Let’s make a bet. We’ve got a shiny new penny that says many of you out there have found yourselves wondering, “What in the world am I going to do with my degree?” This question can breed some anxiety, especially early on, when career tunnel vision only allows one to see professional or college athletics as a viable option. However, as most of you have probably figured out, consulting positions with professional and collegiate teams are few and far between. For instance, one startling figure purports that out of the roughly 1,000 NCAA- sanctioned schools in America, only about 30 have a full-time sport psych consultant on staff. That is a shocking statistic, but fear not colleagues, the beauty of our work lies in its adaptability - these techniques can be used to help a wide variety of populations. Specifically, we have found an alternative career avenue to consider that we found quite interesting and rewarding.
This past summer, we both worked as Behavioral Coaches (BCs) at a weight-loss facility for overweight adolescents ages 11-18. So, how does working with this population relate to the field of sport psychology? To begin, this particular company believes in an “athlete, not addict” approach to weight loss; these clients were successful because they bought into the idea that they were developing a lifestyle like an athlete training for big competition, rather than attempting to “heal” an addiction. This is why an overwhelming percentage of BCs came from a sport psychology background. Who better to teach that type of mental training than sport psych practitioners? The role of a BC is to provide constant guidance/instruction to clients as they learn and master the behaviors, thoughts, and beliefs necessary for a true lifestyle change. The foundation of our work was a combination of both Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) and sport psychology techniques including, but not limited to: (a) goal setting; (b) self-monitoring and journaling; (c) diaphragmatic breathing; (d) progressive muscle relaxation and autogenics; (e) imagery; and (f) positive self-talk. The subsequent paragraphs will provide information about how these techniques were specifically used.
Setting S.M.A.R.T. Goals
S.M.A.R.T. goals were the foundation of the program. Goals served this population by providing daily and weekly roadmaps, increasing confidence and ability to refocus, increasing accountability and autonomy, and, most importantly, by allowing these young people to believe they could work hard to accomplish something they never thought possible. As BCs, we did not set our clients’ goals, but rather understood how the act of creating their own goals would inevitably breed valuable autonomy and intrinsic motivation. We met them with support and encouragement, giving them room to realize that even if a goal was not met, they had the ability to re-focus and adjust accordingly.
Self-Monitoring or Journaling
Self-monitoring was imperative for the long-term success of the clients. Our clients were taught to log daily food intake and physical activity. By evaluating these logs, the clients gained an understanding of their food and exercise patterns, and ultimately developed feelings of control – they were in charge of what they ate and the physical activity they did or did not partake in. When our clients assessed their weight loss each week, having this concrete evidence provided a chance for them to reflect on what was beneficial or detrimental to their weight loss journey. Additionally, our clients were encouraged to write down feelings/behaviors they experienced during that specific day as well as possible solutions to their problems. This allowed the clients to reflect on ways to cope with difficult situations as well as reinforce the importance of their goals.
Diaphragmatic Breathing, Imagery, and Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
Becoming a long-term weight controller is not an easy process. To be successful, one must make a true lifestyle change; a process that can breed feelings of stress and anxiety. To help combat negative thoughts, we consistently employed different combinations of the following relaxation techniques with our clients. Diaphragmatic breathing, or deep belly breathing, allowed our clients to instantly feel a sense of calm and relaxation. Imagery taught our clients how to manage and cope with stress and plan for sticky situations upon their return home. PMR allowed the clients a chance to gain awareness into their bodies; specifically, where they held areas of tension and how to feel the difference between a relaxed and tense muscle. Plus, they loved the chance to relax and be still amongst all the hard work.
Sadly, many members of this specific population came in believing a whole host of negative, automated thoughts built up from a lifetime of unfortunate treatment. As behavioral coaches, we challenged thought patterns that lead to negative self-talk (i.e., all-or-nothing thinking, catastrophizing, etc…) and taught techniques to promote positive self-talk, such as: (a) thought-stoppage and disputing beliefs; (b) rephrasing extreme statements; and (c) positive affirmations. This type of cognitive restructuring allowed our clients to challenge their thoughts, which promoted positive emotions, and ultimately increased healthy behaviors.
Hopefully this article has served to increase your faith in the applicability of this profession. This is what we love about the techniques in sport psychology – they do not only apply to those who are working with athletes competing in sport. For us, this summer really drove the point home that these techniques are extremely valuable in increasing quality of life. We truly believe that the field of health psychology, specifically focusing on sustained behavior change, can provide many career opportunities for us sport psychologists.
Adam graduated with a master’s degree from the Adler School of Professional Psychology. He currently works as a mental skills coach at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, providing sport psychology services to both athletes and non-athletes.
Tyler is a second-year master’s student and Teaching Fellow at the University of North Texas. He is also a consultant at the UNT Center for Sport Psychology and Performance Excellence, where he provides sport psychology services to athletes, coaches, and teams.