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Posted 03/03/2021 in Category 1

Activity Preferences In Psychotherapy - Implications For Sport Psychology?

Activity Preferences In Psychotherapy - Implications For Sport Psychology?

“You can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need”, This line from the Rolling Stones might well capture the experiences of athletes working with sport psychologists across the world. It might not be possible to get what you want when you want it; however, it might be possible to get what you need when you work with a sport psychologist. To date, there is little research on the preferences of athletes in their work with sport psychologists, which means we do not know what athletes need or how these needs match the outcomes of their work with a sport psychologist. If we match an athlete’s needs in their work with a sport psychologist, will the athlete benefit from the services delivered by the sport psychologist? Some much needed research follows Cooper and colleagues research among people in the community

Cooper and colleagues examined what clients wanted in their activities during therapy; they also examined whether the client’s preferences and approach (e.g., CBT) predicted outcomes and alliance. Finally, they assessed whether scores on the clients’ preferences predicted outcomes in the therapy. In short, does therapy work best when the clients get what they prefer in therapy? Overall, the clients held a preference for therapist directiveness and emotional intensity. The greatest progress came from those with a desire for focused challenge over warm support. Client preference for focused challenge might show their readiness to change, which is a critical component in the change process. 

What do these results mean for athletes working with sport psychologists? First, athletes need to acknowledge where they might be in the change process. We normally think about pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance. Asking athletes what they need and how their needs might be addressed is a sound starting point to offer services. Second, if the athlete is not ready for focused challenge and the work necessary to change, it’s unlikely the sport psychologist can bring this change about for the athlete. Knowing that the athlete is in a particular stage – contemplation – means that the athlete is thinking about change but not preparing for change. It’s likely in this stage, the athlete can move towards preparation for change, but perhaps not further. We need, as sport psychologists, to realise that we can be busy doing all the work and the athlete or athletes are not moving. If the athlete is not ready, then the athlete is not ready. What the sport psychologist is doing here is making this assessment with the athlete. Through support and encouragement, the services of the sport psychologist become more accessible and the possibility of change the athlete can estimate with the sport psychologist. 

The work of Cooper and colleagues is helping us to realise that athletes have preferences for what they want and these preferences are likely to match to the stage of change of the athlete. When the athletes say, ‘I want to address this issue. I have thought about it and I will work with you to change. I feel I know what I need but you will also guide me to make sound choices for my future”. We can always check in with the athlete to judge whether their initial feelings are current; if not, we can set about changing what needs to change. 


Cooper, M., van Rijn, B., Chryssafidou, E., & Stiles, W. (2021). Activity preferences in psychotherapy: what do patients want and how does this relate to outcomes and alliance? Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 1–24. doi.org/10.1080/09515070.2021.1877620

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