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What do I want from my sport psychologist?

Two people in therapy
sport psychologist in session

Athletes come to a sport psychologist for support in one form or another. Some athletes know exactly what they want and are disappointed or withdraw when they do not receive their preferences. There are at least three main preferences that athletes seek.

  • First, activity preferences, which are the tasks the athlete wants the sport psychologist to engage in during the service delivery. Some athletes wish for the sport psychologist to raise and confront issues. Some athletes do not wish to do homework in between sessions. Maybe an athlete only wishes to work with the sport psychologist on the training ground with the coach present.

  • Second, sport psychologists work in different ways with different athletes. These are all talking therapies, however, there are different talking therapies. Some talking therapies are directive (led by and with the sport psychologist) and some talking therapies are non-directive (led by the athlete). A directive therapy might be cognitive behavioural and a non-directive therapy might be person-centred. In person-centred therapy, the client is leading where the client wishes to go. The sport psychologist offers support through listening and following what the athlete is hoping to explore.

  • Finally, athletes hold preferences for the type of sport psychologist they wish to see. Many athletes seek a particular personality type to meet their needs.

If sport psychologists are to help their athletes best, the following guidelines are worth considering from Swift and colleagues.

  1. Ask the athlete what he or she prefers in the ways/he would like help from you. You can do this work at the beginning before service delivery begins.

  2. Athletes will have three at least preferences: activities, psychologist characteristics, and treatment type. Sometimes the fit is better with a colleague or someone in your working network.

  3. Find out what the athlete wants cooperatively. You might need to provide more information and more explanations so that the athlete knows what the process is likely to be and whether the athlete is in a place to change.

  4. The athlete needs a clear and open opportunity to say what they need. The athlete needs to express his or her wishes without worrying whether he or she will cause offence to the sport psychologist.

  5. It might be helpful to assess what the client needs from the sport psychologist and regularly assess as you work together. The client’s need or preference might change and we, as sport psychologists, can adjust to these needs. Remember, it is the client who is receiving the services of a sport psychologist, so collaboration is critical rather than optional.

Working with athletes means using your professional judgement and decision making to present your case for what you feel works best. You need to remain open and non-judgemental when listening to the athlete who is choosing for herself what she feels she needs. Only through the work you do together will you realise what is working or what is not working for the greater good of the athlete. You are not dismissing your professional expertise, rather, you integrate it into delivering the best support to the athlete.


Swift, J., Callahan, J., Cooper, M., & Parkin, S. (2018). The impact of accommodating client preference in psychotherapy: A meta‐analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 74(11), 1924–1937.

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