Perspectives on Professional Development for Helping Professions in Sport
Development of a career in a helping profession in sport can be said to go through several stages. Research on professional development has a literature base that outlines key defining features of these stages, and challenges an individual will meet throughout. A-priori knowledge of these stages can help facilitate overcoming these challenges. Knowing in advance what to expect can aid in building helpful patterns of behaviour and thinking before they are needed.
The key phases outlined below (Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2003) highlight development across a career from Lay Helper to Senior Professional. These career paths assume some level of graduate or post graduate formal academic training, plus a period of “internship” or supervision.
It is helpful to know what might be coming up in your career, and where you currently are. What is often overlooked when seeking career progression is where you have come from. Reflecting on our achievements to date builds confidence in overcoming the next hurdle to success.
The Lay Helper Phase
No one starts a successful career without having previously had some experience before entering professional training. The lay helper has personal and common sense conceptions of how to best help others when they are in need or distress. Often, the solutions offered by the lay helper are ones they have experienced themselves, rather than be tailored specifically to their clients. From the perspective of professionally-based conceptions of helping, there are numerous boundary problems with this. Over-involvement with the problems of clients impedes the exploration and generation of an effective helping process. The concepts of sympathy and empathy tend to differentiate the lay helper from the professional helper.
The Beginning Student Phase
The Beginning Student typically finds the start of professional training to be exciting, and also intensely challenging. Learning new information, and perhaps being immersed into a new environment, can all combine to impact and overwhelm the Beginning Student. The previous ways of working as a lay helper are now known by the Beginning Student to no longer always be valid or appropriate.
This shift is a taxing task and often acutely felt, and issues of suitability are normally raised: “Do I have the personal characteristics needed for this work?”; or, “Do I have the resourcefulness needed to complete the studies and the ability to bridge the gap between theory and practice?”. Senior mentors can have a major impact here.
The dependency and vulnerability of the Beginning Student makes them particularly appreciative of support and encouragement. Direct or subtle criticism, actual or perceived, can have detrimental effects on morale. Their vulnerability can parallel that of some of their very own clients. Apprehension and anxiety is calmed by positive feedback from supervisors, and explicit positive feedback from clients.
Negative feedback brings reactivity, and is a difficult situation to manage. Easily mastered skills are absorbed quickly with focused effort that are hopefully applied to all clients. Learning these methods brings a sense of calm; with experience they bring disillusionment, but for now they serve a purpose. Openness to learning and an ability and willingness to recognise the complexities of professional work is crucial for growth.
The Beginning Student often feels threatened or anxious regarding their professional work. More frequently they experience: a lack of confidence they will lend beneficial effect for their client; unsure how to deal with a client; feel in danger of losing control of the situation with a client; distress by their powerlessness to effect a client in tragic circumstance; troubled by moral or ethical issues; irritation with a client who is actively blocking their efforts; or, guilt about having mishandled a critical situation with a client.
The Advanced Student Phase
Towards the end of formal professional training, the Advanced Student works akin to an intern, functioning at a basic, established, and professional level. Many in this stage have higher aspirations, and feel pressure to do things more perfectly than before.
Consequently they work in a cautious, conservative and excessively thorough manner. They are typically not relaxed in their work, risk-taking or spontaneous. Their high internalised standards for functioning are often misinterpreted by others as excessive and misunderstood responsibility. Their formal professional training has had an impact, although there is still observable external dependency in that they often actively seek confirmation and feedback from seniors. Experience of this supervision has particular significance and impact.
Modelling still plays an important part of their learning. They critically evaluate theoretical models, and often feel frustrated at a lack of opportunity to observe more experienced professionals. This external focus is balanced by an increased internal focus.
The Novice Professional Phase
These are the first few years following a prolonged period of formal professional training and are experienced as intense and engaging. There are challenges to overcome and master, and choices to be made. This phase covers the professional period up to five years post-graduation from final formal academic training. There is a sense of “being alone”, where those things learned in training are confirmed, followed by a period of disillusionment with that training and of oneself. This is followed by a more intense exploration into self and ones own professional environment. Having less guidance from supervisors is “scary” in the move to autonomous professional functioning.
Usually the Novice Professional is not prepared for this disillusionment; they may feel depressed about work, finding it too much trying to fit their clients into “models”. Client feedback provides powerful messages. Boundary regulation on areas of responsibility, and realistic goals are an area in which the Novice Professional often struggles, and disappointment with self can lead to a sense of inadequacy.
The Novice Professional may feel able to express their own personality through their work; this is interpreted positively if they are more self-assured, and negatively if they are questioning their own professional capacity. Successful integration of self puts the Novice Professional more at ease.
Experiencing an increased sense of complexity in their work, the Novice Professional recognises how profoundly important their relationship with their clients becomes. Understanding and mastering relationships, becoming skilful in defining work roles, and regulating boundaries receive increased attention. There ultimately ensues a renewed interest in learning new techniques. Unlike earlier skill-acquisition in prior phases, this is contrasted by having a more autonomous and self-directed character.
The Experienced Professional Phase
The experienced professional is has been practising autonomously for a number of years in a wide variety of contexts. Their practice is highly congruent with self (values, beliefs, attitudes, interests, etc). They are professionally authentic. There is an integration and consolidation process that typically occurs. The clutter is thrown out in order to build consistency and coherence.
A working style that fits with the Experienced Professional is developed; there is an intolerance for things that don’t fit, and a strong tendency to seek a working environment that is compatible. Crucial to client progress is the various ways in which the Experienced Professional is now able to work.
They are integrative in the models they adopt, using that which works best for their clients, whilst remaining congruent and authentic. This contrasts greatly with the rote and mechanistic employment of these same techniques in earlier phases.
Most feel comfortable with their work, able to trust their own judgement, and able to establish and maintain good working relationships. Their ability to goal-set appropriately and realistically has increased with awareness of their own strengths and limitations, and with a clearer definition of responsibility.
They are typically good at regulating their involvement with clients – capable of being fully involved and absorbed in their work, and within minutes are able to refocus attention, and subsequently engage with their next client. Many more working days are ended without feeling exhausted and depleted. This is “boundaried generosity” – a difficult yet crucial skill to master for long-term development in helping professions.
Parallel to this, the Experienced Professional is able to similarly delineate their professional roles from other roles they may have in their life: as a partner, friend, spouse, etc. Their interpersonal experiences continue to impact them strongly throughout their career, and there is a broadening in what influences are impactful. These interpersonal experiences are reflected upon in professional and personal domains. “Contextually sensitive knowledge development” is a central process to their attainment of wisdom.
The Senior Professional Phase
The Senior Professional is a practitioner who is well-established and regarded as senior within their field. This may be attained mid-career, though is more common after 20 to 25 years or more – often approaching retirement. The transition to guiding novices is sometimes hesitantly embraced, and other times actively welcomed.
They may continue to practice after formal retirement, with distress and objections to the glamorisation of old age. There may be anticipatory grief over future losses. Divergent interests and values have often brought separation from their own professional elders long passed, bringing regret.
A loss of innocence indicates a sense of realism in what may realistic be left to accomplish. They may experience a sense that there is, and will not be, any new knowledge in their field. Intellectual apathy and a sense of boredom can come from routine tasks completed over and over again, leading to a reduction in client-facing work.
That said, there remains a continued commitment to professional growth. There is a sense of self-acceptance and satisfaction with their own work. They feel competent and accomplished.