"In our profession it’s important to be able to serve people”: RFU psychologist about her work with footballers

Counselling psychologist of the Russian Football Union Ludmila Kirsanova talked to Welcome2018.com about the particulars of sports psychology, why the referee is the most vulnerable job, about manipulative techniques and medical ethics.  
15 July 2016
Natalia Grebeniuk/ТАSS

Ludmila Yasenetskaya (Kirsanova), counselling psychologist at the department of refereeing and inspection of the Russian Football Union, graduated from Moscow State University and earned her MBF degree in Milan, Italy. Ludmila Kirsanova joined the RFU department of refereeing in 2005. She has served as counselling psychologist of the department of refereeing and inspection of the Continental Hockey League since 2008. She has authored the book, Refereeing Psychology of Ice Hockey.  

– What does a sports psychologist actually do? Are there many sports psychologists in Russia? Where are they trained?

– A psychologist is always a psychologist, irrespective of their line of work. We do not use terms such as “service industry psychologist” or “banking psychologist,” do we? Sports psychology became a field in its own right sometime in the 1970s. The Federal Medical Biological Agency has a department for sports psychology with some 50 staff, assigned to federations. Those staff psychologists will provide psychological support when requested by a federation.  

– Working in sports must be different: there has to be an obvious result.

– There has to be a result anywhere. Every person is driven by his vision of achievement, of success. But as a psychologist, I have to say that sports appealed to me because athletes are a special breed of people. They have their eye on the prize, they know how to achieve what they want, they have their personal secrets about how they fulfil their inner resource. I wanted to become privy to those secrets.  

When I was working as a counselling psychologist at a psychological counselling office in Moscow, I found out about this sports psychology course, taught as part of the Game Sports Administration programme at the University of Administration. The course was lectured by a rather well known sports psychologist, author of many manuals and books on sports psychology (he has recently passed away, so I will withhold his name). I came to my first class only to be bitterly disappointed. What I heard there begged a host of questions, mostly of an ethical nature.   

– Such as?

– First off, I’m categorically against the use of manipulative techniques, such as hypnosis, in dealing with competitors. I firmly believe that success is truly that only when it is achieved (a) fairly, and (b) cleanly.

– Hypnosis? Does it really exist?

– Of course it does. There are psychotherapeutic techniques based on hypnosis, and there are certified hypnotists. But there’s hypnosis and hypnosis. I used to feel highly sceptical about it myself, but a training course in Erickson’s* medical hypnosis techniques convinced me that those techniques really work, one way or another. What matters is where you use them, and how.

* Milton Erickson was an American psychiatrist and psychologist specializing in medical hypnosis. Unlike traditional hypnosis, Erickson’s method was not to put the patient in a trance by the will of the hypnotist, but to let the patient enter that state of their own accord.  

– It’s not psychotherapy, when the patient comes to you, sits in a chair and opens up. Here you have your patients running around in the field…

– They don’t run around all the time, that’s not all they do. They walk past you, they eat, they socialize. There are things we cannot explain sometimes, or cannot explain yet, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work. There is no dearth of mysteries in the science of psychology. Thoughts like these were inspired by Natalia Bekhtereva’s book about the human brain, the last book she wrote before she died (Natalia Bekhtereva was a neurophysiologist, head of the Institute of the Human Brain, affiliated with the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS). Her latest works on extrasensory perception were received critically by the RAS Commission Against Faux Science. – welcome2018.com).

– Apart from hypnosis, what other aspects rubbed you the wrong way?

– Breaches of the doctor-patient privilege, the reading of other people’s journals out loud… that’s not terribly ethical, is it? I’m okay with sharing about patients’ problems and needs without mentioning any names during the supervisions. I know there are a lot of cases you want to share with your colleagues, some challenging cases from your practice, but you must never reveal the patient’s identity.

Anyway, I read all the books and took all the exams. Then I had to do an internship and, fortunately for me, I ended up at the Russian Football Union in 2005, where I was assigned to the Football Referee College. Thus my first experience in sports psychology was with our football referees, whose work I respect very much, and whom I always go out of my way to protect from external attacks.  

* Supervision, which is part of the training in psychotherapy, consists in discussing the clinical material provided verbally or in writing to the supervisor by the psychoanalyst, psychoanalytically inclined general therapist or psychologist.   

– Do referees need a psychologist, too?

– Definitely. The referees are also players in any match, and no match would happen without them. The essence of the referee’s job is to clarify moments of the game. When the referees do their job well in any sport, they simply go unnoticed, no one talks about them. But whenever a referee makes a mistake, they’ll make him responsible for everything, they’ll burn him at the stake. The emotional strain of the referee’s job is enormous. I could not cite any cases from my own practice – that’s against professional ethics – but I refer all those interested to former referee Yuri Baskakov’s very explicit book.

– So much for the referees. Speaking of the athletes, at what junction in their career are they most likely to need a psychologist?  

– If this about where sports psychology comes in, it all begins with sports-oriented career guidance, diagnostics of a child. I’ll be frank: the psychologist usually comes in at that precise moment when the parents have made their decision to load their unfulfilled dreams on their child, taking him someplace at the other end of Moscow to do sport X at six in the morning. The child is too young to know what he wants, he’s a little tired and sometimes struggles to do this. Then his mother calls, sounding all concerned, saying: “We urgently need a psychologist. We see no results. Please help, we’ve got a competition tomorrow.” You feel uneasy as you honestly reply: “I’m not a magician, you know.” Parents with a more responsible take on the gift of dreams they are trying to bestow upon their child will debate whether to make the child do figure skating, ice hockey or gymnastics. The most responsible parents will ask the child first. I enjoy working with such parents. They will try to be reasonable and to think of everything, from the child’s wishes to his or her physique. If the mom is kind of plump and the dad is not too skinny, maybe the child shouldn’t take his or her chances with gymnastics.   

Serious sport is a life plan, which requires serious preparation. The rest is physical culture, which is, in fact, better for the child’s health. The child will have enough time and energy to do it all: run, jump, go to swimming pool and crack the books.

– Those parents who think about a sports career for their child, where can they go for counselling?

– As far as I know, there is a centre under Moscomsport auspices which helps with that.

– Okay, now what’s the next junction?

– The next call the sports psychologist gets is about pre-competition empowerment. They are all worried insanely about this: how to condition oneself to win. And behavioural strategy during competitions. How to relieve all kinds of jitters: "I’m afraid I can’t do this! I do well at training, but when I get to the competition, everything on me starts shaking and trembling, I cannot run or jump, i can’t budge!” The question of the proverbial “motivation” always comes up, for some reason. I’m going to say a terrible thing now: if the athlete has no motivation to win from the beginning, motivation will not suddenly appear out of thin air, no matter what you do, no matter how you stimulate it or search for it. To win is the only reason you’re in sports. You want to be the best. You seek and tap your internal resources. You don’t need a psychologist to use those resources effectively and to the max, as long as you have enough left to at least go and receive your medal. That is all there is to it. But if you come to the Russian national team in sport X and tell them: “Guys, you make so much money. Now let’s look for a motivation that will help you win,” that sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it?

I’m going to say a terrible thing now: if the athlete has no motivation to win from the beginning, motivation will not suddenly appear out of thin air, no matter what you do, no matter how you stimulate it or search for it.

Then there comes what they call “post-competition rehabilitation.” Whether you’re high on your win, or devastated by your loss, it’s emotions at work. And they are probably equipotent. You are direly exhausted. If you lost, you take a deep breath and say: “Oh, well! I’ll just keep on striving for a new goal, once I identify the resource I have not perfected enough.” This is what they call near-field professional growth territory: where you broke down, at which point, where your adversary outstripped you…  But there has to be analysis and synthesis in the event of your win, too. You take a deep breath and you say: “Alright! Now I go after a new goal!” It often happens in our neck of woods that we win a competition, put the crown on, and we sit down and relax, like we don’t need anything else. Now if that was your last win and you know it, you might as well hang your medal in a place of prominence and retire. But if you want to do better, you have to find the resources to get better. The resources are always there. And we’re not talking about doping, either.   

– Are there any professional sports teams in Russia that go without a psychologist? 

– Lots of them do.

– Who decides to put a psychologist on payroll?

– The decision to hire or not to hire a psychologist is up to the coach. A sports psychologist needs to realize this firmly: he or she is not the one who runs things. The psychologist is a professional, who helps solve a problem when asked by an individual athlete or the coaching headquarters. The ground rules should be cast in stone. I’m not saying that “the psychologist should now his place,” but he should be very aware of the boundaries of his competence, and stick rigorously to the subject he is requested to address. When the psychologist is not up on high, riding some star, but is down here, on the ground, then he is respected, and he gets professional results. Psychologist is not a public profession. A psychologist gets away with being unnoticeable.

With adult athletes, the job of the federation or the team is simply to make access to a psychologist available. “This is our staff psychologist. Talk to him/her to make sure you’re comfortable working with this person.” Psychological counsel cannot be mandated: “This is our psychology day. Everyone off to counselling now!” That’s nonsense. It’s up to the other side to seek psychological help. Even when you realize the athlete is falling apart, you cannot tap them on the shoulder and say: “I can see you’re feeling down, partner. Let me help you.” That would be an intrusion into their personal space. It may well be that the person has to disintegrate into atoms first before getting back together again. He will be stronger then, but should be left alone while in the process.

– Do conflicts ever happen between coaches and psychologists?  

– They do, and when they happen, it means that the working mode was not discussed in advance. There was this episode in my life. A coaching headquarters decided to hire a psychologist. There was a prior discussion of the psychologist’s envisaged role. The question was asked, “what do you expect from a psychologist?” “OK, here’s the deal. When we win, I, as the coach, and our whole coaching headquarters did well. We are the stars! And the psychologist helped a little… But when we lose, it’s your fault entirely. When we lose, it’s always purely psychological, isn’t it? We’re fine in every other way.” No deal, partners. People are often confused about the psychologist’s role. Either they will burden the psychologist with responsibilities that are not his by right, or they will inexplicably develop some weird expectations. They might also pose unrealistic requirements. It may also happen that the ground rules are not set in the relations between the coaching headquarters and the psychologist. Let’s agree on what you expect from me as a professional. What are my responsibilities? To make you win? Yes, I do also want you to win. To teach you to use

every player’s resource right (if it’s a game sport)? That sounds more like it.

It’s very important to decide which side the psychologist works on. One option is to work with the athletes, counselling each one individually. The other, to work with the coach, advising him. It’s no good for the coach to be afraid of the psychologist. We all know the team’s success is largely conditioned on how well the coach is able to control his emotions and to explain to the player clearly what needs to be done at the right moment. Many of our coaches fancy themselves psychologists. While they certainly know some psychology – they are taught it in coaching school – let’s divide our responsibilities and stick to the division: you coach, I counsel, and we share our insights. After all, we serve the same cause and work towards the same objective: we want our team to win.

The third option is for me to serve two masters: I counsel and keep other people’s secrets religiously, then I outline personalities for the coach to make him see how to run things. In this case, I emerge as a kind of an interpreter between the athlete/team and the coaching corps. The important thing is to make sure that everyone – you yourself and the people you deal with – understands the rules. Any sport is a system of rules. But sometimes you start playing football, and end up playing water polo. Now where did all this water come from?  

– Does the Russian football team have psychologists on staff?

– They do. As far as I know, Viktor Neverov is the psychologist on the Russia football squad. He used to work with CSKA. I do not know him personally.

– What about the clubs in the first division?

– There’s nothing I can say about the clubs in the first division. I’m not informed. Lokomotiv used to have a psychologist, but only at youth level. But, like I said, psychologist is not a public job. A psychologist gets away with going unseen. In our profession, one has to be able to serve. To serve the needs of our patients, without crossing any lines, helping the person realize the programme entreasured in their life. You are to them the human equivalent of a punching bag for thought, with whom they can share, and feel safe in so doing. To me, psychology could never be a public project or a business venture, or else the “environment” of the profession becomes soiled.

– Is there much difference in training between those psychologists who work, say, with tennis players, and those working with footballers?

– In order to provide quality psychological service, you must do your homework before you go see the athlete: study the background of the sport, read about it, get familiar with the rules. If you take up a job as psychologist in football, and you don’t know what a penalty kick is, or what “off-side” means, that’s unacceptable. It’s an absolute must to be serious about your job and to have respect for what the people do whom you are trying to help. By the way, the guy with the Tennis Federation, Vadim Gushchin, is an excellent psychologist. He also works for the Federal Medical Biological Agency.

– Does the fans’ screaming affect the morale of the players much?

– You know, I suspect that when you’re deep in the process, all those sounds are background noise to you. I’ve asked referees about it. They also get yelled at from the stalls. Sometimes they can hear it, but only when you click out of your work process.

– How is football useful in terms of psychology? To kids, adults, men, women…

– It’s better to speak not of professional, but of amateur football in that key. Any professional sport is one hundred percent self-sacrifice, which, to my regret, inevitably harms the body one way or another. In the “light” mode, it’s about team play, sharing, playing off your teammates, following the coach’s instructions. You have to learn to conserve your energy and yet move around with maximum efficiency on the pitch, lest you find yourself in the position of a “gopher in the desert: lots of dust, but no sense.” You need endurance, physical and psychological both. It’s a critical skill to be able to roll with the punches. You cannot slack off, as in “I’ll just stand here while the others run.” And you have to fight to the end. Miracles do happen, and in sports, they happen double-time. You can win while losing. You understand? Sometimes you just lose, plain and simple. You lose because you walked idly around, doing nothing. And sometimes you lose after a fight: “we lost, but we put up a fight and did the best we could.” Even the fans will take your loss differently on the emotional level. "They fought and lost," spells respect for the team. “They didn’t even fight,” is a verdict the footballers and the coach alike will have a hard time contesting. Spectators have this interesting quirk: they will pick up on the team’s vibes.

– What can you say about girls’ soccer, for instance?

– Girl’s soccer is a rather mysterious sport to me. I’m not ready to evaluate or characterize it any more than I would be able to characterize men’s synchronous swimming. In theory, it’s all the same there, same as with men: it’s all about running, motor reactions, team play, endurance…  The only thing is, I don’t know how much extra endurance our women need on top of what they already have. More often than not, women these days have to make an effort to be weak. I agree to doing a lot of things on par with men, but in some areas, we have to give men primacy, we need to make concessions and understand that this is not an impingement on your rights, but a case of you not trying to do someone else’s job.

– Wait a minute! Women never take the place of men in any football teams.

– You know, if we get down to brass tacks, everything is ultimately about the budget. As in, let’s beef up the budgets of the male teams, and let them run and show results. As for women… They can also play, amateur level. But that’s my very own personal opinion. It’s possible that any sport could be represented, and must be represented by both sexes, male and female.

– OK, here is my last question. It’s completely practical. I play amateur football. This girl joins our team, who plays pretty much better than any of us, but she’s very aggressive, and she’s letting everyone know what she thinks of their performance, left and right, all the time. It’s interfering with my play. What kind of advice would a sports psychologist offer in this situation?

– Who to? You?

– Yes, me.

– Okay, as a psychologist, I first need to ascertain that it wasn’t the coach who had instructed that girl to behave the way she does. All this conditional unfriendly pepping-up could be a scheme to ensure that you girls don’t get too relaxed. Secondly, you as a player should confront your coach and tell him you feel uncomfortable psychologically, and you are prepared to work on yourself so as to shut it out, but being a sensitive person, who is serious about what they do, you are unable to shut it out. Your coach might tell you to go see a sports psychologist and try to identify the root of the problem.

People tend to look for a single ready recipe in psychology. But the real life out there could provide a multitude of methods and ways to overcome a psychological barrier.   

And when the coach pulls that girl aside for a friendly talk, he might tell her, for instance, to keep her comments to herself and/or write them down in her journal after the game, so as to share them out loud over a cup of tea later on, that is, if she still feels like making them known. But this is only one way of dealing with it, one of many. You know, people tend to look for a single ready recipe in psychology. But the real life out there could provide a multitude of methods and ways to overcome a psychological barrier. The psychologist’s job is precisely about helping to seek and find the optimal solutions that are powerful and safe.  

Nina Nazarova


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