Gloria Balagué

Gloria Balague (Photo: Spanish Association of Sport Psychology)

What strategies do you to facilitate communication and overcome posible resistances from athletes towards the sport psychologist?

I believe resistance is often due to negative expectations regarding the role of a sport psychologist (sometimes based on previous negative experiences!). My approach is to not pressure anyone but be present, watch practices, ask questions, and wait for opportunities. When I travel with a team I try to sit at a different table every meal and I will not talk about sport psychology unless asked. Same thing with travel arrangements and seats in trains, planes, etc. I also believe that not everyone needs to consult with me, and I respect these athletes and treat them the same way. In general, I find it helpful to have a general talk explaining what I can do and I tend to ask things such as: Do you perform consistently at the level you are physically and technically capable? If not, and there is no injury, what is the reason? For me, psychological skills will not make “good” an athlete who is not or who does not put in the effort, but if used well, they will give you something important: consistency. My job requires trust, and that has to be earned, it does not come with the title, so I have learned to be patient!

What are the most usual difficulties when working with coaches?

For me both extremes are difficult: coaches who fear interference and think that psychological interventions may “ruin” an athlete or diminish the coach’s authority. I have also had great difficulties with some coaches who wanted me to handle absolutely every emotional issue, saying that they only wanted to coach (meaning impart technical or tactical instruction) and that was impossible. So I have learned to clarify beforehand what I can and cannot do, as well as ask in detail what they expect of my work before I accept it. In any case I believe that working jointly with the coach is the most effective way to work.

How important do you think the work of the sport psychologist is in team sports in comparison with individual sports?

I do not think we can measure importance, as it depends on the specific circumstances of the athlete or team, but in my opinion team sports are more difficult from a psychological perspective. Conditions shift rapidly and there are many more variables in teams. In team sports we have to combine individual work (specific interventions for some players) with team interventions and, particularly with communication coach/players and also among players.

Do you consider that new technologies / internet can be valuable tools to provide psychological advice to athletes and coaches?

We must adapt our communication style to the athlete’s. Nowadays electronic communication, texting, social networks… are the preferred means for young athletes. Athletes compete all over the world and new technologies allow us to stay in touch easily. Virtual reality can be a great tool for mental training, so yes, I believe we must incorporate new technologies and learn to use them effectively. Teskal, the internet-based monitoring and consulting tool I have contributed to develop, allows coaches and athletes immediate access to quick and usable information and we are getting a very positive response from them, which encourages us to continue thinking of ways to improve.

Is the use the Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning with elite athletes to evaluate optimal stress/anxiety levels useful and feasible for coaches, or is this method exclusively for sports psychology experts?

Developing an athlete’s Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning requires a level of expertise that may require the help of a sport psychologist. Once the profile has been identified, coaches and athletes can use it to keep track of the psychological state of the athlete in regards to practice or competition.

Are there other simple methods allowing coaches and fitness coaches to evaluate such concepts?

Coaches and athletes who pay attention consistently to psychological variables can develop their own system. The key is to work on awareness, communicate about it and do it consistently. There are simple questionnaires to assess energy/fatigue levels, confidence, goals… The issue is to settle on the concepts that are relevant to a specific coach and athlete, that address the areas of concern and fit the language and style of their training system. I do not believe there is a uniform test good for everyone.

In view of the influence of tolerance to conflict or stress on performance, are there ways to increase such tolerance?

Tolerance must be trained! It should be a part of practice by design. If athletes (and coaches) have to tolerate stress in competition, then they should train that skill. To be able to perform under ideal circumstances is good, but not enough. Learning to adjust to a short warm-up because of a late arrival to competition, or dealing with a long rain delay, unexpected changes in conditions or plan is trainable. It should be done in practice and I call it “training psychological flexibility”, which I believe is a central skill. Tolerating conflict is part of the emotional response training: an athlete (and a coach) must be able to separate how they feel (emotion) from how they respond (behavior). One can act one way and feel another and that is self-control, which is another central skill. These are some of the main areas where I think sport psychologists can collaborate with coaches.

Are there strategic plans that may be useful in this regards?

They should be individualized to the specific training and competition conditions of each coach/athlete or coach/team.

Do you think the concept of tolerance to conflict or stress could be extrapolated to the area of treatment of physical injuries in sports?

An athletic injury is a real laboratory for working on stress tolerance, increasing psychological resistance and identifying emotional responses that are effective or maladaptive. But that does not happen automatically by doing physical rehab, these issues must be addressed specifically. Athletes who work their psychological skills during rehab often report that they feel much more psychologically resilient when they get back to competition, but if they do not do it, many recover their physical fitness but are weakened psychologically.

We know that you are working on a model of sport for children that combines competition with the preservation and development of values. ¿What are your views in this area?

I believe the goal of youth sport is to keep children in sport, not to develop 10-year old champions who will quit at 14 years of age. It is a mistake to reproduce the professional sport model for children, but coaches have few available models. I work with Don Hellison’s model ( teaching self-control, personal responsibility, learning to set goals and to put effort into the task, and helping others. This creates a situation where they learn decision-making, and practice their leadership abilities by helping each other during drills and activities. They also develop a more resilient confidence because in this model mistakes are not seen as failures but as steps towards improvement. This way you avoid developing fear of failure, so common in sport, and develop instead intrinsic motivation. The goal is to learn, improve and put forward effort, which are all controllable behaviors and everyone can do it, regardless of their skill level. This approcah will increase enjoyment of sport, so it is more likely that they will continue practicing it for life. I would expect those who move on to elite competition to be more confident, more resilient when faced with adversity and better leaders.

What variables are you working on at the level of the player, the coach and the organization?

When working with athletes I find self-awareness to be a fundamental skill, because we need it to know what needs to change and what we should repeat. I am also interested in the regulation of emotional responses, which is also something I think we do not handle well. In terms of the coach and the organization, I’m trying to identify the elements that make up the environment created by the coach, which either favors or interferes with optimal performance. I’m using a lot of industrial/organizations psychology materials, as well as information from the business world.

Sports coaching is a concept that is quite fashionable lately. Could you briefly explain what it is, its value in the high performance environment, and whose responsability it should be?

I believe coaching is that, fashionable right now. Sport psychologists have been doing coaching forever, because clinical interventions are a very small part of our work. High performance sport requires solid knowledge of the sport, and its physical, technical and psychological requirements. A professional with solid training in sport psychology has the training to do coaching and everything else. Coaching has clarified a consultation model, and that is very good, but in the world of high performance, where the athlete’s identity is so often tied to results, that model may not be enough.

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