Episode 37 in an interview with professor of sport and exercise psychology at Loughborough University, Sophia Jowett. Sophia also worked as a consultant for the Greek Olympic team in Athens 2004.
Over the past twenty years she has been a leader in her field, helping us to understand the intricacies of the interpersonal relationships in sport.
In this interview she gives us an insight into her studies, her motivations, what she wants her research to achieve and in doing so reminds us of the significant role the coach-athlete relationship plays for performance success.
Find out more about Sophia and her research here.
THE TRANSCRIPT BELOW WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, WE CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
TX: 3.2.19 – Ep 36. Sophia Jowett
HOST: TAMMY PARLOUR
T: Welcome to a Question of Performance. I’m Tammy Parlour and in this series I’ll be talking with leading figures from sport and business about what improves, limits and drives performance. Join me for 20 minutes of discussion twice a month to hear a range of views on what it means to be successful, how to cope with failure and what people have learnt along the way.
This morning I’m with Sophia Jowett. Sophia is Professor of Sport and Exercise Psychology at Loughborough University. She also worked as a consultant for the Greek Olympic team in Athens in 2004. Over the past 20 years, she’s been a leader in her field, helping us to understand the intricacies of the interpersonal relationships in sport.
In this interview, she gives us an insight into her studies, her motivations, what she wants her research to achieve and, in doing so, she reminds us of the significant role the coach/athlete relationship plays for performance success.
I started by asking her to tell us what led her to sport in the first place.
SJ: Tammy, thanks very much for having me. What led me to sport? Okay. That will go back to my early days. I come from a very sporty family. My father represented Greece in the long jump in two Olympic games and my mum worked in the Hellenic Olympic Committee. So, inevitably, I breathed and ate and slept sport. So, it was inevitable that I would find myself in sport.
I ended up, at the age of about 11 or 12, making a decision to go into athletics, like my dad, as my brother was playing football. Over about 10 years, I had the opportunity to be coached by wonderful coaches, but also some that I, kind of, found difficult to work with. I think the impetus of the work that I’m doing today is, really, the experiences that I accumulated, as I was a young athlete working with different people.
TP: That’s fascinating. For those people, who are listening, who don’t know, could you describe what you are currently doing at Loughborough?
SJ: Yes, of course. So, for the past, nearly 20 years (if we also count the work that I did as a PhD student back at the University of Exeter) my work revolves around trying to understand the complex nature, the interpersonal dynamics between coach and athlete. I’m very much interested in the intricacies of that particular relationship, how coaches and athletes connect, how they relate and how this unique partnership that they often develop leads them to extraordinary success.
TP: You’ve sort of alluded to it a little bit, but what is it that motivates you to that? Is it remembering that time when you were 11? Is that what’s pushed you on? What motivates you?
SJ: Well, what motivated me, originally, was that there was nothing in the literature around relationships and most of the interpersonal dynamics between coaches and athletes were addressed, explained and understood through coach leadership models. For me, when I was reading, I appreciated that you cannot really capture the intricacies that exist between coaches and athletes by just looking at the coach and what coaches do to influence the athlete and their team’s performance and success.
The athletes, as well, influence the coaches in what they do. So, there is a reciprocity within that partnership or the interpersonal dynamics between those people that were not captured through the literature that existed, the research that existed.
So, my experience is coupled with the fact that there was very little, or indeed, nothing when I started, and this motivated me to explore this further. Of course, as I went into it, I was just fascinated by the things that coaches and athletes were telling me through the interviews that we conducted and the early research that we did. I felt very strongly that there is something quite unique in the way that coaches and athletes operate and relate.
TP: If you look back on the research that you’ve done, what do you feel is the most significant? Significant could mean anything, to the outside world, to you?
SJ: To me at this point in time, what is significant, is that we have captured what we think is the quality of the relationship. When we talk about relationships, I’m sure you may have a different definition, others may have a different definition. Therefore, I think, now we have captured the points of views of many different coaches and athletes in a model that is multi-dimensional and really helps us understand a very complex phenomenon.
So, I can tell you with some degree of confidence and through the research that we have done over the past 20 years, what ‘relationship’ is, and this has not been through my efforts alone, it’s the efforts of the coaches that have participated, the coaches and athletes who have participated in our research, and they have told us what they think it is. We have organised all that knowledge in a way that everybody can now know and understand what that relationship is.
TP: When I was studying, I did a masters in strength and conditioning and your research was used on that course. I was struck by how relevant and accessible your research felt. You shape the coaches of the future and, I suppose, I’m interested to know, do you feel that connection to the coaches of today? Do you feel that you do have an impact on the future of sport?
SJ: I certainly feel… I don’t want to sound…. I want to be modest in my response. I really, certainly feel that the research that we have done has put the relationship on the sport map and people now more freely, and more clearly understand that the relationship is important. Like leadership, relationships and communication are important aspects for effective coaching. So, I certainly feel connected with the coaches.
I want and my mission is, to help coaches understand that the relationship is a vehicle, it’s a medium, it’s a platform from which they can really bring about change and significant success for themselves and their athletes and the teams that they work with. They really need to… If they haven’t used or capitalised this notion of relationship within their coaching, I think they’re missing a trick and I really want them to know and understand that it is important to bring that into their practices and connect with their athletes.
Because athletes… When we talk about relationships, we talk about these two people working together towards one direction. Coaches cannot do it alone, they need the support and the commitment of their athletes. Therefore, these two people, if they work together, they can really do extraordinary things. Whilst, if they work alone or separately, I don’t think they can bring about the change that they could have done otherwise.
TP: I imagine when you’re doing your research, getting it published, all that sort of stuff, there’s lots of different stages to that: there’s the first, sort of, coming together with the idea; there’s the going out and doing interviews or whatever it is; there’s the actual writing it up, presenting it etcetera. Do you have a part of that, that you get the most buzz from?
SJ: Yes. Yeah, good question. I really enjoy the research bit, sitting down and designing a research.
TP: What is it about it that you get the buzz from, what about that?
SJ: It’s kind of thinking, all right, how can we make a difference and what is the research question that we need to address?
TP: So, sort of, drilling it down? Yeah.
SJ: Yes, yes. It’s just, sitting down and thinking, brainstorming ideas. What really makes me motivated when it comes to designing a research or the next research project is, how can I help coaches? How can I help athletes? How can I help sport? How can I help better performances, through the little line of research that I’m interested in? This has driven me, really. I want to do research that matters to the coaches, to the athletes, to the sport. I would like to think that my research is very practical and, if it is not, then I’m not that interested.
TP: Yes. Yes.
SJ: Or other people may not be interested [laughter].
TP: Over the past few years since the growth of the Me Too movement, there’s been various stories about abuse of power within coach and athlete relationships sometimes. Any thoughts on that side of things? So, sort of, the negative side?
SJ: Yeah. There is a dark side or negative side of relationships and there are coaches out there who we know are abusive and exploitative of their athletes and this is part of the world that we live in. It’s not something that we just observe in sport, we observe it in all domains of life. Going back to the mission, it’s just we need to educate coaches to be better coaches. Some coaches, unintentionally perhaps, create situations where the impact is rather negative for their athletes and for themselves.
So, if there is anything we can do, it’s to educate coaches to deliver coaching that is positive. You mentioned about power. In my eyes, because I don’t want to say that I do positive psychology, but I think this is what I strive particularly for. I see power as something that the coaches and athletes share. The power does not reside in the coach or in the athlete…
TP: That’s interesting.
SJ: …it is something that they can both share, and it’s for the greater good. So, as I said, if coaches feel that they have all the power, I think they’re probably more powerless than they can ever think, if you know what I mean. They don’t capitalise, they don’t utilise their athlete’s power. Athletes are as powerful as they are, and it is a partnership. At whatever performance level you look at it, the athletes are very much part of that development, of that trajectory that aims to improve performance. As I said, coaches cannot do it alone, they need their athletes. Athletes cannot do it alone, they need their coaches. It’s very much a combined effort.
TP: When you think about coaching, at the moment, in general, do you think there’s an area of the coach/athlete relationship that actually needs to be focused on a little bit more, that people need to understand more?
SJ: Well, I can talk a little bit about the projects we are doing, at the moment. So, I’m very interested in whether gender has got anything to do with coaching.
SJ: Okay? We are looking at how coaches, regardless of their gender, coach female and male teams. We’re focusing on teams, at the moment. We started that study, or this research which is a long-term research, from the point of view that there is not much research out there that looks at gender and coaching practises.
I started from the point of view that, through my observations, which are not scientific, they are ad hoc, and through some reading that I’ve done that is anecdotal from coaches, talking about their experiences coaching the female versus the male. I just starting thinking whether coaches are trying hard to coach the female athlete differently from the male, because they simply think that female athletes need different treatment.
I start from the point of view that I don’t think male and female athletes need different treatment, they need to be treated as athletes. What we need to really be sensitive of is the person that we coach, the person that we have in front of us. It’s not about the age, the gender, the experience, the culture, it’s just the athlete and their needs and how, as a coach, they’re there to support and develop that athlete. So, I started from that point of view.
Now, as I said, high profile coaches have come out and spoken about male and female athletes needing different ways of coaching. But I started from the point of view, that really, we don’t. So, we will just observe coaches coaching males and females and hopefully, we will find and identify any patterns in their coaching behaviours and whether, indeed, there are any differences in the ways they communicate, in the ways they behave, in the time that, perhaps, female athletes versus male athletes spend in skill development, or in playing games. So, it would be interesting to see what is happening. I have my own hunches that coaches stereotypically coach the female athletes differently, but I don’t think there is much need for it.
TP: Yes, that will be really interesting. When do you expect us to be able to read the findings of what you’re working on at the minute?
SJ: We have just started, so it will take at least a year before we can present the first set of results. Yeah, it will be exciting and I’m very excited about that.
Another project we are doing is dealing with issues around leadership and relationships. So, leadership and relationships are both very important for effective coaching. The constant is that coaches need to have extremely good knowledge of their sport, the tactical, the technical, the strategical aspects of their sport. But leadership and relationships are important to help coaches transfer that knowledge over to their athletes.
Now, leadership is very different from relationships, but often we confuse the two. So, we’d like to separate the two, but study them together and that’s what this second study is doing. But it’s more… I think, we are starting from a theoretical point of view. So, it will take us a little longer to see some practical recommendations from that research. It will be first theoretical and then we may be drawing some practical recommendations out from it.
TP: So, probably in about a year for that one as well, or a little bit longer?
SJ: Yeah. Yeah. I will say a little bit longer. But, yeah, yeah.
TP: Okay, we’ll look out for that one as well.
This podcast is all about performance and success and how different people view those things. What’s success for you?
SJ: Success. Success, for me, is having, the person, whether it is an athlete or a coach, seeing incremental improvements.
SJ: So, for me, it is important that you establish an environment within which both the coach and the athlete are happy, feel safe but, at the same time, they both feel accomplished and rewarded.
TP: That’s success for them. What’s success for you?
SJ: Oh, for me? Success for me. Oh, okay. Success for me.
TP: Is it being published? Is it having a lovely life?
SJ: Success for me is… more recently. Yes, yes. It has been, over the years, for me, what I wanted to do is, through my research, to create a niche for me, where perhaps my name is associated with the research that I do. Because in academia, it is important to find your domain, and I think I’ve found my domain. I was lucky enough to create a domain for myself and to be known for that domain, which is the coach/athlete relationship. But more recently, my focus has shifted and I’m very, very keen to get the word out [laughs], and to speak to as many coaches, to as many athletes as possible, about the research that we do, the knowledge that we have. I’m very keen to help these people do a better job and experience success, however they define it.
TP: So, to increase the audience to what you’re working on?
SJ: Yes. Yes. Yes. We need a captive audience to have more impact, more practical impact. I work very closely, more recently, with UK Sport, UK coaching within the UK, to really spread the word and make it known to everybody that they can make a difference by just focusing on that element.
TP: One question that just popped into my head, do you remember the first paper you got published?
TP: Yes. How was that? The first time you were published, how did that feel? What was that like?
SJ: Yeah, that was back in 2000, that was my first paper and I was still a PhD student and I remember trying to publish a couple of papers at the same time. In fact, I got a lot of rejects from the journals and I was thinking, “they don’t understand my research. I’m just trying to put out something new.” I could see the resistance, people not really appreciating and understanding where I was coming from. Ironically, the first paper I published was ‘The Coach/Athlete Relationship in Married Couples‘ [laughs]. Subsequently, other papers followed. But I remember having a lot of disappointment before I published. When, of course, I published and I got that paper out, I felt very, very proud and I knew that I had something different, something new and something exciting to supply and to provide to our world.
TP: For those listening, who obviously can’t see Sophia, when I asked her about her first published article, she grinned from ear to ear, so I think it must have felt good.
SJ: Yeah, yeah. It was a good moment. It was a good moment.
TP: I’m just going to end up with some quick-fire questions.
What did you eat for breakfast?
SJ: Okay. A croissant…
TP: A croissant.
SJ: … and a coffee.
TP: Favourite piece of kit?
SJ: Can I say my pair of jeans?
TP: Of course, you can.
SJ: Sporting hero. Does it have to be…
TP: It could be anyone. It could be your mum [laughs].
SJ: I’m thinking of Usain Bolt [laughs].
SJ: Because he’s lightning [laughs].
TP: Most useless piece of advice that you’ve either received or given.
SJ: Okay. Yes. The one piece of advice that I found very difficult to implement myself, but I can see the reason why it is so important, is patience.
TP: Patience. Okay.
Greatest passion outside of sport?
SJ: Ooh, my daughters. I love them. Yes.
TP: How old are they?
SJ: One is 16 and one is 13.
TP: And last one, best performance enhancer?
SJ: Performance enhancer? For me, it will have to be coffee.
TP: Do you drink a lot of it?
SJ: Yes [laughs].
TP: That’s brilliant. Thanks so much for talking with me today, Sophia.
SJ: You’re very welcome. Thank you very much.
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TP: Thanks for listening. You can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and also, don’t forget to subscribe online to aquestionofperformance.com .
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