“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
Stephen R. Covey
It is the third day of British Championships and the athlete, with a grin on her face gives me a high five. I wait as she catches her breath, and she says those magic words we’re all deeply motivated by, “Thank you. I wasn’t sure about working with a sport psychologist, but you just get me. You have helped me so much.”
This moment of gratitude and acceptance is a success for both me and the athlete. It came from the ability to connect with the person, as without this connection, meaningful work is unlikely to occur.
Building rapport is something tricky to explain, it’s something that we, as human beings, can feel exists when it is there, but it cannot be demanded, and it cannot be summoned through reading more textbooks about the topic. It takes two people, each of whom bring their own personality variables to the proverbial table, making it even more complicated. Building rapport can be an intimidating task, so the question hangs in the air, how do you build it especially when you might have limited time and maybe limited contact as often happens in sport?
Be you. Pretending to be someone else, or to fit your authentic self to an underpinning theory that isn’t what fits your soul, will be immediately apparent to the client. There will always be a block between you and the client if you are trying to be someone you are not. This means that you should invest in learning (in good time) what it means to be professional and do your reading on underpinning theory so you can fully integrate and adapt this information to what naturally works for you. The best advice I ever received was that you can only be the best version of you, and a second-best version of someone else. So be you, and be the best you, and if you bring that to the client the rapport will come.
Honesty, respect and listening.
Honesty, for me, means saying “I don’t know” or “I don’t have the remedy” when you don’t. Respect is about meeting an athlete ‘where they are’ emotionally and psychologically. Just recently, I was working with an athlete who is in a tough spot. This athlete and the coach are not getting along, a major event is coming up in a few weeks, and there is just not much the athlete can do about the situation. This athlete is stuck. So, I gave the athlete the respect he deserves and said, “gosh you are stuck.” I didn’t say that everything was fine, or that thinking positively would be the solution, I respected where the athlete is right now, and he is not in a place to have another meeting with the coach, and is not in a place to reframe the situation with self-talk or imagery. I met the client where he was and I was honest enough to say that in this case, after listening to the facts of the client’s reality, that I didn’t know the answer. Instead all I could do was build this rapport so that the athlete has a place to talk, reflect, and feel valued.
Get the little things right.
Along with listening, take good notes. Remembering which competition is the next one for that athlete, names goes a long way. Take note if they are dating someone or have a cat etc. This will help them feel listened to and feel that you are there for all of them as a human not just as an athlete.
Working with coaching staff
Your connection is not only with the athlete but also with the coaching staff. They are entrusting you with their athlete(s), so that deserves understanding. Whether it is the first time a coach had worked with support staff or if they’re a seasoned manager of support, remember that bringing you into the equation is an act of openness, potentially vulnerability and that warrants your support.
My tip, whatever your role is to always make time for the coach. Let them know that you understand the demands they’re under and the investment they’ve made with their athletes and that you are all on the same side. Coaches see the athlete every day, they feel ownership of the success and wellbeing of their athlete, so respect that. Ask questions, they know a lot! They know a lot about the sport and a lot about this athlete.
In a nutshell:
Rapport is a foundation of trust. Without it your work with others will be limited. With it, your personal connection with an athlete has permission to flourish. Invest in being authentic, honest, respectful and a skilled listener to develop the understanding of how best to support your athletes and coaches.
Hannah Stoyel is an HCPC registered Sport and Exercise Psychologist. She works in private practice as well as with teams such as England Swimming. She is currently studying for her PhD at University College London.