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Combining Sports Psychology and Family Systems Theory

Sports psychology and family systems therapy have been found to be very beneficial when working with athletes across a variety of sports (Brown, 2001; Høigaard & Johnson, 2004; McCormick, 2014; Russel, 1996; Zimmerman & Protinsky, 1993).  Sports psychology focuses on how the mind and body interact during sports competition (Hays, 2012).  In comparison, family systems therapy studies patterns of interactions and acknowledges the ways individuals are affected by their surrounding relationships (Brown, 2001).  Protinsky and Zimmerman (1993) described how family therapists trained in systems theory possess the skills and abilities to successfully work with organizations such as athletic teams and their athletes.  Family systems theories help individuals and families interrupt problem cycles and implement new patterns of behavior (Protinsky & Zimmerman, 1993). 

 

Athletes who participate in a competitive sport often undergo specific challenges and are vulnerable to the demands of a highly stressful environment (Rumbold, Fletcher, & Daniels, 2012).  Stress can be defined as, “An ongoing process that involves individuals transacting with their environments, making appraisals of the situations they find themselves in, and endeavoring to cope with any issues that may arise” (Rumbold et al., 2012, p. 173).  Solution-focused therapy (SFT) is one model of family systems therapy that has been effective when working with athletes.  SFT is a form of brief therapy that focuses on client strengths, exceptions to the problem, and builds on future solutions (O’Connell, 2004).  

 

Student-athletes face unique challenges compared to non-student athletes.  Student-athletes balance athletics and academics, which can lead to mental health concerns if not properly managed.  It is also common for athletes to experience family of origin issues that can affect their athletic performance.  Family therapists trained in systems theory have a great deal to offer athletes.  Challenges that many athletes face are often treated through a family systems approach (Brown, 2001).

 

While there are numerous articles detailing the benefits of combining sports psychology and family systems therapy when working with athletes and sports organizations, there are very few studies done testing the effectiveness of using a family systems theory on athletes or athletic teams in a quantitative study.  Studies of the effectiveness of a specific family systems theory on athletes or an athletic team has been few and would fill gaps in the literature.  “Solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT), one model of family systems therapy, could be a valuable framework in the sport context because of its ability to work with the client’s goals and strengths but receives little attention in sports literature” (McCormick, 2014, p. 46).  

 

Solution-focused therapy (SFT) is one of the theories of family systems therapy that has been shown to be beneficial when working with athletes and athletic teams.  SFT is a post-modern theory and stems from the Brief Therapy Institute in Milwaukee.  The focus in SFT is constructing solutions instead of dwelling on the presenting problem like other theories do.  SFT believes the client already knows how to solve their problems and has the strengths and resources to be able to solve them.  A solution-focused therapist also inquiries about the clients’ attempted solutions and exceptions to their problems (Høigaard & Johnson, 2004).  O’Connell (2004) states SFT is beneficial for clients experiencing stress as it focuses on client strengths and abilities to find the solutions they are already aware of, but may not realize they are aware of.    The therapist is not the expert, the role of the therapist in SFT is to follow the client where they need to go (O’Connell, 2004).  According to McCormick (2014) “SFT could be a valuable framework in the sport context because of its ability to work with client’s goals and strengths” (p. 46). 

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