Oxford, England
Monday 24th February 2014

Following on from last week, Leah Washington, a doctoral student in Sport Psychology at University of North Carolina, Greensboro, is answering some more questions related to the psychological impact on athletic injury.  

If you haven’t yet read the first part of the interview, click on the link below & read that first.

Interview with Leah Washington Part I

Leah is now combining her 15 years of experience as an athletic trainer, 5 years in the field as a sports psychology consultant & her academic research to educate sports physiotherapists, sports medics, athletic trainers & coaches in the influence that injury can have on the mental health of athletes.

Leah is quick to observe that as clinicians working with athletes, we may not always realise the impact that we can have on the athlete’s outlook, however our interactions with them are hugely important.

Leah suggests that athletes will ofter hold off on deciding how they feel that day until after they talk to their physiotherapist or athletic trainer.  In other words, Leah says “they don’t know how they feel until they get feedback from us!”.

As such Leah reports that our tone, presence & attention directly impact the athlete’s attitude & state of mind.  Leah continues “we need to be very aware that if we are dismissive, or irritated because our last appointment was late, or we assume that an athlete is ‘fine’, we are doing them a disservice & ultimately undermining what we are trying to accomplish”. 

The implication of this observation is that how we as clinicians do what we do is extremely meaningful to the athletes with whom we work & this shouldn’t be underestimated.

Leah suggests that whilst we shouldn’t be “all sunshine & rainbows, or make a situation seem better than it is…we need to be present with these athletes, honest about their situation, transparent in our treatment decisions & encouraging in their progress”.

OF:  What personal qualities are critical to being successful in sports psychology & how have you worked to improve areas that maybe don’t come naturally?

LW:  Most people enter sport psychology because they want to help athletes, but it’s much bigger than that. 

You need to be patient and willing to listen, although this isn’t always as easy as it sounds.  There is a reason we take whole classes on just this! 

It is also important to be culturally sensitive, whether it is to other nationalities, genders/sexualities, or the sport.  For example, when working with foreign athletes, it is important to understand how they value competition, their views on medical care, or the challenges in getting a visa - all of these will contribute to their experience & we need to appreciate what they bring to the table.  

It is also important to keep athletes’ bigger picture in mind - they still have relationships, parents, school, other activities, etc. & it may not always be about their sport; treat them as whole individuals. 

This may seem obvious, but it’s important to remember that your client is not you.  They will make different decisions than you will & they will have different needs and solutions than you.  Just because it isn’t the way I might do it, doesn’t mean it’s any less valid.

One of the things I have struggled with is letting my client control the direction of our conversations.  I am a perfectionist, so I always want to be right and have all the answers, but this isn’t useful to my clients. Getting them to come up with their own answers is much more meaningful, plus often what they come up with is way better than what I might have suggested!


OF:  If you were able to give one piece of advice to your 18 year old self, what would it be?

LW:  You don’t have to do it all at once!

OF:  What advice would you give to any budding sports psychologists out there in order to progress in the field?

LW:  Be a sponge for information & soak up as much as you can.  

You want to be enthusiastic, but you also have to be patient - most teams/athletes/organizations will not see your value, so you will probably have to work to get even a toe in the door.  Respect the culture of the organization/sport - you might have to function within their rules before you can make big changes. 

Be humble, but don’t be afraid to ask questions, because many “big names” in the field are generous with their expertise.  

Working with athletes is awesome, but you can’t be a “fan” & still be objective. 

Work ethically, seek help when you are over your head & most importantly: find a good supervisor & take their feedback seriously. 


OF:  Who would you cite as the inspirations in your development?

LW:  Honestly, a lot of my inspiration comes from my peers.  My friends in athletic training & sport psychology are so smart - they challenge me to think broadly & to look at challenges from different perspectives. 

I love knowing people who think differently than I do.  I took a few graduate courses from a sport sociologist here at UNCG (University of North Carolina, Greensboro), Dr. Kathy Jameison & it really changed the way I look at sport.  

Kathy challenged a lot of my assumptions about how I perceived social structures & power in athletics.  It made me think a lot about how people view sport injury & how we perpetuate certain beliefs about risk & athletes. My brain would literally hurt after her classes, but I am so much the better person for having taken them.

OF:  Who are your mentors & how do they support you?

LW:  One of my mentors, she is retired now, was my advisor during my master’s degree.  Even though my degree was in exercise physiology, she encouraged me to write my thesis on sport psychology.  

When I was hired by the same department, I casually threw out the idea of creating a class on the Psychology of Injury.  She fully backed my idea, helped me develop it into something useful & eventually the class became a requirement for the athletic training major.  

She worked so hard on my behalf; I will never be able to repay her.

OF:  What would your dream job be?

LW:  My dream job would be to work full time with an organization, where I could work with all aspects of the team, from the athletes, to the sports medicine staff, as well as the coaches. 

It would be great to be integrated into a team such that athletes were completely comfortable stopping by my office, seeing me on the sideline & not think twice about asking me a question. 

I would love to collaborate with the athletic training staff to include psychological skills in their rehabilitation protocols & to create psychological recovery programs for individual athletes. 

My hope would be that performance enhancement would occur seamlessly at all points of the athlete experience. 

Lastly, I would want the opportunity to give back to the athletic training students; to be a part of their education so that they can have better patient outcomes is very satisfying. 

I love sharing what I know - it makes me a better practitioner - & I know how hard athletic trainers/physios work.  If I can make their lives any easier, I will & developing psychological skills can do that.

OF:  Leah, thank you for taking the time to answer all the questions with such consideration.  I’ve really enjoyed reading your answers & I know the information will definitely influence my future practice.

In addition to the two references that Leah recommended reading last week, the links below will take you to two more articles on the topic:

Arvinen-Barrow, M. et al (2010).  UK chartered physiotherapists’ personal experience in using psychological interventions with injured athletes:  An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis.  Psych of Sport & Exercise; 11: pp58-66

Neal, T.N. et al (2013).  Inter-Association Recommendations for Developing a Plan to Recognize & Refer Student-Athletes With Psychological Concerns at the Collegiate Level:  An Executive Summary of a Consensus Statement.  J Athl Training; 48(5): pp716-720

Wiese-Bjornstal, D.M. (2010).  Psychology & socioculture affect injury risk, response, & recovery in high-intensity athletes: a consensus statement.  Scand J Med Sci Sports; 20(Suppl.2): pp103-111

Leah also recommends referring to the following textbooks for further information on the subject:

David Pargman - Psychological Bases of Sport Injuries (3rd Edition)

Jane Crossman - Coping with Sports Injuries: Psychological Strategies for Rehabilitation

Monna Arvenin-Barrow & Natalie Walker - The Psychology of Sport Injury & Rehabilitation

James Mensch & Gary Miller - The Athletic Trainer’s Guide to Psychosocial Intervention & Referral

Finally, one to look out for that is scheduled to be published in May (2014) is a text that Leah is eagerly anticipating is:

Megan Granquist, Jennifer Hamson-Utley, Laura Kenow & Jennifer Ostrowski - Psychosocial Strategies for Athletic Training

For those of you interested in finding out more about Leah’s work or that have any questions from points raised in the interview, you can email Leah at & follow her on Twitter @Sparkperformanc

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