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Sport and Exercise

One on one – with Sandy Wolfson

One on one – with Sandy Wolfson

07 August 2008

One moment that changed the course of your career.
Some 20 years ago I was contacted by Howard Wilkinson, then manager of Sheffield Wednesday, to advise on some issues at the club. Having spent my formative years in the USA, I knew absolutely nothing about football and had never even seen a match. I was on the verge of saying no when my Sheffield-born husband, a Wednesday fan, insisted that I take up the opportunity. From that point, my interest in the sport spiralled (some would say out of control), to the extent that football is now the primary context for much of my teaching, research and consultancies.

One person who inspired you
Bibb Latané’s classes at Ohio State University inspired my doctoral research into prosocial behaviour and gave me insights into problems of diffusion of responsibility and social loafing in team sports. He also treated us to noteworthy guest speakers whose studies continue to impact upon my teaching and practice, including Stanley Milgram (obedience to authority) and Robert Cialdini (the ‘basking in reflected glory’ phenomenon).

One thing that you would change about psychology
The proliferation and glorification of self-report measures lend far too much credence to their validity and usefulness, particularly for purposes of selection. Problems such as self-presentation (even with social desirability subscales), ambiguity and literacy cannot be overestimated.

One alternative career path you might have chosen
My original major was English language; I might have become an editor had I not been captivated by psychology. I find it difficult to refrain from noting errors in grammar, punctuation and spelling, much to the irritation of others. Strangely, though, I’ve come to love the Geordie language, as exemplified by an Academy footballer I recently overheard saying ‘I done extra training and divvent have time to gan to the cashpoint so can I lend a fiver?’

One article that you think all psychologists should read
Having referred to it for many years in the context of social facilitation, I was intrigued when I finally read Norman Triplett’s original 1898 paper and realised how psychologists have misreported his methods, results and conclusions regarding the effects of coactors on performance.  

One regret
I wish I’d discovered the psychological intricacies of football far earlier in my career as a sport scientist.

One thing that ‘organised psychology’ could do better
While the portrayal of a mad football sport scientist in the film Mike Bassett: England Manager was hilarious, it did perhaps show the low esteem in which we may be held. Rather than confine ourselves to the laboratory, sport psychologists need to liaise and network more effectively with sport institutions and personalities. It’s encouraging to note that the Football Association have brought in chartered sport psychologists to help integrate psychology into their education programmes for coaches, players, referees and other football

One important psychologist past or present
Robert Rosenthal’s 1976 book on the subtleties of experimenter effects is fascinating and essential reading for all psychologists.

One nugget of advice for aspiring psychologists
Make the most of your education. You’ll miss so many opportunities if your main question for your lecturer is ‘Will this be on the exam?’

One problem that psychology should deal with
Psychology should take every opportunity to publicise our science base and promote the importance of appropriate credentials in order to protect vulnerable people from the ineffectiveness (and even potential damage) of charlatans and ungrounded self-help literature.

One challenge you think psychology faces
We are encouraged and trained by our institutions and the BPS to engage with the media, but nothing can prepare you for the shock and embarrassment of seeing your words distorted beyond recognition in the press. Once I tried to explain to a persistent newswriter that I’d never met Michael Owen and thus would not comment on the reasons for the footballer’s so-called goal drought. I instead extolled the virtues of sport psychology. The next day a prominent article in a national tabloid asserted ‘A top university lecturer Dr Sandra Wolson [sic] yesterday spelled out her fears for the 18-year-old England striker and urged Liverpool to recruit a specialist to guard against any threat of burn-out.’