What USA Network’s “Necessary Roughness” Gets Right About Sport Psychology
USA Network’s new show, Necessary Roughness follows in the grand tradition of the network’s disposable melodramas, from recent series like Burn Notice and Royal Pains to the 90’s detective show Silk Stalkings. Not to be confused with the 1991 football-themed comedy starring Scott Bakula and Sinbad, this show focuses on the work of a “tough as nails” female therapist from Long Island named Dr. Danielle “Dani” Santino. Although she is in the midst of several stressors, including divorce and a defiant teenage daughter, she agrees to go out to a club with the requisite boozy, outspoken friend. Dr. Dani proceeds to have a one night stand with the local pro football team’s athletic trainer where she conveniently “cures” him of smoking with hypnosis the next morning. As a result of her hypnosis skills, she is hired by the team’s Head Coach and presented with a challenging task. They need her to help the team’s star wide receiver, Terrence “TK” King, overcome a mental performance issue around dropped passes. TK, vaguely reminiscent of another dual initialed star wide receiver, is, (of course) resistant initially but then learns the value of Dr. Dani’s approaches and goes on to score a game-winning touchdown just before the closing credits roll.
Overall, for mental health professionals in general and for sport psychology professionals specifically, the show has brought with it a lot of worry and hand-wringing. In a world where there remains a great deal of stigma around seeking help for personal and performance issues and a lot of misconceptions around this work, this worry is certainly justified. This is especially the case as we examine the content of Necessary Roughness, which is filled with inaccuracies (e.g.., hypnotherapy involves simple suggestions that provide near-instantaneous “cures”) and ethical issues and violations galore around practicing outside of your expertise, client privacy and confidentiality, dual relationships, boundary violations, lack of empathy, inappropriate self-disclosure, and the question of having your professionalism and effectiveness compromised by personal problems.
However, even in the midst of the melodrama, misinformation, and concerning representations of therapy present in Necessary Roughness, there are some things that the show does get right about the field of Sport Psycholgy:
- Sport Psychology Consultants are people too – Just like anyone else, we deal with stresses and adverse life events that affect everyone. This aspect of Dr. Dani’s life is portrayed with some accuracy, with her experiences of infidelity and divorce, unsupportive family members, and rebellious and defiant children. However, unlike many professionals, sport psychology consultants and other mental health professionals must take special care to make sure that their issues do not compromise their ability to provide effective treatment. This places a strong emphasis on self-awareness within the profession.
- It is often not the athlete’s choice to be there – Whether it’s a coach, general manager, athletic administrator, or, for youth athletes, a parent, it is often someone else who directs the client towards sport psychology services. This puts a special emphasis on the professional to explain the potential benefits of mental skills for sport early on in a manner that can help to build rapport and instill hope in the client. Additionally, the professional needs to emphasize issues of confidentiality and what information can or cannot be shared with the referral source. This is often referred to as “informed consent”, which must be obtained in order to ethically treat an individual.
- Sport Psychology is not a “quick fix” – After the first session with Dr. Dani, a hypnotic suggestion that the football is a baby and that TK must not “drop the baby” is not successful and his performance problems continue. The session the show presents between Dr. Dani and TK is a poor representation of what is entailed when sport psychology professionals engage a client in mental skills training for sport. However, the small point that mental skills, including increasing focus and concentration, managing physiological arousal, and developing positive cognitive approaches towards training and competition cannot be learned in one day is accurate. Numerous studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of sport psychology interventions (some examples linked here and here) but it is clear that skill-building takes time, effort, and practice both on the part of the professional and the client.
- Traumatic experiences in childhood often have long lasting effects – Part of the story of TK in the pilot episode revolves around him coming to terms with his emotions around his mother’s death by drug overdose, issues of father loss, and a history of placements in the foster care system. Although these issues are fairly lightly glossed over and primarily serve to move forward the connection of TK and Dr. Dani, I did appreciate the story making the connection between TK’s recklessness and emotional volatility and his traumatic past. While many individuals believe in the adage that “whatever does not kill us makes us stronger”, the reality is that adverse childhood events and early trauma have dramatic and long lasting effects on people. In one recent study children who had experienced multiple forms of trauma such as those of TK were 30 times more likely to have behavioral, academic, and physical problems. On a more positive note, the field of mental health is moving more often into the use of evidenced-based approaches to help those who have experienced trauma. One particular evidenced-based approach, Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) emphasizes psychoeducation around trauma, building emotion regulation and cognitive skills, and the development of a narrative story of the individual’s experience to help them gain a sense of mastery over their trauma experiences.
- There are a lot of unqualified professionals out there working with athletes – Despite the efforts of organizations like the Association for Applied Sport Psychology who provide a “Certified Consultant” credential and offer a listing of their certified consultants and the American Psychological Association, which has published proficiency guidelines for psychologists who provide sport psychology services, the field of sport psychology is, at best, loosely regulated. In fact, the mental health professional that the show is purported to be based on, Donna Dannenfelser does not appear to be a licensed mental health professional or have a history of graduate or post-graduate training in sport psychology. There are a myriad group of individuals out there that make Sport Psychology the “Wild West” of treatment modalities, filled with “confidence coaches”, “mental skills trainers”, “sports performance consultants”, and “sports psychologists” (notice the ‘s’). In additon there are a number of licensed mental health professionals in a number of areas from counseling to psychology to social work who, lacking training in sport psychology, pair an interest in sports or experience as an athlete with savvy marketing efforts to serve a population for whom they are not qualified.
I do not really believe in the the adage that “any press is good press” and I will likely continue to cringe at the inaccuracies and ethical concerns anytime I watch Necessary Roughness. However, it would be a very positive thing if this show is successful and in some ways demystifies some aspects of sport psychology and therapy for the public and causes them to consider seeking out a professional that has specific sport psychology training and carries proper certification or licensing.
Craig W. Cypher, Psy.D.
Dr. Craig Cypher is a licensed psychologist in New York State specializing in individual and family psychotherapy, training, and consultation. His private practice specializes in services for children, adolescents, young adults, and famillies and is located in Rochester, NY. He considers himself to be a sport psychology professional with a specialty in youth sports and trained under US Olympic Committee certified psychologist Gloria Balague, Ph.D. as a graduate student at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology in Chicago.