Karen Lo — former HK National Team swimmer and current Sport Psychologist — sharing her perspectives on what led her to pursue a “taboo” career
Being a former competitive swimmer and athlete led Karen to pursue a career as a Sport Psychologist – she is in fact, currently the only Certified Sport Psychologist of the Association of Applied Sport Psychology, USA, in the greater China area. She runs her own company, Inner Edge. While a student, Karen had swum for the Hong Kong National Swimming team for 7 years; her experiences there sparked her interest to understand the mental side of sports performance. After she graduated from Diocesan Girls’ School, she studied psychology at HKU, and then went on to Boston University to pursue her Masters in Education in Counselling and Sport Psychology.
Since 2011, Karen has been coaching and counseling performers and athletes, ranging from youth to adults, from amateurs to national level individuals and teams, and from Hong Kong, Macau and Mainland Chinese record holders to American and Canadian National Collegiate Athletic Association (Division 1) athletes. Her clients play sports such as air pistol, basketball, dance, fencing, lacrosse, lawn bowls, marathon running, rowing, rugby, soccer, swimming, tennis, boxing, track and field, trail running and windsurfing.
Sport Psychology is still quite a nascent subject in HK. Can you explain what it is, and what your work entails?
You’re absolutely right. HK is definitely a city where Sport Psychology has just started gaining traction – mainly because people — Asians, especially — tend to have a negative connotation to the word “psychology”, and the stigma is hard to break. They immediately associate the subject with people who have problems. I’ve certainly had funny reactions when I tell people about my job. Some people are not even sure what it is, while others would think that I look after athletes who have mental problems. Due to the stigma, many athletes — males especially — are afraid to consult sport psychologists because they think it is a sign of weakness.
Unlike many other types of psychology where people do have problems or pressing issues that need to be urgently catered, Sport Psychology is for athletes, coaches and referees who want to improve or make their performances more consistent. I am an applied Sport Psychologist, meaning I offer consultation services to the target population so that they can overcome mental roadblocks, and reach their full potential in their sport/areas through confidence building, goal setting, stress and anxiety management, arousal and mood controls etc. I work with individuals as well as teams, and I often travel overseas as an on-field sport psychologist to work with athletes in the frontline.
Can you share what sparked your interest / desire to become a sports psychologist?
It was really mainly due to personal experience. I started swimming competitively at a very early age and was a National swimmer for 7 years. I broke 21 out of 23 age group records at the age of 10. The record I was proudest of was the 50m Butterfly — a 10 year old girl finally broke it last year, making it one of the longest standing records in HK. Back then, I was considered an extremely talented swimmer in all 4 strokes. My coaches all had very high expectations of me, and they couldn’t really believe that I would hit a plateau when I turned 13. I started feeling very stressed out when I couldn’t swim well, and didn’t know how to deal with my own anxieties. Whenever I didn’t do well, my coach would always say I lacked confidence, and that I would do better if I trained harder. I still remember that I would do my best to avoid swim meets altogether so that I wouldn’t have to compete, because I didn’t want to face my coach if I failed. Then it got to Olympic year and I couldn’t make it to the cut. I felt that I had let my coach down, so I decided that swimming was not my forte anymore. I quit shortly after another major swim meet so that I could concentrate on my studies.
It was because of this that made me wonder how athletes manage stress. I started to search on Google and the words “Sport Psychology” popped up. It seemed like a very fascinating subject. I was intrigued, because even though I had swum at a National level, Sport Psychology in HK was unheard of. I decided to go for it, so I majored in Psychology for my undergraduate degree and went straight to graduate school to complete a Master of Education in Counseling and Sport Psychology.
Now that I’ve studied Sport Psychology, I know that it’s important for a coach and an athlete to compromise and set joint goals together, as well as break them down and think about the process goals to achieve the end goals. Thinking about the outcome is not entirely wrong, but if we only focus on that the whole time and if the result doesn’t turn out the way we expect it to be, we would have a difficult time thinking about what we did wrong, and improve. This saps our motivation, too.
As a former athlete, I understand the stresses athletes go through: from managing their time to performing to their own expectations and achieving their goals to knowing how to face their fears and opponents. I think that I am offering a service that athletes nowadays would value and appreciate; something I was never able to have back then. Being able to serve local athletic population especially and assisting them to achieve even higher levels in their areas is especially rewarding to me.
As the Sport Psychology industry is so new in HK, what barriers did you face when you first started out in HK? What are some of the barriers that you still face? And what motivates you to keep pursuing this career, despite the challenges?
I think the biggest barrier is breaking the stigma. Since the subject is still so new, I am extremely grateful for the decent amount of media exposure I am getting because this also shows that many people are interested in the field as well. Also, like all other fields of counseling, the professional has to gain the client’s trust in a short period of time. This in itself is extremely difficult, because the client usually decides after the first session whether it is worthwhile to come back. It takes hours of training and experience, and I have to admit I had also struggled for a bit in the beginning.
As challenging as it is and difficult to get clients, I love my job — mainly due to the diversity in the nature of the job. Every day is different. I can be in my office doing an
individual session with an athlete, writing up a magazine column, being out on the field doing a team workshop with a bunch of soccer kids, at an University giving a guest lecture, or doing a TV program recording promoting Sport Psychology. I am glad that people are starting to gain interest in learning or even studying about it: I have taken in six university students as interns the past 2 years, which shows that the field has indeed gained attraction. There is definitely a huge demand out there.
What have you learned about people / about sports in HK / about peoples’ attitudes towards sports in HK from working with clients over the past 6 years?
Psychology is still a “taboo” subject. There has been a huge shift in terms of people’s attitude to therapy in the western part of the world, but unfortunately in HK, “psychology” is still considered a sensitive subject – not to mention that Sport Psychology is even more niche within the realm of Psychology! On a more positive note, it really is a matter of time, and I know that many professionals in psychology have been trying to promote the importance of a strong mindset, the benefits that come with it and how mental skills can be transferred to other areas in life.
On the other hand, I think it really requires ample education to bring forth the message that sport psychology is for everyone of all levels and not only for certain populations (e.g. the elite, the amateur, the problematic kids). Coaches and parents, especially, need to be educated as well. Sport Psychology is not just for athletes either – coaches and parents also need to learn how to communicate with their kids/athletes, to foster their motivation, and act in a way that can aid the kid’s athletic development. They also need to know that athletes shouldn’t be coming in for sessions only when they have problems, but more on how to train themselves up so that they know how to prepare for competition.
What are the most common reasons why clients come to you?
Most athletes come in because they are anxious before their games; many athletes (and people, in general) fear failure. They are too scared to lose because they think that the
consequences are too great. However, having worked with both North American and Asian (HK, Macau and Mainland China) athletes, I find that my Asian client base is relatively younger than their Western counterparts. I think that this also has to do with the culture, since we tend to start specializing early in our own sport, leading to low motivation and high burnout rates in teenage years. I find that many athletes in North America who do seek help from Sport Psychologists range from high school to collegiate/professional level, but in Asia and in HK especially, it’s quite difficult to find someone still doing competitive sport at the collegiate level.
You represented HK for 7 years on the national swimming team. What impact has that experience had on you personally and maybe professionally?
Apart from the constant struggles of not knowing how to go into competition with a
strong mindset, I also struggled having to deal with competitive anxieties alone. Just like any other individual sport, I find swimming a lonely sport, especially when I ended up being a middle/ long distance swimmer. I realize it might also have to do with the fact that I have been doing individual sport all my life – from track and field to table tennis to badminton to swimming!
To learn more about Sport Psychology, you can also read some of Karen’s columns via her company website at Inner Edge.