Ed Etzel & Jack Watson
West Virginia University
The topic of healthy boundaries in our work with sport and exercise psychology clients has been a controversial one over the years. In truth, this issue may be more controversial in sport and exercise psychology because of a desire to overcome the negative stigma often identified by athletes toward our field (Maniar, Hankes, Cogan, Carter, Etzel, & Smith, 2003). Clearly, we all want and need to connect with those we serve. Developing a close yet professionally appropriate relationship with those who seek out our consultation, and portraying this image to those who might seek our services, is essential to effective intervention and recruitment of new clients. The question becomes, where is the line between healthy voluntary self-disclosure, client inquiries for such information, and taking it too far? As with most ethical issues that we discuss in these articles, the answer to this question is not simply written in black and white. This question needs to be answered by each practitioner while conscientiously considering the individually salient issues that may be affected by disclosures.
Andersen, Van Raalte and Brewer (2001) discussed selected aspects of the unique, real world of sport psychology service delivery (e.g., novel settings, chance encounters, brief contacts) and provided several useful suggestions on how to do so in an ethical manner. It is true that some practitioners lean toward less rigid practices in their service delivery when they do things like buy small presents for clients or occasionally party with their athletes (Etzel, Watson & Zizzi, in press). Similarly, in the field of clinical psychology, Arnold Lazarus is another advocate of occasionally looser boundaries (e.g., sharing some personal information, getting or giving a car ride, having lunch at a restaurant) when it comes to his work with therapy clients (Lazarus, 1999).
Is it harmful to play a friendly round of golf with a client or to go for a run together? How much is appropriate to reveal about oneself intentionally and unintentionally? Privately or publicly? Verbally or non-verbally? How can one set boundaries that better insure doing “good work” in often non-traditional settings, all the while minimizing harm to client or self?
Slattery and Knapp (2002) observed that many avenues of disclosure can have an influence on our work, which may say as much about us as what we say during our consultations. For example, although we may not think much about these simple things, the location and state of our office (accessible, messy, tidy, lighting), the clothes we wear (sporty, a suit), furniture (comfortable, or less so) and pictures or decorations all say many things about us. For example, one author intentionally has a very informal office in an off the beaten path portion of an on-campus athletic building. It has low level lighting, a US Olympic calendar and a few sporty plaques, soft upbeat music, and some large comfortable consulting chairs. He tends to wear relaxed school “gear” and athletic shoes, and intentionally eschews his tie. Hopefully, student-athlete clients feel like they can connect easily with him -- a member, albeit a professional member of the athletics “family” like them. These subtle, looser practices are significant and link to consultant genuineness and client matching.
Although the chance of practitioners being asked questions about their personal lives by a client (e.g., families, health, interests, where one lives) is always a possibility, the likelihood increases when we interact on an informal social basis with our clients. Truth be told, our clients are naturally curious about who they work with. While these inquiries may be often benign, they can be challenging, intrusive and damaging to both parties. Before answering these questions, it would be prudent for the practitioner to ask her/himself: Why is the client asking me this information? If I want to answer this question, what is my motivation to answer it? How will/could my answer to this question possibly affect my relationship with the client? How could my revelation influence the goal(s) of my work with the client? If the answers to these questions lead the practitioner to believe that responding and revealing much private information would negatively affect the relationship with the client or that the desire to answer the question is filling a personal need for them selves or the client, it may not be a good idea to answer the question.
Revelations of personal information may foster a more trusting working relationship with clients and make the sport psychology consultant seem like more of a “regular guy/gal” and perhaps reduce the stigma of seeking consultation. However, it may set up or change a professional relationship for the worse. As best as we can, we need to think about what we might be asked in advance as well as how we would like to respond, if at all, to questions we get about our selves and our lives. We also need to remember that our answers to these questions will likely have some impact upon our relationships with our clients.
Andersen, M. Van Raalte, J., & Brewer, B. (2001). Sport psychology delivery: Staying ethical while keeping loose. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 32,(1), 12-18.
Etzel, E., Watson, J., & Zizzi, S. (In Press). A Web-Based Survey of AAASP Members’ Ethical Beliefs and Behaviors in the New Millennium. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology.
Lazarus, A. (1999). How certain boundaries and ethics diminish therapeutic effectiveness. In Bersoff, D. (Ed.), Ethical conflicts in psychology, (2nd ed.) (pp. 257-262). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Maniar, S., Hankes, D., Cogan, K., Carter, J. Etzel, E. & Smith, L. (2003, October). Getting creative with university-based sport psychology services: Typical issues in an atypical field. AAASP annual convention, Philadelphia, PA.
Slattery, J. & Knapp, S. (2002, Fall). Evaluating the impact of therapist self-disclosure in the office and community. WVPA Newsletter, 25 (2), pp. 5-7.