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Listening is key when using metaphoric language

By Mark Andersen and Harriet Speed

This is an excerpt from Critical Essays in Applied Sport Psychology edited by David Gilbourne and Mark Andersen.


Hearing and Listening to Others and Ourselves

How does one hear a story? I (Mark) remember attending a presentation on a qualitative study of commitment in professional sport. The researcher was giving examples of what some athletes said that illustrated high commitment. One quote went something like this: “Becoming a Titan (not the real team name) has been a lifelong dream. This team is my life, and I am giving 110 percent. I can’t even think of not being a Titan.” The researcher was using this quote to illustrate (and applaud) commitment. Well, it does sound highly committed, but I heard a story about anxiety: “I can’t even think of not being a Titan; just the thought of not being a Titan brings up anxiety, so I have to avoid such thoughts. If I weren’t a Titan then I would be nothing, and that scares me, so I don’t think those thoughts.” The researcher heard positive commitment, and I heard a story of distress and suppression because the researcher and I were bent in different ways.

In using metaphors, folktales, and images we need to remind ourselves constantly that we are all bent in different ways. Therapists have different theoretical orientations. Clients (and practitioners) have different life histories that will influence the strength or weakness of a metaphoric or storytelling intervention. Client-generated metaphors are probably the best place to start because they have obvious personal relevance, as in the case of the hermit crabs. Later, as practitioners gain knowledge and understanding of their clients’ worlds, they may grow to feel confident in introducing therapeutic metaphors and stories. If the therapeutic relationship is a strong one, then even if the story or metaphor doesn’t work for the client, there is usually no harm done. We (Mark and Harriet) both have the not uncommon experience of introducing a metaphor that we think captures what is happening for the client, only to have the client say, “Not really, I don’t feel that way at all.” Our metaphors can’t all be winners. Our usual response to this scenario is “Well, that one didn’t work. Let’s see if we can come up with something that does.”

In helping athletes and coaches develop their own metaphors and images, listening is the key, and sport psychologists can hone their skills at picking up on metaphoric language. For example, after a good performance, an athlete might say, “I was so pumped at the start. It was great.” Then, the practitioner could reply with “When you say the word ‘pumped,’ what sort of images come to mind?” The reply might be “It was like I was Thor, and my javelin was a thunderbolt.” And there we have a wonderful metaphoric image generated by the client with a little help from the psychologist. This technique is at least as old as Freud and is called free association. Asking clients what’s on their minds (and assuring them that whatever comes up might be useful, no matter how silly or embarrassing or fantastical it may be) can go a long way in helping them generate useful and powerful metaphors for themselves. Free association is a central process in psychodynamic psychotherapy and has many other uses besides metaphor generation. We do not, however, see much application of free association in the mainstream sport psychology literature.

Sport psychologists may also need some help with their own metaphors. The story at the beginning of the chapter included a metaphor in which the athlete-psychologist sees herself driving a Volvo when working with her psychotherapy clients. In self-reflective practice, the psychologist’s own metaphors, images, and free associations may help explore questions such as the following: “Who am I in this therapeutic relationship?” “What images come to mind when I think about this client?” “What metaphors or stories pop into my head as my client and I start the termination process?” A supervisor can assist in working through these questions. In psychodynamic supervision, we constantly ask supervisees about what is going on for them right now (in terms of thinking, images, emotions). For example, a supervisee might say, “I feel I am not getting anywhere with this client.” A supervisor might respond with a request for a simile: “So, what is that going nowhere like for you?” The supervisee might say, “It’s like I am trapped in a box and can’t find a way through, a way to open the box.” The supervisor could then use the supervisee’s metaphor by saying, “Well, let’s sit in that box for a while together; it may be a bit cramped, but let’s see what comes up. Maybe we’ll find a way through. We could possibly start with you remembering other times when you have felt stuck with no way out.” Supervisors and supervisees, like clients and practitioners, form working alliances, and the development of that bond can be nurtured through shared metaphors. Sitting in a box together and working things out are a fine metaphor itself, both for the working alliance in supervision (see essay 10 in this book for a discussion of assisted self-reflection) and for the therapeutic relationship between client and
practitioner.

 




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