To ensure public safety, duty of care, and professional advancement, there is a need for scholars to explore factors that impact the professional experiences of sport psychology professionals (SPPs). One such factor is professional identity, which has been shown to positively contribute to an enhanced sense of legitimacy of the profession in the eye of the public and sport stakeholders (i.e., athletes, coaches, sport scientists, administrators) and to positively impact the experience and effectiveness of practitioners. Yet, little research has directly examined the construct of professional identity within sport psychology, with this oversight posing a risk to the future of the profession.
This interview-based study was situated within critical realism. We conducted a qualitative study using semi-structured interviews to explore the understanding and perceptions and experiences of the professional identity among SPPs.
Following theoretical criterion-based sampling, we interviewed 33 expert (n = 13), experienced (n = 12), and early career (n = 8) SPPs regarding their views on PI. The nationalities of these SPPs (male n = 16; female n = 17) represented sixteen different countries on four different continents.
Data were analyzed using reflexive thematic analysis and showed a relatively shared meaning of professional identity which unfolded across the career span. Moreover, the professionals in this study seemed to identify their pride for and their knowledge of the profession as key factors in the development of their PI. Furthermore, they identified how their professional role, expertise, and interactions with other professionals within the field played an important role in sustaining a professional identity.
We interpreted the interview data as supporting the importance of professional identity for SPPs and consider the contribution of this within a developmental framework for effective practice.
In the past few decades, the field of sport psychology has gained greater prominence within both the sport science and psychology fields, as well as in the media and society (Kornspan & Quartiroli, 2019). These developments have occurred in parallel with a growth in individuals becoming sport psychology practitioners (SPPs1 ; Cremades et al., 2014) and the emergence of a plethora of education and training pathways for credentialization via accreditation, qualification and licensure. In turn, scholars have begun to advocate on issues relating to SPP training and development, as well as professional services, competence, and professionalization (e.g., Fletcher & Maher, 2014; McDougall et al., 2015; McEwan et al., 2019; Portenga et al., 2016; Sly et al., 2020; Tod et al., 2017). Nevertheless, despite this growth and scholarly attention to the profession and to its professionals, Tod (2017) argued that the existing literature may offer the misconception of sport psychology as a clearly defined profession. Instead, Wagstaff and Quartiroli (2020) recently argued that the wide range of professional qualifications, titles, backgrounds, and educational and training pathways of those who identify as SPPs actually reflects a relatively obscure professional profile.
In this study we aimed to develop an understanding of how SPPI is perceived and experienced by a globally representative sample of SPPs at various stages of professional development. To meet this aim, we explored the common elements underpinning the development and maintenance of these individuals’ SPPI. A common perspective shared by the SPPs interviewed was that the deliberate and purposeful engagement in the profession was the foundation of their experience of SPPI. Yet, while these participants highlighted a series of common elements that contributed to the development and maintenance of their SPPI, the way they experienced these elements was nuanced. In addition to the conceptual novelty of these findings, they hold substantial applied value regarding the potential for them to inform the development of resources for professionals to reflect on their perceptions and experiences of SPPI, as a basis for a congruent, ethical, competent, and effective practice (Tod et al., 2020; Woo et al., 2014; 2016). Such resources might be integrated within educational and training or professional development programs with the goal of promoting experientialand reflection-based learning among practitioners. In doing so, these resources might serve as a mechanism to support individual practitioners to develop and maintain their own professional identity within a field-level SPPI. Further, integration of these resources into such programs may assist SPPs to develop their own SPPI, they may also help them better understand their professional roles regarding ‘what’ services they can provide, ‘why’ they may be of benefit, and ‘how’ particular knowledge, skills, and abilities might promote ethical and competent practice. Structured professional pathways to practice that offer a critical stimulation, and ultimately a greater understanding of one’s SPPI, may enable early career SPPs to better situate themselves professionally among their peers and related professionals.