My reflections on using Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) with athletes

In every consultation, my aim is to react flexibly to the different needs of each client, where they are the expert about their own experience and become the source of behaviour change and wellbeing. In order to achieve this, I deliver my work eclectically, employing a variety of approaches in consultations that are underpinned by a humanistic standpoint, emphasising on athletes’ wellbeing through interaction and strong working alliances.

I started researching REBT two years ago, reading as many papers on it as possible. The ABCDE model stood out to me immediately, as I thought it was clear and concise, but more importantly, I felt that it was flexible in that the definition of rational and irrational were dependent on each individual, allowing their own experiences to take centre stage. Clients are strongly involved in the therapy process; therefore the interactive nature of the model fits well within my philosophy. Research also showed that it’s not only beneficial for problems in the short-term, but also long-term emotional health. Furthermore, there has been support that REBT is at its most effective on a one-to-one basis (Wood, Barker, & Turner, 2016), and can be done in as little as five sessions for clearly defined issues (DiGiuseppe et al., 2014). This made REBT an appealing method, as I was mostly working in a one-to-one setting with student athletes with busy schedules at the time.

The opportunity came for me to put this into practice when I was invited to deliver a sport psychology workshop at a local archery club. I gave a short presentation followed by short one-to-one sessions with each archer. I felt that REBT was suitable for some of the one-to-one sessions, and Wood et al.’s (2016) study on archery served as a useful guide during my preparations. The archer in their case study encountered exaggerated bouts of anxiety prior and during competition, and her performance suffered when her expectation of success increased. These particular issues were common themes throughout the psychology workshop. The study also described in length the entire process of the consultation, including some transcription of how the conversations played out, which was very insightful. I received positive feedback, with the main theme being the archers found REBT interesting and straightforward. They also enjoyed the interactive nature of the disputation stage, which was in line with my own reflections that they were very engaged and open. This left a good impression on the archers and coaches, who have since invited me back to work with them again.

Since then, I have received further positive feedback from coaches and athletes on REBT sessions, which has been confidence boosting. In one of my most effective REBT consultations to date, a male basketball player was very enthusiastic during the education phase and showed great commitment with homework assignments (self-help worksheets, bibliotherapy, and awfulness scale). He enjoyed the opportunity to disclose his beliefs during the disputation phase, and we were able to identify and dispute the irrational ones and come up with rational alternatives without many problems. The feedback process was particularly satisfying. In addition to using SGABS and SAS-2, I used Rational Reverse Role-play (RRR; Kassinove & Digiuseppe, 1975). This was when our roles were reversed, he became the practitioner and I the athlete with irrational beliefs. I used real life examples of situations I had encountered in past tennis matches as I thought this provided an authentic and honest touch, and Adam attempted to recognise and dispute my beliefs that we acknowledged as irrational, and subsequently created rational alternatives. The athlete performed the exercise with great conviction and ability, highlighting the effectiveness of the consultation. This was a text message I received from the athlete at the end of the consultation:

“Thank you for all your help throughout this year, I really appreciate it. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about myself, the root of my issues and have a lot better grasp of how to change my mentality; so I’m feeling a lot happier about myself and the future.”

As with every approach to sport psychology provision, there are challenges. From my experiences, it is key that athletes are willing to put in the effort, as REBT often requires the use of homework. Athletes with low frustration tolerance could also struggle, the disputation stage in particular could be stressful and unpleasant for clients due to the increased salience of the negative experiences, and clients may find it difficult to tolerate the potential difficulty of identifying and disputing irrational beliefs. This is ironic considering frustration intolerance is one of the secondary irrational beliefs (Dryden, 2009) that REBT seeks to address. Therefore, I have put considerable effort and thought into how to increase clients’ motivation and open-mindedness prior to REBT interventions.

Methods I have employed include self-disclosure and creative homework exercises. When self-disclosing, I draw upon my own experiences of thinking irrationally, how I challenged and disputed those beliefs and eventually turned them into more rational alternatives. The aim is to show clients that it is achievable, if they are committed and are guided through the process. Creative homework exercises that are specific to each client (such as including examples discussed during sessions into awfulness scale exercises) can increase clients’ enjoyment as well as motivation. I also make a conscious effort to include as much humour as possible into each and every session, in an attempt to develop strong therapeutic alliance with clients and to help them perceive their irrational thoughts as less stressful and daunting. Lastly, I believe that REBT practitioners should have alternative approaches that they are well versed in (e.g. mindfulness-acceptance-commitment approach), for when they encounter cases where amplified negative emotions, as a result of REBT, cause distraction and hindrance to athletes’ performance (Wegner, 1994).


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