Helen O'Connor

Final day today - good luck Miranda, Gavin, Alison, and Alex!

Favourite Thing: I love using what I know about how our minds work to help people feel better about themselves and be as successful as they can be in whatever they do.



St Andrews School, Ashtead, Surrey 1986-1990 (GCSEs and A Levels)


1992 Middlesex University (English degree); 2005-2008 London Metropolitan University (Diploma in Psychology & Masters in Sport Psychology)

Work History:

Since becoming a psychologist I have worked in all sorts of places: at a weight loss camp for children and teens, in South African township schools, and at the Toronto Marathon. Before that I worked in office jobs in London for 10 years, and when I was even younger, I did all sorts of things including working in a cafe and cleaning jobs


As I’m self employed at the moment I am my own boss (unfortunately I’m quite a tough boss!)

Current Job:

I am a self employed sport psychologist – I am based in London but I also travel all over the world

Me and my work

I do a mixture of scientific work (like research and writing) and practical work (using psychology to help people be better at sport or be healthier)

The best thing about being a sport psychologist is that one day is never the same as the next, especially as I am self employed so I get to choose what I do. The kinds of things I do are:

1. Continuing to learn about being a psychologist

I don’t think I will ever stop learning! To find out everything I can about sport psychology I read science papers and books, I talk to other psychologists, and go on training courses. Even when I am on holiday, I usually take sport books with me – like the autobiographies of athletes. Right now I am reading about Roy Keane, the footballer.

2. Research

Because psychology is a science, I also do scientific research and write scientific articles. One of my main subject areas is performance enhancing drugs in sport and I have researched what athletes think about taking performance enhancing drugs. I also write articles about how psychology can help people to be healthier and do more exercise.

3. Practical psychology (applied psychology)

This is the real nuts and bolts of my work and where I get most pleasure and satisfaction. I work with athletes and sports people of all ages (the youngest is 10 years old, the oldest is 53 years old) to help them be better at sport or to cope with other problems. Some of the things I help athletes with is when they are nervous about a big competition, or when they are depressed after getting a bad injury that stops them doing sport. I also work with people who want to get healthier by doing more exercise and eating better food. These people sometimes need help to stop bad habits, and get new good habits. Sometimes they also need to feel more confidence, especially if they are overweight and feel a bit shy or embarrassed going to the gym or doing sports. I have had several great experiences so far, including working at a weight loss camp, working in South Africa with poor children, and working in Canada at the Toronto Marathon.

Here is a picture of a primary school classroom in South Africa where I worked (we used balloons to play a game to help everyone feel relaxed):


Here is a school rugby team I worked with:


And here is a list of some ‘confidence words’ we wrote down when we were talking about what confidence is. Most of the words are in English, but some are in an African language, called Xhosa.


4. Teaching and communicating about psychology

I don’t work in a university or school, but I give talks about sport psychology at sports clubs or gyms, and visit schools and universities to speak to students, and I also write articles on my blog and for other websites. I like this bit of my job a lot, because I think psychology is so interesting and I would love other people to think so too. That’s why I was so pleased to be selected for “I’m a Scientist”.

My Typical Day

I might start the day working on an article I am writing, or do some reading for a research project. I also try to spend time looking for work (like chatting to gym managers who might want me to come and give a talk). Then I would maybe see one or two clients (exercisers or sports people/teams) then write up my notes after those sessions

Last week was interesting because I was in Canada working at the Toronto Marathon. So that day I was up at 5am, to get the coach to the start line for 6am, and then I was speaking to runners right up to the start at 7.30am. Then I got into a car and drove around a strange city, to catch up with runners towards the middle or end of the marathon (I had to wear my own running gear as sometimes I ran alongside the runners). My day ended around 5pm, after I went to the medical tent to see if anyone needed help there.

The week before, I was working with a lady who used to ride and jump horses, but she had an operation on her back, and was feeling too scared to get on or off her horse, as she was worried it would hurt her back. So I worked at her stables, where her four horses were, and we spent a few hours teaching her ways to cope with feeling scared, and practicing it while she got on and off her smallest pony. Next time we meet we will try moving onto the next biggest horse, until she feels confident to get onto her favourite (and biggest) horse.

This is one of the horses wearing a very strange zebra blanket!


What I'd do with the money

I would use the money to give talks to groups of young athletes about performance enhancing drugs

I think it is really important that all sports are fair and no one cheats – so that every athlete has as much chance as the next to do well, as long as they have the skills and have practiced enough. One way some athletes cheat is by taking “performance enhancing drugs” that make them bigger or faster or give them more energy. These drugs are also not very good for you, and some athletes who take performance enhancing drugs get really ill, or even die because of it.
From my research into performance enhancing drugs, I know that sometimes athletes feel pressured to take drugs, either by peer-pressure, or because they pressure themselves to do well. I will use what I found in my research, and what other psychologists have found in their research, to give psychology lessons that I hope will help young athletes to see themselves as people who don’t cheat, and don’t want to get ill from taking drugs.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

organised, impatient, talkative

Would you rather be a scientist or an athlete? And why?

I would rather be a scientist as we have much longer careers: I could be a psychologist right up until I am 80 or 90 years old. Athletes have a very short time to achieve things and I think that would be difficult to cope with, after all that training and effort

If you could have a body super power, what would it be and why?

Being made of rubber or elastic: I did the world’s highest bungee jump last year, and it was really scary but also really exciting. I think it would be great just to jump off things all the time

Which Olympic event would you most like to win? And why?

I am not super-sporty, but I do have perfect eyesight, and a steady hand, so I think shooting or archery would be my best efforts, as you don’t have to run or jump in those!

What did you want to be after you left school?

I didn’t really know what I wanted to be: I did A Levels just because everyone else did them, but I didn’t apply for any University places when I was in the Sixth Form, I just went out to work for two years until I realised I did want to go to Uni. But it took me a long time to decide I wanted to be a psychologist, and I have had lots of different jobs

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Yes I was. I never wore the proper school uniform because I was trying to find my own style, and they were pretty strict back then. Also, I used to always try to get out of PE (which seems strange now, considering I work in sport and exercise)

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

I really enjoyed doing research for University, interviewing professional athletes about performance enhancing drugs. Since then, my most rewarding work has been with really poor kids in South African township schools (I have put some pictures in)

Tell us a joke.

Sorry this is cheesy, but it’s the only one I know that is about sports! “How do athletes keep cool during a game? They stand near the fans”