Dr. Zarina Giannone
Dr. Zarina Giannone, Sport and Exercise Psychology
As the accomplishments of Olympic athletes capture our attention, we place today’s Psychology Month focus on the psychologists who help them attain that high performance. Sport Psychology, however, extends far beyond just high-performance athletes. We spoke to Dr. Zarina Giannone all about this exciting field.
Brooke D’Hondt is just sixteen years old, and she already has a team of coaches and experts helping her excel in the snowboard halfpipe. Brooke finished in tenth place in snowboard halfpipe for Canada at the Beijing Olympics, and when the games are over she’ll be going back to high school. Imagine being in her gym class!
Sport psychology sort of emerged from gym classes – physical education originated in the education world, and over time evolved into the sport psychology we know today. Traditionally, sport psychology graduate programs are housed within schools of kinesiology at universities. They offer graduate degrees which produce scientists within the field of sport psychology.
Today, there are two main paths a person can take to become a sport psychology practitioner, and two types of credentials that exist in North America. One is the registered psychologist, who has the broadest scope of practice when they have acquired the training and experience to declare a specialty in sport and exercise or performance psychology. The other is a professional called the ‘mental performance consultant’ (MPC). Those are people with science-based degrees who have done some applied training but have a limit in the scope of their practice defined by the application of psychological knowledge within that performance or sport setting.
Dr. Zarina Giannone has taken both those paths. A registered psychologist with a specialization in sport and performance psychology, Dr. Giannone did her graduate training in counselling psychology, but pursued applied training within sport psychology (the MPC). She says,
“Sports psychology is one field within the broader sports science domain. Even my own work as a sports psychologist is just one slice of a larger pie, in that it covers the application of performance psychology. It involves taking science and theory and applying it to real-life situations.”
The mental health of athletes has never been in the spotlight to the degree it is today. Elite athletes are talking about their mental health, stepping away from their sports to take care of it, and being fairly public about their struggles. Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, Calvin Ridley, Clara Hughes, Andy Robertson, the list of athletes who have publicly started speaking about mental health is growing longer by the day. This is a trend that excites Dr. Giannone.
“Even through my seven years of grad school, I’ve noticed some changes which have been really exciting. In the early 2000s, the field focused more on traditional mental skills that were taught to teams, athletes, and coaches. Imagery, arousal regulation, attentional control, that sort of thing. These are important skills that, if mastered by athletes, can enhance performance. They are also transferable skills that can enhance general well-being and life functioning. In the last little while, personal psychologists and MPCs have been more highly sought. This is, among other things, because of the fact that athletes feel more comfortable disclosing mental health challenges. The stigma around these things has been reduced. And that means that the role of psychologists in sports clubs and organizations is more in demand.”
The Indianapolis Colts, for example, have launched an initiative called Kicking The Stigma, and the face of the campaign is their standout linebacker Darius Leonard, who opens up about his anxiety attacks and depression. But for every team that embraces mental health issues and tries to tackle the stigma around them, there seems to be a story about another group that has yet to catch up. The Canadian Hockey League recently came out with a devastating report about a culture where a “code of silence” enabled off-ice misconduct to become the norm. Says Dr. Giannone,
“I’m aware of some organizations and teams that do take mental health very seriously, and there are sport psychologists who are involved in working with problems from a social justice perspective. For example, those working with sexual abuse or misconduct cases. Those psychologists have had an impact in terms of creating systemic change in some organizations. You’re seeing more mental health policies being implemented, or diversity and inclusion policies. Hopefully people will experience the impact of those things, and it will be a matter of time before all major sport organizations get on board.”
This year at the Olympics is the first in a long time where NHL players are not there. That means that the hockey teams competing against one another fall into two categories – either a group of players who have been playing together in one situation or another for a long time, or a roster cobbled together from the best players available who have little experience playing with each other. How do you build team dynamics and trust? Dr. Giannone says this is currently becoming more the domain of sport psychologists and MPCs.
“Sport psychologists are doing more than offering traditional mental skills training and assessments. My work today focuses on optimizing performance, but it also extends into helping with other sport-specific challenges including interpersonal team dynamics, training leadership, and supporting diverse mental health challenges experienced by athletes like burnout, depression, anxiety, or disordered eating. In many ways, the role of the sport psychologist has been reimagined and now involves addressing both the psychological health and performance needs inherent in sport.”
Dr. Giannone’s main job is in private practice at the Vancouver Psychology Centre, where she sees both general psychology clients and others in her specialty practice in sport and performance psychology. In that space, she sees a wide range of athletes and performers – anyone from youth to professionals. On occasion she’ll take a contract with a team where she’s implementing a mental skills program or providing other group-based services. She also works with the Canadian Centre for Mental Health in Sport (CCMHS), where she provides mental-health-based services to athletes and performers.
“Since 2013, federal funding for services has really expanded, and quite rapidly. There are now a few federally funded services for national-level athletes. For example, there’s Game Plan, which offers a wide range of services to carded [elite level] athletes in Canada. My work with the CCMHS is for any level of athlete, coach, or administrator where certain people can access funding for that. Other countries are a bit behind on this stuff, making Canada a leader in this space.”
As with all major events in the past two years, COVID is a central issue at these Olympics. It has disrupted training, hampered team-building, and caused many athletes to miss their shot at competing on the world stage. It has even cost some athletes a chance at competing after they got to the games, when a positive test ended their Olympic journey early. Dr. Giannone has seen all the ups and the downs the pandemic has created for athletes of all levels.
“Near the beginning, sports were on pause. Major tournaments were postponed. At that time, it was really about modifying and shifting psychological services to an online delivery. We did some team-based things where there were more than 25 people on Zoom! Over the past year, a lot of athletes have returned to sport, and there are new types of challenges we’ve never faced before. The content of the work has shifted – like think about a youth athlete, where they haven’t been in a high school competition in two years. They were in grade 8 and now they’re in grade 10. What that means for them developmentally and in terms of sport-specific skills development is interesting.
A focus of my research is around identity development in sport. What happens to it when someone experiences injury, or retires, and the identity loss that comes with that. A lot of identity threat has come about as a result of COVID, from kids all the way up to Olympians. These people who derive such self-esteem and value from sport are involuntarily forced to put it aside for some time. That can be very disruptive for people.
I’d say, conversely though, COVID has provided athletes a unique opportunity for people to engage with their sport in a new and different manner. Maybe someone never had the time before to watch video of themselves, and they’re able to learn about themselves differently now. Maybe they’re able to do a bit more weight training. It has been striking to me how people have been so resilient and creative throughout this.
Something that really stood out to me at the beginning of the pandemic was a shift from physical and mental skills training to fostering new conceptualizations of team culture. I remember stepping into teams and helping to facilitate goals, helping to cultivate team values and relationships. Not that I wouldn’t do that during a regular season, but the pandemic really placed the spotlight on that because there wasn’t much else to do when everything was so up in the air.”
Athlete mental health is a rapidly expanding field. The role of psychologists in tackling some of the social and systemic challenges like athlete misconduct, mistreatment in sport, abuse and harassment, cultural inclusion and diversity, are really coming to the forefront. Psychologists are involved in helping to create support, but also in trying to promote systemic change within systems and organizations, and all of that trickles down to athletes. But their influence and involvement no longer end at the locker room door. Says Dr. Giannone,
“Sport psychology professionals have now gone outside of the traditional sport and exercise setting. They’re working with performance issues in other domains. It’s common to have sport psychologists working in the military, with performing artists, first responders, or with high-ranking business executives. Pretty well anyone in high-pressure scenarios. I would anticipate seeing more psychologists with these specialized skills making their way into diverse settings.”
The Olympics are on right now, presenting a series of high-pressure scenarios for elite athletes for public consumption, all day every day. We can share in the joy of the Canadian women’s speed skating pursuit team pulling out an improbable gold medal performance, while also empathizing with the heartbreak of the Japanese team whose stumble in the last turn gave that gold medal to Canada. Our eyes, the eyes of the world, add a pressure that doesn’t exist at any other time for these athletes. It can be a difficult situation, and one where a psychologist can help them navigate through it. Whether you’re Jennifer Jones, competing in your second Olympics at age 47, or you’re a 16-year-old snowboarder who is about to go back to geography class.