Rebecca Symes is a Sports Psychologist, based in the UK, now working full time in football. Her aim is to enhance performance and wellbeing with individuals and teams.
There is still some stigma towards psychology, in that it is only there to fix problems and sort things out. This has evolved around the idea that you only see a psychologist if you have a problem or if you are underperforming.
People are starting to realise that yes this is part of what a sports psychologist does but Rebecca predominantly works with people when they are performing well, as she enhances performance and wellbeing. These people are already flourishing, so how can we make them even better?
In sport today, every sort of competitive advantage becomes really important. As well as looking at physical health, sports teams also look at psychological health as a way to maximise performance. They call psychologist in to enhance performance and to enable their players to get the most out of themselves.
There are often similar skills levels, at the high end of sport performance. People are looking for the advantage, especially in high-pressured situations.
Rebecca also looks at the sports’ culture and systems, which also have an impact. If you only work individually with players, that will only get you so for, you need to have the right culture in place to impact on the team. A young athlete at the age or 8 or 9 may join the system and you hope they will work through it, be developed and become a professional athlete. As they go through the system they develop skills and coping strategies to maximise their talent.
There are some differences between individual and team sports. Athletes taking part in events such as archery, shooting or darts, are only impacting on themselves. Their opponents are not directly impacting their performance. From a psychological point of view, when that athlete is in a high pressure situation, such as a head to head or knock out, then their opponent can psychologically impact their performance.
In football or rugby, you have a competitor who is directly impacting your performance. Team sports are much more about working together as a team, communication, understanding others strengths and getting the most out of eachother collectively.
Addressing expectations is a challenge. There have been significant increases in the expectations being placed on people over the years, particularly on young children or maybe there is just better awareness of how to support it.
Expectation comes partly from within, especially with high achievers. That is part of what makes them successful, along with drive, motivation and ambition to push really hard. The consequence of this is when they are failing to meet their expectations or indeed the expectations of parents, fans or media. You don’t want to quash peoples sense of aiming high, but it has to be measured with realistic expectations.
With youth athletes, the further up the ranking they go (school then county level), the more similar they are to the people around them. Suddenly they are not the big fish in the pond anymore and they don’t necessarily have the skills to manage that. Having a supportive environment, says that it is OK to get things wrong. It is OK to make mistakes provided that we are learning from them.
People develop a sense of identity of who they are, if they are very strong in one area and specialize at a young age, their sense of identity and self worth gets very wrapped up in being that thing… the footballer or cricketer. If they develop by getting all their sense of esteem and self worth from that area one area, when something in that domain goes wrong, they don’t have a lot to fall back on as their entire life and sense of self is built around being that one thing.
This is why Rebecca doesn’t want young athletes specialising too young, or if they do, they need to have other interests or hobbies so they can develop a sense of a more rounded self.
Human beings are very competitive. The top level in sport is all about winning. The development side is also important, as we need a culture that allows us to develop, learn, improve and get better. Then the winning takes care of itself. If you focus too much on winning, you are unlikely to achieve it because you are focusing too much on an outcome which you have little control over.
Failure is inevitable. Nobody can go through a career and not have a set back. It happens in life, not just in sport. It is healthy to fail in order to rejuvenate and renew. It is very hard if you are the team that failure is happening to in the moment, but it certainly will serve you better in the future. A supportive environment where it is OK to get things wrong, will look at what did not go so well and how to rectify it next time.
Resilience can be learnt and it is also a process that can be developed over time.
You may have a number of resilient people but that does not mean that if you put them together, you have a resilient team. If things have gone wrong we need to have an environment where people are open enough to look at that and talk honestly. This can be difficult – people do not always want to talk. If we can discuss how we felt at that moment, we can begin to identify what led to those factors, debrief the process and learn from it. A nurturing supportive culture will help people share their views.
We want the team to be on the same page in terms of ‘the vision’ that they are working towards. Then you can build the practices and behaviours that will help you get there.
Coaching is the norm and part of the fabric of sport. Coaching is part of getting better, learning and self-improvement. Sport understands the difference between performance and results.
You don’t have to be the best practitioner to be the best coach. People who have been the best players still have to learn the skills of how to coach. Coaching is not about telling someone what to do and how to do it, it’s about working with someone to help them work out what is best for them.
You can contact Rebecca via her website: