A mixed bag of inspirational ideas
School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, University of Birmingham
In the summer of 2003 the European Federation of Sport Psychology (FEPSAC) held its 11th congress in Copenhagen, Denmark. A selection of the presentations has now been made into a book, called New approaches to sport and exercise psychology. The aim of this new book, as indicated by its title, was to introduce the field of sport and exercise psychology to new approaches, including epistemologies, methodologies, and theories. By introducing seven chapters by various presenters at this 11th European Congress of Sport Psychology, the editors hoped to introduce such topics as social, ecological and existential psychology, as well as cultural and contextual factors to a broader sport and exercise psychology audience. Another emphasis was on theory-driven approaches. In this review, I will briefly go through each chapter and evaluate what, in my opinion, the book has to offer.
Following a brief introduction, the book starts out with a chapter by Reinhard Stelter (Copenhagen University) entitled “New approaches to Exercise and Sport Psychology Critical Reflections and Useful Recommendations”. Stelter presents a number of recent challenges to our field, such as social integration via sport and exercise, professionalism in sport, coaching and communication, inactivity, and determinants of activity and motivation. What can we do to better understand these new challenges? Controversially, Stelter states that quantitative methodologies are an “old relic”, unsuitable to study these new challenges. Similar to several other chapters in this book, qualitative methods are proposed as a way of getting closer to our data, and as being more culturally sensitive. At the same time, Stelter argues that new theoretical approaches need to be adopted, and gives examples such as social constructionism, and cultural and narrative psychology.
Interestingly, he proposes that meaning is often more important than the more prevalent cognitive aspects. Embodiment and social construction of the body are two other issues that are presented as useful new concepts. However, I am left feeling unconvinced that sport and exercise psychologists without any previous training in these alternative methodologies and epistemologies will have obtained a sufficient introduction to them to be interested in integrating them into their work. The value of the chapter instead lies with its arguments for qualitative research, and suggestions for areas in which such research might be usefully conducted.
The second chapter was written by the British qualitative research methodology professor Andrew Sparkes. Similar to Stelter, Sparkes argues that sport psychology currently studies the body merely as an object, excluding any aspects of community as well as what he refers to as “the felt and lived body”. Like Stelter, he convincingly argues that feel is central in sport, for example when winning as well as when losing. Through culture, history and language we construct our identity as well as our reality. For this reason, narrative practices (essentially the telling of stories) are presented as useful research foci, and the author makes an interesting distinction between the what and the how of stories. That is, stories told are usually only judged on their content (i.e. the what). But this, according to Sparkes, often ignores diversity while focusing on similarities. In addition, we should also pay attention to how and why stories are told the way they are. Sparkes goes on to tell us a story. Interestingly, although the previous part of the chapter was for me somewhat difficult to access (again, I felt that these alternative methodologies were fairly complex), the story was both interesting and easy to read. In Sparkes’ own words, he was an “artfully persuasive storyteller”. The story clearly illustrated that there is not one way to read a story, and many aspects were left open to interpretation. You think with the storyteller, not about him, and as such I kept thinking that this is a wonderful tool for teaching. Andrew Sparkes’ story also is one of the most easily remembered parts of the whole book. So what does this tell us? Perhaps writing with emotion and personal touches stimulates more senses, act as an imagery trigger, and is therefore remembered better.
The third chapter sees German motivation researcher Jürgen Nitsch describe “Motivation Reconsidered an Action-Logical Approach”. At the conference, he presented this work as the “Distinguished Senior Scholar Lecture”. He begins by introducing four problems pertaining to current motivation research and understanding of the topic. For instance, he states that there is “very limited impact of our knowledge on dealing with motivational affairs in everyday situations.” Following such rather bold statements, Nitsch moves on to describe his action-logical approach to motivation. The most striking feature of his integrated model is its complexity. This is certainly not for the first motivation lecture to undergraduate students! Moreover, what struck me was the lack of references to the motivation theorists with whom I am most familiar. Throughout the whole chapter, there is not one reference to influential motivation theorists such as Carole Ames, John Nicholls, Carol Dweck, or Joan Duda, and only one to Glyn Roberts. Instead, Nitsch references a lot of German authors. Perhaps this highlights the issue of publishing language, and perhaps this book can aid the integration of motivational research across countries. Despite this shortcoming, there are several interesting aspects to Nitsch’s approach. For instance, it integrates a multitude of concepts, such as physical, social and psychological needs, identity, well-being, self-presentation and self-concept. Overall, Nitsch’s model is complex and in my opinion not very well integrated with other motivation research of our time, but incorporates several interesting concepts to those who make the effort to delve into his work.
In the fourth chapter, Kirsten Kaya Roessler (of the University of Southern Denmark and the Research Institute of Sport, Culture and Civil Society) introduces the concept of pain. By drawing on both philosophy and psychology and by introducing cultural as well as existential factors, the author suggests that our understanding of pain needs to be more holistic. The chapter is rather philosophically based, and cites a lot of German authors, including Freud. This might be fairly far removed from the traditional education and readings of many sport and exercise psychologists, but it does stick to the book’s theme of introducing new approaches to sport and exercise psychology. The chapter might also introduce some interesting avenues to explore for practitioners who encounter athletes with pain. For instance, Roessler does a good job of emphasizing communication as essential in encounters with pain, and this includes communication between oneself and the injured part of one’s body as well as between oneself and other individuals, such as coaches and other support systems.
Suzanne Naville, a Swiss psychomotor therapist, introduces us to “Psychomotor Approaches and Possibilities in Physical Education and Sports” in chapter five. First, she gives some background, highlighting that not long ago psychomotor disturbances were in a no-mans-land between neurology and psychiatry, and an almost taboo area. Then, in the 1960’s, Naville created psychomotor therapy. This discipline sees the body as a medium of individual expression, social relationships, and a centre of reference for both space and time. Lacking no intellectual capacity, the clumsiness of some children nonetheless causes problems with fine motor skills. These motor problems in turn cause both social problems (such as being laughed at) and behavioural problems (including an unwillingness to move). Psychomotor education and therapy are presented as avenues to help these intelligent but clumsy children. With an emphasis on emotional participation, cognitive learning, and social interaction the children can learn to enjoy movement as well as improve their abilities. And as if this was not enough to grab the interest of sport and exercise psychologists, Naville in fact suggests that poor teaching styles may be part of the problem. In sum, the amount of potential research that could be conducted in this area is vast and Naville does an excellent job of introducing a new important area to our field.
The sixth chapter is written by a Greek researcher now active in the USA, Panteleimon Ekkekakis, and is based on his “Biddle Young Scholar Lecture on Exercise Psychology” at the conference. In my mind one of the most impressive talks of the conference, I was no less impressed by his chapter. Starting out by describing the setting and overarching need for his type of research, Ekkekakis easily convinces us that the obesity epidemic requires us to understand both the low uptake and the high dropout of exercise programmes. One of the reasons, he suggests, might be related to the usually unquestioned association between physical activity and positive affect. That is, while most of us who exercise regularly will attest to the fact that exercise makes us feel good, this clearly is not the case for more sedentary individuals who instead associate exercising with unpleasant feeling states. Interestingly, most of the research in the area also suggests that exercise makes people feel good. Several methodological issues are presented as having contributed to this view, which currently contributes little to our understanding of why many people find exercise unpleasant. As a solution, Ekkekakis describes his dual mode model which is better capable of addressing how affect and exercise relate. By drawing on evolutionary evidence that pleasure is linked to utility and displeasure to danger, he goes on to show that affect as a result of exercise is a result of the interplay between physiological and psychological variables. A series of studies are presented which strengthen his findings. In sum, Ekkekakis’ impressive knowledge of exercise physiology and evolutionary factors has led to a very convincing exercise psychology of exercise-induced affect. Anybody with an interest in variables such as mood, exercise adherence, exercise on prescription, and the exercise intensities at which psychological interventions may be useful ought to read this chapter.
In the seventh and final chapter, Norwegian sport psychology researcher Geir Jordet (now in the Netherlands) presents the work that earned him the FEPSAC 2003 Award for Young Researchers in Sport Psychology in Europe. Entitled “Applied Cognitive Sport Psychology in Team Ball Sports: An Ecological Approach”, this chapter is no less impressive than the one by Ekkekakis. The common theme between the two is the integration of less utilised theories and frameworks in conjunction with more well-known ones, which produces comprehensive and pioneering support for their arguments. In his chapter, Jordet introduces the concept of Applied Cognitive Sport Psychology (ACSP), with specific reference to team ball sports such as football (soccer). It is argued that while focus and attention are mainstay concepts in sport psychology today, there is still a limited understanding of how normal and optimal attention operates, and how it may be improved. Moreover, the attention control training programmes that exist have been characterised by a lack of cognitive research backing, and a lack of ecological validity. For instance, information has been presented only in front of participants, while in real life it is all around the athlete. Thus, Jordet’s research program has been concerned with creating a more ecologically valid, theoretically based as well as practically useful ACSP. Various disciplines have been drawn upon to create this work, including cognitive psychology, applied sport psychology, ecological psychology, match analysis science, and motor control. Altogether, a strong case is made for the use of ACSP in sport psychology, both for research and practice. Readers with interests in what underlies true expert attention/perception should definitely have a read of this chapter, but it will also be interesting to those wishing a fresh approach to imagery (for example, Jordet introduces the new concept of Imagery in Action), those in cognitive psychology who desire a more applied approach, and simply anybody who wishes to see how first seemingly disparate theories and frameworks can be merged to create something new and useful.
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