Prof Van Niekerk sheds light on the “Gap” in the current state and prospects of sport and exercise psychology in SA in his Inaugural Lecture

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Today, 16 August 2023, Prof Leon van Niekerk, a professor of Psychology and a registered Counselling Psychologist became the 31st University of Fort Hare (UFH) academic to deliver an Inaugural Professorial Lecture, a significant occasion that marks the promotion to a Full Professor - the apex of an academic’s career.

Titled: “Mind the gap! The current state and prospects of sport and exercise psychology in South Africa,” Prof Van Niekerk gave an in-depth and insightful overview of sport psychology in South Africa, he analyzed the factors that impede or facilitate its progress and proposed potential prospects for sport psychology that can aid in narrowing the divide between the current state and the future outlook of sport psychology in the country.

Born in Vereeniging, Prof Van Niekerk began his academic journey in 2001 at the University of Johannesburg, after a decade-long tenure as a full-time minister. He joined UFH in 2015, initially as a Professor of Sport Psychology in the Department of Human Movement Science, and currently as a Professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychology.

As a Counselling Psychologist, he has a keen interest in the mental preparation, mental health, and well-being of athletes and coaches, as well as the role psychology plays in the development and performance of athletes. His research in sport psychology has primarily focused on four sub-fields: addressing problem areas like sexual abuse in sport, exploring the relationship between exercise and psychological health benefits, investigating the psychological development and mental preparation of athletes, and more recently, examining the impact of exercise on the development of adolescents in collaboration with colleagues from Macau and India.

During his prolific academic career, he has helped shape the professions of several of his students, including one of his first PhD graduates, Dr Koketjo Tsebe who recently returned from Australia on an appointment as the team psychologist for Banyana Banyana during the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

In his address, Prof Van Niekerk underscores that: “Sport and exercise psychology, with its focus on understanding the affective, cognitive, and behavioral aspects of athletes and individuals engaged in exercise, has significantly contributed to the growth and development of sports and exercise globally. However, in South Africa, there exists a noticeable disparity between the current status and the potential future of sport psychology.”

He critically examined the structural, cultural, and agency factors that hinder the progress of sport psychology in the country and also highlighted the historical context of sports in South Africa, including its socio-political history and the impact of Apartheid-era injustices on sports development.

He gave an analysis of the current state of sport psychology in South Africa, encompassing teaching, research, and practice and emphasizes the need for culturally sensitive approaches to promote mental well-being and enhance athletic performance among diverse populations.

Prof Van Niekerk believes by addressing these challenges, South Africa can bridge the gap and unlock the full potential of sport psychology to benefit athletes, coaches, and the sports community at large.

He concludes his lecture with an exploration of the prospects for sport psychology in the country, focusing on youth development and mental health support, wherein he emphasizes the importance of integrating sport psychology into school contexts and developmental programmes during adolescence.

In addition, he advocates for proactive strategies to address mental health concerns in the sporting community, aligning with international sustainable development goals. “The proposed contexts of youth development and mental health promotion serve as crucial areas where sport psychology can contribute significantly to the well-being and success of athletes in South Africa,” he stated.

Asked about the motivation behind the topic of his lecture, he responded: “The “gap” between where we are in the field of sport psychology in South Africa and what we could offer is big. Although it is getting smaller, the field is still much unorganised and fragmented in its service delivery. We don’t even have training programmes or registration categories for sport psychology in SA. The field has much to offer, but it is time to narrow this gap rapidly, by starting to organise the structures and opportunities for a more formal training and practitioner context in the field.”

Commenting on this momentous occasion in his career, Prof van Niekerk said he was honoured and humbled by the achievement. “I did not find sport psychology, it found me,” he said as he recalled several experiences, events and individuals that have been instrumental in his journey towards becoming a Full Professor.

“I feel honoured to be inaugurated as a professor, more specifically in the field of psychology. I am humbled by the enormous amount of support and interest of so many colleagues, friends, and family in my work. It is indeed heartwarming to be among so many people who had an influence on my development and journey in the field. I am especially thankful and appreciative of my wife for her support on this journey.”