Stellenbosch University’s Dr Debbie Alexander has a hand in ‘coaching’ South Africa’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes that will be competing at the Rio Games later this year. But unlike other coaches, Alexander, a principal clinical psychologist with the Department of Psychiatry of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, is involved with the performance of the athletes’ minds, rather than their bodies.
Alexander serves on the Medical Commission of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC) and is responsible for arranging psychological support for the Olympic and Paralympic athletes supported by SASCOC’s Operation Excellence (OPEX) programme.
“I have to ensure that athletes from all corners of the country have access to psychological support in their home languages,” says Alexander, who is also the head of Clinical Psychology at Tygerberg Hospital.
As if finding suitable psychologists in sometimes remote areas with specific language capabilities is not challenging enough, these psychologists also have to have a background in, or at least experience and an interest in sport, in order to work with athletes on this level. Sport psychology is not a registered profession with the Health Professions Council of South Africa and therefore clinical and/or counselling psychologists with an interest in sport are currently the only professionals recognised by SASCOC to provide psychological services to OPEX athletes.
The psychological services on offer to the athletes are not limited to their sports performance, and if necessary the management of psychological distress, anxiety or depression, is included in the care.
“This service offered by SASCOC recognises that the contribution of psychology is not limited to mental illness but has a big role to play in promoting and sustaining health and wellbeing,” says Alexander.
She also served on SASCOC’s Medical Commission ahead of the London Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012 and she has been involved in the High Performance Advisory Committee. The framework of psychology services she is putting in place will serve as support in the run-up to the 2016 Games in Rio, as well as the 2020 Games in Tokyo.