Does it matter if Sport Psychology is Cod Psychology?

Usually, it starts with an email: “James/Hi James/Dear James: I’ve been reading some sport psychology textbooks and it’s all rubbish. Please could you point me to the real deal?”

These emails are hard to answer. Because what my interlocutor has noticed is that the content of sport psychology is unacademic, unproven, shallow, and all too similar – in their eyes – to that terrible thing called self-help. They want to be told that this isn’t true. They want to believe that they are just reading the wrong books, and that if I can point them to the right ones, the subject will open up to them like a flower in sunshine.

It’s the same reaction, responding to the same instinct, to the one found when people talk about “cod psychology”, “cheap psychology”, “shallow self-help manuals” and the like. It’s the belief and hope that out there beyond the Mind and Spirit shelves there’s a real body of established psychological knowledge waiting to be tapped into.

And without doubt, sport psychology and self-help do share a lot of the same principles. The importance of setting goals. The different kinds of goals. Visualization. Affirmations and mental rehearsal. The winning mentality. A general obsession with performance, achievement and change.

And this is in fact it, so far as sport psychology goes. It doesn’t have to be bad news: all of these things will “work” to some degree. Your mileage may vary, and if you have substantial underlying issues (which is where we blend into psychotherapy a little) you’ll probably find they do less for you than they might for others.

But it would be unfair to write sport psychology off just because it bears close resemblance to a field that intellectuals find repellent. Crudity and simplicity aren’t the only issues here. Politics is involved. Any psychology built for sport jocks is going to feel uncomfortable to the average left-leaning academic commentator.

Sport psychology is crude and simplistic when put up against 20s-style Freudian psychoanalysis, undoubtedly, yet the bulk of broadsheet-level media think that Freud (boo!) has been decisively seen off by CBT (hurrah!) which is scientific, peer-reviewed, etc. And CBT is considerably less subtle and ambiguous than psychoanalysis.

Any sensible review of CBT would applaud its willingness to undergo proper, extensive testing, and to adapt to what that testing found. Aaron Beck and his colleagues have done the entire field an enormous favour by making the attempt, and they would be the first to want to tell you about the real problems that have emerged and what plans are in place to deal with them.

I’ll come to those in a moment, but first I want to discuss self-help.

Both British and American culture has a long-established place for books, tapes and films offering help and advice. British gardening guides have been silent best-sellers for years, but so have books on job hunting, sex, cookery, car maintenance, pet care and DIY. There’s room, surely, for books covering some of the real personal problems that people encounter. Because believe me, it’s far from the case that the UK has become therapy-ized. The people I met in my consulting room didn’t want to be there. Nor did they want to have their phobias, or their depression, or panic attacks, or their general sense of being in the wrong place, in the wrong time, in the wrong skin. Of having taken a wrong turn so far back in time…

Running a full-time therapy practice, even at break-even levels, costs enough to price such services out of the reach of huge numbers of people. State services are over-run with patchy coverage. It would take a decade to turn the state services into what the dedicated people running them would want to see. Then we come to the issues of getting time away from work and family. Why shouldn’t there be a genre of British book aimed at providing whatever help a book might be capable of delivering?

A couple of self-help “classics” helped me out in my teens when there were things I wanted to achieve that I had no experience in and no hope of advice from school, friends or family. So I have some bias in their favour. Without them, I’d have been entirely on my own.

The reality with self-help is that many of its fiercest critics haven’t actually read any (Frances Wheen reviews Tony Robbins in his otherwise excellent How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered The World… I say “reviews”, but the phrases he uses are all lifted from the back cover of one of Robbins’ books, and there’s nothing to suggest he ever went inside or felt that he ought to). What this means is that many of the most common charges made against self-help don’t ring true to anyone with more acquaintance with the genre. To take Tony Robbins alone, his books warn against aiming to become rich for its own sake – desolation, loneliness and unfulfilment lie that way. Nor is “success!” the goal – you must define your own success, by your own values, your own life, your own philosophy. Nor is it about “becoming a new person!!” – but it is about finding ways to frustrate yourself less.

Nor is it especially American. Not compared with Samuel Smiles, at any rate, whose Self Help, the British progenitor of it all, is the kind of destructive, dishonest claptrap that is supposed to characterize the whole genre.

But there are bad self-help books. Not as many as some people think, and few that are rotten all the way through or based on the kind of clicheed values that critics deplore. Some, if not the best, are written by CBT professionals and employ as much of established CBT technique can be employed by a reader working on their own. Nevertheless, self-help not being as bad as all that is one thing: an established body of knowledge “out there” to be drawn upon is quite another.

I admit to being frustrated by what follows. I envy people with my interests who will be young in fifty years’ time, because by then the really interesting discoveries about the human brain, the human brain acting in the concerted context of the body, and the human brain acting in concert with other human brains, will be coming on stream. All we’re able to do with the most extraordinarily complex organ and the philosophical problems it raises at present is learn what the right questions might be. At the moment, even the questions are uncertain.

Neuroscience and psychotherapy have developed separately from one another, as have neuroscience and psychiatry (crudely, in the UK psychotherapy refers to talk therapy and psychiatry to drugs. The US often uses “psychiatry” to refer to both talk therapy and drugs). It will all come down to neuroscience in the end, but the end is a long, long way off, and when we get there, it will in all likelihood be unrecognisable and quite possibly inaccessible to anyone without a postgraduate degree in mathematics.

The quickest way to get a flavour of where we’re coming from and where we’re going is to read Eric Kandel’s terrific memoir In Search of Memory. It’s Kandel’s autobiography, but also a great deal more than a potted history of the field. Kandel joined it some 30 years after the earliest pioneers, enrolling in medical school in 1952. Within 3 years, he’d switched to neuroscience, with the stated aim of finding, within the human brain, the physical locations of Freud’s ego and id…

Of course, by the time he retired, all that was well behind him, but at the time, the idea was far from foolish. There are certain to be hundreds of similar ideas being pursued now that will look every bit as bizarre fifty years from now. How I wish I was going to be there. But I’ll be dead in my deckchair under my Daily Telegraph long before that..

It’s easy, obviously, to decry a science in its formative years, which is what neuroscience is. But that isn’t the only problem that the established body of knowledge faces. Consider the situation of CBT.

One of the issues that prevented psychotherapy being tested in the manner expected of a drug has been the sheer number of unmeasurables in the therapy situation. CBT avoided one of the most familiar – the relationship between the therapist and the client – by deciding that the nature of CBT rendered that relationship irrelevant. Many early studies of CBT were done with just that assumption in place, and these studies helped elevate CBT to its current position. It wasn’t just an idle assumption – Beck and his colleagues had worked hard to make the CBT experience consistent regardless of whose name was on the door.

This is no longer the official CBT position. Change came partly through the experiences of CBT therapists, who found that working “from the manual” for studies was less effective than what they would do in sessions when a test wasn’t underway. And part of the change came through growing sophistication in statistical techniques (N.B. this is not my field – don’t ask me what the statisticians achieved. Matthew Turner and Dan Davies probably know) which enabled client-therapist relationships to be measured. “Transference” is back in the room.

CBT is one of over 280 recognized psychotherapeutic approaches. It, and the various forms of psychodynamic therapy, dominate a field that classic psychoanalysis has quit forever. Proper testing is now more or less accepted across the board, courtesy of Beck and his team’s pioneering determination which set the bar for everyone else.

There are a number of measures undertaken. Different therapies can be compared against each other. Therapies can be compared with equivalent psychiatric treatment. And elements of individual therapies can be “removed” from testing to see which parts of a particular approach are the most important.

Frankly, the results of all three directions of study are dismaying. Everything – every therapy, every psychiatric treatment – works. What’s more, it all works to more or less the same degree. This is known as the dodo bird verdict and that pretty much sums up the disappointment surrounding it. What’s worse for talk therapies is that removing elements of each therapy to find out what works, to find out what might constitute best practice, produces no significant conclusions. Nor is one therapy especially better at dealing with a specific problem than any other. It isn’t that psychodynamic therapy is better than CBT at dealing with PTSD, for instance. They’re about the same. The philosophical conclusions to be drawn from this if it continues for another 20 years are profoundly depressing.

Much the same goes for psychiatric drugs. Serotonin theories of depression have come, raised our hopes, and gone away again. “Brain chemical imbalance” turns out to be extraordinarily difficult to establish.

There will be, given time and work, the “body of knowledge” we need. It’s simply the case that this task is infinitely more complex, philosophically more challenging (I have deliberately avoided the study of what consciousness is here, although I believe that to be central to the whole problem) and potentially more expensive than the Manhattan Project or Apollo. Understanding the brain – and through that, understanding the existential experiences of mankind – turns out to be the work of ages, not the work of fifty years in American labs. Kandel and his colleagues broke the ground, but it’s stony and sandy ground by turns and it never seems to rain.

We thought, for a while, that measuring blood flows in the brain went some way to measuring relevant brain activity and that meaning could be drawn from the measurements. That one went away about two years ago.

It’s not that there’s been “no” progress. Far from it: there have been magnificent careers lived in this field, and there are thousands more underway now. The insignificance of the progress is relative to the giddying size of the task and its almost malevolent complexity.

In a real way, then, it’s all cheap psychology for the time being. And if you’re here, now, in the early twenty-first century, wondering what to do because you can no longer go outside because your phobia of rats has extended itself to squirrels, birds and dead leaves (I’ve treated people to whom this has happened. Don’t put any hope in “injections that can kill fear-inducing memories”. Phobia’s an experience of fear that is somehow not rooted in fear, or in memory), then what exists now, both self-help and therapy room, is imperfect and incomplete. And as many have found, you’re as likely to “revert to the mean” under your own power as find help in official channels.

So does it matter if sport psychology is cod psychology? Probably not. What exists does work to some extent, even if we have no real idea as to how or why. One day, which I won’t live to see, there will indeed be that body of knowledge out there beyond the Mind and Spirit section, and then we’ll really be able to get to work. Until then, go on the “B” of the bang, go for process rather than outcome goals, and if it’s dartitis or the yips, you have my deepest sympathy.

4 Replies to “Does it matter if Sport Psychology is Cod Psychology?”

  1. Excellently written.

    On a tangent, have you read any of the Positive Psychology/Happiness stuff – Seligman being the sort of founder of the field… IPPA is the grouping…? I think their approach turns up some interesting support for things we kind of already knew about what makes a happy life, but at the same time didn’t always take seriously.

    It’s interesting to me that your musings imply, but you don’t state, that the big positive factor in all these therapies that work just about to the same level seems to be regular human contact with a relatively… sympathetic is probably the wrong word… perhaps it’s non-judgemental? person who appears to be paying attention? (Don’t ask if they are actually taking notes or composing a shopping list on that pad…)

    Maybe that last bit is glib, so here’s some more glib: Is the common feature of all the talking therapies that they represent a process (thinking of process over outcome) and that largely any process is an improvement on no process?

    Sliding bizarrely from there, I’ve often thought that the real value to people of astrology was to give them a language for talking about personality. Statements typically go “I’m an X, but not a typical X, because stereotype Y doesn’t fit me…” Now it’s obvious why this is helpful in bad chat up conversations… but I think also in other situations… it’s a question of putting some language around a thing, expressing it.

    Hence, the talking therapies… they do both in fact, they put a language around this huge problem (be it fear of leaves, or the yips, etc.) help people turn this indescribable feeling of not functioning the way you want to and talk about it… then there’s a process for wrestling with it… some people are more able to naturally revert to the mean, because they can build up a process for themselves… various religions and practical philosophies encountered in youth can stand people in good stead for this…

    One thing I’ve spent a lot of time dealing with (as a business consultant) is the bleed over from sports goal setting/coaching into business… Sports goal thinking is often given high credibility… but it also feels simplistic to me – it took me a while to pin down why. Simply, sports are largely matters of simple goals and even complex goals are relatively easily (in mature sports) broken down into simple goals/processes for training. e.g. Want to be a better golfer? Get the ball in the hole in less shots… Practice driving, approaches and putting. (Note, simple is not the same as easy.)

    Some aspects of business work fit this model – sales training has done well with it, but much of the rest of the business enterprise sits in the bits of decision making that we don’t know enough to tamper with, even in sport… that instinctive sense of space and timing you see in a Messi or Fabregas (for example.)

  2. Gleaning from a hopefully representative article …

    ( )

    it’s not really so much a new statistical technique, as just basically a decision on the part of the researchers to start using a measure of the therapist relationship (which in turn was “measured” by a method only slightly more sophisticated and structured than getting some other therapists to watch a tape of the session and scoring it out of ten). The real statistical art was the method by which it was established to the satisfaction of most researchers that the “therapeutic alliance scores” were worth doing and that they were providing information that wasn’t available elsewhere.

    Frankly this sort of statistical work gives me the shivers – it is way out of my comfort zone to have so many subjective scores used, and the measures themselves look very borderline in terms of the inter-rater agreement and similar – but I suppose it’s intrinsic to the territory, in that it’s subjective experiences that are the whole point.

    I think the real thing that stands out from the CBT literature and differentiates them from other types of therapy is that it’s very much the medical model – the papers are invariably “CBT for depression”, “CBT for anxiety”, “CBT for severe depression” etc. They’re always focused very specifically on specific treatments for a specific condition. Which is clearly a requirement for building an evidence base, but which could definitely be seen as problematic in an area where there is still plenty of uncertainty and disagreement about the nature of the underlying conditions.

    (I’d add that trying to find a representative paper to look at was rendered somewhat more difficult by the fact that both “computer based training” and, apparently, “cigarette burn time” are the subject of significant quantitative research. On the other hand, adding terms like “statistics” and “methodology” does significantly cut down on the number of google results for “CBT” which ought to have been blocked by Safefilter).

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