Members Area

Ethical Supervisors: Responsibility Rolls Up Hill

Ed Etzel, Jeff Brown, Jack Watson 

Attendees at the most recent AASP conference in Minneapolis were treated to many timely presentations across the range of AASP member interests. One “top shelf” offering was the ethics Keynote presented by Gerry Koocher, Ph.D., Professor and Dean of the Graduate School for Health Studies at Simmons College in Boston. In his address, co-sponsored by the Executive Board and the Ethics Committee, he discussed among other things: standards of care, establishing competence, respecting confidentiality, and establishing and maintaining good boundaries. All of these topics closely relate to general ethical practice and more specifically to the provision of supervision in applied sport psychology. The authors also presented on the topic of supervision. We examined its purposes, different theoretical models of supervision, and recent data from the membership on the “who-is-doing-what” and “how-often-are-they-doing-it” with regard to supervision in our field. Information on various ethical aspects of the practice of supervising was offered as well (Etzel, Watson, & Brown, 2004).

Many “take home” messages emerged from these presentations which we believe are useful to reiterate for the reader. If one were to sum up Dr. Koocher’s core message, it is that we are regularly challenged by ethical dilemmas in the array of work settings where we practice. Ethics is truly at the heart of the practice of our sport psychology specialty. As he has noted elsewhere, professionals assume a high degree of ethical and legal responsibility for what they do with their clients, and if one provides supervision, that same ethical and legal responsibility extends to our supervisees and the professional relationships they have with their clients (Koocher & Keith-Speigel, 1998).  

As noted in our presentation, we believe that supervision, with its historical links to apprenticeships, is an essential competency area associated with the ethical training and practice of applied sport psychology professionals. AASP supervisors are personally responsible for skillfully and competently tutoring others over time in their craft(s). Interestingly, recent survey data suggests that a very small number of AASP members are providing this guidance to a much larger number of supervisees (Watson, Zizzi, Etzel, & Lubker, in press). Perhaps this is the way things should be - a few experienced persons overseeing the efforts of several less experienced others. Agree or disagree, this appears to be the state of the field at the moment.

From an ethical perspective, we expect that these supervisors are themselves well-trained and specifically trained about the process of supervision in how to competently supervise. Unfortunately, data from the same recent study suggests that this may not actually be true (Watson, Zizzi, Etzel, & Lubker, in press). In fact, the data indicated that roughly 12.5% of respondents who said they currently supervise others, said that they had no training whatsoever in how to supervise, and many more reported only cursory training in supervision or that they were never supervised themselves. Also, the frequency of supervision provided to others was reported to be quite low. We believe these findings and their implications should be of great concern to AASP members - both professionals and students alike – because quality training is an integral, essential component of competent service delivery.

Why so? Whether or not you can find it on our web site, all AASP members agree to follow our ethics Code. The “Principles” outline our aspirational goals and the Code’s underlying professional values. Our “Standards” specify the “do’s and don’ts” of ethical practice. Consistent with these values, in professional situations, we must be competent, maintain our competencies, be responsible for our actions, and avoid harming others. Relative to professional supervision, we have to be capable, careful and conscientious before we decide to supervise, as well as maintain such awareness throughout the process of supervising another person. If ignore these considerations, we are at very least providing a disservice to our supervisees and the clients they work with. At worst, we are misrepresenting ourselves, our training programs and possibly involved in malpractice. While these are not pleasant possibilities to ponder, they are truly real. Just as general applied sport psychology practice is a serious business - so is supervision.

What if you have little or no training or experience in supervision and you are considering providing supervision? Or, what if you are already supervising someone and sense you are not well-trained enough to be in a supervisory position or you recognized you are simply in over your head? Many options exist. First, you could seek, obtain, and document training and/or continuing education in supervision before you take on a relationship with a supervisee. Formal coursework, supervised independent studies, or approved workshops may be helpful training options. Secondly, you could have your supervision supervised by an experienced professional who has clearly established competence in supervision. Or, you could not supervise at all. These are important options to consider because in this age of accountability and litigiousness. responsibility “rolls up hill” - to you.



Etzel, E., Watson, J.. & Brown, J. (2004, October). Effective, ethical supervision: Who cares? Presented at the 2004 annual conference of the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology, Minneapolis, MN.

Koocher, G., & Keith-Spiegel, P. (Eds.) (1998). Ethics in psychology: Professional standards and cases. New York: Oxford University Press.

Watson, J.C., Zizzi, S.J., Etzel, E.F., & Lubker, J.R. (2004). Applied sport psychology supervision: A survey of students and professionals. The Sport Psychologist, 18, 415-429.