The undergraduate degree. The postgraduate degree. Supervised practice. Attending conferences and presenting research. ‘Networking’ and making contacts. Trying to gain voluntary work while trying to earn a living. The path to becoming a Sport Psychologist isn’t an easy one, but Rory Mack is making his way down that path, and is just about to start his BPS Stage 2 training.
We don’t often get to hear what it’s actually like being a trainee Sport Psych. We decide it’s what we want to do, we do it, and we make our way through it as best we can. It’s certainly a challenging time, and it’s a rewarding one too, but for students thinking about Sport Psychology as a career, or for those students embarking on, or just finishing, Master’s programmes, I thought it might be useful to hear the first-hand experiences of someone who is actually living that experience.
I met Rory when I was allocated as his TASS (Talented Athlete Scholorship Scheme) Mentor, back in 2007
, and in the several years that I’ve known him, we’ve become good friends. Rory played Volleyball from the age of 16 and when he finished school at 18, went to Junior College in Southern California to try and earn a scholarship to an American university.
He played there for two years, and ended up turning down scholarship offers to come back to the UK. Now he competes as an amateur Olympic weightlifter, having left volleyball a couple of years ago. I asked Rory if he wouldn’t mind talking to me about his experiences as an up and coming Sport Psychologist for this blog…
PO: So Rory, why sport psychology?
RM: Because I took sport to the highest level that I could, and when I got there, I was very committed, put in a lot of time, money, effort, to go across the world to play. I got there and very quickly realised that I was not out of my depth in terms of physicality, work ethic, or anything like that, but having never had any exposure to the mental aspects of top end sports I realised I was quite deficient with mental skills, mental toughness, or whatever you want to call it.
I had a coach who didn’t give me any advice apart from giving me a book, which I’ve still got [The Mental Edge by Kenneth Baum]. He could tell I was hanging with the other guys physically and skills wise but I just couldn’t hold it together in matches.
So I read bits and pieces of that and had a much more successful second season, but ended up coming back to the UK, and going to university. In those two years that I was in the states, I had decided to combine my love of psychology with my love of sport and try to make a career.
PO: Can you tell me a little bit about the path you’ve taken to get to where you are now?
RM: Initially I wanted to be a child psychologist and go down the clinical route. I moved schools to do A’level psych, ’cause they didn’t do it at my school. When I went to the states I took psychology classes every semester for two years. I had a place reserved here at Sheffield Hallam to do psych, so came back and did my undergrad, which was GBC [Graduate Basis for Chartered Membership of the British Psychological Society] accredited.
So after finishing that I went straight on to the Sport & Exercise MSc here at Sheffield Hallam as well. I sat down with [Reader in Sport & Exercise Psychology] Jeff Breckon quite a few times before signing up for the Master’s, because I was very aware of the difficulty in getting work and the lack of job opportunities after the degree, and I wanted to be sure that if I did this MSc that it was gonna lead me somewhere. So he very kindly met me several times to talk about the course before I decided to do it. At that point I was still an undergrad student.
PO: So where are you now in terms of your career path?
RM: I finished the MSc almost a year ago. It was the applied module, specifically the applied role-play exam that really sold it to me. I was absolutely sure this was what I wanted to do. It wasn’t an exam to me, it was a first consultation!
So I always wanted to go on to [BPS training qualification] QSEP Stage 2 training as quickly as possible. That was actually a long process. It took three or four months to get the paperwork completed. While that was going on, I was starting to get bits and pieces of applied work through my connections at the gym, by word of mouth and my links with Strength and Conditioning.
There are up and coming S&C coaches in a similar position to me and we kind of feed off each other, so they’ll be working with an athlete and think I might be able to help, and vice versa, so we’re kind of setting up links with those different support systems.
PO: So you’re about to embark on the formal Stage 2 training with the BPS and you’ve been getting some applied experiences. Can you tell me a bit about your perceptions of applied work as a Trainee Sport Psychologist? Let’s start with the good bits.
The good bits are meeting and working with athletes. Definitely the hands on stuff. It’s not always easy, there’s lots of travelling involved, but when you’re actually sitting there, across the table from an athlete and they’re talking about their experiences, where they’ve come from, where they are at the minute, where they wanna go next, and you’re starting to think, ‘right, we could do this, we could do that, this is how we can collaborate’.
it’s coming alongside an individual who has goals, dreams, aspirations, and working alongside them in an attempt to make those a reality, that I find really rewarding. That was always the part of the job I wanted to do the most.
PO: Do you have any specific examples of consultancies where you’ve come away thinking, ‘yeah, that was awesome’?
RM: I can’t remember any one specific session, I don’t think. I really enjoy the needs analysis part of it, where we sit down and build a picture of where an athlete is at the minute, and where they want to be; that’s the exciting part for me, because that’s full of possibilities. It’s the beginning of something. I’ve done more of that than anything else though, because I’m just getting started.
I do a lot of imagery work with a group of boxers. Some of them were kind of sceptical at the beginning, but after two or three sessions of relaxation and imagery work combined, they were all saying, “this is really powerful stuff, this is really good”, and after each session they’ve been saying it was better than the last one. They’re getting more from each session; I really enjoy delivering it. I’m really enjoying that aspect of working with those guys at the minute.
One other group of athletes comes to mind, I was working with them primarily as an S&C coach, but integrated bits and pieces of sport psych into all of their gym sessions. I was creative with it, and was able to engage with them where other coaches had found it difficult. The differences we make as sport psychs can sometimes be difficult to identify; it isn’t always tangible, but I feel like I made an impact with those athletes.
PO: Any other positive aspects of being in the position you’re in?
RM: Yeah, I always wanted to be a professional athlete if possible. That’s not gonna be a reality, but I feel like I’m still involved in the world of professional sport, and I still get to see that lifestyle a bit. Going to watch the athletes I work with compete is something I’m really enjoying at the minute.
The fact that I’m working with these athletes means I automatically have a vested interest in them doing well and performing well, so I really enjoy going and watching all the guys I work with, even if it’s a sport I wouldn’t normally watch.
PO: What about the downsides?
Yeah it’s been a real eye opener for me. I have limited hands on personal experience but I’ve spoken with people who’ve been on Olympics campaigns and they’ve told me that a lot of it is sitting around hotel rooms or holding camps, making yourself available 17 or 18 hours a day for athletes to come and see you if they want to, so it’s not all backstage glitz and glamour, you know. That was a bit of a shock for me.
PO: And for you personally? As a Trainee Sport Psych, what are some of the barriers you’ve faced?
In terms of my own experiences? A lot of travelling, a lot of going for initial consultations with coaches, sometimes trying to sell sport psychology, and myself, in a way. I went for one the other day and it took me an hour and half to get to the training ground, I was there for 15 minutes, and then it took another hour and a half to get back, and it’s self-funded.
I’ve had that quite a few times. There will be work off the back of it, but that initial three hour journey for a 15 minute sit-down; you’ve just got to accept that that’s gonna happen, I think.
Working with coaches or players who don’t buy into what we do is difficult because not everyone sees the value of [sport psychology] yet. It doesn’t quite have the same status as S&C, nutrition, physiotherapy. Depending on the sport, you might also be working with quite old-school coaches who are part of a particular era or a particular style and who don’t necessarily buy into the “touchy-feely” stuff as they might call it, but I see that as a challenge.
If you can integrate yourself in such a way that they start to see the value of it, and see what we do as being performance enhancing… I try and turn that on its head and make it a positive.
The issues surrounding Stage 2 training itself in terms of voluntary work to get experience vs. paid work doing something that’s perhaps unrelated in order to be able to live… it’s balancing 6 or 7 jobs, no exaggeration. Managing your finances, you know, just lots of plates spinning all at once and being able to handle that, being comfortable with things happening last minute.
Having to be confident if you’re going to meet coaches and suddenly being asked if you can have a chat with players, and being comfortable with knowing what you’re there to do and what you can say.
Something I’ve become really good at is managing my expectations – not getting my hopes up about anything until I’m actually there with the athlete in front of me. I’ve avoided a lot of disappointment and demoralisation that way, because a good percentage of potential work and experience doesn’t come to be, for a variety of reasons.
PO: So you talked earlier about the MSc in Sport and Exercise and that you really enjoyed the applied elements and the applied focus. What are your thoughts on whether the MSc prepared you for the next stage of your career?
RM: It’s not possible to do what I’m doing now without the Master’s Degree. It’s a necessity, and certainly the one I went through was a good starting point, but I’m aware that there was content in the course that I don’t think I’ll use, and there’s stuff I’m going through at the minute that I think would have been really beneficial to have been included…
So I came out of the MSc feeling like I had a pretty good handle on four or five of the key mental skills that we use, the bread and butter if you like. There’s so much more to what we do than a handful of mental skills, that it probably isn’t possible to include it all in an MSc.
But I certainly think that in this country especially, we could go further towards preparing MSc students for stage 2 in terms of the sorts of things they might come up against. So for example, dealing with coaches who aren’t turned on to sport psych, or you’ve got a group of 20 teenagers for a workshop and half of them are misbehaving because they don’t want to be there. What do you do?
The clinical aspect of it is something I’m thinking about a lot at the minute and how you balance working with an athlete and working with a person and building rapport initially. There’s a lot of talk about the need to build rapport, but not about how to actually do it.
I don’t feel like right now I could sit down and write an intervention from start to finish. That’s something I would have to sit down and look into in quite a bit of detail… and maybe that’s the way it’s supposed be; maybe I’m supposed to go and do that learning on the side.
And then just the other random occurrences, like am I supposed to get paid? Am I not supposed to get paid? At what point am I supposed to start charging? How much do I start charging? What if I’m working with an athlete who starts crying or starts revealing something I wasn’t expecting?
You know, you’ve got to react to that on the spot and not say something that’s gonna make the situation worse or uncomfortable. I’m doing a lot of learning on the job these days, but I’ve always learned by doing anyway.
PO: So given everything you’ve just talked about, here’s my final question: What advice would you have for a) an undergraduate thinking about getting into sport psychology, and b) a student who’s just beginning their Master’s programme?
RM: I would say, if you’re an undergraduate student, do what I did, get as much information as you can about the MSc itself, the content of it, and what you’re gonna be able to do with it afterwards. You need to be aware of the commitment after the MSc. It’s not easy; you need to go into the MSc with your eyes open.
This is probably a four year process; one year for the masters and three years for the Stage 2. It’s gonna be expensive, it’s not gonna be easy, you’re gonna have to work voluntarily for periods of it, and fund yourself some other way.
There’s a lot of paperwork. You’re gonna have to get out there and network and make contacts and build yourself a reputation. But if you can get to the point that I’m at now, and be sure that it’s what you want, then you’ll find it really rewarding. Tough, but rewarding.
For someone who’s where I am now, finishing their MSc, I don’t like the term networking, but I’d say make contacts, talk to people, share information, don’t be afraid to ask questions and just be genuine. In my experience if you’re genuine and you do a good job, and you work hard, opportunities will come your way.
It hasn’t been easy up until now and it’s not going to be easy for the next little while, but it’s extremely rewarding, or has been so far. I’m lucky with the contacts I’ve made, the people I have around me. I have hard-working, positive people setting an example for me, helping me develop personally and professionally. I’m really grateful for that. If you find yourself in a similar position, hold on to it.
PO: Thanks so much for your time Rory.
Follow Rory on Tiwtter: @RoryMack3
Are you thinking about Sport Psychology as a career? Are you just starting or finishing a Master’s degree? Looking to start Stage 2 training, or nearing the end of the process? Leave a comment below and share your experiences so far…