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SI-Flex: Investigating the use of social identities (SI) to promote psychological flexibility (Flex)

   Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport

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  Dr P Coffee, Dr C Hartley  Applications accepted all year round  Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

An exciting opportunity for a full-time PhD period of study is available in the Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport, University of Stirling. The PhD will investigate the utility, design, delivery, and impact of Social Identities in promoting Psychological Flexibility (SI-Flex) across a range of performance settings to better support both mental health and performance excellence. This PhD project would predominantly suit applicants with a background in sport/exercise psychology, social psychology, counselling/psychotherapy, public health, and/or coaching.

Background: In recent years, there has been considerable interest in the promotion of psychological flexibility to support both performance and mental health across a range of domain and buffer the negative impact of stress (Gloster et al., 2017). As a construct, psychological flexibility refers to the ability to contact the present moment in a non-judgemental manner to either change or persist behaviour in service of achieving valued ends. There is a growing evidence base that supports the efficacy of promoting psychological flexibility amongst individuals, teams, and communities through the use of Mindfulness- and Acceptance-Based Interventions (MABIs; Bühlmayer et al. 2017; Gardner & Moore 2017; Noetel et al. 2017; White et al., 2021).

As a psychological intervention, MABIs aim to promote non-judgemental present moment awareness of an individual’s experiences – whether good or bad – by drawing on aspects of mindfulness, acceptance, and compassion to promote change. Specifically, instead of attempting to modify the content of one’s internal experiences, MABI’s place emphasis on purposefully acknowledging and engaging in ones’ lived experience (i.e. relationally attending to one’s thoughts and feelings of joy and pain, success and failure, etc.), while also exploring values and promoting behaviour change that is consistent with those values (Hartley, 2020; Hayes et al., 2009).

While MABIs show promise for promoting both performance and mental health across a range of contexts (e.g. sport, business, public health responses), the constraining influence of social factors on the effectiveness of MABIs has not yet been examined. Indeed, the social context of performance settings provides a unique set of challenges for both performers and practitioners, and a theoretically informed approach is needed to help promote psychological flexibility in a manner that is cognisant of both social culture and context (Eubank et al., 2014; Larsen 2017). The Social Identity Approach has gained considerable momentum in the domain of sport (e.g. Slater, Coffee et al., 2014; Haslam, Fransen & Boen, 2020), and offers promise in this regard.

As specified by both social identity and self-categorization theories, the social identity approach explains how the influence of group memberships and their associated social identities structure our psychological experiences and behaviours (e.g. ‘Are We open and willing to accept discomfort in service of valued outcomes?’ as opposed to ‘Am I open and willing to accept discomfort in service of valued outcomes?’). The SI-Flex PhD will therefore investigate the utility, design, delivery, and impact of Social Identities in supporting the effective delivery of MABIs, with a view to promote Psychological Flexibility to support both mental health and performance excellence.

The supervisory team:

-      Dr Pete Coffee is a sport and social psychologist researching the social identity approach to sport, exercise, health, and performance settings. His previous and ongoing research in these settings provides insight into several social and physical phenomena including social support, attributions, leadership, and physical activity. He has supervised a number of PhD students through to completion.

-      Dr Chris Hartley is a sport and performance psychologist researching the social identity approach to sport and performance settings. His previous and ongoing research in these settings provides insight into social support, burnout, and applied psychology interventions. Chris also has considerable experience as an applied practitioner in promoting psychological flexibility through the use of MABIs such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

What you will gain through this PhD programme: Through completion of this PhD programme, the successful candidate will develop a range of skills and experiences across the following areas:

-      Research: You will have the opportunity to deliver a rigorous programme of scientific research.

-      Applied practice: You will be supported to design and deliver an applied intervention.

-      External engagement: You will be supported in promoting the impact of this work to a wider network (e.g. to national governing bodies, presenting at international conferences, etc.).

As a PhD student at the University of Stirling, you will have access to state-of-the-art sports and research facilities to conduct the research. The University of Stirling is ‘Scotland’s University of Sporting Excellence’ and was crowned by The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide as ‘UKs Sports University of the Year’ (2020). The Lawn Tennis Association has a National Academy on the Stirling campus, and the National Swimming Academy, SportScotland, Commonwealth Games Scotland, Scottish Swimming, Triathlon Scotland and the Scottish Football Association Central Area are also located on campus.

Informal enquiries can be made directly to the lead supervisor, Dr Pete Coffee, to [Email Address Removed]. Dr Chris Hartley will be an equal co-supervisor and will lead on the applied nature of the project.

To apply, applicants are asked to attach all relevant documentation listed below in a single email to [Email Address Removed] using the subject header ‘SI-Flex’. Documents to attach include:

·       Academic Transcript(s) and Degree Certificate(s): Final degree transcripts including grades and degree certificates (and official translations, if needed) - scanned copy in colour of the original documents.

·       References: Two references on headed paper (academic and/or professional). At least one reference must be academic. The other can be academic or professional. These should also be signed by the referee. If your referees would prefer to provide confidential references direct to the University then we can also accept the reference by email, from the referee’s official university or business email account to [Email Address Removed] clearly labelling the reference ‘SI-Flex’.

·       Copy of CV: detailing relevant education and work experience.

·       Applicant Statement: a brief 1-page letter of motivation, outlining your research interests and your thoughts on how you could contribute to our research agenda.


The following resources might be helpful in order to learn more about the theory and ideas underpinning this PhD:
Bühlmayer, L., Birrer, D., Röthlin, P., Faude, O., & Donath, L. (2017). Effects 399 of mindfulness practice on performance-relevant parameters and performance 400 outcomes in sports: A meta-analytical review. Sports Medicine, 47(11), 2309–2321.
Eubank, M., Nesti, M., & Cruickshank, A. (2014). Understanding high performance sport environments: Impact for the professional training and supervision of sport psychologists. Sport and Exercise Psychology Review, 10(2), 30–36.
Gardner, F. L., & Moore, Z. E. (2017). Mindfulness-based and acceptance- based interventions in sport and performance contexts. Current Opinion in Psychology, 16, 180–184.
Gloster, A. T., Klotsche, J., Ciarrochi, J., Eifert, G., Sonntag, R., Wittchen, H. U., & Hoyer, J. (2017). Increasing valued behaviors precedes reduction in suffering: Findings from a randomized controlled trial using ACT. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 91, 64–71.
Hartley, C. (2020). Navigating Subclinical Sport Psychology as a Trainee: A Case Study of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in Elite Youth Athletics. Case Studies in Sport and Exercise Psychology, 4(S1), 44–53.
Haslam, S.A, Fransen, K., & Boen, F. (2020). The New Psychology of Sport and Exercise: The Social Identity Approach. SAGE Publications.
Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (2009). Acceptance and 453 commitment therapy. American Psychological Association.
Larsen, C. H. (2017). Bringing a knife to a gunfight: A coherent consulting philosophy might not be enough to be effective in professional soccer. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 8(2), 121–130.
Noetel, M., Ciarrochi, J., Van Zanden, B., & Lonsdale, C. (2017). Mindfulness and acceptance approaches to sporting performance enhancement: A systematic review. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 1–37.
Slater, M. J., Coffee, P., Barker, J. B., & Evans, A. L. (2014). Promoting shared meanings in group memberships: A social identity approach to leadership in sport. Reflective Practice, 15(5), 672–685.
White, R.G., Bethell, A., Charnock, L., Leckey, S., & Penpraze, V. (2021). Acceptance and Commitment Approaches for Athletes’ Wellbeing and Performance: The Flexible Mind. Palgrave Macmillan.
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