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Sport, Ethics and Philosophy
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Phenomenology and Sports Psychology:
Back To The Things Themselves!
Mark Nesti
a
a
Reader, School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, Liverpool John
Moores University, Liverpool, L3 3AF
Available online: 11 Oct 2011
To cite this article: Mark Nesti (2011): Phenomenology and Sports Psychology: Back To The Things
Themselves!, Sport, Ethics and Philosophy, 5:3, 285-296
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PHENOMENOLOGY AND SPORTS
PSYCHOLOGY: BACK TO THE THINGS
THEMSELVES!
Mark Nesti
It is argued that the increasing interest in the use of phenomenological methods in sport
psychology could help rescue research in this area from its current obsession with measurement
and prediction. Phenomenology proceeds from a very different set of philosophical assumptions
from the natural science approach that underlies most research and practice in sport
psychology. Phenomenology insists that psychology should focus on meaning and investigate
the essence of human experience. The concept of anxiety occupies a central position within
phenomenological perspectives in psychology. This paper examines the experience of anxiety in
sport by drawing on applied sport psychology work undertaken with professional footballers in
the English Premier League (EPL). The phenomenology of anxiety is considered by distinguishing
between Mays psychological account and Heideggers philosophical perspective. Anxiety is
viewed positively by both philosophical and psychological phenomenology due to its links to
the idea of authenticity. This is discussed in depth in the paper and consideration will be given
to how this connects to important sources of meaning and identity in sport, such as spirituality
and religious belief.
Resumen
Se arguye que el creciente interes en el uso de metodos fenomenologicos en la psicolog a
deportiva podr a ayudar a salvar a la investigacion en esta area de su obsesion actual con la
medicion y la prediccion. La fenomenolog a resulta de una serie de supuestos muy diferentes del
enfoque de las ciencias naturales que subyace la mayor parte de la investigacion y la practica en
la psicolog a deportiva. La fenomenolog a insiste en que la psicolog a deber a centrarse en el
sentido e investigar la esencia de la experiencia humana.
El concepto de la ansiedad ocupa una posicion central dentro de las perspectivas
fenomenologicas en la psicolog a. Este art culo examina la experiencia de la ansiedad en el
deporte basandose en el trabajo realizado en la psicolog a aplicada del deporte con futbolistas
profesionales de la English Premier League (EPL). La fenomenolog a de la ansiedad se trata por
medio de la distincion entre la version psicologica de May y la perspectiva losoca de Heidegger.
Ambas, la fenomenolog a losoca y la psicologica, ven la ansiedad de manera positiva debido a
sus conexiones con la idea de la autenticidad. Esto se discute en profundidad en el art culo, a la
par que se considerara como esto se conecta con fuentes importantes del signicado y la
identidad del deporte, tales como la espiritualidad y la creencia religiosa.
Sport, Ethics and Philosophy, Vol. 5, No. 3, August 2011
ISSN 1751-1321 print/1751-133X online/11/03028512
2011 Taylor & Francis
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17511321.2011.602582
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Zusammenfassung
Es wird behauptet, dass das zunehmende Interesse an der Verwendung phanomenologischer
Methoden in der Sportpsychologie einen Beitrag dazu leisten kann, die Forschung in diesem
Bereich von seiner aktuellen Obsession des Messens und Vorhersagens zu retten. Die
Phanomenologie geht von einer Reihe ganz anderer philosophischer Annahmen aus als der
naturwissenschaftliche Ansatz, der doch der uberwiegenden Zahl an Forschungsarbeiten und
Praktiken in der Sportpsychologie zugrunde liegt. Phanomenologie betont, dass die Psychologie
sich auf den Sinn konzentrieren und das Wesen der menschlichen Erfahrung untersuchen sollte.
Der Begriff der Angst nimmt eine zentrale Stellung innerhalb der phanomenologischen Ansatze in
der Psychologie ein. Dieser Aufsatz untersucht die Angsterfahrung im Sport, indem auf Arbeiten
der angewandten Sportpsychologie mit Profuballern in der englischen Premier League (EPL)
Bezug genommen wird. Die Phanomenologie der Angst ndet hier in ihren unterschiedlichen
Ansatzen Beachtung, einerseits in der psychologischen Betrachtung von May sowie andererseits in
Heideggers philosophischer Perspektive. Aufgrund ihrer Verbindung zur Idee der Authentizitat wird
Angst sowohl in der philosophischen als auch in der psychologischen Phanomenologie als etwas
Positives angesehen. Dies wird hier eingehend diskutiert werden ebenso die Verbindung zu sinn-
und identitatsstiftenden Quellen des Sports, wie Spiritualitat und religiose U

berzeugungen.
Resume
Il est demontre que linteret croissant dans lutilisation de methodes phenomenologiques en
psychologie sportive pourrait aider a` sauver la recherche dans ce secteur de son obsession actuelle
pour la mesure et la prediction. La phenomenologie proce`de de constats philosophiques tre`s
differents de lapproche des sciences naturelles qui est a` la base de la plupart des recherches et des
pratiques de la psychologie du sport. La phenomenologie insiste sur le fait que la psychologie devrait
se concentrer sur la signication et examiner lessence de lexperience humaine.
Le concept danxiete occupe une position centrale dans les perspectives phenomenologiques de la
psychologie. Cet article examine lexperience danxiete dans le sport a` partir du travail de
psychologie du sport applique, entrepris avec des footballeurs professionnels de la Premie`re Ligue
anglaise (EPL). On conside`re la phenomenologie danxiete comme distinguant le bilan
psychologique de May et la perspective philosophique dHeidegger. Lanxiete est vue positivement
par la phenomenologie tant philosophique que psychologique en raison de ses liens avec lidee
dauthenticite. Cela est discute en profondeur dans larticle et des considerations sont faites sur la
manie`re dont on peut le relier a` des sources importantes sur la signication et lidentite dans le
sport, telles que la spiritualite et la croyance religieuse.
286 MARK NESTI
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KEYWORDS sport psychology; anxiety; philosophical phenomenology; psychological
phenomenology; professional football
There has been recent interest in the application of phenomenology in the eld of sports
psychology. After a number of years during which mental toughness in sport has been
examined through use of psychological inventories (Gucciardi and Gordon 2009) and
positivist qualitative research (Bull et al. 2005), Fawcett (2010) examined this concept using
phenomenological methods. He has recommended that other well-known topics in sports
psychology such as anxiety and condence be subject to phenomenological interpreta-
tion, since it is time to focus on meaning (Nesti 2002) rather than quantication and
measurement. This is also justied because the dominant approach in sport psychology,
which is largely based on cognitive and behavioural psychology, has failed to allow
researchers to precisely identify these important psychological constructs. Indeed, a brief
review of the studies of sport anxiety and mental toughness in particular reveals that
rather than being able to identify the essential ingredients, researchers are adding to an
ever-growing list of variables that in some way relate to the phenomenon being
investigated. It appears that rather than getting closer to precise and agreed denitions of
mental toughness, for example, researchers are going in the other direction, stacking
variable upon variable in an apparently never-ending process.
In this paper, we will look at the reasons surrounding a growing recognition around
the value of employing phenomenological approaches in the academic discipline of sport
psychology. In some ways, this development is related to the greater acceptance of
qualitative methods (Biddle et al. 2001) within sport psychology in the last decade. We will
examine how for much of the past 40 years, sports psychology has been conceived of as a
positivist and quantitatively based natural science, despite many applied sports
psychologists operating very differently in practice (Ravizza 2002). We will consider the
reasons why sport psychology has been wedded to a scientic paradigm that rests on
philosophical dualism. Very often this is little acknowledged within scholarly work in sport
psychology, and where it has been subject to critique (Corlett 1996a) no suggestions have
been made regarding suitable alternatives. This has left applied sports psychologists with
a dilemma. According to Nesti (2007) the choice for some has often been one of practising
without being able to articulate the philosophical and scientic basis of their work. For
others, they have adopted a more pragmatic solution. These individuals manage to pursue
their research and publish in the eld, while operating in ways that are little informed by
this work. The constructive and positive aspect to this is that there is an understanding
that something, somewhere is not as it should be!
Increasingly, the eld of sport psychology is divided into two distinct and in some
ways opposed camps. One group carries out research and discusses theories. The other
engages in practical work of a psychological nature with sport performers but often
without any reference to the research and literature base of the discipline. Phenomen-
ological approaches could help overcome some of these difculties.
There are a number of important concepts that impact on applied work but rarely
appear in research studies in the area. Terms from the lived world of performance sport,
such as courage, spirit, identity and meaning are little studied. In addition, anxiety in sport
has only been considered in relation to competition. Almost 30 years of research based on
cognitive behavioural attempts at understanding the mechanisms of competitive anxiety
PHENOMENOLOGY AND SPORTS PSYCHOLOGY 287
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have arguably resulted in ndings that help us little. One of the most recent papers to
review progress with research into competitive anxiety in sport has concluded that
ndings suggest athletes can experience varying intensities of this emotion before they
compete, and that for some this is viewed favourably while others are inclined to associate
these feelings with poor performances (Mullen et al. 2009). I would contend that most who
have played sport at any level are able to recognise this account, having experienced it
themselves in their own activities. After many thousands of studies that have been carried
out on this topic in relation to sport, we seem to be no further forward.
However, existential phenomenological psychologists such as May (1977) have
written extensively about anxiety in very different ways. Nesti (2002) was one of the rst
sport psychologists to draw on Mays work around the phenomenology of anxiety. This
approach does not restrict the study of anxiety to pre-competitive emotion, but adopts a
much broader perspective that describes anxiety as being related to notions of human
freedom and inevitability of choice.
We will examine how anxiety can be understood phenomenologically within the life
of sport performers. Consideration will be given to Heideggers philosophical-phenom-
enological account of anxiety and its relationship to inauthenticity. This will be contrasted
with the psychological-phenomenological perspective of May. This will be discussed in
relation to applied work carried out by the author within English Premier League football
clubs during nine seasons. This example is included to highlight that a phenomenological
approach to anxiety and other important concepts such as identity and courage has as
much to say to practitioners in sport psychology as to those engaged in research.
In the conclusion a number of topics and areas will be proposed that could greatly
benet from being subject to phenomenological research. Some of these, like anxiety,
have been studied for many years, while others have very rarely been considered. In
keeping with the idea that phenomenological methods can inform research and practice,
the topics selected here are based on the needs of sports teams and their athletes rst,
and the interests of researchers and scholars second.
Phenomenology has been used in a small number of studies within sport
psychology, such as the work of Dale (1996) with elite athletes, and Czech et al. (2004)
on prayer and sport psychology. However, apart from a chapter addressing phenomen-
ology in sport by Nesti (2004) there have been no detailed accounts explaining the
differences between this approach and other forms of qualitative research. The paper on
mental toughness by Fawcett (2010) has begun to address these broader methodological
issues and includes a clear set of ideas outlining the strengths of phenomenology. While
this should provide an impetus to future research, there is a greater obstacle to be
overcome before this can take place.
Although Fawcett directs his readers to consider Nestis (2004) account of the possible
use of phenomenology in sport psychology, this work itself was intended as a very basic and
simplied account of phenomenology and its application. Much better would be to
encourage sport psychologists to read the work of phenomenological psychologists such as
Giorgi (1970). He explains why psychology should be reconceived as a human science rather
than something most frequently based on the tenets of natural science. We would also like
to see those who study sport psychology be exposed to the underlying philosophical
assumptions of different approaches in psychology. This could help overcome possible
objections that phenomenology psychology is too closely associated with philosophy.
An additional difculty for sport psychologists is around some of the terminology
used within phenomenology. At rst glance, the Lebenswelt or lived world, being-in-the
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world, and co-constitutionality are unfamiliar terms and can be difcult to understand
fully. Fortunately, there are other ideas and concepts in phenomenology that are more
familiar to psychologists. For example, the idea of ensuring that data emerge based on the
direct account of an experience, rather than an explanation or analysis, links very closely to
the descriptions of many encounters and dialogue that take place in sport psychology
counselling sessions. The notion of the subject or participant in research being better
described as a co-researcher (Giorgi 1970) is also something that most qualitative
researchers would aim to full. The topic of bracketing, which Husserl (1970) describes as
being a way for psychologists to take steps to reect and identify their own pre-conceived
conceptions of the phenomena being considered (Nesti 2004, 21), can easily be
understood as a way to remove personal bias from the research data collection process.
The deeper philosophical and methodological discussion around bracketing may be
difcult for psychologists to grasp fully. However, it is possible to understand that because
of our subjectivity as human beings engaged in research, bracketing makes sense
psychologically speaking, although it can never be fully achieved.
Finally, there are many sports psychologists who feel that the discipline has begun
to measure and quantify before identifying what it should be measuring in the rst place.
This momentum towards measurement rather than meaning is somewhat understandable
within the relatively short history of the discipline. Sport psychologists have been keen to
demonstrate the worth of their applied knowledge in the elds of sport and performance,
youth sport participation, and physical activity and exercise. The education and training of
many in the discipline has left them unaware of the limitations of natural-science-based
psychology. An approach that generates useful results in the laboratory is often less useful
when applied to the real world.
Beyond the world of sport psychology, Giorgi (1970) has claimed that there is a more
fundamental reason for the failure to recognise the inherent weaknesses of natural science
psychology. He argues that the natural attitude, which according to Giorgi involves an
external observer attempting to explain something objectively, dominates our way of
proceeding as researchers, practitioners and even within our everyday lives. Phenomen-
ology is deeply opposed to this. The main reason for this is because as a truly holistic
methodology it rejects the idea that there exist independent objective and subjective
elds and argues that reality is a synthesis between object and subject (Husserl 1970).
Although there are considerable points of divergence around this important point, most
phenomenologists agree with the idea that reality is experienced through our
consciousness, and that this is always directed towards the real world in order to
interpret this in a meaningful manner (Spinelli 1989, 11).
For some in sport psychology this may sound like a return to older methods such as
introspectionism, or to an increased focus on subjective experience. In fact, this is not at all
what Husserl, as the founder of phenomenology, had in mind. He wished to establish a
new approach to the study of human beings that would be capable of simultaneously
acknowledging both our objective facticity and the subjective realm of feeling and
emotion. In this way he was able to argue that phenomenology could provide a truly
empirical and rigorous approach.
Heideggers (1962) philosophical account of Dasein, or being-in-the-world, reveals
why the idea of angst, or anxiety, is so important in phenomenology. He claims that while
we are thrown into the world as individual human beings, at the same time we exist only
in relation to others. This fact though can lead us into inauthenticity. That is, sometimes
we are not our selves. At these moments we experience what Heidegger called
PHENOMENOLOGY AND SPORTS PSYCHOLOGY 289
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unhomeliness. This is where we live completely according to the inuences and dictates
of others. In one of the most penetrating and important analyses of existence, Heidegger
points out that we often live the lives others direct us towards, to avoid the feeling of
anxiety. This angst or anxiety is experienced when we accept that we have some
responsibility for our Dasein. The way to escape the feeling of anxiety is to allow ourselves
to be dissolved into what Heidegger calls the they. According to Heidegger, the they
constantly accommodate each particular person by disburdening him of the responsibility
for his personal existence . . . which supplies the answer to the question of the who of
everyday human existence, is the nobody to whom every particular person has
surrendered himself ( Heidegger 1962, 164). In this way, we can avoid the uncomfortable
experience of existential anxiety but at the cost of ignoring our own human agency that
is, our freedom to choose and act authentically.
Choice and authenticity in the face of anxiety are very important themes in the lives
of sport performers. Especially for those at the top, great rewards can cause considerable
distraction. It is easy to fall into inauthenticity, to seek the comfort zone and the easier life
when you have achieved so much. Heideggers philosophical phenomenology makes it
very clear that existing in this condition is not something good, although it may feel good.
On the contrary, and echoing the earlier thoughts of Soren Kierkegaard, he states that
anxiety is a positive sign. Anxiety accompanies authenticity. Being ourselves comes at a
cost, but not to be ourselves comes at the greater cost of never living our own lives!
Mays (1977) psychological-phenomenological account of anxiety links this concept
closely to ideas around meaning and identity. His work argues that anxiety is something
that accompanies authenticity. He sees his role as a psychologist to help people confront
the normal anxiety associated with making choices and facing change. Sometimes this
may involve nding new meaning to guide ones life and be about our identity. At other
times it may be about less fundamental although important concerns relating to work or
relationships. This approach points out that as long as the individual develops the courage
to decide and act on the choices they face, anxiety can serve a constructive role in our
development towards authenticity and growth. Not to face up to the responsibility to
choose can lead to neurotic anxiety, according to May. This clinical condition can result
from our repeated attempts to avoid the feeling of existential anxiety by living inauthentic
lives.
Within sport there are many sources of existential anxiety. A psychological-
phenomenological study of anxiety could help rescue this concept from its current status
in sport as something viewed as being fundamentally a negative phenomenon.
Researchers and applied sports psychologists (Nesti 2010; Corlett 1996a) have revealed
that anxiety is something the sports performer, in common with all people, experiences
alongside their awareness of freedom. In the case of a Premiership football player, the
material successes and rewards associated with achievement in their sport provide the
athlete with many competing choices. Theses may even be related to their broader lives,
or be more closely linked to their role as a professional sport performer. A
phenomenological approach to anxiety would allow the researcher to begin to capture
the structure and essence of this phenomenon. This is urgently required so that
researchers and applied practitioners can achieve a more empirical understanding of
anxiety than that which currently exists in the sport psychology literature.
To understand the experience of being anxious, we need to invite the person
experiencing this to describe it in everyday language with terms familiar to their own
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perspective. This is consistent with Husserls demand that we need to return to the
things themselves. In following a phenomenological approach to existential anxiety in
sport, we must allow the data to speak directly to us. That is, free from the inuences
of theorising or planning interventions. In other words, until we know exactly what we
are dealing with, we should at least refrain from attempting to prescribe what must be
done to deal with a phenomenon. This represents a major challenge for the eld of
sport psychology, where the scientist approach has encouraged an action-oriented
outlook, always ready to intervene. A phenomenological approach clearly rejects this as
unhelpful and idealistic.
Most likely, this does not sound like useful research to those imbued with a natural
science perspective on psychology and sport psychology! There are also very real practical
issues to overcome with this kind of work. Whether in research settings or applied work, it
is easy to see why Van Kaam (1969) has suggested that all researchers and clients need to
have ability to communicate effectively and be able to discuss feelings and emotions
without any inhibition. The requirement that there is a level of deep and interpersonal
communication between researcher and co researcher often presents problems for the
sports psychologist. Their task according to Polkinghorne (1989) is to remain with the co-
researcher as they sometimes struggle to describe a phenomenon. They must also avoid
using psychological terms or technical language to ensure that communication is direct
and natural.
The researcher or applied sport psychologist must resist the temptation to take
control of the phenomenological interview, and should allow data to emerge more or less
spontaneously. Beyond this point the data could be analysed and written up in
accordance with the requirements of psychological phenomenology. In other words, the
data can be themed and structured and, nally, where the phenomenon is one that
readers have experienced, the ndings must also correspond to the readers own
experiences of the phenomenon (ibid., 57).
In the case of existential anxiety related to choice and isolation experienced by a
Premier League football player, the subsequent discussion of the data should reside with
an account of anxiety that is universally recognisable to all. This should be despite the
different contextual dimensions present in the description. To help this process, it is
essential that condentiality is in place, and that there is a high level of trust between the
psychologist and the client, or the researcher and co-researcher. Phenomenologically
derived accounts are no holds barred personal descriptions of an event or experience.
Without the assurance of complete condentiality it is unlikely that a Premier League
footballer or other high-prole athlete would be prepared to engage in such a deeply
personal enterprise. This again presents a challenge to the sport psychology researcher
who is unable to offer anything back to the player for giving their time to the research. For
the applied sport psychologist, the issue of condentiality is easier to address. In my own
work within Premier League teams the manager and senior coaching staff have assured
players that in order to carry out my work in an ethical and useful way, complete
condentiality is essential. It is also far easier to build up a trusting relationship with the
sports performer to carry out this type of work where the sport psychologist is involved in
ongoing support often over several months and years.
The use of phenomenology in sport psychology could lead to an increased
acceptance of practitioner-based accounts of important phenomena such as anxiety. This
data would differ from much of the current perspective since it would reect the lived
PHENOMENOLOGY AND SPORTS PSYCHOLOGY 291
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world of the athletes experience of anxiety. It should be noted that advocates of
phenomenology (Giorgi and Giorgi 2004) do not see their work as a way to build
psychological theory or to assist the technology of measurement. As they explain, this is
because the philosophical underpinning of a human science approach to psychology rests
on a complete rejection of the ideas of Cartesian dualism and the search for cause-and-
effect relationships. Their version of sports persons as being made up of mind, body and
spirit, is a radically different starting point to natural science based psychology.
In looking at the usefulness of adopting phenomenological psychology within an
applied sports psychology experience there is no other term as important as that of
identity and its relationship to authenticity. Sport psychology literature has attempted to
measure the degree to which athletes view their identity exclusively in relation to their
sport, or whether they have a broader and more uid self-identity. Unfortunately, sport
psychology researchers have often articulated their denition and concept of identity
without having asked the athlete in the rst place.
In contrast, during my work with elite Premier League professional footballers, they
have frequently described how their identity is something of an unnished nature. They
typically describe themselves in ways far beyond any dichotomous categories as being
exclusively a footballer, or merely as a person who plays football for a job. The data that
emerge from the phenomenological dialogue with these footballers allows them to
describe the sometimes subtle, often nuanced, and rarely clear aspects of who they are.
These phenomenologically-derived accounts emerged from within my completely
condential one-to-one sports psychology counselling sessions with top-level Premiership
footballers as part of a performance-focused sports psychology service. This may appear
highly unlikely to those practitioners who are currently dominant in the eld, who according
to Corlett (1996a) tend to use cognitive behavioural techniques to help athletes manage
symptoms. In contrast, an existential-phenomenological approach to applied work in sport
psychology is rst of all interested in the description the player provides of who he is and
what this means to him, and how it guides his future choices. Despite cultural differences
and wide ranges in levels of education and experience of professional sport, the majority of
players I have worked with (averaging ten meetings with different individuals per week over
nine Premiership seasons) displayed a high level of self-awareness and self-knowledge about
identity, choice in the face of anxiety and the importance of authenticity. Sometimes these
phenomenologically guided encounters would last well beyond the 30 to 40 minutes of
allocated time, especially where players were facing difcult moments within their career
and personal lives. For example, newplayers from other countries can encounter a myriad of
different challenges that could cause great difculty for them in terms of their performance
as elite footballers. Understanding the language, different ways of playing the game,
different rules, ways of behaving and new living arrangements are just some of the
frequently experienced challenges faced. These are examples of what May (1977) called
normal anxiety. During such moments these footballers, often without anything more than
one introductory question, would spend time describing the important sources of meaning
in their life and how this helped them to confront difcult moments in their lives. These rich
accounts describe identity and meaning in relation to family, relationships, religious belief,
values, existential anxiety and making choices. The descriptions weave a fabric that includes
their past, present and future lives as professional footballers. This often included everything
else in their broader lives, whether from their past, what they currently faced and what they
hoped for.
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This phenomenologically derived data was gathered through a passionate,
empathetic dialogue, that often resembles the description of an I-Thou encounter
described so powerfully by Buber (1958). Within an I-Thou dialogue, similar to
phenomenological research, the focus is on the client as a person, or the subject as co-
researcher ( Giorgi and Giorgi 2004). Phenomenology demands that the researcher fully
immerses him/herself in the dialogue and refrains from questions around why, instead
focusing exclusively on the what of an experience or event. Although difcult to carry out
fully, the phenomenological method requires that the researcher attends to one task and
nothing else, which according to Ihde (1986, 44) is to describe, dont explain.
One area closely associated with this focus on identity, anxiety and authenticity is
around the phenomenology of freedom. Most approaches in sport psychology, derived as
they are from the parent discipline of psychology, are unable to accommodate ideas of
free will or philosophical ideas around freedom. Through following a natural science
paradigm, most of psychology views human behaviour as being determined by
environment or genes or as a result of interaction between these two factors. In contrast,
phenomenological psychology understands human being in terms of what it refers to as
situated freedom. It sees the human person as someone truly capable of a free act.
Existential phenomenologists acknowledge that we are inuenced by our environment
and genetics, but that we are also capable of acting freely.
This idea of freedom has proved to be a very useful and attractive idea in my applied
work with sport performers. Such an approach allows for a discussion about choice and
responsibility. These are important terms when working with athletes facing important
decisions in their lives and especially where it may at rst appear that they have little
inuence of control over events that affect them. The phenomenology of freedom has
been discussed by a number of philosophers (see Clark 1973); however, this debate has as
yet failed to reach the discipline of sport psychology. Much of this is due to the fear that
many psychologists have of losing their recently gained independence from philosophy,
and the practical and professional benets resulting from claims to be a natural science.
However, in applied work, when athletes must confront real critical moments, words such
as freedom, will, courage and choice are not dry scientic concepts, but have an
immediate and clear impact on peoples lives.
To conclude, there are some hopeful signs in the applied sport psychology literature
that phenomenological psychology will become more welcome. For example, Andersen
(2009) has argued that sport psychologists should solely direct their attention at caring for
the welfare of the player or athlete with whom they are working. He argues this is the only
ethical position to adopt given that sport psychologists are unable to clearly identify where
their work impacts on performance. In contrast, others have argued that sport psychologists
are employed to focus on performance alone, and that this should be their focus and
nothing else. This is supported from an ethical perspective in that when sport psychologists
are employed, it is assumed that they will be able to directly assist the performance agenda
of an individual, team or club. From a phenomenological perspective, and based on
extensive work with elite level professional athletes and footballers, I have argued (Nesti
2010) that this presents a false dichotomy. The work with a sports performer is always
oriented towards helping them to maximise their sport performances in some way. It also
involves working with the whole person and beyond their sport identity.
This links in closely to Heideggers ideas about authenticity involving wholeness-
becoming ones-self (again). That is, not to allow others to determine your self through
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your roles alone. The task is to remain open to being and the awareness that death as
the ultimate form of change cannot be evaded. The anxiety that results from this
knowledge can be constructive where we are prepared to search for meaning and
become our true selves. The implications for sport psychology from Heideggers ideas
about authenticity and Mays stress on meaning could open the door to the study of a
number of other important but largely ignored topics in sport psychology such as
spirituality in sport.
We have noticed an increase in sport psychology work addressing the importance
of religious belief and spiritual meaning within sport (Nesti 2007). These topics are
beginning to be a considered within the research. Much of this however, proceeds from
various qualitative perspectives where athletes are asked to explain why they hold
particular beliefs, how these help them to perform better, how often they pray and how
this links to mental skills training. Largely missing is work directed at identifying the
experience of what religious and spiritual beliefs mean to the sports performer
themselves.
It is somewhat ironic that, in my experience, many elite professional football players
are prepared to describe their religious beliefs and spiritual and cultural values during one-
to-one sport psychology counselling meetings. These accounts are usually embedded
within in- depth descriptions on identity, and the need to be authentic or true to
themselves. A phenomenological analysis of these reports would identify that irrespective
of different theological perspectives, some players describe how their religious and
spiritual beliefs are a living form of guidance in their whole lives, helping them to stay true
to their values, especially in those difcult moments encountered in the volatile world of
elite professional sport.
The use of phenomenology in sport psychology applied work could mean that
practice could provide a lead to research rather than what seems often to have happened
in our eld. Most usually researchers have already identied concepts and constructs in
advance of any phenomenological analysis which they subsequently apply and measure in
the eld.
Especially in high level and professional sport environments, the existential idea of
isolation is keenly felt. The anxiety associated with deselection, injury, being forced to take
on different roles or having to move clubs and teams is a common feature of sport at this
level. Despite this, there is no body of work in sport psychology that addresses what this
experience involves, how this feels and what could be done to move forward in a positive
and constructive way.
Phenomenological psychology could allow us to look more closely at important
terms such as courage and team spirit. These are frequently used within sport but have
very rarely been examined within sport psychology research. Where they have they are
usually related to philosophical accounts, and based on the ideas of Socrates and Aquinas
(Corlett 1996b) or the concept of spirit associated with peak experiences and the
phenomenology of ow. Czikszentmihalyis (1996) phenomenologically derived studies
into optimal experience in sport, heart surgery, arts and many other areas of life have
provided an empirical attempt to capture the lived experience associated with our best
performances.
Other accounts of spirit, team spirit and spirituality in sport psychology are more
closely connected to the work of the German philosopher Pieper (1998). Nesti (2011) has
used Piepers philosophically grounded description of human spirit and religious
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spirituality to describe how these can be experienced in the lives of Premiership
footballers. These accounts have emerged from phenomenologically guided encounters
with players.
These phenomenological accounts capture the idea that human spirit is something
that is most easily seen and indeed witnessed, during moments of great hardship, sacrice
and suffering (Nesti 2007). The descriptions provided by the players counter the argument
that this form of spirit can be reduced to a psychological construct as such, and instead
argue that it is more like a quality of the person. The feelings and experiences surrounding
this term suggest that it is deeply valued by sport performers, managers, coaches and
others, including fans, because it involves individual persons pursuing apparently hopeless
tasks without giving up hope. As yet, the sport psychology research community has failed
to examine this very important concept in sport, preferring to deny its existence (Crust
2006) or to translate spirit to mean motivation or self-condence. Phenomenological
accounts from sport performers clearly reject this interpretation, and indeed as Nesti
(2010) has conrmed from his own work in professional sport, top managers and coaches
frequently claim that this element represents the most important quality in distinguishing
the top performer from the others.
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Mark Nesti, Reader, School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, Liverpool John Moores
University, Liverpool. L3 3AF. E-mail: m.s.nesti@ljmu.ac.uk
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