Caroline's Blog

Sport psychology related reflections

OUSA Conference, 29th June 2014 — June 29, 2014

OUSA Conference, 29th June 2014

Today Jess Pinchbeck and myself led a session at the Open University Student Union Conference on effective goal-setting. We thought it might be useful for those who attended to have a copy of the slides, so here they are:

Goal setting

We really enjoyed the session and would have loved to have a little more time to answer questions. If you enjoyed the session, you may also find the resource below useful.

Finally if you want to find out more about our Degree in Sport, Fitness and Coaching visit:

It’s ok for female athletes not to look pretty! — February 21, 2014

It’s ok for female athletes not to look pretty!

In an era where we are still trying to have women’s sporting achievements separated from their sexual identity, where accounts of women’s sporting exploits are dominated by their physical appearance, comments recently made by sports minister Helen Grant do very little to develop women’s sport.

Grant suggested that women should be encouraged to take up ‘feminine’ sports where they can look ‘radiant’. That’s hardly going to do anything to increase female participation in traditionally male dominated sports such as football and rugby! It sends a message that these kinds of sports aren’t suitable for women and perpetuates stereotypical perceptions about these sports.

It also tells sportswomen that they need to look pretty whilst training and competing, which isn’t really conducive to hard training. Hard training makes you sweaty, makes your hair messy and makes your make-up run, but hard training is what you need to be successful in sport. So when we tell young girls that they need to look pretty whilst training, we are not encouraging them to push themselves to their limits and become the best athlete that they can be. We are not encouraging them to excel.

I appreciate that Grant’s comments have perhaps been taken out of context and that she was commenting on how to encourage specific groups of women into sport, but I still think her comments are misguided. Successful female sporting role models are the key to encouraging girls and women to take up sport and the Winter Olympics have provided us with some new female stars and yes some of these women might be ‘beautiful’, but that’s not what their role as role models is about – it’s about their physical sporting achievements, not their physical appearance and that’s what we should celebrate.

Sanghani, R. (2014). ‘Get more women into sport through cheerleading – it’s feminine’, says sports minister Helen Grant, The Telegraph, available from:

Injured at the Olympics — February 9, 2014

Injured at the Olympics

By Caroline Heaney

This article appeared on The Open University Winter Olympics Blog on 8th February 2014

Imagine you have spent the last four years of your life preparing for one special moment, only to have it snatched away from your grasp at the last moment. That scenario can be a reality for the Olympic athlete who sustains an injury before or during the Olympic Games.

Yesterday it was announced that bobsleigh athlete Craig Pickering was returning home from the Winter Olympics without even having stepped on the Sochi bobsleigh track. His exit was the result of a back injury. Pickering stated that he was devestated not to be able to compete in his first Winter Olympics.

Pickering is not alone. Research examining the psychological impact of sports injury shows that the occurence of a sports injury can lead to several negative reactions such as anger, frustration, anxiety and depression.

Some models of psychological reaction to injury even suggest that a sports injury can constitute a form of loss, and for the athlete whose Olympic dream has been crushed by injury this is certainly evident.

A tale of two injuries…

Sport psychology plays an important role in helping the athlete to cope with sports injury. Psychological strategies such as imagery, self talk, goal setting, relaxation and social support have all been shown to aid sports injury rehabilitation. A mentally strong athlete will cope better with injury and grow from the experience.

Pickering’s team mate, bobsleigh driver John Jackson, has certainly shown an ability to grow from the experience of sports injury. Back in July he suffered a serious Achilles’ tendon rupture – an injury that could almost certainly have put an end to his Sochi Olympic dream. Yet thanks to a positive attitude and some pioneering surgery he will be competing in Sochi, and following a some recent good performances at the European championships and World Cup he is a genuine medal prospect. It is claimed that Jackson has returned sronger than ever before. Jackson recently tweeted “To all injured athletes. Never give up faith, never give up on your dream and fight to come back better than you were. Believe in yourself” – inspirational words for any injured athlete.


Pathways into Winter Olympic Sports — February 6, 2014

Pathways into Winter Olympic Sports

By Caroline Heaney

This blog post also appears here:

The British terrain isn’t exactly designed for participation in Winter Olympic sports yet Team GB will be taking a 56-strong squad to the Winter Olympics which open in Sochi next week, so how do British athletes come to be involved in these sports?

Paths into winter sports vary and often quite different to the more conventional routes seen in summer Olympic sports. Whilst most athletes have a background of junior participation, often having made their entry into the sport at a young age, in some Winter Olympic sports this is not the case. It is very common for athletes in these sports to start late having begun their sporting career in other sports. Athletics to bobsleigh has, for example, become a very common route into the sport.

Paths into winter sport can be influenced by factors such as:

– Opportunity – e.g. do you live near a Winter sports facility?
– Finance – e.g. can you afford skiing lessons?
– Role models – e.g. are there role models that make you want to try a Winter Olympic sport?

I explore this more in the article Why would British Athletes Chose Winter Sports? in The Conversation

A temporary home for the Winter Olympics — January 28, 2014
Study 3: Sport Psychology Education for Sport Injury Rehabilitation Professionals – A Systematic Literature Review — January 10, 2014

Study 3: Sport Psychology Education for Sport Injury Rehabilitation Professionals – A Systematic Literature Review

By Caroline Heaney

The previous studies of my PhD have illustrated that sport psychology education is likely to have a positive impact on the sport psychology related behaviours of physiotherapists and other sports injury rehabilitation professionals (SIRPs). The nature of such education is clearly important, as a poorly designed sport psychology education programme will likely have much less impact than a well designed programme. Previous researchers have discussed the appropriate content and mode of education on the psychological aspects of sports injury for SIRPs. Therefore the purpose of Study 3 is to present a systematic literature review of this work with an aim of identifying the appropriate content and mode of delivery for a sport psychology education intervention for study 4 of the PhD.

This article is currently under review for a journal. A link to this journal article will be posted here once it is published. The abstract from this article is presented below.


Objectives: Sport psychology education has been shown to have a positive impact on the practice of sport injury rehabilitation professionals (SIRPs). The purpose of this paper is to review recommendations relating to such education.

Design: This paper presents a systematic review of existing literature relating to the content and mode of delivery for a sport psychology education programme for SIRPs. The review seeks to address four questions: (1) What topic areas does research suggest should be integrated into the sport psychology education of SIRP?, (2) What topic areas are currently being recommended by professional bodies?, (3) What are the findings of research examining the impact of sport psychology education on SIRP?, and (4) What does research recommend to be the most appropriate mode of delivery for sport psychology education for SIRPs?

Conclusions: The findings of the review suggest that in order to maximise adherence amongst already qualified SIRPs sport psychology education should be delivered in a flexible short duration package. Additionally three broad areas that sport psychology education should cover emerged: (1) understanding of the psychological impact of injury, (2) interventions and psychological skills/techniques, and (3) referral and professional boundaries. This has important implications for the future training of SIRPs.

Are mental health conditions more common in sports performers? — December 3, 2013

Are mental health conditions more common in sports performers?

By Caroline Heaney

As cricketer Jonathan Trott went home early from the Ashes last week citing a stress related condition as his reason for doing so, mental health in sport has once again hit the headlines. There have been several high profile cases over the years of top level athletes revealing their battles with mental health conditions such as depression (e.g. Kelly Holmes, Marcus Trescothick and Ricky Hatton), but are sportspeople any more vulnerable to mental health conditions than the general population?

It’s certainly true that top level athletes compete in highly pressured environments and have to deal challenging situations such as long periods away from home, but what does the evidence say? In terms of research there simply isn’t enough evidence to answer the question of whether or not sportspeople are more prone to mental health conditions than the rest of the population.  The study of negative mental health amongst sports performers is a relatively new and emerging field of research. Traditionally research has examined sport and physical activity as a means of combating negative mental health, rather than as a potential cause. The potential for physical activity to have a positive impact on mental health is now well established (e.g. Blumenthal et al., 2007) and it is not uncommon for physical activity to be prescribed as a treatment for mild to moderate depression (e.g. Mental Health Foundation, 2008).

Most accounts of mental health issues amongst sports performers are anecdotal and more research is needed to establish the facts. There is however some research out there. Schaal et al. (2011), for example, undertook a study of 2067 French elite athletes. They found that 17% of the athletes had recently experienced at least one psychological disorder, with females (20.2%) demonstrating a higher incidence than males (15.1%). In relation to the prevalence of depression, 3.6% of the athletes (2.6% males and 4.9% females) had experienced at least one depressive episode in the last six months, and 11.3% of the athletes (8.7% males and 16.3% females) had experienced at least one depressive episode in their lifetime. Schaal et al. (2011) suggest that the rates of depression found are lower than in the general population, indicating that elite athletes are generally able to cope with the pressures placed upon them. Similarly, research undertaken by Proctor and Boan-Lenzo (2010) and Armstrong and Oomen-Early (2009) found that amongst a North American college population, athletes reported lower levels of depression than non-athletes, indicating that sports participation may have an anti-depressive effect. However, this could perhaps be due to a social unacceptability for the athletes to report psychological weakness, which could have biased the results. Reardon and Factor (2010) in their review of the research concluded that, given the inconsistency in findings, depression may be no more or no less likely in athletes compared to non-athletes.

Reasons suggested for why athletes might suffer with mental health issues are plentiful and include:

  • the social structure of some sports can disempower athletes
  • physical and psychological demands of sport can lead to burnout
  • heavy involvement in sport can develop a strong uni-dimensional athletic identity which can be damaging
  • some sports generate a culture where seeking help for a mental health concern would lead to stigmatisation and so issues escalate
  • many athletes participate in sport at an age where suicide  rates are at their highest
  • concussion is relatively common is certain sports and may cause biochemical disturbances in the brain that might lead to depression
  • diet e.g. biochemical changes associated with weight loss can be linked to depression
  • feelings of personal loss e.g. loss caused by a sports injury or retirement can lead to depression (Mummery, 2005; Hughes & Leavey, 2012; Fisher & Wrisberg, 2006; Henderson, 2007)

In conclusion it is not clear whether sports performers are more vulnerable or less vulnerable to developing mental health issues than the rest of the population, but what is clear is that mental health issues are relatively common amongst the population as a whole (1 in 6 adults according to Cooper & Bebbington, 2006) and that there is still a stigma attached to mental health; so a high profile sports person speaking publically about their difficulties with mental health can only be a positive thing.

Note: An adapted version of this article can be found at


Armstrong, S. and Oomen-Early, J. (2009) ‘Social Connectedness, self-esteem, and depression symptomatology among collegiate athletes versus nonathletes’, Journal of American College Health, vol. 57, no. 5, pp. 521-526.

Blumenthal, J.A., Babyak, M.A., Doraiswamy, P.M., Watkins, L., Hoffman, B.M., Barbour, K.A., Herman, S., Craighead, W.E., Brosse, A.L., Waugh, R., Hinderliter, A. and Sherwood, A. (2007) ‘Exercise and pharmacotherapy in the treatment of major depressive disorder’, Psychosomatic medicine, vol. 69, no. 7, pp. 587-596.

Cooper, C., & Bebbington, P. (2006). Mental health. In M. Bajekal, V. Osborne, M. Yar & H. Meltzer (Eds.), Focus on health. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fisher, L.A. and Wrisberg, C.A. (2006) ‘How sad is too sad?’, Athletic Therapy Today, vol. 11, no. 1, pp. 40-41.

Henderson, J.C. (2007) ‘Suicide in sport: athletes at risk’, in Pargman, D. (ed) Psychological Bases of Sport Injuries, 3rd edn. Morgantown, WV, Fitness Information Technology.

Hughes, L. and Leavey, G. (2012) ‘Setting the bar: athletes and vulnerability to mental illness’, The British Journal Of Psychiatry: The Journal Of Mental Science, vol. 200, no. 2, pp. 95-96.

Mummery, K. (2005) ‘Essay: depression in sport’, Lancet, vol. 366, pp. 36-S37.

Mental Health Foundation. (2008). New research shows rise in GPs prescribing exercise for depression. Retrieved 23rd March, 2009, from

Proctor, S.L. and Boan-Lenzo, C. (2010) ‘Prevalence of depressive symptoms in male intercollegiate student-athletes and nonathletes’, Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, vol. 4, pp. 204-220.

Reardon, C.L. and Factor, R.M. (2010) ‘Sport psychiatry a systematic review of diagnosis and medical treatment of mental illness in athletes’, Sports Medicine, vol. 40, no. 11, pp. 961-980.

Schaal, K., Tafflet, M., Nassif, H., Thibault, V., Pichard, C., Alcotte, M., Guillet, T., Helou, N.E., Berthelot, G., Simon, S. and Toussaint, J. (2011) ‘Psychological Balance in High Level Athletes: Gender-Based Differences and Sport-Specific Patterns’, PLoS ONE, vol. 6, no. 5, pp. 1-9.

Study 1: The Psychology Content of UK Physiotherapy Programmes — November 28, 2013

Study 1: The Psychology Content of UK Physiotherapy Programmes

By Caroline Heaney

The ultimate aim of my research was to examine the impact of sport psychology education on physiotherapists, however, before I could do this I needed to find out more about the psychology (not just sport psychology) content of UK physiotherapy programmes. I quickly established  that this was a very difficult question to answer, with very little information out there. The last piece of research which examined the psychology content of UK physiotherapy programmes was published over 20 years ago  (Baddeley and Bithell, 1989). I therefore decided to undertake my own research. This research was published in The Journal of Physical Therapy Education (see links below). The abstract of this research has been reproduced below.

Heaney, C.A., Green, A.J.K., Rostron, C.L. & Walker, N.C. (2012). A qualitative and quantitative investigation of the psychology content of UK physical therapy education programs. Journal of Physical Therapy Education, 26(3), 48-56.



Background and Purpose. A knowledge and understanding of psychology is recognized as being important to physiotherapy practice since psychological factors can impact upon physical recovery. However, little is known about the nature of psychology education within UK physiotherapy training programs. The purpose of the study was, therefore, to examine current psychology provision within physiotherapy programs in UK universities, using both qualitative and quantitative methods.

Subjects. The participants were self-selected representatives from 17 UK universities. These representatives were program directors, program leaders, or lecturers teaching on the physiotherapy program.

Methods. The participants were questioned regarding the nature and extent of psychology covered in their program, the delivery and assessment of any psychology content, the perceived importance of psychology in physiotherapy training, and factors influencing psychology provision in their physiotherapy programs.

Results. All of the universities claimed to include some degree of psychology content within their physiotherapy programs and largely agreed that psychology is an important component in the education and training of physiotherapists. However, there appears to be great diversity both within and between universities in the provision of psychology education, and an underlying inconsistency between the reported importance of psychology and the demonstrated importance of psychology through its visibility within physiotherapy programs.

Discussion and Conclusion. More needs to be done to standardize the psychology content of physiotherapy programs in order to ensure that students at all institutions receive a similar level of training in psychology, which can have a positive impact on their professional practice.

Goodbye….a letter to my sport — November 22, 2013

Goodbye….a letter to my sport

By Caroline Heaney

I’ve discussed in this blog before how challenging career transitions in sport can be. The letter below describes my own feelings about a recent career transition related decision I have made.

Dear 400m hurdles,

There’s no easy way to say this so I’m going to get straight to the point – I’m leaving you. We both know that things haven’t been right for while – injuries, a weary body and life in general have put pay to that.

I’m not an international athlete; I have a job and a life outside of athletics, yet being an athlete is a very important part of my identity and has been for as long as I can remember. After more than 20 years in the sport why wouldn’t it? The sport has given me so much – challenge, friends, confidence, fitness, strength – the list is endless.

Over the last few years, as my performance has deteriorated as a result of injury and ageing, I have began to think about retirement and I always knew it would be hard, but I have been completely overwhelmed by the emotion I feel after having made a decision today. That decision wasn’t even to retire, not just yet anyway, no – today I made a decision to give up the 400m hurdles and move onto a new challenge – the 800m. My body just can’t cope with training for the hurdles anymore and nor can my mind – mentally it’s too hard to go into races and run 5, 6 or even 7 seconds slower than my best.

As I cry myself to sleep I’m trying to understand why I feel so emotional about this – so sad, and it’s because it’s been all about you, the 400m hurdles. You’ve been the event where I’ve made my mark, the event that has challenged me and the event I love. Nothing will replace you. Flat running just won’t be the same.

I know this is the right decision, even though I still feel like we have unfinished business. I know that in different circumstances I probably could have run faster, but both sadly and proudly I will be signing off at 63.95 seconds.

I will never forget you and the time we’ve had together and whenever I see you there will be a feeling of sadness in my heart and a feeling of ‘I wish’, but I know this is the right thing for both of us.

I know I can’t leave you without just one final fling and in the absence of any races I will probably have one last hurdles session with you this week.

Goodbye… and thank you for everything you’ve given me.

Carrie x

19th August 2013

Study 2: Physiotherapists’ and Sports Therapists’ Perceptions and Use of Sport Psychology —

Study 2: Physiotherapists’ and Sports Therapists’ Perceptions and Use of Sport Psychology

By Caroline Heaney

Study 2 of my PhD is a comparative study of physiotherapists’ and sports therapists’ perceptions and use of sport psychology. Sports therapists tend to receive more sport psychology education than physiotherapists at an undergraduate level. The purpose of the  study was therefore to ascertain whether education in sport psychology is indicative of attitudes and behaviour towards sports psychology during sports injury rehabilitation, by comparing these two groups of professionals. The participants, who comprised 54 physiotherapists and 40 sports therapists were asked to complete an online questionnaire which collected information about their qualifications, experience, sport psychology education, attitudes towards sport psychology and use of sport psychology.

It was found that the physiotherapists and sports therapists were not as distinct from each other with regards to their sport psychology education experiences as originally expected. Therefore, for analysis, the physiotherapists and sports therapists were sub-divided into further groups according to their education level (undergraduate or postgraduate) and whether they had studied sport psychology. The results revealed a significant effect with significant differences seen between some of the groups on the use of sport psychology. For example, undergraduate level qualified sports therapists who had studied sport psychology scored higher on the sport psychology usage section of the questionnaire than undergraduate level qualified physiotherapists who had not studied sport psychology, and inversely undergraduate level qualified physiotherapists who had studied sport psychology scored higher on the sport psychology usage section of the questionnaire than undergraduate level qualified sports therapists who had not studied sport psychology.

Analysis of the impact of the extent and specificity of sport psychology education undertaken by the participants also revealed some interesting results. When participants were split into groups according to their level of exposure to sport psychology education, regardless of their professional role and qualification level, again differences were seen between the groups with regard to use of sport psychology. For example, those who had not studied sport psychology scored significantly lower on the use of sport psychology than those had had studied one or two sessions of sport psychology, an entire module on sport psychology or more than one module on sport psychology. Similar results were seen with regard to referral with a much higher proportion of those who have studied sport psychology making referrals to sport psychologists than those who had not studied sport psychology. These findings were even more pronounced for those who had specifically studied the psychological aspects of sports injury.

This study has provided evidence to indicate that sport psychology education has a positive impact on the sport psychology related behaviours (usage and referral) of sports injury rehabilitation professionals. This would suggest that an education intervention could be effective in improving attitudes and behaviours amongst sports injury rehabilitation professionals. Future studies are required to evaluate the effectiveness of sport psychology education interventions and the optimal content of such interventions.