Sports Psychologist: An exceptional will to exceed

Alexandre Etter (Photo: Aurélie Despont) Alexandre Etter (Photo: Aurélie Despont)

As a mental coach, Alexandre Etter assists elite sports people in their pursuit of high-level performance.

The meeting is arranged for 3 p.m. at Geneva Airport. The location may at first seem like an odd place to meet a psychologist. A short explanation provides more insight into the situation. When Alexandre Etter is not travelling to meet his clients, his clients come to him. They have a very busy schedule, where every second counts. Travel to professional engagements, international competitions, training camps... Elite sports people are always running – both literally and figuratively. “I tend to avoid meeting them in public places where anonymity and confidentiality cannot be assured. Although exceptionally, I may arrange a meeting here in between connecting flights”, says the sports psychologist. Exercising his profession requires a great deal of flexibility. Office hours are quite unfamiliar to him. Alexandre Etter has no office, and neither does he want one. “For me, an office isn’t an appropriate place to do my work. I usually travel to where the athletes live, to their training ground, or to another place of their choosing.” Passionate about sport himself – an indispensable condition for this job – the psychologist needs to be in the field, where he can take action.

And his role? To help elite sports people to achieve or maintain a high level of performance, or become more successful. “My goal is to help athletes acquire the skills they need to perform consistently at their very best level, or close to it”, he explains. Areas in which he provides assistance include boosting the athlete’s self-confidence, managing stress and emotions, dealing with uncontrollable aspects, developing their capacity to concentrate in all situations, etc. Always bearing in mind that every sport and each athlete have their own particularities. 

Managing uncertainty

While planes incessantly take off and land gracefully on the runway, as observed through the airport windows, Alexandre Etter provides an example to illustrate his work. A badminton player consults him with a very clear request: he wants to stop getting angry when a match does not go as planned. The psychologist begins by observing the player’s game on court. He films and codes several of the player’s matches, and obtains an unexpected result: the player scores more points when he gets angry than before becoming annoyed. “This observation helped me bury the usual preconceived ideas”, explains Etter. The badminton player’s anger was clearly not a bad thing in itself. I therefore decided to work with him on his ability to refocus immediately on the game and use his energy to his benefit during the rest of the match rather than waste it on anger avoidance.” The ultimate goal of his work is to help the athlete keep a level head in every situation and learn how best to react.

Alexandre Etter has also worked with many sailors competing in offshore racing. Preparations with these sports people generally begin at least one year in advance. “Sailing is one of the most complex sports to manage”, the psychologist admits. Sailors have to take into account a large number of constantly changing variables. They often have to cope with less than optimal conditions: extreme temperatures and/or navigation conditions, material problems affecting the proper functioning of the boat, time spent waiting due to lack of wind, etc. This places many demands on the organism and brain. “What we are mainly concerned with here is managing uncertainty. We outline a contingency plan, for instance.” What to do in the event of material damage during the race? The psychologist drew up a procedure to follow with one of his clients: secure the boat, take time to eat or to rest, then think about what solutions to implement. “I don’t tell them what to do and what not to do”, he stresses. “During the discussion, personalised solutions are devised in line with the abilities and skills of each person.” Before embarking on his career as a mental coach, Etter was a research assistant and lecturer in emotional psychology at the University of Geneva. The experience he acquired as a researcher still influences his work today, especially in terms of systematic thought, observation and the implementation of solutions. He subsequently studied applied sports psychology in Canada at the end of the 1990s. Since then, the psychologist has become interested in more than 50 different sports. There is no shortage of clients, although money is lacking. Apart from a few special disciplines, there are generally not a lot of means available in elite sports for this type of psychological assistance. “I’d even go so far as to say that in Switzerland, financial support is largely insufficient.” 

Overcoming apprehensiveness

According to Alexandre Etter, work in the area of mental fitness in sport is becoming more accepted and appreciated. Even though the term “psychologist” still raises apprehensions. “Athletes and trainers unfortunately still too often associate psychologists with pathological aspects. They don’t want us to do research into problems; they prefer to focus on solutions.” Such prejudices do not stop Alexandre Etter from using his title of sports psychologist, however. “I’ve acquired a solid university education which has given me a general understanding of how people function.” In a highly competitive milieu, psychologists also stand out from other professions by their respect for ethical rules, such as confidentiality. This is a particularly important aspect in light of the complex world sports psychologists operate in. If an athlete is in the thick of things, different influences come into play with respect to the relationship: in a club, a national federation, regional association, etc., where the struggle for power is often fierce. From one day to the next, a change in management can lead to a sudden interruption in the support the athlete has enjoyed.

The trainer is also a key player, and it is important that the roles are clearly defined and a relationship of trust is built up. Etter likens the trainer to a conductor of an orchestra, someone who leads. “The trainer sets out the learning priorities for each athlete. I share my expertise to help the athlete progress mentally.” This involves the work of three people, which the psychologist finds particularly enriching and fruitful. Other important aspects of work with the trainer relate to learning, integration and automation. “We pool our knowledge about human learning, and together we think about how to facilitate the integration of a new skill.” Together they draw up the contents of the training programme to ensure that everything is put in place as efficiently as possible.

“High-performance athletes generally have an exceptional will to succeed”, says Etter. Psychologists feel at ease in this area, and those who provide themselves with the necessary means to do so achieve rapid progress. And the effects are often clearly perceptible, both in the sporting arena and in everyday life.

“At the end of the day, the results are of secondary importance”, concludes Etter. “The most gratifying recompense is when an athlete who has suffered a major sporting failure says to me: thank you for the excellent work you’ve done; I was ready, totally present, used my ability to the full – but my opponent was just too strong on the day.”

Name: Alexandre Etter

Profession: FSP specialist in sports psychology
Expertise: familiarity with cognitive-behavioural techniques, good ability to adapt to and manage uncertainty, experience in top-level sport, general knowledge of sports science