SGCP 4th International Congress of Coaching Psychology 2014 Review

SGCP 4th International Congress of Coaching Psychology

International Congress of Coaching Psychology

Sport, Performance and Coaching Psychology Stream

I just wanted to post up a quick review of the Coaching Psychology Conference I attended on Thursday 11th December last week. Having recently discussed the need for awareness of organisations such as the SGCP to those involved with coaching, it seemed like opportune timing to put my own advice into action. Considering my background, I was naturally drawn to attend the Sport, Performance and Coaching Psychology stream, chaired by Professor Sandy Gordon, and Dr Sophia Jowett. As such, I decided to attend this stream in its entirety and have summarised my thoughts below. Hopefully my insight will be of some use to others.

The opening address

Image of Professor Mary Watts
Professor Mary Watts

The opening address was delivered by Professor Mary Watts who spoke about the title of the congress ‘Changing lives, Changing Worlds - Inspiring Collaborations’. She recounted experiences across her career in particular noting that despite the various roles she has fulfilled, due to the cross-disciplinary nature of coaching, regardless of title/function there is always an opportunity to learn. Professor Watts mentioned that when it comes to learning, inclusivity has been a foundational principle in promoting the collaborative nature of the SGCP and her own personal journey.  This certainly struck a chord with me, and seemed to align with the notion of ‘humble authority’ that I also try to apply. In essence, everybody brings something to the table, and we can all learn something from it if we are willing.

Sport Psychology, Performance Psychology and Coaching Psychology - Professor Sandy Gordon

Headshot of Professor Sandy Gordon
Professor Sandy Gordon

The morning session of the Sport Performance and Coaching Psychology Stream was introduced and kicked off by Professor Sandy Gordon who began with a discussion of the interface between Sport Psychology, Performance Psychology and Coaching Psychology. He set out, that with regard to the aforementioned topics, practitioners are working with those who operate in a space that is ultimately measured by external demands, yet requires enhancements in skills and behaviours that must be intrinsically motivated. In terms of the practical applications, the appropriateness of a strengths-based approach was evaluated. The notion that in times of stress, it is our strengths that we default to, that few of us like working on our weaknesses, and rarely will we be able to turn them into strengths. I especially like the line:

'success is like teflon, failure is like velcro'

 It is well known that we ‘learn from mistakes’ and these memories stay with us. That should not dissuade us from trying to learn from our successes also.

The Coaching Relationship: Its Role and Significance for Success and Satisfaction - Dr. Sophia Jowett

Head shot of Dr. Sophia Jowett
Dr. Sophia Jowett

Having studied Dr. Jowett’s work on the coach athlete relationship with reasonable interest at university, due to the time constraints for the talk, it was very much covering old ground for me. I was however intrigued to hear about the release of a new tool called Tandem (, which seems to be an app that can quickly measure and score aspects of the coach-athelte relationship. As a well validated tool, this could be a very useful app for future coaching practice. Questions after the talk explored the implications of perspective of the coach-athlete relationship (i.e. it is dyadic). More specifically, what does this mean for environments whereby more than one coach is involved with a given athlete, and how does each dyad influence the ‘coaching culture’ within which it exists. After the talk, I did also ponder the negative aspects of coaching relationships and how these might influence outcome. It is clear that relationships that might be considered of lower quality by the 3+1C’s model can still perform at the highest level in terms of results achieved. What negative aspects of these relationships might be adaptive? Might a more harmonious relationship even lead to worse results? What would be the ethical implications of such a finding. Really interesting stuff, and just a shame the slot was too short to allow for greater discussion.

Paradoxical functions of exercising in women with anorexia nervosa - Dr. Liv Jorun Kolnes

This was another talk that seemed to sit very neatly into an area of personal and professional interest. Dr. Kolnes presentation focused specifically on exploring the meaning of compulsive exercise to AN-restrictive inpatients. The research aimed to potentially provide coaches with a broadened understanding of compulsive exercise in these individuals and in general.

Three key themes were identified relating to compulsive exercise in this population:

1) Emotion regulation, distraction and escape

2) Embodied emotional stress

3) Provides identity and belonging

It was an interesting talk. Especially because it seemed clear that there the meaning of exercise can appear to be implicated in a potentially beneficial emotional pathway. It seems it is not just solely a method of escape, but a way in which the patients can feel and get in touch with their emotions. However, the continuation of exercise can often extend recovery in those with AN, and with the role it can play in promoting a negative energy balance, this might just be another manifestation of an egosyntonic feature of AN. So no clear actions to be taken from this, and it would be irresponsible to suggest that there should be a place for exercise for those recovering from AN. However, when you consider some of the similarities of elite athletes and those with ED mindsets, the themes above would seem to shed light upon what exercise might mean and the function it might serve. Further exploration might allow us to know which features of exercise we might culture in a prophylactic manner to those at risk, or even for widespread benefit.

Internal Coaching: The Inside Story - Katharine St John-Brooks

After a short break, I returned to the stream’s workshop. Not working as an internal coach myself, I did ponder whether another talk might be better to attend, but took the advice of the David Tee with regard to Congress Logistics, and embraced the opportunity as serendipitous. After an introduction to her research exploring the rewards and challenges of being an internal coach, we were split into groups to work through an ethical dilemma. Although the research was focused specifically on internal coaching. I felt it certainly applied to any form of coaching within a broader organisational structure. The ethical dilemma, is also not one exclusive to internal coaches. My personal take-homes from this exercise were:

  1. The need for a robust coaching contract at the outset of a coaching relationship. This brings perspective and congruency to a coach’s behaviour in relation to the dilemma. As part of this contract,  firm ethical guidelines should be integrated into this agreement.
  2. Know your skill-set. Often it is not appropriate to ‘diagnose’ or to think we should attempt to solve a problem ourselves if it is outside our realm of expertise.
  3. The benefit of supervision. Dilemmas are dilemmas for a reason. A fresh perspective can often be both  reassuring, protective and productive.

This was probably the only session I had not decided I would attend before the conference. It made me wonder what other talks I might also have found so productive had there been the opportunity. Were there too many streams? Did the conference paradoxically dilute the opportunities for collaboration by offering too much choice?

Mindfulness, Ego-regulation and Psychological Momentum in Golf - Graham Kingma

This research was as interesting as it was complex. Coming from a background as a professional golfer, Graham’s work concentrated on a clearly interrelated but very intricate area of psychology that sits somewhere between coaching, sport and performance.  Despite this, the golf theme certainly seemed to draw in a big crowd!  Having conducted my own combinations of qualitative/quantitative research on small sample sizes, I’m not one to bemoan the inherent questionable statistical validity of the results, but nor am I one to ignore the potential value of such work. I was naturally drawn to the immediate conceptual juxtapositions of ideas such as psychological momentum (essentially time-bound) and mindfulness (in the moment). The non-judgmental nature of mindfulness with regard to ‘failure’ schema (inherently judgemental). However, both throughout the talk, and in discussion with Graham after, he was able to propose the potential value of their unexpected fusion. A further point that arose was the benefit of coaching of mindfulness with specific application to the discipline of golf. Throughout my own daily practice of mindfulness, I constantly derive benefit from domain specific application of the practice, and was glad to see this reflected in the research.

Coaching Psychology in Sport & Athletic Career Development: Narratives of Young Talented & Retired Professional Football Players - Dr. Ho Law & Unnur Maria Birgisdottir

This talk was based on research that came from a blend of narrative and coaching psychology. As opposed to focusing on the technical and tactical skills one might normally think of regarding coaching in football, it compared the experiences of young, up and coming footballers, with those of retired footballers to see if the comparison could be of benefit to players or coaching psychologists.

While the younger players' views were optimistic and progressive relating to  dreams and hopes of their future, this was in stark contrast to the more pessimistic and regressive viewpoint of retired footballers. The retired players stressed the value of relationships and the expectations and pressure of a career in football.  This was summarised by ‘pretty picture vs rough reality’ scenario that poses questions about the role retired players might play in helping to communicate the realities of elite sport to youngsters.

Goal Orientation in Coaching Psychology: Setting performance targets may be counterproductive to long-term performance - Kim Louw

This was a whirlwind talk, packed full of content with a necessary theoretical intro - and still one of the most enlightening of the day. Kim discussed both the state and trait nature of goal orientation and after a brief review delved into her research.  Alarmingly, it showed that even tiny manipulations were enough elicit the performance approach (aka ego-oriented) state, and that this effect was enough to override one’s trait/personality goal orientation. Since performance approach states are associated with status driven risk taking and subsequent unethical behaviour, the stand-out message for coaches is clearly ‘choose your words very carefully!’. It might only take a couple of words to adversely influence the behaviour of a coachee or athlete. Another insight of note, was that in certain settings it can obviously be difficult to avoid performance oriented goals. In these situations, multiple goal theory might help, whereby inclusion of mastery related goals along with performance approach goals might buffer the negative effect of those that promote performance approach based goal-orientation.

The motivational antecedents and affective consequences of fitness-assessment procrastination: Implications for coaching interventions - Dr Caroline Petherick

Although perhaps not the most robust population selection for this particular research question, once again a consistent coaching message was alluded to - the need for development of an culture that promotes the central principles of self-determination.  Although I probably feel that notion of fitness-assessment procrastination might better be approached from an informational point of view, it was still a talk that also threw up several insights relating to how perfectionistic tendencies and poor body image can present as surprisingly stubborn barriers to exercise in female populations.

Panel Discussion

The Stream was concluded with a 'panel style’ session that was really more of an open forum. The discussion evolved to cover what role the SGCP might fulfil in the future, in particular with regard to its collaborative approach and inclusive nature. Although the discussion regarding a protected status for coaching psychologists was broached, I for one would like to see the SGCP, at an organisational level, engaging with other bodies within the coaching profession to improve the coaching at a foundational level. I feel there are many bodies and groups that could benefit from such a relationship with the SGCP, and that this engagement would also be of mutual benefit to SGCP members.  The strength of coaching psychology is in its collaborative nature, and to make it more exclusive would only serve to generate unnecessary barriers to many of the groups with which it was designed to serve.

Keynote - Wilful Blindness - Margaret Heffernan

Head shot of Margaret Heffernan
Margaret Heffernan

Now I don’t want to just come across seeming like i’d wildly sing the praises of the conference regardless of what I heard, but the keynote for Thursday was really very good. My notes are a little shaky however, after an early start and full day of talks. Perhaps then it wasn’t great at all, and I was just 'wilfully blind', lacking the capacity to critically evaluate the content. Either way, I had not heard of Margaret Heffernan prior to the talk and I will certainly be following up on more of her material, when I can be more certain of my judgment.

Image of Margaret Heffernan delivering keynote talk at SGCP conference
Margaret Heffernan - Image courtesy of @DLeekF

Her talk eloquently reframed the idea of conflict. How in organisational and personal settings, we always seem eager to resolve it, but that it can be protective and productive. People are often afraid to speak up do to fear of the consequences, or merely an impression of futility. Silence however, will only lead to one thing; maintenance of the status quo. It will guarantee it, and at an organisational level, this can be poison. Conflict may not be comfortable, but in what ways can we embrace and harness conflict to make sure we are not ‘wilfully blind'?

Thought provoking stuff indeed

Strength & Conditioning and Coaching Psychology

Strength & Conditioning and Coaching Psychology

At conferences and talks, its quite common to hear Strength and Conditioning Coaches reference the relative balance of 'Strength' and 'Conditioning' in their everyday work. We all follow slightly different pathways into the industry, and with those pathways come individual differences in our skills, philosophies and programming preferences. Coming to Strength and Conditioning from a background of endurance sport, my personal knowledge-base was certainly more skewed towards the conditioning side than strength.
The Intra Strength and Conditioning Coaching Balance
The Intra-Strength and Conditioning Coaching Balance

While I, and I'm sure many coaches alike, continue to work to address these imbalances, it was reflecting upon this process that led me to consider that our relative Strength-to-Conditioning-know-how-ratio is not perhaps the widest gap in most our skill-sets.

Strength and Conditioning is a burgeoning area of academic and applied research. As such, should we wish to develop our theoretical or academic understanding within the field of Strength and Conditioning, the information we might need to bring us up to speed is literally at our fingertips.  These opportunities are well publicised with any number of e-newsletters, subscriptions, workshops and seminars forming an active education sector within the field of Strength and Conditioning. If you don't know your or your MAF from your V02 - no problem.

Now of course, academic knowledge alone does not make a great S&C coach. It is just one component of the bigger picture. Any coach worth their salt knows the lab is not real life, and rarely will the latest journal protocol barely resemble what you might be able to practically implement in training. The point is, when it comes to both the science behind S&C and subsequent application of that knowledge, the field of Strength and Conditioning promotes a widespread awareness of the need for balance if we are to maximise the utility of our practical and scientific understanding.

The lack of Coaching Science in Strength and Conditioning

When it comes to the development of our coaching know-how, I feel we begin to lose that aforementioned balance. While there is clearly no shortage of coaches and organisations stressing the importance of developing our coaching ability, the constructive discourse and application of up to date research in the field is sorely lacking.
Part of the problem, can be summed up well by the predominant notion of "Coaching as an art”. Now I’m not for one second going to even try to deny the creativity, intuition and experience that undeniably contributes to making of a great coach. My issue, is that at some ways, this idea can diminish our responsibility in ascribing structure, critical thought and practice-based evidence on our journey as coaches.  Coaching is not just an art. The ‘science of coaching’, is a field of research that is as valid and as buoyant as that of S&C. Yet despite the existence of area of research that produces systematic, peer reviewed literature, it hardly seems to form a blip on the radar of most S&C coaches. I believe the longer we only mention the requirement for developing our coaching skills, yet continue to define it as some nebulous idea that comes from experience and a bit of gut feel, the wider the gap between our technical S&C knowledge and our applied coaching skills will grow.
The Art of Coaching
The Art of Coaching

The need for Coaching Psychology in Strength and Conditioning 

So what do we do about it? Iron out the inconsistencies and start treating coaching as we do our S&C knowledge - with a bit more scientific and academic rigour. I’m not saying ignore the contributions of creativity, intuition or experience on our individual journeys to becoming a better coach, nor do I wish to overstate the value of ‘scientific evidence’. But as a profession, Strength and Conditioning has a great deal to learn from fields of research that specialise in the coaching domain.

International Coaching Psychology Review
International Coaching Psychology Review
The Special Group for Coaching Psychology (SGCP) for example, was founded approximately a couple of years before the UKSCA. It was done so
"in response to concerns about untrained or poorly trained coaches, and the related need to promote improved standards of practice for the benefit of the profession of coaching, coaches, their clients and the public at large"
The potential application of Coaching Psychology to the role of a Strength and Conditioning coach is as obvious as it is (seemingly) absent.  Strength and Conditioning is a cross-disciplinary field, and must integrate the working knowledge of physiologists, biomechanists, physical therapists, nutritionist/dieticians etc on a daily basis. I think it would do well to increase its integration and with that of Psychology and in particular, Coaching Psychology. Coaching Psychology is about the practical and considered application of the art AND the science of coaching in service of our clients' goals. To consider coaching as just art, and to leave our development as S&C coaches in the hands of the anecdotal, I believe is a disservice to both ourselves and our athletes.
The Art AND Science of Coaching
The Art AND Science of Coaching
In future posts I hope to distill some of the more recent learnings from the field of Coaching Psychology in relation to S&C and would urge you, if you don't already, to consider doing the same.