Athletic Insight - The Online Journal of Sport Psychology

Ethical and Practical Issues Related to Multiple
Role Relationships in Sport Psychology

Jack C. Watson II and Damien Clement
West Virginia University


Ethical Issues Related to Multiple Role Relationships

Coach-Practitioner Multiple Role Relationship

Teacher-Practitioner Multiple Role Relationship

Researcher-Practitioner Multiple Role Relationship

Multiple Role Relationship Decisions

Practical Approach for Handling Multiple Role Relationships



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       As professionals within the sport arena continue to pursue additional competencies and qualifications, the potential for dual or multiple role relationships with others has drastically increased (Jones, Evans, & Mullen, 2007). With respect to the field of sport psychology, dual or multiple role relationships occur when a professional assumes two roles simultaneously or sequentially with a person seeking help (Herlihy & Corey, 1992). Although the terms “dual role relationship” and “multiple role relationship” have been used frequently in the literature, for the purposes of this paper the currently recognized term, multiple role relationship, will be utilized from this point forward.

       Multiple role relationships are usually experienced by individuals who possess the necessary training to work as a professional in multiple fields either separately or individually (Buceta, 1993). The practical convenience associated with combining multiple roles for a single person has, to a certain extent, increased the occurrence of multiple role relationships within the sporting arena. These conveniences and the other inherent advantages with regard to combining roles have led to the limited acceptance of multiple role relationships in the sport psychology literature. Pope and Vasquez (1991) further asserted that the potential benefits associated with multiple role relationships have served as a justification for these relationships.

       On the other hand, the potential moral and ethical conflicts which can occur during these relationships have also been documented in the literature. Kitchener (1988) has stated that all multiple role relationships “can be ethically problematic and have the potential for harm” (p. 217). Further, research by Watson, Clement, Harris, Leffingwell and Hurst (2006) found that professionals in the field of sport psychology were frequently in agreement that multiple role relationships could be ethical if handled appropriately. However, those surveyed who were licensed mental health practitioners were more likely to report that multiple role relationships were never appropriate and to report never having taken part in a multiple role relationship when compared to non-licensed sport psychology practitioners.

       As a result of the aforementioned discrepancies of thought surrounding multiple role relationships in sport psychology, the primary purpose of this paper is to review the ethical issues related to multiple role relationships, within the sporting realm, as they pertain to coach-practitioner, teacher-practitioner, and researcher-practitioner relationships. A secondary purpose will be to present the advantages and disadvantages associated with the aforementioned multiple role relationships. Finally, a potential protocol for dealing ethically and effectively with multiple role relationships will be presented.

Ethical Issues Related to Multiple Role Relationships

       As is the case with many organizations, the ethical standards with respect to multiple role relationships for both the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) and the American Psychological Association (APA) are somewhat vague, except with respect to their stance on sexual relationships with clients. In truth, the lack of a clearly defined stance on multiple role relationships within these documents is likely due to the belief that such relationships can be ethical if handled appropriately. Further, since the AASP Ethical Principles and Standards ( were developed from the 1992 version of the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (APA, 1992), both of the codes from these two organizations are very similar. The only major difference between these two codes in with respect to multiple role relationships is that the APA code more specifically defines multiple role relationships.

       When considering the AASP Ethics Code, sport psychology practitioners dealing with multiple role relationships would be well served to take great care when entering into such relationships, and should always think about the potential consequences of such relationships before entering into them. Below, note the exact text from Standard 9 of the AASP Ethics Code, outlining major considerations for dealing with such relationships.

Multiple Relationships
(a) AASP members must always be sensitive to the potential harmful if unintended effects of social or other nonprofessional contacts on their work and on those persons with whom they deal. Such multiple relationships might impair the AASP member’s objectivity or might harm or exploit the other party.
(b) An AASP member refrains from taking on professional or scientific obligations when preexisting relationships would create a risk of such harm.
(c) AASP members do not engage in sexual relationships with students, supervisees, and clients over whom the AASP member has evaluative, direct, or indirect authority, because such relationships are so likely to impair judgment or be exploitative.
(d) AASP members avoid personal, scientific, professional, financial, or other relationships with family members of minor clients because such relationships are so likely to impair judgment or be exploitative.
(e) If an AASP member finds that, due to unforeseen factors, a potentially harmful multiple relationship has arisen, the AASP member attempts to resolve it with due regard for the best interests of the affected person and maximal compliance with the Ethics Code.

       From the ethical standard identified above, it seems clear that the major ethical concern related to multiple role relationships is that unintentional harm, risk or exploitation can be potentially experienced by the client (Slimp & Burian, 1994). Such harm, risk or exploitation even when unintended may occur despite steps taken to avoid it. Therefore, when dealing with multiple role relationships, it is important for professionals to be aware of the most basic ethical maxim, which is to “do no harm.” Although unenforceable by law, this suggests that when making such decisions, one should ultimately take a course of action that they believe will do no harm to the client.

       As can be interpreted from the above passages, entering into multiple role relationships is not expressly prohibited or unethical. In fact, entering into such relationships may be appropriate and even beneficial at times. For these reasons, it is important for professionals to be aware of the many ethical issues related to multiple role relationships before entering into them.

Ethical Considerations

       When considering taking part in a multiple role relationship, the practitioner needs to be aware of the many ethical issues that they may face. One of these ethical considerations related to practitioners dealing with multiple role relationships is the potential to distort the professional relationship and consultation process (Pope & Vazques, 1991). Specifically, the relationship between the practitioner and client can lead to the consultant having trouble maintaining objectivity, as their emotional involvement in one realm can affect their perceptions within another realm (Blevins-Knabe, 1992). Further, when objectivity is affected, it increases the likelihood that the practitioner could inadvertently use the power from one setting to influence client decisions in another setting. When this occurs, it is clear that the relationships can negatively affect the professional development of the practitioner in addition to jeopardizing the welfare of the client (Pope, 1991). Further, involvement in multiple roles make role confusion more likely to occur. When this occurs, clients and practitioners are more likely to have trouble switching between roles, and could act inappropriately within a role because of this confusion (e.g., calling an instructor coach instead of Dr. X).

       Multiple role relationships can also jeopardize a practitioner’s ability to practice ethically for several other reasons. Handling multiple roles is extremely taxing, and can take significant time. In some situations, this excessive time commitment may lead to decreases in the practitioner’s quality of work in one or both of the roles (Staffo, 1992). These time commitments have the ability to increase stress levels and decrease job satisfaction (Figone, 1994), leading to decreased performance in both roles and possible role ambiguity (Locke & Massengale, 1978).

       Potentially some of the most important ethical issues related to multiple role relationships revolve around trust issues (Buceta, 1993) that may develop from concerns related to the exchange of information. In one situation, clients may not feel comfortable talking with a practitioner because they believe that providing such information may affect their role in the other setting (e.g., loss of playing time, poor grade). Further, clients may also develop the impression that performance in one setting affects performance in the other. For instance, if a client receives a poor grade on a paper, she may also believe that the practitioner does not like her as much in the other role, or develop less trust for the practitioner’s desire to help her in the other role.

       In the above section we have identified many of the ethical issues that can occur within multiple role relationships. Given the potential for problems that can occur within these relationships, these issues are very important to consider when making a decision about possible participation in multiple roles. However, it is also important to consider the many pros and cons of taking part in multiple role relationships. The following section will outline many of these advantages and disadvantages related to such participation.

Coach-Practitioner Multiple Role Relationship

       Of the aforementioned multiple role relationships, the most often documented in the sport psychology literature is the coach-practitioner multiple role relationship. In fact, a great deal of debate occurred in the literature during the 1980s and 1990s on this topic when it was perceived that sport psychology consultants and students in training were getting involved in these multiple role relationships at a high rate. However, since the 1990s, the literature related to ethical issues and specifically multiple role relationships has decreased dramatically.

       Individuals taking part in coach-practitioner multiple role relationships are often thought to be qualified coaches with some basic background in the area of sport psychology via readings or courses. In other situations, head coaches hire assistant coaches who are also experienced sport psychology practitioners and ask them to work with the team in the role of consultant. A typical example of a coach-practitioner multiple role is a coach or assistant coach serving as his/her team’s sport psychology consultant. Serving in both of these roles at the same time could have several advantages and disadvantages.


       According to Buceta (1993) the blending of these two roles provides the “optimal coordination between athletic and psychological work” (p. 72) which may prove to be extremely critical in individual, and ultimately, team success. Having an individual occupy a coach-practitioner role essentially eliminates the lack of trust and respect some practitioners are faced with when working with athletic teams (Smith, 1992). Thus, the coach would be able to implement the necessary psychological skills and techniques without much resistance (Smith). Furthermore, the coach in such a role can easily present his/her athletes with the necessary athletic experiences in order to promote increased efficacy and utilization of psychological techniques (Buceta). More importantly, this individual will, more than likely, incorporate psychological work into many different aspects of athletic practices and games as opposed to having it “done after or in between long hours of athletic training, under inadequate conditions” (Buceta, p. 72). Such coordinated implementation helps to ensure that there is “continuity between the physical and psychological training” (Smith, p. 57), eliminating the chances of any disagreement in philosophies between coach and practitioner. Finally, according to Buceta a coach-practitioner’s understanding of both the athletic and psychological demands associated with the sport increases their ability to efficiently perform their duties as both a coach and a sport psychology consultant.

Disadvantages and Challenges

       Despite the aforementioned advantages which can be derived from such a multiple role relationship, the literature has also documented some disadvantages and challenges of engaging in such relationships. First, the time restrictions associated with fulfilling both a coach and practitioner role may limit an individual from being able to adequately perform his/her role as a coach-practitioner. Consequently, this can result in the individual neglecting duties associated with one or both roles, thus jeopardizing the quality of work provided in one or both areas (Hornak & Hornak, 1993). Furthermore, if the individual is somehow able to function effectively in both areas, questions may be cast with regard to the quality of the work being provided (Buceta, 1993).

       Second, excessive emotional involvement, on the part of the coach-practitioner, may hinder his/her ability to remain calm and objective while performing psychological work (Buceta, 1993). Conversely, athletes who play under a coach-practitioner who displays excessive emotional involvement may prefer to work with a practitioner who is removed from the situation and not involved in coaching decisions (Buceta).

       Lack of mutual trust can also potentially disrupt communication between a coach-practitioner and his/her athletes and, more importantly, the psychological services being provided (Buceta, 1993). More specifically, athletes may not be inclined to reveal problems associated with one’s personal life, game considerations, their coach or coaching style for fear of punishment from coaching decisions made by the coach-practitioner. The coach-practitioner may also be faced with the dilemma of “maintaining the sanctity and trust of both the individual and the team” in trying to effectively function in each role (Ellickson & Brown, 1988, p. 188). This individual may also have the potential to lose their objectivity after learning about his/her players’ personal concerns thereby further eroding the coach-athlete relationship (Hornak & Hornak, 1993). Finally, players may be reluctant to share mental weaknesses which could then be used by their coach-practitioner to influence decisions about their playing time (Jones, Evans, & Mullen, 2007; Smith, 1992).

Teacher-Practitioner Multiple Role Relationship

       The teacher-practitioner dual role is yet another multiple role relationship which has been documented in the sport psychology literature. Such multiple role relationships are most likely to occur in the collegiate setting when faculty members who teach sport psychology are also asked to consult with teams on campus. As may be expected, becoming involved in such a multiple role relationship may result in some advantages and disadvantages for the individual and his/her students.


       Faculty consulting has been known to provide a number of benefits to not only the teacher-consultant engaging in the consulting, but also his/her institution, the students, as well as the community in which they reside. According to Boycer and Lewis (1984), faculty members who engage in consulting obtain real-world experiences and increased teaching resources which will ultimately be passed on to their students. These experiences not only help faculty improve their practical expertise, but also serve as a testing ground for new theories and protocols (Hedge & Borman, 2008). These opportunities may also enable graduate students to gain valuable real-world experience working together with faculty members on these projects/tasks/assignments (Hedge & Borman). Furthermore, faculty consulting also enhances the individual’s marketability in addition to positively reflecting on his/her department as well as their institution of employment (Boycer & Lewis).

Disadvantages and Challenges

       Many of the aforementioned benefits which can be derived from a teacher-practitioner multiple role relationship can be quickly negated by the potential complications resulting from the two roles. One such problem occurs when student-athletes question the objectivity of evaluation from their instructor based upon the sensitive information he/she may have been privy to in their role as a practitioner (Knabe, 1992). These concerns from students are based upon their beliefs that the instructor is unable to stay impartial because of his/her experiences in both realms. Such concerns may be valid, given that individuals who participate in these types of relationships could lose their level of impartiality with regard to the level of instruction provided as well as their ability to act in the best interest of the student (Sonne, 1994). These encounters, and subsequent relationships, also have the potential to negatively impact students with whom the faculty member has already developed a relationship.

       On the therapeutic side, this multiple role relationship has the potential to alter the professional relationship as well as the consultation process (Pope & Vazquez, 1991). Concerns related to such multiple role relationships may result in clients not being willing to share information with the practitioner, or developing the belief that classroom or sport performance could affect the practitioner’s interactions with them in the other setting. These problems become of even greater concern when both parties are not consistently aware of the multiples roles that they are filling. Moreover, in addition to possibly negatively affecting the client’s well being, the practitioner’s professional development may also be at risk (Pope, 1991) if they are perceived as crossing ethical guidelines with regard to their teacher or practitioner roles.

Researcher-Practitioner Multiple Role Relationship

       Of the previously mentioned multiple role relationships, the researcher-practitioner multiple role relationship is probably the most rare (Lewin, 1970). This relationship usually occurs when a sport psychology practitioner simultaneously pursues a role as an experimental investigator. As with the other types of multiple role relationships, this type of multiple role relationship also has potential advantages and disadvantages.


       An individual who functions as both a researcher and practitioner essentially brings a certain degree of creditability to their practice based on their research endeavors. Such credibility comes from the benefits derived from basing practice upon empirical information derived from research. When research guides practice, practitioners are better able to make appropriate decisions about the best courses of action when working with clients.

       Moreover, researcher-practitioners usually have a network of existing contacts within their field of expertise on which they can draw in order to gain access to a desired population needed for their research study (Arber, 2006). These “networks of contacts” not only facilitate easy access to prospective participants, but also enhances the acceptability of research participation (Arber). Furthermore, researcher-practitioners are able to utilize their experience and knowledge of clinical problems in formulating studies which could ultimately yield results applicable to the discipline in which they practice (Lewin, 1970). Consequently, because of their unique roles it is quite possible that the research generated by these individuals has a greater chance of positively impacting practice in comparison to research carried out exclusively by researchers (Bass, 1970). Furthermore, this particular multiple role relationship provides a possible solution to addressing the communication disconnect which can exist between researchers and practitioners (Lewin).

Disadvantages and Challenges

       Despite the aforementioned advantages, this multiple role relationship has the potential to create problems, especially when the practitioner acts simultaneously as a researcher with a group of his/her clients. More specifically, the practitioner could exert pressure, overt or subtle, on clients to participate in a current research study in order to obtain an adequate sample size (Edwards & Chalmers, 2002). Moreover, given the power differential which exists in the practitioner-client relationship the client may be reluctant to decline participating for fear of jeopardizing the practitioner-client relationship (Levine, 1992). Furthermore, a practitioner’s optimism with regard to a particular research intervention could potentially affect the informed consent process in addition to inadvertently influencing a client’s participation in and behavior during a research project (Miller, 2000).

       Levine (1992) also reported that clients who chose to participate in research projects conducted by their practitioners may not feel free to withdraw from these studies when they should have the right to withdraw their participation at any time. Participation in these types of relationships can also cause an erosion of trust between the practitioner and the client if the client perceives that the practitioner in his role as a researcher no longer has his/her best interest at heart (Lemmens & Singer, 1998). Finally, the client in such relationships could easily become confused when he/she inadvertently switches between their roles as a practitioner and a researcher (King & Churchill, 2008). This confusion can be further exacerbated with the extensive use of “research” terminology in their role as a practitioner (King & Churchill).

Multiple Role Relationship Decisions

       The decision to take part in a multiple role relationship is not one that should be made easily. As discussed in the above sections, participation in such relationships can have many advantages and disadvantages, and can also have many unexpected negative effects on both the professional and the client. These positive and negative consequences need to be considered before making such decisions. Further, once a decision is made to take part in such a relationship, it is essential for the professional to develop a plan for moving forward in these multiple roles in an ethical manner.

Rationales for engaging in Multiple Role Relationships

       Despite the drawbacks which have been associated with multiple role relationships, practitioners in sport psychology still continue to engage in this practice. One of the primary reasons for the continuation of practitioners taking part in multiple role relationships is likely due to the small number of qualified sport psychology practitioners. To date, the American Psychological Association (APA) has a proficiency in sport psychology, but there is no exam/credentialing method in place to allow individuals to receive this proficiency. Further, there are only approximately 300 AASP Certified Consultants, and the majority of these are likely clustered on University Campuses. As one would expect, 300 consultants is not nearly enough to provide services to all interested individuals and teams across the United States, let alone the world. Because of this paucity of qualified consultants, those who do consult are often pulled in many different directions such as teaching, consulting, research and service, increasing the opportunities for multiple role relationships to occur.

       Another possible reason why professionals persist in entering multiple role relationships could be the convenience associated with having one individual, with appropriate qualifications, fulfill two complementary roles (Buceta, 1993). For example, wouldn’t a basketball coach be the most qualified person to teach techniques in basketball? Similarly, wouldn’t a sport psychology professor be appropriately qualified, and conveniently located, to consult with a university athletic team? Furthermore, the decreased cost associated with employing one individual to fulfill multiple roles could also contribute to the occurrences of multiple role relationships (Figone, 1994). Another possible reason why multiple role relationships occur could be due to the potential benefits which could be derived from one role positively influencing the individual’s ability to function in his/her other role (Boycer & Lewis, 1984; Lewin, 1970). For example, a college professor would be able to bolster his/ her teaching within the classroom as well as their research effectiveness due to the consulting work done in the area. Furthermore, a researcher in applied sport and exercise psychology would be very well informed about best practices in the field when working with a client.

Potential problems associated with Multiple Role Relationships

       It must also be stated that despite the rationales which could be presented in defense of multiple role relationships there are a few major problems which can arise as a result of these relationships. First, there is a very high probability that individuals who engage in multiple role relationships (professionals or clients) could inadvertently experience a blurring of the roles and responsibilities associated with their positions (King & Churchill, 2008). That is, the individual may become so engrossed in performing both roles that he/she forgets which role they are functioning at any particular time. This occurrence can have important ramifications for the clients with whom this person works. Another possible problem could be the individual’s effectiveness in their ability to function within each role (Figone, 1994). Having to perform multiple roles can also put a strain on an individual and as such their work effectiveness maybe adversely affected. Once again, the individual’s clients will ultimately suffer as a result.

Practical Approach for Handling Multiple Role Relationships

       As can be inferred from the previous literature review, multiple role relationships are at best tricky to work with, and at worst destructive to both the client and practitioner. As such, it is best for practitioners to enter into such relationships only when they are unavoidable. The wise practitioner, teacher, coach and/or researcher takes steps to avoid problems that can be caused by multiple role relationships before they occur. Although it is impossible to foresee all possible problems that may occur, there are several steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of such problems occurring.

       When one becomes aware of a potential multiple role relationship, it is prudent to look for methods of avoiding such a relationship (e.g., changing courses, asking athletes to take different courses, conducting research with teams other than those one is consulting with). If such relationships are not avoidable, proactive communication is of the utmost importance. Practitioners are encouraged to talk with the clients who will also be affected by the multiple role relationship, either as early as possible or even before such a relationship begins. During this discussion, the practitioner should clearly articulate the possible problems caused by multiple role relationships (e.g., feelings of exploitation, loss of power, concerns about appropriate treatment, concerns about sharing information), and the reasons for their concern. Further, the practitioner should clearly describe both parties’ responsibilities within each of the multiple roles. The primary goals of this communication should be to: 1) educate the client about multiple role relationships and ethical guidelines, 2) open lines of communication for further discussions, and 3) develop a strategy for dealing with any future problems that may occur as a result of this relationship.

       It would be unreasonable to assume that all clients would be concerned about or able to understand the possible ramifications of a multiple role relationship. Further, it is possible that many if not most clients would not be willing to approach a practitioner to discuss multiple role relationship problems. For these reasons, the professional needs to be continually alert to the possibilities of problems occurring. As such, the professional should be looking for changes in client behavior and emotional outlook, as well as little changes such as facial and body expressions, amount of interaction, and communication patterns. Beyond looking for changes in the behavior and emotions of the client, the professional also needs to be ever aware of changes in his/her own behaviors and emotions with respect to the client.

       If problems are suspected by the practitioner based upon one’s observations of the client’s or their own behaviors and emotions, the practitioner should address these suspicions with the client immediately. In doing so, it is wise to realize that the client may not be completely comfortable with this discussion for several reasons. It is possible that the client does not notice his/her own behaviors and emotions, and may actually want to deny them altogether. It is also possible because of the power differential and closeness of the consulting relationship that the client would feel as if they are letting their practitioner down. Further, it could be very confusing to the client if his/her practitioner decides to stop one type of interaction with them for reasons that they may view as out of their control or not important. In such cases, it is very possible that clients would feel some amount of abandonment.

       If suspicions about problems are found or highly suspected to be true, it is recommended that the practitioner take steps to alleviate these problems. As is stated in the AASP (AASP, nd) ethics code, “If an AASP member finds that, due to unforeseen factors, a potentially harmful multiple relationship has arisen, the AASP member attempts to resolve it with due regard for the best interests of the affected person and maximal compliance with the Ethics Code.” While the phrase due regard is vague, it implies taking caution with this resolution so as not to harm the client. This leaves the door open for the practitioner to consider several different options based upon the demands of the situation, the ethics codes and the guiding ethical principles. Possible solutions could include:

  1. finding another practitioner to work with the client
  2. having other professionals grade this client’s papers
  3. stopping individual appointments and only work with this client in group settings
  4. having this client transfer classes
  5. finding additional research experiences for this client

It should be noted that none of these solutions are perfect for every situation. The most appropriate solution is the one that serves the best interests of the client and allows the practitioner to remain ethical. It is recommended that practitioners use appropriate ethical decision making models (Code of Ethics for Psychologists, 2000; Tarvydas, 1998) and consult with other practitioners when making such decisions so as to ensure that they are considering all relevant information.

       In situations when no problems are suspected or identified, it is still good practice for the practitioner to periodically talk with the client about the multiple role relationship and any possible problems. During such follow-up conversations, it would be important for the practitioner to be open, approachable, and willing to talk about his/her concerns. Such openness and concern for the welfare of the client and his/her experiences will certainly help the client realize that the practitioner is open to taking steps to help them in their endeavors.


       In conclusion, it is important to remember that multiple role relationships in sport psychology increase the potential for many and varied problems for both practitioners and clients. As such, it is the ethical responsibility of the practitioner to get involved in multiple role relationships only when the potential for harm to the client is limited and all reasonable steps to avoid such problems have been taken. Given that the potential for harm is high, it is also important to remember that in many instances these situations may be effectively handled by practitioners who are aware of the pros and cons of such relationships and remain cognizant of the many possible issues and problems. To handle these situations effectively requires due diligence on the part of both the practitioner and client.

       The practitioner needs to be aware that he/she is not the only person maintaining the multiple role relationship, as the client is also involved, sometimes without being consulted, within the multiple role relationship. Unfortunately, the client is often much less prepared emotionally, educationally, and experientially to deal with the complications of such relationships, and in most situations are also the ones with less power and in most danger of being exploited. Therefore, to remain ethical, it is essential for the professional to provide guidance, support and knowledge to the client about the multiple-relationship and the potential benefits and harms that may result from it. The professional is also encouraged to closely monitor these relationships and to use sound ethical decision making to handle the problems that occur.


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