TASS Practitioner Focus: What is the role of a psychologist?

Psychologist Ross Shand (Credit: Leeds Beckett University)

TASS practitioners are key to supporting our performance athletes on and off the field. In the latest in a series of features highlighting their pivotal roles, we talk to Leeds-based psychologist Ross Shand.

TASS: Please describe your current role – where are you based and what does the role entail?

Ross Shand: I’m a Chartered Sport and Exercise Psychologist and PhD student based in Leeds. My role with TASS is providing psychology support to athletes on the programmes at Leeds Beckett University and the University of Leeds. I provide one-to-one support and psychoeducational workshops – the aim being to help athletes maximise their performance by focusing on the mental side of their sport. The support provided may cover topics such as enhancing confidence, managing anxiety and developing resilience to name just a few.

TASS: Did you always plan a career in psychology and how did you secure your current role? 

RS: When I started university, I actually wanted to become a strength and conditioning coach – that’s not worked out too well for me! However, the more sports psychology modules I studied the more I enjoyed it. Whilst I’d had exposure to sport psychology through sport studies and psychology at A Levels, I found the new topics and content really interesting and could see a little bit of myself in what was being discussed. When I completed my degree, I decided to pursue it as a career through the British Psychological Society route. This meant studying a Psychology Conversion course, an MSc in Sport and Exercise Psychology, and then finally two years of supervised experience – it’s taken quite a long time! I initially began supporting the Leeds Beckett TASS site three to four years ago and I started working with the University of Leeds last year.

TASS: Why does sports psychology, in particular, interest you?

RS: I initially think it interested me as it felt like something different. Before A Levels and university I don’t think I’d realised sport psychology existed. Psychology as a field interests me, trying to understand human behaviour and the factors which influence this. Some of the classic psychological research such as Milgram’s study of obedience or Asch’s study of conformity are fascinating. I enjoy supporting people and helping athletes to maximise their performance by applying psychological principles and approaches to influence behaviour. I think the context of sport allows you – and challenges you – to explore a wide range of psychological concepts, all of which can benefit multiple aspects of this complex professional role (e.g. understanding approaches to one-to-one support through to methods for enhancing group dynamics and team functioning).

TASS: How important has sports psychology become to the overall package of services available to elite athletes?

RS: I think it’s now as important as any other service available. The potential impact of sport psychology on performance is becoming more widely recognised and accepted and therefore I think it’s moving from a nice addition to have within a support system to an integral part of that system. This can only be beneficial as its allowing athletes to access the most appropriate support for them.

TASS: Do you feel your profession is better understood in 2018 or are you still required to explode some myths and convince the doubters?

RS: I personally think things are improving. It has become a more integrated part of the support services available to athletes and more people are talking openly about the importance of psychological support for wellbeing and performance. Since I began working as a trainee practitioner in 2013, I think perceptions and understanding of the discipline have changed and I think this is reflected in the increased number of roles we are seeing advertised for sport psychology practitioners. We are still challenging some stereotypical and stigmatised views but this is improving.

I think the biggest hindrance is the perception that something needs to be wrong before you work with a sport psychologist.

Whilst there may be areas for improvement, I think this is quite a negative view to adopt and potentially stops individuals from engaging in support when it may benefit their performance and wellbeing.

TASS: In your opinion, is it very much a case of healthy body, healthy mind – how important is it for elite athletes to focus on their mental as well as their physical health and wellbeing?

RS: It’s vitally important! The impact of mental health and wellbeing both athletically and personally can be huge and the effects can be wide ranging. Being an elite athlete is a challenging and turbulent career to pursue, which will consist of many positive and negative experiences. How these are managed can be important to an athlete’s mental health. I think there could be greater education for athletes, coaches and support staff around mental health. We need to work with athletes to help them develop the strategies to manage the challenges they face during their athletic career and consider post career options. We need to promote and normalise athletes seeking support for mental health and wellbeing, as they would for physical health. I think it’s also important to consider that the promotion of positive mental health and wellbeing isn’t just the individual’s responsibility – we need to consider how the environments we work in may positively or negatively impact mental health and an athlete’s openness to seek support. I think positive progress is being made in this area with more athletes talking about the mental health challenges they’ve faced and how gaining support has helped them. Also, it appears more is being done to support athletes’ mental health and wellbeing by organisations they work for or are supported by.

TASS: Are emerging athletes more likely to embrace and understand the benefits of sports psychology than previous generations?

RS: I think they are because its more available to them, they have access to it from a younger age and it’s a more normalised part of the support they receive. When I work with older athletes once they see the benefit it can have, they really embrace it but it’s just not something they’ve necessarily had access to previously.

TASS: What do you enjoy most about working with TASS athletes across Leeds?

RS: Something I enjoy about working with TASS athletes is the variety of sports they come from. I’ve had the opportunity to learn about so many different sports and the different demands they place on athletes. I think this has helped me develop as a practitioner as it has taught me never to assume anything. If your decisions and actions are informed primarily by assumptions rather than evidence, you’ll more than likely end up being wrong. It’s also amazing to see the amount of young talented athletes in Leeds and the surrounding area. It really is a hotbed for sport.

TASS: How beneficial is TASS support to performance athletes focusing on a dual career approach?

RS: I think the support available to TASS athletes is exceptional. Trying to pursue a dual career is a very challenging thing to do. Therefore, having both the athletic and academic/personal support of the TASS practitioners at the delivery site helps the athletes maximise their opportunities to excel in both fields. I have worked with athletes who are pursuing a dual career whilst not being part of TASS and it’s such a difficult thing to do – to the point where it becomes almost unsustainable.

The individual may have to work on top of training and academic commitments to pay for the support services which adds additional pressure to an already challenging undertaking.

TASS: Aside from your commitments with TASS do you work with other individuals and/or organisations within sport?

RS: I’m currently studying for a PhD with Leeds Beckett University and Yorkshire Carnegie – we are aiming to look at the development of psychological characteristics through a talent development pathway. I also work for a company called the Yorkshire Psychology Practice who provide psychological therapies and support for individuals in the Yorkshire region. I’m also a part-time lecturer at Leeds Beckett University and teach on the sport and exercise science suite of courses at undergraduate and postgraduate level. As you can see, there are quite a few plates in the air but I enjoy the variety that the different roles give me!

TASS: Outside of your work what do you do in order to wind down and relax mentally and physically?

RS: Typically boring things, such as watching TV, listening to music and reading. I play rugby union in my spare time and while this may not be classed as winding down or relaxing, after a day at work I really enjoy burning off a bit of steam for a couple of hours a few times per week. We are also a pretty close bunch so it’s great to be able to spend time friends.