Consulting may be described as a temporary relationship that is developed when an individual or entity seeks information or advice. Consultation may occur at the individual, group, or organizational level. It is intended to help the designated client function more effectively and efficiently within a specific setting.
Although consultation is a helping relationship, it differs from psychotherapy, counseling, or coaching along a number of dimensions. Psychotherapy (or counseling—used interchangeably for the purpose of this article) is often described as directed toward remediation, restoration, or recovery of former functioning. In contrast, consultation is designed to improve or enhance functioning and performance. It is intended to resolve a problem or assist in the development of performance excellence, as compared to changing an individual’s overall functioning. Although the relationship between consultant and client may be an important means to the end (e.g., positive results), the relationship per se is not the focus of consultation. Psychotherapy is bounded by strict rules regarding confidentiality, and services almost always occur within a therapist’s office. Issues of confidentiality within consulting are more complex, in part because multiple players may be involved; services often take place within the client’s work setting.
In a strictly medical model of psychotherapy, the practitioner performs an assessment from which a diagnosis is derived. This in turn determines the practitioner’s plan for treatment. Treatment is hierarchical in nature: The therapist, by virtue of knowledge and regulation, is in a position of power in relation to the client or patient.
Consultation may share many of these elements, such the sequential aspects of data gathering, evaluation, and decision making in regard to the most useful intervention. As with psychotherapy, this process may take place via interview alone, or may be augmented by the use of relevant assessment instruments. At the same time, the method of interaction and presentation may be much more collaborative. Assumptions are made that the client has the requisite skills to perform the job; it is the consultant’s role to assist in the specific enhancement of that job.
At times and in some settings, the term coaching is used interchangeably with consulting. Often, however, a coach is in the position of a teacher, imparting knowledge about specific skill development. Consulting, in contrast, usually implies that the consultant will assist in providing information or assist with application rather than specific work skill development.
Psychotherapy and coaching are often dyadic in nature, involving an interaction of two people. Consultation can be considered triadic, involving consultant, consultee, and client. The consultee may be the contracting organization, interested in having the consultant work directly with the client. Alternatively, consultants at times work directly only with the consultee concerning the client; knowledge of the client in this situation may be indirect.
As a consultant, one is typically hired or retained as an outsider rather than a staff member who is part of the organizational structure. The advantage to this role relationship is that the consultant is less bound by some of the constraints that an employee may experience; the consultant may feel freer to offer advice, recommendations, or suggestions even if these might prove unpopular. On the other hand, the system, or organization, has no obligation to accept the advice proffered.
Use of Title
In contrast to counseling, psychotherapy, or psychology, which may be regulated by law for the protection of clients, the term consultant is not regulated. The term is widely used; it does not imply any specific training or ethical duty. For that reason, it can be viewed as positive, neutral, or because it is so widely used in some settings, might be considered pejorative.
Applications to Sport Psychology
A sport psychology consultant is a professional with expertise in understanding systemic structures, interpersonal interactions, or mental skills for optimal performance, brought in for specific assistance over a limited period of time. For example, such a consultant might work with a university athletic director to develop services that would assist athletes in stress management, might assist a coach in developing learning strategies regarding optimal methods for team teaching, might be brought in to work with a team on leadership skills or team cohesion, or might work with an athlete on mental skills development.
Within sport settings, the term therapist may imply psychopathology; the term consultant may not hold the same negative connotation. Although consulting and coaching may be similar, within sport settings the term coach, without modification, may be confusing. On the other hand, when modified in a specific way, such as mental skills coach, it may have greater acceptability.
Sport psychology consultants receive graduate training in both psychology and the sport sciences in order to offer requisite consultation with regard to cognitive and behavioral skills for performance enhancement or optimal performance. As with more generic consultation, the actual work may occur at the individual, team, community, or organizational level. Because there are various routes to competent practice, potential practitioners and potential clients in North America should be guided by the criteria for becoming a certified consultant through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology and the proficiency in sport psychology of the American Psychological Association.
- American Psychological Association. (2013). Public description of sport psychology. Retrieved from http://apa.org/ed/graduate/specialize/sports.aspx
- Aoyagi, M. W., Portenga, S. T., Poczwardowski, A., Cohen, A., & Statler, T. (2012). Reflections and directions: The profession of sport psychology: past, present, and future. Professional Psychology: Research & Practice, 53, 32–38.
- Association for Applied Sport Psychology. (n.d.). About certified consultants. Retrieved from http://www.appliedsportpsych.org/Consultants/About-CertifiedConsultants
- Lowman, R. L. (Ed.). (2002). The California School of Organizational Studies handbook of organizational consulting psychology: A comprehensive guide to theory, skills, and techniques. San Francisco: JosseyBass.
- O’Roark, A. M., Lloyd, P. J., & Cooper, S. E. (2005). Guidelines for education and training at the doctoral and postdoctoral level in consulting psychology/ organizational consulting. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/about/policy/education-training.pdf
- Sachs, M. L., Lutkenhouse, J., Rhodius, A., Watson, J., Pfenninger, G., Lesyk, J. L., et al. (2011). Career opportunities in the field of exercise and sport psychology. In M. L. Sachs, K. L. Burke, & S. L. Schweighardt (Eds.), Directory of graduate programs in applied sport psychology (10th ed., pp. 251–277). Indianapolis, IN: Association for Applied Sport Psychology.