Should I have reservations about sports psychology?
Should I have reservations about sports psychology?

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This week’s question comes from an elite athlete who's about to see a sports psychologist – they ask:

Dear Christians in Sport,

I am an elite athlete about to meet a new sports psychologist, as a Christian, should I have any reservations or considerations going in?

"We think it would be beneficial for you to spend some time with the sports psychologist”

Words that in a bygone era might have been reflective of some kind of mental weakness or response to some sort of trauma, are now very much commonplace and accepted in the world of sport.

But for the Christian Sportsperson, should there be any reservation or caution in seeing a sports psychologist?

Let us walk through the ins and outs of what a sports psychologist does and doesn’t do, recognising the value and limitations in the methodology and arrive at an answer to the question – “what should I be thinking heading into a meeting with the sports psychologist?”

Firstly, let’s ask: what do sports psychologists do?

To help answer this question we will zoom in on one of the most famous sports psychologists who many highly distinguished sports stars have worked with – Professor Steve Peters.

His book ‘The Chimp Paradox’ records much of his methodology. “The Chimp Model is an incredibly powerful mind management model that can help you become a happy, confident, healthier, and more successful person.” It is claimed that this can be achieved by “Simplifying Neuroscience”- the Chimp Model is largely about understanding what is going on in the brain, and working out systems to recognise and address patterns of behaviour and impulsive tendencies.

Dr Steve Peters attributes the identity of Chimp (the emotional part of your brain that responds very quickly to stimulus), gremlin (an unhelpful or destructive belief or behaviour that is removable) and goblin (a hard-wired unhelpful or destructive belief or behaviour that is considered unerasable) to helpfully identify what these things are and how to respond to them. According to Dr Peters, getting to know what’s going on in your brain and becoming familiar with the ‘animals’ feeding information to the decision-making centre allows you to ask the right diagnostic questions to know how to deal with the information you’re receiving.

Sports psychologists generally seek to help athletes understand why they do what they do and how they can control their behaviour and thus performance, better.

Secondly, let’s look at what sports psychologists don’t do

Knowing where you seek to find fulfilment and purpose in life will always be a key part of a sports psychologist’s process, but the Chimp Model deliberately doesn’t set out to answer that question.

The Chimp Model, for example, specifically references the ‘Stone of Life’ which contains a person's truths about life, their values, and their life force or purpose. This information becomes the vital piece of the diagnostic process. In order to tease out that information other sports psychologists might use the same question as Dr Peters does: at age 100, looking back on life, what advice would you give as to what to do with life?

For the Christian, our ultimate purpose and our framework for satisfaction doesn’t need to be coaxed out of us by a sports psychologist, it is ultimately given to us by God and can be found in what he says to us in the Bible.

So where is the value of sports psychology?

For the Christian sportsperson driven toward high performance, the diagnostic tools that sports psychology offers can be of real value. The model of the Chimp Paradox, as an example, is excellent in giving practical steps that enable individuals to ask simple questions like ‘where did the message to respond in that way come from?’ Or ‘Does that fit with the truths I hold about life?’

These questions are crucial for diagnosing whether the things that we feel and think in the moment actually hold true when we measure them against the things that we place ultimate value on in life.

For the Christian ultimate value has to be found in what God has made clear in His word the Bible. Romans 5:8 explains how God demonstrates his own love for us; we have real value not because of anything we have achieved, but in His choice to love us. For the Christian, this clarity in what they believe about life can be the information which helps the methodology of the sports psychologist really flourish.

We must, however, recognise the limitations of sports psychology

The reality of implementing a system like the Chimp Model is that no matter how well you pick up the signals, no matter how consistently you implement the steps, there will always be frustration around the corner.

In our lives, we end up constantly rooting out behaviour that is inconsistent with who we want to be. This is our sin, our idolatry.

The danger in sport is often that we try to find our ultimate identity in created things (Romans 1:21-23). The result is that when we miss out on medals, times or performances, we think our very identity is being stolen away. Even the thought of this can lead to devastating psychological effects of crippling fear and anxiety.

Sports psychology can help here by highlighting a damaging pattern of behaviour, and a good sports psychologist might help us to tackle this behaviour – but these are the limits to which it can help because Paul, in Romans 8:20-22 makes it clear that this world doesn’t operate as I should, because of the corruption of sin.

The Bible clearly shows us that good behaviour, or physical and psychological discipline in the case of sport, are not things that ultimately satisfy us, or make us right with God.

So, whilst we can recognise that sports psychology is helpful for improving performance on the pitch, and perhaps even help us manage challenges outside of sport, it will never meet our greatest needs which are only found in Christ.

So, should I have any reservations or considerations heading in?

The Christian sportsperson need not hold any particular reservation when heading to meet a sports psychologist. A psychologist undoubtedly brings expertise in one aspect of sporting performance and a coach in this area will often bring methods and systems that can be helpfully implemented

And yet, as a Christian, it’s worth carefully considering the claims the Bible makes about how we find ultimate purpose and how we experience ultimate security

For the Christian, the truth that God unconditionally loves you, and has given you the gifts and abilities to compete with complete security and freedom is the foundational truth that undergirds performance in every area of sport, whether technical, tactical, physical or psychological.

Do you have any questions about sport and faith?
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