Ethics is the investigation of the primary moral assumptions held by individuals, organizations, or professions that are used to help members make sound decisions about what is right and wrong. To expand on this definition, ethics refers to an organization’s attempts to protect the welfare of clients by developing, adopting, and enforcing guidelines that regulate member conduct in professional and scientific settings. These ethical guidelines are essentially a set of values that have been agreed upon by the members of an organization or profession. By developing ethical guidelines, the organization or profession is protecting the welfare of those they serve but also communicating their values to society. Ethics in sport psychology have been an area of concern, as the discipline grows in research, education, and practice. While psychologists are encouraged to behave in socially acceptable ways within their personal lives, the ethics codes are only designed to govern their actions in professional settings (research, education, and practice) in their work as psychologists.
Many consistencies exist in the codes of ethics between general psychology and the field of sport and exercise psychology. In fact, as a subset of psychology, many of the sport and exercise psychology codes of ethics are closely based upon those previously written in psychology.
Ethical practice can be considered to be the coin of the realm for psychology and sport and exercise psychology practitioners. It is through ethical behavior that professionals take steps to protect their clients from harm. Ethical guidelines of ethical behavior are aimed at helping practitioners make decisions in difficult situations that could prove to be harmful to the client or related person.
Components of Codes of Ethics
It is common for ethical codes to have several sections to them, each serving its own purpose. These sections often include an introduction, preamble, principles, and standards. The purpose of an introduction is to discuss issues such as the intent of the code of ethics, as well as to provide procedural and organizational clarity about the codes and their use. The purpose of a preamble is to outline the value structure of the organization and to encourage practitioners to meet the highest possible ideals set by the organization and outlined within the code.
Principles are commonly seen as general statements about the codes of ethics that give background context into the rationale for the development of the specific standards and guide practitioners toward the highest ideals for practice. In essence, the principles are aspiration and unenforceable value-driven statements designed to provide guidance to individuals who are faced with ethical decisions. While principles may change from ethics code to ethics code, the most common psychology based principles involve such things as
- Do no harm (non-maleficence)
- Help others (beneficence)
- Respect and promote autonomy
- Treat others fairly and equitably
- Be trustworthy
- Respect dignity
Ethical standards are the enforceable and more specific portion of the ethics code. These aim to influence the conduct of psychologists in professional settings. While ethical standards are more specific than principles in terms of directing behavior, they are often written somewhat broadly to help psychologists make difficult decisions across a broad array of situations. Because of the many different settings in which psychologists practice, general standards help them make difficult decisions which vary in their working.
Role of Ethics Codes
Students and professionals generally understand and appreciate the usefulness of codes of ethics, but that is not always sufficient to keep individuals behaving ethically. To consistently behave in an ethical manner requires practitioners to possess a number of skills and attributes. While knowledge of and familiarity with the appropriate codes of ethics and a sincere desire to act ethically are a good starting point to help people behave ethically, this step in and of itself is not enough to ensure that professionals will behave ethically when faced with challenging and complicated scenarios. Other factors that help practitioners behave ethically include the following:
- Being able to recognize when challenging ethical situations arise
- Having and using maturity, judgment, discretion, and wisdom in one’s decision making
- Understanding the competing influences affecting one’s judgment
- Thoroughly considering the consequences of one’s actions
- Having a clear understanding of the principles behind the code and using them during the decision-making process
- Understanding and utilizing problem-solving models
- Developing and using a professional consultation network
Important Ethical Issues in Sport and Exercise Psychology
While many codes of ethics for sport and exercise psychology organizations may closely resemble codes of ethics from general psychology organizations, differences do exist. These differences, some stated and some implied, are important to consider, as they are often created or maintained to help deal with the unique field and setting of competitive sport. Further, there are many ethical situations or dilemmas that are unique to specific sport and exercise psychology settings.
Confidentiality is probably the most commonly cited ethical concern within the field of sport and exercise psychology and is commonly identified as the most important ethical standard. Confidentiality relates to practitioners not allowing others to know their client’s identity, as well as not letting others know the client’s concerns or related treatment. There are some common limits to the confidentiality that are commonly addressed with a client at the beginning of the service delivery via a consent form.
While confidentiality is important in sport and exercise psychology, the guidelines by which it is judged are different from those in traditional psychology. Because of their high-profile status on campus and in the community, athletes are often more identifiable than other individuals when they enter an office. Further, because of their time commitments, travel schedules, and performance requirements, it is not uncommon for a practitioner to work with a client out in the open where others can see them talking with each other. This may happen on a pool deck, in a gym, or on the side of a field. Under these circumstances, the goal changes from not allowing others to know that the practitioner is working with a client to not allowing others to know what is being said.
A multiple-role relationship can be described as having a professional relationship with a client and at the same time interacting with the client or a close friend or family member of the client in another role. Multiple-role relationships are not necessarily unethical if handled properly. However, practitioners should avoid entering into multiple-role relationships that could cause harm to the consulting process by affecting objectivity or causing exploitation. If a multiple-role relationship is entered into, the consultant needs to be mindful of the potential problems and be willing to stop the consultation process if any are perceived.
Multiple-role relationships may be more common within the field of sport and psychology than in the general psychology. This may be due to the limited number of sport and exercise psychology practitioners. For instance, on many college campuses, sport and exercise psychology professionals often serve in other roles. A practitioner may consult with individuals and teams as well as teach classes and advise students. With such a multitude of responsibilities, practitioners are likely to have contact with clients in more than one setting. Therefore, it is essential that practitioners discuss possible multiple-role relationships with athletes at the outset of services.
The ethical issue of competency relates to the necessity for practitioners to practice only in areas and with people whom they have the requisite knowledge, skills, and abilities to provide quality services. To be viewed as competent, an individual must understand the domain-specific issues, demonstrate skills for interventions, and be able to assess their outcomes. Common forms of competence include (a) intellectual competence, which is gained from formal education; (b) emotional competence—the ability to emotionally deal with clients and limit personal biases; and (c) experiential competence or the wisdom gained from previous professional experiences.
It is difficult to identify the distinction between competence and incompetence with a given client or presenting concern. For the most part, competence is determined by ones knowledge and experience that is generated through education, training, supervised experience, and professional experience. However, competence does not last forever, and to remain competent in a particular area, practitioners must update their knowledge through continuing education, consultation, study, or additional education.
Individuals who are licensed psychologists, but receive little training in the sport sciences, must take steps to gain the sport science training necessary to understand the athletic context. Sports science trained practitioners who are not licensed need to understand the limitations of their training and their inability to provide therapy to clients. It is essential that practitioners understand their training and only provide services that are in line with their competency.
Teletherapy can be described as the use of technology to deliver services to clients from a distance. Teletherapy services can be delivered asynchronously via text or e-mail platforms but can also be delivered synchronously via phone and video conferencing platforms. There are both strengths (e.g., service availability for remote, disabled and traveling clients; cost effectiveness; access to self-help resources; client disclosure and anonymity) and limitations (e.g., concerns about confidentiality, relationship development, limited accessibility, credentialing across state and provincial lines) to the use of teletherapy.
Clients are some of the primary driving forces behind the use of teletherapy. Because of their age, comfort level with technology, busy training schedules, and constant travel, athletes often feel comfortable with the use of technology in their consultation sessions. However, practitioners need to be aware of several issues before agreeing to provide teletherapy services: (1) legal issues for those who provide psychological services across state, provincial, or national lines; (2) malpractice insurance for such services; (3) personal competency in the use of technology; (4) maintenance of confidentiality; and (5) appropriateness of teletherapy for client’s presenting concern.
Sports are often perceived by people and the public at large as very prestigious, and thus many wish to be associated with it. As such, it is not uncommon for individuals with only a peripheral connection to teams, to identify themselves closely with those teams. This is also true of practitioners who consult with teams. While overidentification with a team does not always cause problems, it has the potential to cause bias and the loss of objectivity in the practitioner.
Identifying the Client
An ethical situation that commonly occurs in sport and exercise psychology is the identification of the client (Who is the client?). In an athletic setting, one may question if the client is the athlete who has been referred for help, the coach, or the athletic department who is paying for the services. While this answer may seem simple, it becomes less clear when the practitioner is employed by the athletic department. In such cases, employees of the athletic department may question how much information they have a right to know. Such situations arise more often when the practitioner is an employee of a referring agency or is receiving payment from a third party.
Ethical Decision Making
The principles and standards identified within an organization’s code of ethics are intended to support and guide professionals in the process of making ethical decisions. However, making sound ethical decisions can be complicated since ethical principles and standards oftentimes contain gaps, contradictions, and grey areas because of the multiple considerations that must be addressed. To help combat these concerns, ethical decisionmaking models can serve as a practical framework that professionals can use to resolve these situations.
Theoretical perspectives serve as the foundation for ethical conduct in each of us and influence how we interpret situations and potential outcomes, as well as how we use the decision-making models.
Teleology is an ends-oriented approach that evaluates actions based upon the consequences of those actions, regardless of the intended consequences or the means used to achieve those ends. From this perspective, actions that lead to the most good for the most number of people are deemed to be ethical, with the opposite being perceived as unethical. Teleology can be viewed from both an act and a rule perspective. Act-Utilitarianism is a perspective that focuses on the ends, achieving the greatest good for the most people, with no regard for the means of achieving this result. RuleUtilitarianism is a perspective that encourages focusing on the ends, while following previously established rules to achieve those ends.
Deontology can be defined as a means or principled approach to ethical decision making. From this perspective, behaviors are evaluated as ethical or unethical based upon the intentions and quality of the actions rather than the outcomes produced by those actions. From this perspective, ethical behavior should be grounded in principles that would be applicable in different settings.
Models of Ethical Decision Making
While there are similarities and differences to each decision making, there are components to them that are consistent. Ethical decision-making models often include the following suggestions or steps:
- Identify and prioritize the relevant ethical issues, practices, and values.
- Identify the people affected by this situation.
- Identify the relevant ethical principles and cultural issues underlying the situation.
- Consult with other professionals about the situation.
- Identify personal factors that may distort ones perspective of the situation.
- Brainstorm alternative courses of action.
- Analyze the short and long-term risks and benefits of each course of action.
- Choose a course of action and inform the stakeholders of the decision.
- Act on the situation and assume responsibility for the consequences.
- Evaluate the results and make changes if necessary.
- Document decisions and the decision-making process.
Common Factors That Influence Ethical Decision Making
When making ethical decisions, it is important for practitioners to understand and take into consideration the environmental influences that may affect their decisions. Ethical decisions do not happen in vacuums, and making decisions without taking external influences into consideration may risk these factors unconsciously influencing one’s decisions. The primary environmental factors influencing professionals in sport and exercise psychology are likely (1) individual influences, such as moral and cognitive development and world view; (2) situational influences like the culture related to this issue in one’s workplace; (3) external influences, such as politics, economy, social issues; and (4) significant other influences, such as how will others perceive one’s decisions and how have they influenced one’s beliefs about this situation.
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- Association for Applied Sport Psychology. (1994). Ethics code: AASP ethical principles and standards. Retrieved from http://www.appliedsportpsych.org/about/ethics/ code
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