Athletic Insight - The Online Journal of Sport Psychology

Sport Psychology Consulting with
Canadian Olympic Athletes and Coaches:
Values and Ethical Considerations

Penny Werthner and John Coleman
School of Human Kinetics
University of Ottawa
Ottawa, Canada



Current State of Sport Psychology Consulting in Canada

Understanding Values and Ethical Behavior

Sport Psychology Consulting in the Olympic Environment

Ethical Considerations within the Olympic Environment



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What are some of the ethical issues facing sport psychology consultants working alongside athletes and coaches preparing for the Olympic Games? What role do values play in recognizing, understanding, and resolving those issues? The purpose of this paper is to examine, from the perspective of two consultants working with Olympic athletes and coaches, the nature of that work, and the relationship between one’s core values, one’s professional philosophy, and ethical behavior. Hodgkinson’s (1991, 1996) hierarchy of values is presented, the consultants core values are articulated, and specific ethical issues are explored, such as navigating confidentiality, understanding emotions, managing professional boundaries, and taking care of yourself within the process of consulting at the Olympic Games. Strategies are presented for resolving these ethical challenges.


       As a sport psychology consultant, it is always productive to take some time to reflect on one’s philosophy and values, and the behaviors, ethical or not, that flow out of that philosophy. Sport at all levels presents potential ethical challenges but the pressure and importance of the Olympic Games creates some unique challenges. At the time of writing this article, the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing have just come to a close, and Canada is gearing up to host the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. The pressures on the athletes and coaches to conform, perform, and win medals are significant, and with those pressures come potential ethical dilemmas.

       The purpose of this paper is to share our collective thoughts, as consultants with Olympic teams, on the concept of values and various ethical dilemmas that exist at the Olympic level of sport. Somerville (2006) suggests that any talk of ethics should begin with a discussion of values, but often that is easier said than done. The values we hold as individuals, and as professionals, are often more implicit than explicit. So the two questions that will be addressed in this paper are (a) how do we go about making our values explicit, first for ourselves and then for the athletes and coaches we work with? and (b) what are some of the critical ethical issues we face as consultants, and how are they resolved? Before attempting to answer these two questions, we will briefly look at the current state of sport psychology consulting in Canada.

Current State of Sport Psychology Consulting in Canada

       Within the Canadian sport system the number of sport psychology consultants working directly with teams has increased considerably. At the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Turin, Canada had more than 13 consultants, many fully accredited, working with various athletes, coaches, and teams. In the recent Olympic Games in Beijing, there were several fully accredited consultants, other consultants working off site, and others consulting via Skype and e-mail from Canada. It is anticipated that in Vancouver more than 15 sport psychology consultants will be working with Canadian athletes and coaches.

       There is also a newly-formed Canadian Sport Psychology Association ( with a well-developed mission statement, code of ethics, and over 55 members. The mission statement is as follows:

The Canadian Sport Psychology Association (CSPA) is an organization devoted to promoting and developing the professional practice of sport psychology in Canada. "Sport Psychology" is a term used to refer to the psychological aspects of sport, exercise, health, physical education, physical recreation, and related physical activities. The practice of sport psychology involves facilitating the development of psychological and emotional skills, techniques, attitudes, perspectives, and processes that lead to performance enhancement and positive personal development. The CSPA logo embodies the yin-yang symbol to reflect our vision and appreciation of the physical and psychological dimensions of well-being of performance as well as the holistic development of individuals who are not just "athletes" performing in sport but "persons" performing in life ((

Understanding Values and Ethical Behavior

       In attempting to answer the first question - How do we go about making our personal values explicit? - it is useful to look briefly at the broader research literature on ethics and values, and then more specifically at the sport literature. Hodgkinson (1991, 1996) defined “value as a concept of the desirable” (p.36) and developed a paradigmatic typology of three levels of values that help us more deeply understand this concept. Moving hierarchically from what might be good to what is ‘right’, he begins with objects or actions that we value at a level of preference. These are values that are simply based on what we like or desire, at any point in time, as in ‘I like tea; you prefer coffee’. We do not usually discuss serious ethical issues at this level, but it is at this level that commerce and marketing focus their attention. For example, a great deal of marketing is spent trying to get us to buy Coca-Cola rather than Pepsi and to drink coffee at a Starbucks rather than at a Second Cup.

       Moving upwards in the hierarchy, the next level involves more of a cognitive process by the individual, in terms of thinking and rationalizing. This level has two subsets of values, where we may value objects or actions at a level of consensus, or at a level of consequence. When we argue for something as a value at the level of consensus, it is understood that there has been some process, such as a gathering of public opinion. When we argue at the level of consequence, it is an ‘if…then’ argument. To explain using a sport example, in the 1980s, during the hearings of the Commission of Inquiry Into the Use of Drugs and Banned Practices Intended to Increase Athletic Performance, commonly known as the Dubin Inquiry, runner Ben Johnson’s coach, Charlie Francis, argued for taking steroids ‘because everyone was doing it’. It is speaking to a value at the level of consensus - everyone is doing it so it must be ‘right’. When Francis also argued that by taking steroids Johnson then had a good chance of winning an Olympic gold medal, it was an argument for taking steroids, at the level of consequence. If we take drugs, we will then have a good chance to win the 100 metres.

       Finally, at the top of this hierarchy of values are the values that we choose to hold at what Hodgkinson (1996) calls the level of principle. They are the values that are personally decided on after great struggle and reflection, and upon which we will not compromise. Examples of values at this level might be respect for others, honesty, and CSPA’s holistic development of an athlete. If we have articulated our own values at this level, they then guide us in what we do and how we act. We might ask what values Charlie Francis held at this level that would lead him to decide it was acceptable to provide steroids to an athlete.

       According to Hodgkinson (1996), it is values at the level of principle that take the form of codes of ethics that then help guide organizations and their members. But the author also notes that we can state values at this level clearly and explicitly, personally or as an organization, but not operationalize them. For example, we may state that honesty is a value we hold at the level of principle, but we are not always honest. Individually, we may not act consistently with our stated values, and this is what often occurs with organizations’ mission statements. They are wonderful statements of the ideal, but if not carried through by the members, then they are quite meaningless. CSPA’s mission statement is clear and promotes, we would certainly argue, a wonderful value of developing the athlete in a holistic manner, but if its members do not reflect upon this stated value and how it fits for their own work, it is much less effective. To conclude the Ben Johnson example, if we hold, for example, playing fairly and by the rules (knowing taking drugs is cheating and against the rules) as a value at the level of principle, then the ‘right’ or ethical decision is straightforward, and taking steroids is not an option.

       So values, particularly at the level of principle, are ultimately what we each personally choose them to be, although if we choose to be a member of an organization with clearly-stated values and a code of ethics, then it is understood that we agree to adhere to the stated values. Somerville (2006), in her book, The Ethical Imagination, writes of core values of caring for others, sanctity of life, authenticity, and community. Killinger (2007), in her book, Integrity, writes of core values of integrity, empathy, sympathy, honesty, and compassion. Birrell (2006), in writing of being ethical in psychotherapy, promotes values of an ethic of care, an ethic of listening, and of compassion. CSPA’s Code of Ethics states core values such as competence, integrity, professional, social, and scientific responsibility, and holistic development of athletes as important for its members. What is important to note here is that these words, such as holistic development, can mean different things to different individuals. So we would suggest that stating values is only the first step in an on-going process of discussion, reflection, perhaps argument, and, hopefully at some point, agreement on what we mean and how we will act.

       Moving to the literature in sport on values and ethics, numerous articles have been written on professional philosophy and sport psychology delivery as well as ethical behavior within the profession. Poczwardowski, Sherman, and Ravizza (2004) have discussed the importance of a consultant’s core beliefs and values as an internal force driving subsequent behaviors and choices of interventions, and name values such as respect for truth, respect for human life, concern for growth and development, concern for dignity, and freedom of choice, among others. Lindsay, Breckon, Thomas, and Maynard (2007) have explored one consultant’s journey toward congruence with his professional philosophy, framed by values such as client independence and responsibility as well as respect and curiosity. Specific ethical issues have been raised by numerous researchers, such as confidentiality, billing practices, boundaries, multiple relationships, and educational and professional training issues (Biddle, Bull, & Seheult, 1994; Brown & Cogan, 2006; Etzel, Watson, & Zizzi, 2004; Moore, 2003; Watson, Tenenbaum, Lidor, & Alferman, 2001). A number of Australian and American sport psychology consultants have written specifically of ethical issues at the Olympic level (Bond, 2001; Gould, 2001; Haberl & Peterson, 2006; McCann, 2000), but very little exists from a Canadian perspective. With the creation of a new national organization, the CPSA, (, it is timely to be discussing consulting and ethical issues from a Canadian perspective.

Sport Psychology Consulting in the Olympic Environment

       The Olympic Games, both winter and summer editions, are unlike any other competition. They have become global sporting and cultural events, where the number of athletes and support staff continue to grow, as do the number of media. While World Championships, Pan American Games, and Commonwealth Games are all important competitions for Canadian athletes and teams, most national sport organizations, and indeed most athletes and coaches, gear their planning, training, and competing in relationship to the Olympic four-year cycle. In addition, most Canadian athletes are unaccustomed to the intense media coverage that surrounds this event. They compete and win World Championships with barely a note in a newspaper, and then are inundated for six months leading up to an Olympics with questions like “Do you think you can win?” From an athlete and coach perspective, competing successfully at an Olympic Games is not an easy task. The pressure on athletes to perform is varied and enormous, coming from friends and family, sponsors, the national sport organization, the country, and the athlete’s own expectations. It is one of the reasons that many athletes, coaches, and teams have turned to a group of experts to help ensure a good performance on the day it counts. Sport psychology consultants are contracted, as are medical doctors and other sport science experts in exercise physiology, biomechanical analysis, physiotherapy, and strength and conditioning. In Canada, all these experts supporting the coach and athlete form what is now called an Integrated Support Team (IST). So what is it we, as sport psychology consultants do, how do we do it, what are the values that guide us in that work, and what are the ethical dilemmas we face?

What We Do as Sport Psychology Consultants

       Consulting at the Olympic level often involves a long-term working relationship, where we may travel with a team to training camps, World Cups, and World Championships over the course of a quadrennial, meet with athletes individually, with their coaches, and with the entire team, including support staff, in preparation for a particular Olympic Games.

       Specifically, one-on-one conversations with athletes and coaches are scheduled, exploring past and present performances, discovering together what works, and what does not work for a particular athlete. It is a gentle but firm, ongoing process, fraught sometimes with emotions of fear and frustration and elation and joy. This is the very essence of what we do in this field at the Olympic level – the athletes and coaches have so much knowledge and experience that the role is often one of facilitation – facilitating awareness and deep understanding of one’s performance, and then facilitating skill development to enhance future performance. Skill development involves creating individual performance plans for the years leading up to the Games, the year of the Games, the month of the Games, in the two weeks of the Games, in the day(s) of competition at the Games, and in the final moments before competing. These plans are designed to help an athlete or a team be present, in the moment, with the knowledge of what to focus on and the ability to do so. It is about knowing when it is time to be calm and relaxed, or when it is time to be excited. This presence and knowledge helps athletes avoid and deal effectively with distractions that can take them away from that focus. This is a continuous process of learning and development of mental ‘fitness’, of becoming mentally ‘tough’, of developing that attitude of ‘no matter what, I will execute well’.

Professional Philosophy and Core Values

       Our professional philosophy is guided by a humanistic philosophy, genuinely caring about and listening to each athlete with compassion. Our consulting is about facilitating a self-discovery process for an athlete, and often for a coach, creating an environment where they can reflect on what works for them in both training and in competition. It is about creating an environment where athletes understand they have a choice in what they think and how they feel. Indeed, they have a choice in competing at this level of sport. We see it as a long-term learning process for most athletes, where one of the goals is enabling athletes to become self-reliant, and take responsibility for their training and performance. In fact, we have been part of teams where this environment was created, by the coach, along with the sport psychology consultant and other support team members, to ensure that the athletes became reflective and self-reliant competitors. It took place over a number of years, with the athletes moving from being young and dependent, doing what they are told, to a more collegial relationship with the coaches, with decisions about training and competing being made together, although, in most cases, the coach was still leading. It produced good international results and Olympic medals, but equally important, it produced mature, independent individuals outside of sport.

       While the humanistic philosophy underlies everything we do, so does a more cognitive-behavioral approach, primarily because we are consulting at the Olympic level. We want to ensure that athletes, who have chosen to excel at the Olympic level, learn specific psychological skills. These psychological skills will primarily ensure that (a) they know what the critical factors are to focus on for training and competition, and they ‘train’ that focus, and (b) they develop an understanding of their emotions and learn how to create for themselves the correct level of intensity for a high-quality performance.

       Ultimately, the role of the sport psychology consultant, we would argue, is to work herself or himself out of a job. For if we succeed, the athlete enters the race hut, approaches the starting line, steps on the ice, not seeking reassurance from anyone, fully confident in her or his abilities. In this moment the athlete is prepared enough that the immense energy of the Olympics creates feelings of excitement to be starting the performance, rather than feelings of fear or dread.

       To be explicit, the core value, or value at the level of principle, that guides us in this work as consultants, and in resolving ethical dilemmas, is the concept of integrity. Webster’s (1992) defines integrity as “uprightness of character; probity; honesty” (p. 507). Somerville (2006) states that integrity is at the heart of ethics and Killinger (2007) writes that integrity is a personal choice that is “an uncompromising and predictably consistent commitment to honour moral, ethical, spiritual, and artistic values and principles” (p. 12). She goes on to suggest that living with integrity requires us to be aware of and incorporate the values of honesty, sympathy, empathy, and compassion, among others into our daily behaviour. The key is living these values on a daily basis, and in all our interactions with athletes, coaches, teams, and sport organizations.

Ethical Considerations within the Olympic Environment

       In the applied sport setting, where we work affects how we work and at times poses what we consider to be ethical challenges. For the purposes of this paper, we will discuss three key areas of potential ethical challenges: confidentiality, emotions, and boundaries. We will also discuss a fourth area of taking care of yourself, which may not pose an ethical dilemma in and of itself, but may impact our ability to act ethically and effectively within the high energy demands of the Olympic environment.

Navigating Confidentiality

       As consultants we work in a variety of ways: with individual athletes; with an individual athlete and her/his coach; with an individual athlete, contracted by the athlete’s parent; and with a team of athletes and coaches, contracted by the national sport organization. These multiple relationships can be problematic from the perspective of confidentiality.

       If you are working with an individual athlete, and contracted by that athlete, the issue of confidentiality is reasonably simple, in the sense that it is clear who your client is. However, an ethical issue may arise if you are asked to speak to the media about the athlete, which is not uncommon in the case of high-profile athletes. If, in fact, anything is to be said publicly about the athlete by the consultant, it is imperative that this be discussed with the athlete client prior to any public comments being made.

       If you are contracted by the athlete and coach, solely by the coach, by the athlete’s parents, or by the national sport organization, then problems of confidentiality almost inevitably arise, as you work to clarify who exactly is the client. If the consultant is doing her or his job well, a good working relationship of comfort and rapport is developed between the consultant and the athlete, and personal issues and private experiences are shared in an unguarded and open way. This is necessary, because personal issues certainly have the potential to affect performance. However, because you were hired by the coach, or the parents, or the organization, they often feel they have a right to know what is going on with the athlete. Therefore, determining what is confidential and what needs to be shared is one of the most important things the consultant has to clarify.

       For example, consider that you are working with an athlete who asks that everything discussed is confidential and remains just between the two of you. You agree to this and so, simply put, it must remain so. However, often it is not that simple. What if something comes up in your conversations about an issue with the coach, perhaps some issue with training, perhaps potential physical or psychological burnout? You are then faced with the ethical dilemma of maintaining confidentiality, as you promised you would, or going to talk with the coach about the athlete’s issue. If you hold honesty and keeping your promise as an important value, a value at the level of principle, but you also hold the health and well-being of the athlete at the level of principle as well, you do face a dilemma. What is the ethical thing to do?

       It is not easy, but if it is not a life-threatening situation, then we would argue that the choice must still remain with the athlete. The value and philosophy that directs that decision, from our perspective, is one of respect, that the athlete must make his or her own choices. However, if we also hold caring for the athlete as important, which we do, we would suggest that a meeting be set up with the coach to discuss the issue, and explain to the athlete why we think this is important. We would then listen well to what the athlete has to say in response. If the athlete agrees at that point to include the coach that is definitely the best solution. If the athlete continues to say no, that must be respected. However, if we still believe it would be wise to meet with the coach, we might continue to pursue it over the course of a few months. If the relationship between ourselves and the athlete is trusting and thoughtful, the issue can usually be resolved over time.

       Consider a second example, where you are contracted by the national sport organization and they want to know what you are working on with the athletes, and how each athlete is functioning. This almost always happens and it is understandable. They are paying for your expertise, and they want to know what you are doing, and if it is effective. It is best to negotiate this when you are initially contacted, and in doing that, two aspects should be considered. Explain the nature of trust and rapport that needs to be developed in order to work effectively with the athlete with confidentiality as a key component, and explain that you will be able to share, in general, the skills you are working on with the athletes or team. Indeed, it may be useful for the coach to be part of a number of those sessions, so that he or she can continue those skills in daily practice sessions.

       A third example, related to confidentiality, is a system where the consultant meets individually with the athlete, and also meets on a regular basis with the athlete and the coach together. When the coach-athlete relationship is a good one, this type of meeting is a very effective way to help an athlete develop and excel. The one-on-one individual meetings between the athlete and the consultant offer an environment for discussion that remains confidential. The meetings where the coach is present create a small team – athlete-coach-sport psychology consultant - working toward the same goal. This small team offers the athlete a safe environment (with the presence of the consultant) to divulge private information if she or he feels comfortable doing so. When it is possible, this is a very effective means of establishing and maintaining communication on two levels, and effectively negotiating issues of confidentiality.

       A final example where confidentiality may become problematic is related to the Integrated Sport Science Team (IST) that now exists in the Canadian sport system. The purpose of the IST is to support the performance of a group of athletes and coaches with specific expertise. This group of specialists may gather several times a year to discuss athletes from a physical, medical, strength, biomechanical, and psychological perspective. Due to the nature of the information that the sport psychology consultant works with, we would argue that the consultant must be very careful with what is said in these meetings regarding an athlete. Any information shared would need to be discussed with the athlete prior to revealing any issues or concerns.

Working with Emotions

       Birrell (2006) writes eloquently of being ethical in psychotherapy and the importance of understanding what it means to be with another human being. She suggests that we “dare to let every moment be alive with care and compassion” (p.112), and this is what we must consider when working with athletes and coaches in any competitive sport environment. However, the Olympic environment is particularly fraught with emotion, anxiety, and stress. Athletes and their coaches work for many years for one moment in time at the Olympics, and it is a difficult environment in which to excel. Fear is often present in the preparation for the Olympics and is manifested in various degrees. In high-risk sports such as alpine or freestyle skiing, the athlete may be primordially fearful for her or his life, because one lapse in focus can lead to serious injury or death. Most often however, fear is manifested in less intense forms such as performance anxiety with concerns about not performing well. With good rapport and a level of comfort and trust between athlete and consultant, an athlete may confide fears. The consultant then has an amazing opportunity to help the athlete direct the energy present in fear to a focus that contributes to a successful performance. This is a very special exchange between two people, which if handled with a lack of respect or care can lead to increased fear and poor performance. On the other hand, when handled with compassion, respect, and skill, it can lead to a very successful performance and personal self-growth.

       For example, about six months before an Olympic Games, an athlete burst into tears and revealed to the consultant that she was filled with terror that she would not meet her own expectations and those of her coach, her club, her association, and her country. This is not a situation that you ever want to create, but when it occurs (and it will only occur if there is a strong and trusting relationship built between athlete and consultant), it is possible for a great deal of self-growth to happen. In this case, the consultant was compassionate and cared about this individual not only as an athlete, but as an individual outside of the sport. The compassion the consultant had for the athlete and the situation enabled her to listen ethically (Birrell, 2006). As a result, the athlete was able to talk about and then work through her fears, and in the end, competed very well at the Olympic Games.

Maintaining Professional Boundaries .

       Traveling with a team or group of athletes is an unusual environment for most consultants to work in. Being at training camps, spending time at practices, traveling together to competitions, living in hotels with the athletes and coaches, eating meals together, spending three weeks together at the Olympic Games, and celebrating after a competition are all examples of where shared time and space create great opportunities for understanding the context within which the athletes and coaches train and compete. It can give the consultant a sense of the pressure and emotions that exist in this environment, and a better understanding of how to intervene effectively. It also provides the athletes and coaches with greater opportunities to interact with the consultant and increases their comfort level in setting up meetings. However, at the same time, potential ethical dilemmas exist regarding professional boundaries. Haberl and Peterson (2006) discuss late-evening meetings and consulting sessions in public and private spaces as examples of where boundaries can become blurred. Where do you meet with an athlete when it is hard to find a quiet space? When invited, do you go out for drinks with the coaches? Certainly there are always solutions. You can usually find a space to sit and meet with an athlete, in a corner of the cafeteria in the Olympic Village, on a bench away from the team living area, or at the far end of the warm-up track. You can certainly debrief with coaches in a casual setting, and share a drink at the end of a competition. Nevertheless, it is critical that while you can enjoy the athletes’ and coaches’ company while on the road, you must recognize that you are always on the job.

Taking Care of Yourself

       While there are advantages to traveling and living with a team or group of athletes in terms of building trust and a good working relationship, there also exists the challenge related to personal fatigue. Because of the long hours of essentially always being on call, and the energy required to listen with empathy and deliver on-the-spot meaningful help, it is essential to have a personal plan to factor in exercise and relaxation. This is important in order to take care of yourself, which ensures that you have the energy to be effective when you are working with the athletes. Being well-rested helps you remain clear and focused, with an awareness of subtle shifts in voice or body language which may be the difference in recognizing a change (for the better or worse) in an athlete’s performance state. Most of us do not function well when fatigued, and it is certainly very difficult to listen and care when exhausted. One of the more effective meetings we facilitated was with a support team of medical doctors, physiotherapists, massage therapists, and strength and conditioning coaches going to an Olympic Winter Games and asking them simply how they planned to be at their best from the first day of the Games to the last day. This group was part of a team with legitimate chances for medals on many days of the Games, and the discussion led, in part, to ensuring that everyone had time for exercise each day and that enough sleep was planned. Being aware of rest, recovery, and overall health is not only important for athletes. It is crucial that coaches and support staff are well rested as well, so that there is the energy to focus well, to make effective decisions when called upon, and to contribute to a positive and healthy team energy.


       As the number of sport psychology consultants in Canada continues to grow, it is important to reflect on the values we choose to guide us in our work alongside athletes, coaches, sport organizations, and other sport science staff. We argue in this paper that it is essential, at both an individual and organizational level, to be explicit about naming those values, and doing one’s best to act in a manner that is consistent with those values. From our perspective, guided by our stated values of integrity, compassion, and empathy, we work toward enabling consistent and high-quality performance, while simultaneously helping the individual develop into a self-reliant and reflective athlete and human being. While at the Olympic level it is about winning, it is not only about winning, and certainly not winning at any cost. With clearly articulated values, it is much easier to navigate the ethical challenges faced by sport psychology consultants such as confidentiality, emotions, boundaries, and taking care of yourself in order to be an effective consultant.


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NOTE: Penny Werthner, PhD is a former Olympic athlete in the sport of athletics and has worked with athletes and coaches at six winter and summer Olympic Games since 1984. John Coleman, currently completing his PhD, is just beginning his consulting career, and is presently working with the Paralympic Alpine Ski team preparing for Vancouver 2010.

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