• Claire Higgins

Exploring the Philosophies of Exercise & Sport Psychology and Positive Psychology in Practice


As someone who trains Positive Psychology Practitioners, and co-designs the curriculum and teaching methods for this training at the Positive Psychology Guild, the questions, "What is Positive Psychology in Practice?" and "How do we Practice Positive Psychology?" are often with me.


Positive Psychology is a fairly new arrival in the broader landscape of Psychology. It brings with it the ancient roots of Greek Philosophy and a purpose to create an empirical base for experiences that many would deem to be subjective.


Take happiness, for example. Can you really measure that? The World Happiness Report believes you can on a national and global scale. Their report is based on a set of measurable indicators ranging from subjective wellbeing and GDP per capita to generosity and freedom to make certain life choices.


At the very least, we can all ask ourselves, how happy do I feel today on a scale of 1 to 10? While the scale is still subjective (i.e. we determine how happiness is quantified), the answers we give can indicate how happy we feel now, and the potential to feel happier.


Positive Psychology research attempts to bridge subjective experience and objective data on topics such as happiness, character strengths and virtues, authenticity, wellbeing, resilience, and positive emotions.

It is an exciting field with much potential for inter-disciplinary research. As a result of such collaborations, sub-fields have emerged, including Positive Education and Positive Organisational Psychology. Other sub-fields are in various stages of development, including Positive Psychology in Neuroscience, Health, Exercise, and Sport.


Positive Psychology has certainly achieved much over the past two decades since its founder, Martin Seligman, and his research partner, Christopher Peterson, initiated one of the largest studies on character development and wellbeing. However, the question of, "How do we practice Positive Psychology?", is one that remains debatable. Much more development and discussion is required in this relatively new field.


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Positive Psychology in Practice is also known by the term, Applied Positive Psychology. It is the application of Positive Psychology in specific settings related to work and multiple other aspects of life. It may be applied to individuals, groups (including families), organisations, and even nation states.


The application of Positive Psychology requires the practitioner to acquire and practice a skill (or set of skills) such as coaching, training, facilitating, teaching, or counselling. These skills inform the dynamics of communication with and support to their clients or students. The skills and exchange is ideally delivered within an ethical framework that reflects the nature of the skill set. For example, the need for confidentiality on certain topics may be more specific in a coaching context compared to a training context, and positive regard for clients and students may be equally relevant across all skill sets.


As a practitioner-in-training, it is essential to consider the philosophical framework within which you will be practicing. This may be one that is initially set by your training provider in the form of guidance. It is also a framework that you will also need to develop and consciously choose as you evolve in your practice.

I have a dual outlook on Psychology. One viewpoint is shaped by my training, practice, and research in Positive Psychology. The other viewpoint is shaped by my study and research of Exercise and Sport Psychology, which emerged as a discipline in the 1970s, some 30 years before the contemporary Positive Psychology movement began.


Among these two disciplines sit my training in other schools of thought in Psychology, ranging from Cognitive Psychology and Neuroscience to Humanistic and Social Psychology. My work is also informed by my training in Movement and Somatics (as a yoga and martial arts teacher), and Social Sciences, an earlier field of study and practice (as a humanitarian practitioner). I have also spent 4 decades living and working overseas, and my cultural orientation and language reference points (Arabic is my second language) tend to inform my view points as well.


From this vantage point, I see the politics of these two newer arrivals in the broader Psychology landscape from a multi-disciplinary perspective. I hold both disciplines in high regard yet see the challenges, particularly when it comes to practice and how to regulate the work of diverse philosophies and approaches in practice.


I see how both have both been met with skepticism and challenged by the more classical disciplines and practices within modern Psychology. Both of these newer arrivals have had to struggle to be taken seriously, and both have had to answer the questions, "What is practice?" and, "How do we practice?"


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Another challenge faced by these newer arrivals is, "Where do we belong?" For Exercise and Sport Psychology, the question faced by some training and education providers is whether to place the discipline in the Psychology department, or whether to place it in the Exercise and Sport Science department. These don't always sit side by side.


In many ways, the latter makes more sense given that Exercise and Sport Psychologists practice primarily in settings alongside other Exercise and Sport Science professionals, such as physiologists, biomechanists, and neuroscientists. Yet a separation from the Psychology department may further the gap in research-driven practice.


Graduates of Masters degrees in Exercise and Sport Psychology in the UK will then have to choose where we belong, at least in terms of professional regulation. Do we continue our training to become chartered Psychologists and join the British Psychological Society, or do we build and develop our practice through a different channel?


The title, Psychologist, is a protected term in the UK. Having a Masters degree in Exercise and Sport Psychology, or Positive Psychology for that matter, does not entitle you to use this term unless you hold a degree or degree conversion in Psychology and go through a number of steps over several years to fulfill the criteria to attain chartered status.


These steps make sense if you are working with members of the public whose mental health is in decline. You absolutely need a robust understanding of Psychology that many would argue can only emerge over a period of years in study and supervised practice. It is not sufficient (nor is it ethical in my view) to do a one-year Masters degree in such a field and consider yourself fit to practice with all members of the public if you do not already have a deeper and broader understanding of Psychology.


A parallel (or alternative) system of accreditation for practitioners of Exercise and Sport Psychology has emerged at the British Association for Exercise and Sport Sciences (BASES). Graduates with Masters degrees in this field may now apply here to become a Practitioner Psychologist with the Health Care Professionals Council. On registration, they may use the title, Exercise and Sport Psychologist. Subsequently, the practitioners may apply for liability and insurance coverage which is essential for practice.


On the Positive Psychology front, regulation and protection of the term, Positive Psychology Practitioner, is still emerging. At the Positive Psychology Guild (PPG), we are making sincere efforts to contribute to this evolution of practice by setting benchmarks and standards. For example, Professional Members (level 5) and Fellow Members (level 7) are insured through PPG to practice. Their professional qualifications to practice are also checked to ensure their knowledge of Positive Psychology and broader Psychology is rich and appropriate to their level of practice, and that they have the required skill set to practice.


Professional and Fellow Members are also required to practice in alignment with PPG's Professional Guidelines for Positive Psychology Practitioners. These guidelines are designed to reflect the fundamental areas of Positive Psychology, set and ethical code of conduct, encourage practitioners to continually develop their professional knowledge and skills, and allow breathing space for the dynamic needs of practice.


There will be limits to any practitioner's level of knowledge, skills and ability, and these limits need to be conscious and at the forefronts of our minds. We need to ensure we are qualified and certified to practice in our particular domain with our student base or clientele. If we do not know our limits, much can go wrong. Not only for us but also for the students and clients we aim to serve. Even after we are certified, we will need to engage in continuing education and professional development to improve our knowledge and skills. The journey never ends in this regard.


Yet there is also a point of contention here that I would argue is shared by Exercise and Sport Psychology, and Positive Psychology, and highly relevant to practice.


If both of these disciplines emerged to work with people from the perspective of healthy psychological functioning in relation to performance and wellbeing, why should practitioners be trained in the diagnostic and clinical aspects of Psychology for poor mental health?

Surely it would make more sense to refer clients who fall into the category of "poor mental health" to those who are specifically trained in these areas, and focus on what our discipline is designed for, and what we do best?


This has been a point of debate for many years in Sport Psychology. While athletes can and do suffer from poor mental health, and Sport Psychologists need to be aware of this, their main function is to enhance the athlete's performance. This includes athlete wellbeing and the moral question of when the pursuit of skilled performance and achievement overrides this wellbeing. Some would argue that quite often, it does.


Very similar questions emerge in the field of Applied Positive Psychology. To what extent are Practitioners able and more importantly, qualified, to tend to the darker side of mental health and wellbeing? A client or student may appear "above zero" in terms of their healthy functioning during an initial intake yet as the relationship between the Practitioner and client or student evolves, other details may surface that indicate all is not as well as it once seemed. What should a Positive Psychology Practitioner do then?


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Discussions on questions such as the above are critical in understanding how a new school of thought in or approach to Psychology emerges. Numerous topics require debate, from course and training content to codes of ethics and philosophical frameworks in practice. I'm very aware that the above only scratches the surface of these weighty matters.


Where I find it relevant to pause for deeper enquiry is on the philosophy of practice, particularly in Positive Psychology, and exploring themes that have emerged in Exercise and Sport Psychology to see what Positive Psychology Practitioners can learn in this regard.

An interesting philosophical framework on the how of practicing Psychology in a Sport Psychology setting has been proposed by Richard Keegan, an Assistant Professor of Sport and Exercise Psychology Professor at the University of Canberra, Australia, and a practicing sport and exercise psychologist.


In his book, Being a Sport Psychologist (2016), Keegan writes about philosophical assumptions. To practice as a Sport Psychologist, he prosposes, "you need to find a way to: (a) examine, understand, and influence someone's way of thinking/ feeling/ experiencing; in order to (b) achieve any number of aims... with (c) no clear guide on how best to achieve this" (2016: 44).


As we rarely have 'correct' answers to these issues, we need to develop philosophical assumptions. As practitioners, we will need navigation skills and tools. A 'map and territory', as Keegan (2014) points out, so we are less likely to have to call on 'mountain rescue' during our practice. For example, he states that a basic philosophical knowledge could be considered a map of sorts while reflective awareness (i.e. introspection) with supervision may provide the compass (2016: 45).


Keegan (2016: 45) also highlights numerous studies that point to important questions that could potentially translate in a Positive Psychology Practice setting to the below themes and related questions.


Please note that where questions have been offered by other Positive Psychology Practitioners on reading this post, the post has been edited to include their thoughts with reference to their name and title as relevant.


The Positive Psychology Practitioner's Role

  • Is the Practitioner a counsellor coach, trainer, and/or facilitator?

  • If the Practitioner plays multiple roles, how will these be distinguished (if at all) for the client or student?


The Positive Psychology Practitioner's Responsibilities

  • Is the Practitioner fully qualified to play this/these role/s?

  • Is the Practitioner insured to play this/these role/s?

  • Is the Practitioner affiliated with a professional Positive Psychology practitioner body and adhering to a set of professional practice guidelines?


The Positive Psychology Practitioner's Areas of Service

  • Is the Practitioner supporting clients or students on personal or professional development?

  • Which service areas does the Practitioner provide? For example, resilience and wellbeing support, or goal achievement and motivation?

  • Does the Practitioner specialise in a particular service area for a specific clientele, or are they a generalist working with the general population?


Understanding of the Place of Positive Psychology in Practice

  • Why and when do we practice Positive Psychology? (Reece Coker, Founder & President of the Positive Psychology Guild)

  • What relevance does Positive Psychology hold for the client or student's need/s?

  • From which evidence base does the practitioner operate here and how/why?

  • Is the Practitioner aware when there isn't a place for Positive Psychology?


The Design and Delivery of Positive Psychology Interventions

  • Which Positive Psychology Interventions is the Practitioner using?

  • What is the research behind and evidence base of these interventions?

  • How relevant are these interventions for the Practitioner's clients or students?

  • Do these interventions respond to the needs of their clients or students?


The Anticipated Outcomes of Engaging in Positive Psychology Practice

  • How will clients or students benefit from working with the Practitioner?

  • What are some of the anticipated outcomes for their engagement?

  • How will the Practitioner support or facilitate these outcomes?

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This blog post raises many points and questions that require deeper and more collaborative reflection and exchange between Positive Psychology Practitioners and those practicing in the field of Exercise and Sport Psychology. It may well be a first "stab in the dark" at a topic that holds much potential for enquiry and discovery, and the productive sharing of best practices and lessons learned.


As a trainer of Positive Psychology Practitioners, and a Practitioner myself, it is a topic that I am driven to explore in a much deeper, broader, reflective, and more thoughtful manner. There is a need for introspection and supervision (both of which are in place), and a need for open conversations with other practitioners in this emerging field.


If this is a topic you have thoughts or comments on, or are open to researching alongside me or exploring with us at the Positive Psychology Guild, I would be very interested to hear from you here or on LinkedIn here.


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Claire Higgins is the Director of Inner Athletics. She is a Positive Psychology Practitioner (L7) with a Masters degree in Exercise & Sport Psychology, and leads operations, education and research at the Positive Psychology Guild. She is also a Fellow Member at the Positive Psychology Guild and insured to practice Positive Psychology with students and clients.


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References


Keegan, R. (2016). Being a Sport Psychologist. UK: Palgrave.


Keegan, R. (2014). Developing a philosophy and theoretical framework. In L.S. Tashman & G. Cremades (Eds.), Becoming a sport, exercise and performance psychology professional: International perspectives. London: Routledge/Psychology Press.

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