indicated they “very frequently” established rapport (Rosen & Lipkins, 2016). Taken together, these data suggest that the working alliance is considered an integral component of effective consultation.

Unfortunately, despite the recognition of the importance of the working alliance within SPP, outcome research comparable to that in the counseling literature does not exist. Thus, although several authors have called for the relationship between athlete and practitioner to be better understood, and consultants have stated the necessity of a good working alliance for effective consulting, there currently exists no research to support these claims within sport psychology. However, recently there has been a proliferation of research examining characteristics of effective sport psychology consulting relationships (e.g., Lubker et al., 2008; Sharp & Hodge, 2011, 2013, 2014; Sharp et al., 2014, 2015). Typically studied through qualitative interviews with practitioners who have successfully done extensive consulting with elite-level athletes, these results have revealed a plethora of counseling and communication skills that are useful for the sport psychology practitioner.

Various types of interpersonal skills have been identified as critical to an effective consulting relationship. Some of the most commonly identified traits include honesty (Anderson, Miles, Robinson, & Mahoney, 2004; Anshel, 2003; Sharp & Hodge, 2014; Sharp et al., 2015), trustworthiness (Anderson et al., 2004; Lubker et al., 2008; Sharp & Hodge, 2013, 2014; Sharp et al., 2015), an ability to connect with and respect the athlete (Orlick & Partington, 1987; Sharp & Hodge, 2011, 2014; Sharp et al., 2015), and just generally being approachable and likable (Anderson et al., 2004; Longstaff & Gervis, 2016; Lubker et al., 2008; Sharp et al., 2015). Further, in one study comparing the perceptions of athletes and practitioners (Lubker et al., 2008), athletes rated interpersonal skills as more important than what sport psychology consultants perceived them to be. In other words, the athletes believed the consultant’s interpersonal skills were more important than consultants thought they were. This suggests that SPP consultants should constantly be cognizant of their interpersonal skills and work to improve their interactions with others whenever possible.

The communication skills possessed by the consultant are another important component of an effective consulting relationship. Specifically, the ability of practitioners to listen has consistently been found to be important for effective SPP consultation (Anderson et al., 2004; Sharp & Hodge, 2011; Sharp et al., 2014, 2015). Again, these results have come from both athlete and practitioner perspectives. In addition to empirical results, other practitioners have argued for the importance of listening. In his chapter on counseling and communication skills, Anshel (2003) listed good listening as one of the five important counseling skills that sport psychology practitioners should utilize, regardless of the type of consulting they are doing. Additionally, Petitpas et al. (1999) recommended engaging in empathic listening as a way to build a relationship with athletes.

Taking a holistic approach to the sport psychology consultation is another counseling skill that has consistently appeared in the literature. Several authors have argued that a holistic approach results in the most effective sport psychology consultation (e.g., Collins, Evans-Jones, & O’Connor, 2013; Friesen & Orlick, 2010). Recently, Sharp et al. (2015) identified an ability to focus on the whole person and not just the athlete as one of the three most important counseling skills. Perhaps more telling, however, is that athletes have reported in multiple studies that they appreciated consultants who were willing to discuss more than just athletics (e.g., Anderson et al., 2004; Sharp & Hodge, 2014). In these studies, elite athletes reported wanting the consultant to recognize that they were more than simply athletes. Some practitioners have stated that viewing the athlete as a person first helps the client to feel comfortable and supported (Sharp et al., 2015), and showing this support could be important throughout the relationship (Anshel, 2003; Sharp et al., 2014). However, although a holistic approach is encouraged when working with athletes, it is important to remain aware of boundaries of professional competence.

Working Alliance in Youth Sport and Performance

Much like with the working alliance literature in counseling, very little research has been conducted to investigate the importance of the working alliance or effective consulting skills with youth in SPP. However, there appear to be some insights that can be gained from the literature. Similar to how therapists often have to deal with multiple alliances when working with youth in counseling (Shirk et al., 2011), it has been suggested that SPP practitioners should also be able to balance the multiple alliances that will occur with the youth athlete or performer (Blom, Visek, & Harris, 2013). These alliances include relationships with the athlete, parents, and the coach or some other leader. When it comes to consulting effectiveness, practitioners recognize that they must adjust their methods to be developmentally appropriate (Foster, Maynard, Butt, & Hays, 2016). In a qualitative examination of how sport psychology practitioners adapt their service delivery for youth athletes (Foster et al.), the consultants still mentioned the importance of interpersonal skills and being able to connect with young athletes through building rapport. However, the consultants noted that this must be done differently than with older adults. Specifically, practitioners must recognize that youth typically participate in sport to have fun, and some may not fully understand what mental skills training is or how it may benefit them (Sharp, Woodcock, Holland, Cumming, & Duda, 2013). Therefore, it is important to make mental skills sessions as poly-sensory and entertaining as possible in order to enhance the engagement of the athletes or other performers (Blom et al., 2013; Foster et al., 2016). Thus, it is important that the consultant consider the use of his or her interpersonal skills in consulting with young performers, but also focus on making the sessions engaging and dissimilar to a classroom setting.

Overall, the working alliance is considered to be an important aspect of SPP consultation. Although research relating the working alliance to consulting effectiveness or performance gains does not exist in this domain, the robust literature from counseling suggests that it probably leads to improved outcomes in the SPP domain. Even without the empirical evidence, many researchers and practitioners within SPP recognize the importance of building and maintaining a positive relationship. In addition, a burgeoning area of research has identified several skills and characteristics that are present in effective SPP consultations (e.g., Gould et al., 1991; Longstaff & Gervis, 2016; Lubker et al., 2008; Orlick & Partington, 1987; Sharp & Hodge, 2011, 2013, 2014; Sharp et al., 2014, 2015). However, besides the working alliance, there are several other counseling microskills that can be used in SPP consultation as part of effective practice.


Regardless of SPP practitioners’ theoretical orientation or training background, all applied work should draw from counseling microskills to some extent. While microskills hardly represent the entirety of applied practice, they are foundational in SPP, mental health, and a wide range of other helping professions (Ivey, Ivey, & Zalaquett, 2010). As a result, many broadly focused texts have been devoted to teaching these skills (e.g., Ivey et al., 2010; Egan, 2013; Young, 2013; Hill, 2014). Important microskills include strong attending behaviors (i.e., listening, questioning, paraphrasing, reflecting feeling or meaning, communicating empathy), confrontation, and self-disclosure.

Attending Behavior

Key features of attending behavior include attentive body language, eye contact, verbal tracking, and positive tone of voice (Ivey et al., 2010). Although practitioners want to convey an interest in and desire to help the clients with whom they work, it should be stressed that attending behavior does not equate with problem solving (Murphy & Murphy, 2013). Many neophyte consultants inadvertently rush into providing interventions, but with experience, often learn to slow down and listen more attentively to their clients (Cropley, Miles, Hanton, & Niven, 2007; Tod, Andersen, & Marchant, 2009). Learning to focus in a nonjudgmental way, SPP practitioners might be attuned to what clients are saying, what they are not saying, and what they might be feeling. Such attention to clients’ words, body language, and facial expressions can reveal what Giges and Petitpas (2000) referred to as “entry points” for further exploration.

Entry points may include unrecognized thought patterns, motives, or emotions, and further discussion of these can generate insight and understanding for SPP clients. The theoretical orientations that practitioners use can serve to filter their listening, and might heighten their awareness of certain entry points over others. For instance, SPP practitioners using a psychodynamic approach might notice how entry points emerge when clients actively deny their own emotion and project it onto others instead (Strean & Strean, 1998). A statement similar to “when I lose a race, I feel like I am a complete failure” could be an entry point for someone with a cognitive-behavioral perspective. Regardless of how SPP professionals search for entry points, they cannot do so unless clients are willing to openly share their perspectives. Consultants can help put clients at ease by using gently probing questions and demonstrating a genuine interest in what they have to say (Andersen, 2000).

As clients share their stories, SPP practitioners can demonstrate attentiveness by using various forms of reflective listening (Murphy & Murphy, 2013). Active listening is often conveyed through paraphrasing, reflections of feeling and meaning, and summarizing. Paraphrasing entails reflecting the core meaning of what the client just said back to them using different words. Reflections of feeling are made when practitioners try to identify what emotions the client might be experiencing, and reflections of meaning entail practitioners’ attempts to “fill in the blanks of the stories, while asking the athletes to elaborate and clarify” (Murphy & Murphy, 2013, p. 15). Summarizing recounts both information and emotion, links concepts or experiences together, and provides clarity to move the consulting session forward toward action.

Research on coach-athlete communication has suggested that reflective listening is more empathically accurate when there is shared cognitive focus on a particular topic among dyads and groups (Lorimer & Jowett, 2009). For example, if a coach wants to discuss an athlete’s energy level at practice the previous day, the reflections would be less empathically accurate if the athlete is worrying about an upcoming competition than if the athlete is focused on recalling the previous day’s practice. Extending Lorimer and Jowett’s findings, SPP professionals are encouraged to communicate in such a way as to establish a shared cognitive focus, check for clients’ understanding, and inquire about how the client feels about what has been discussed.


To students or novice practitioners in SPP, the microskill of challenging or confronting clients might seem daunting or counterproductive. Contrary to misconceptions that confrontation is inherently combative or centered on deficits, it might “instead be reframed in such a way as to challenge clients to stop blocking their strengths and to live to their potential” (Zizzi & Peacock, 2013, p. 36). Confrontation could also be reframed as “a collaborative action” (Strong & Zeman, 2010) and presented as an invitation for further exploration instead of an authoritative directive.

Zizzi and Peacock (2013) explained that the ultimate goal of confrontation is to help clarify what clients hope to get from SPP consultation. Prior to confronting clients, however, SPP practitioners might consider whether or not the working alliance is strong enough for the confrontation to effect change, how the athlete might respond, and the extent to which they have “earned the right to confront this client” (Zizzi & Peacock, 2013, p. 33). How to phrase the confrontation is another area for consideration, as well as how the consultation might proceed after the challenge is made. To this point, Strong and Zeman (2010) emphasized that, “for a counselor’s helping intentions to be realized . . . what matters is not what they say, alone, but what clients do with what they say” (p. 337). Thus, confrontation can be followed by other microskills as practitioners attend to clients’ feelings, reactions, and responses (Strong & Zeman, 2010; Zizzi & Peacock, 2013).


Though widely studied in counseling and clinical psychology (e.g., Knox & Hill, 2003; Hanson, 2005; Henretty & Levitt, 2010; Henretty, Currier, Berman, & Levitt, 2014), self-disclosure is another microskill that has received scarce attention in SPP. However, recent efforts have been made to begin exploring the use of self-disclosure in applied SPP (Way & Vosloo, 2016; Longstaff & Gervis, 2016). In general terms, the microskill of self-disclosure involves sharing personal information about oneself or in-the-moment reactions to clients during a consulting session (Knox, Hess, Petersen, & Hill, 1997). Practitioner self-disclosure can facilitate reciprocal disclosure from clients, build trust, enhance rapport, convey empathy, and model examples of how mental skills can be applied (Jourard, 1971; Longstaff & Gervis, 2016; Sherman & Poczwardowski, 2005; Way & Vosloo, 2016). When not used tactfully, however, self-disclosure can shift the focus of a consultation away from the client and onto the practitioner, and might even discount the client’s emotional experiences (Petitpas et al., 1999). Petitpas and colleagues offered prudent advice for the consideration of self-disclosure: “it is important to ponder who is being served by the self-disclosure (i.e. counselor or client), how the client may respond, and how the self-disclosure may affect the helping relationship” (p. 349). Given the intentionality needed to use self-disclosure ethically and effectively, findings from recent research are encouraging. Longstaff and Gervis (2016) found that SPP practitioners adhered to some general guidelines when using self-disclosure, such as giving disclosure some anticipatory thought, examining their motives for disclosure, and ensuring that a planned disclosure is both genuine and relevant to clients’ concerns.

Future research on practitioner self-disclosure could provide additional suggestions to inform applied practice. Scholarly work has explored clients’ reactions to self-disclosures made by their therapists (Knox et al., 1997; Audet & Everall, 2010), and such work could be translated to examine clients’ perceptions of disclosures from SPP consultants. Given that individuals from different sociocultural backgrounds might have different expectations about self-disclosure (Pedersen, Lonner, Draguns, Trimble, & Scharron-del Rio, 2016), and that self-disclosure might have especially important implications in cross-cultural counseling scenarios (Burkard, Knox, Groen, Perez, & Hess, 2006; Ivey et al., 2010), future research in SPP might also explore how consultant self-disclosure is used with and received by clients from various sociocultural backgrounds and performance contexts.

Training and Research Implications

Despite the importance of microskills, scholarly literature does not paint a positive picture about the extent to which SPP students receive formal training in their use. Andersen, Williams, Aldridge, and Taylor (1997) expressed concern about the level of counseling training received by SPP graduate students. Later, among a sample of kinesiology-trained SPP graduates, over 25% wanted to enter applied careers but had no coursework relative to the development of counseling skills (Williams & Scherzer, 2003). More recently, Murphy and Murphy (2013) suggested that this is still an issue: “Many graduate counseling training programs devote two years or more to the development of basic counseling skills. Yet listening and attending skills are infrequently discussed in sport psychology” (p. 12). Within this training should be an emphasis on developing multicultural competence, as this is necessary in an increasingly diverse population of athletes worldwide. For educational institutions and governing bodies that oversee trainees entering applied SPP practice, this may present a call for reform.

Empirical research on the use and effects of microskills in applied SPP is also lacking. Initial research might begin by exploring the extent and efficacy of microskills training in SPP programs, and could draw some guidance from studies done in counselor education (e.g., Hill & Lent, 2006; see also vol. 42, issue 6 of the Counseling Psychologist). Scholars might also be wary of methodological flaws in the extant microskills research (Ridley, Kelly, & Mollen, 2011). As new studies begin to explore the use of microskills in SPP, tremendous insight could be generated by exploring metacognitive processes by which practitioners select certain microskills in light of their theoretical orientation, the goals of the consulting session, or the context of working with a particular athlete. Ultimately, such work could begin to reveal new information about the question, “why does what works work?” when it comes to the use of microskills in applied SPP (Martindale & Collins, 2010).


Essential to the use of effective counseling and communications skills within the practice of sport and performance psychology (SPP) are several ethical issues commonly addressed in the ethical guidelines of associated professions. While discussion of all of the ethical issues related to the effective use of counseling and communication skills in SPP is beyond our scope, of primary importance in these areas are the ethical issues of boundaries of competence and confidentiality.

Boundaries of Competence

The issue of competency within psychology generally refers to individuals performing their professional duties only within those areas where they are trained to do so. Whereas competency is generally determined by the individual practitioner, according to Standard 2.01a of the American Psychological Association (APA) ethics code, the judgement of competence should be based upon “education, training, supervised experience, consultation, study or professional experience” (2010). Therefore, anyone wanting to provide professional services to a client should take care to ensure that they have been properly trained to do so. Further, Standard 2.01c of the APA ethics code states that “Psychologists planning to provide services, teach or conduct research involving populations, areas, techniques or technologies new to them undertake relevant education, training, supervised experience, consultation or study.” Therefore, evaluations of competency go beyond the skills that are learned and used by a practitioner and also extend to the manner in which the skills are integrated into the services provided and the clientele that will be served by the practitioner.

Sport is a unique setting for most practitioners, and one that is not covered in most psychology and counseling training programs. According to the APA Sport Psychology Proficiency (2003), those individuals who practice in the area of sport psychology require specialized knowledge in several areas that are very specific to the study of SPP. Generally speaking, these knowledge areas include intake and assessment specific to sport psychology; theory and practice in the sport setting; clinical, counseling, organizational, and systemic issues specific to sport psychology; developmental and social issues associated with sport; and knowledge of physiological issues associated with sport performance. Although the APA proficiency was focused on sport psychology, the required knowledge areas can be extended to other realms of performance. As can be interpreted from this description of knowledge that the proficiency lists as required to practice in this area, most practitioners who were not trained in sport psychology probably have not been formally exposed to the training necessary to be competent to work in SPP without a great deal of additional training. Therefore, it is important for many practitioners who have not taken the necessary steps to gain the appropriate competencies to work in SPP to be aware of their limited competency and avoid these consultations until they are able to appropriately gain these skills and knowledge. While this issue of competency applies to those individuals trained in counseling and psychology graduate programs, it also applies to those trained in traditional sport and exercise science programs who many not have been fully trained in the provision of applied skills with athletes or other performers.


The ethical principle of confidentiality is strongly associated with the effective use of counseling and communication skills within SPP consultations. Confidentiality is considered to be the ethical “gold standard” for helping professionals (Etzel, Watson, Zizzi, Foster, & Peterson, 2002) and has been described as foundational to the building of a trusting therapeutic relationship (Zaro, Barach, Nedelman, & Dreiblatt, 1993). In fact, confidentiality is so central to the counseling/consulting process that it is a standard part of consent forms signed by clients within and outside of the sport consulting setting.

The issue of confidentiality is addressed very similarly in most, if not all codes of ethics for organizations and professions that are related to the practice of counseling or psychology. Standard 18 within the Ethics Code for AASP specifically addresses the issue of confidentiality (Association for Applied Sport Psychology, 1996). In general, there are three parts to the AASP standard on confidentiality. The first section deals with taking reasonable steps to respect the rights to confidentiality of those with whom professionals work. The second section involves making clients aware of their rights with regard to confidentiality (e.g., how or when confidentiality may be broken). The third section guides professionals to not disclose confidential information without first taking steps to make this disclosure appropriate.

Based upon the previous description of the confidentiality issues in the practice of SPP, it is clear that this ethical issue is a central tenet to the effective use of counseling and communication skills. Without this ethical standard in place, clients would not be likely to share with a practitioner the personal information that is necessary for therapeutic development. While limits to confidentiality do exist, these limits are generally governed by the goal of protecting the client or someone associated with the client from further harm.

Of important note to the provision of services within the SPP domain are the commonly identified differences that exist in confidentiality. Within sport settings, it is not uncommon for practitioners to meet with clients in open settings such as on the sidelines of a practice, pool deck, or even hotel lobby when traveling with a team (Andersen, Van Raalte, & Brewer, 2001; Loughran, Etzel, & Hankes, 2014). Somewhat dissimilar to other clients, especially when consulting on a college campus, athletes often have very little control over their time and often have the demands of a normal work or school day on top of their full-time training regimen. Therefore, consultants will often work with clients in the evening, may travel with them to competitions, may use technology to consult from a distance, and may even work with them in more visible settings to effectively meet the needs of the clients (Watson & Etzel, 2004). While these differences in confidentiality may seem strange to many, they are considered common practice within SPP. For a fuller description of the ethical issues affecting confidentiality in the provision of SPP, please see Ethical Issues in Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology (Etzel & Watson, 2014).


Based upon the literature discussed and the perceptions of sport and performance psychology (SPP) professionals, it seems clear that the effective use of both counseling and communications skills is extremely important to the consulting process within SPP. Concepts identified as most important appear to be the ability to form a positive working alliance, possessing interpersonal skills, and the utilization of various microskills such as listening, questioning, paraphrasing, reflecting feeling or meaning, communicating empathy, confrontation, and self-disclosure. Unfortunately, some evidence suggests that many graduate programs may not be doing a comprehensive job of instructing their students in the use of these important skills (Murphy & Murphy, 2013). If the SPP field is to grow and gain increased acceptance within the broader profession of psychology, training and evidence-based practice advancements are essential. While it is likely that many of the counseling and communication skills found to be effective in other domains will also be effective within the practice of SPP, research needs to be conducted to verify this contention within the SPP setting.


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