How Dominic Vettise builds champions
A Whanganui son is making waves in the world of sports psychology, and, as reporter JOHN MASLIN writes, it has him working with some of household names in New Zealand sport.
The late Muhammad Ali once said: “Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them — a desire, a dream, a vision.”
Ali’s aphorism is something that resonates with Dominic Vettise because, as a sports psychologist, he knows only too well the desires, dreams and visions held by some of New Zealand’s top sportsmen and women.
Now this Whanganui-raised and educated psychologist has corralled a clutch of the nation’s elite sportspeople under his watch, helping them achieve at the very top level around the world.
It was by chance that he got involved in this branch of psychology, after a failed chemistry grade at Otago University quashed his plans to become a doctor, working specifically in the area of forensics.
Vettise was born in Napier, before his parents, Marcus and Shelley Vettise, moved back to their home city of Whanganui when he was a toddler. He went to St Marcellin School then to St Augustine’s College (later Cullinane College).
In 2006 saw him at Otago University to begin a health science degree. His aim was to become a doctor working specifically in the forensic area and three years later he completed a Bachelor of Science degree, majoring in psychology.
Disappointed after failing to get into clinical psychology at Otago, Vettise did a Masters degree (in science) and finished that in 2010.
“I looked into sport psychology but was warned off and told to do something more aligned with clinical psychology as it would serve me better later on if I decided to come back to it,” he said.
By his own admission Vettise says he’s a “failed health science student”. He couldn’t carry on to med school because he failed chemistry in his first semester.
“When a friend of mine asked me what I wanted to do, I told her the story about how I loved (the TV series) CSI and wanted to work as a doctor in forensics. She told me they were doing forensic psychology and I should come along. I had no idea what psychology was at that point, but decided to give it a look. That lecture was on schizophrenia and I absolutely fell in love with it.
“I was into learning and studying about psychology that nothing else really mattered. When my wife moved down to Dunedin in 2007, she quizzed me most nights and continued to do so until I finished in 2013.”
Both he and his wife, Maria, (Simmons, ex-Whanganui) were keen on travel and, wanting to have one last crack at clinical psychology, Vettise applied for clinical psych courses all around New Zealand. He got offers from Otago, Massey and Waikato universities, eventually opting for Waikato because it offered more in terms of Ma¯ ori and Pacific Island cultural content. He completed the post-graduate Diploma of Clinical Psychology in 2013 at Waikato.
“I’d forgotten about sport psychology and was pretty set on working in the area of Corrections and forensics. I did a lot of volunteer work and work that helped me get experience in psychology. You need life skills, not just book skills, to get in and do well in this area”
He worked in Youth Forensics and Corrections for about three years, visiting Spring Hill Prison and occasionally Waikeria Prison in Waikato where he assessed and treated high-risk violent, sexual and recidivist offenders. He also did group treatment with child sex offenders.
Vettise left Corrections and got more experience in mental health, treating children and adolescents for a Ma¯ ori Mental Health organisation three days a week. It was a turning point because it freed up time for him to work privately and meant he could focus on sports psychology.
“Sports psychology was an ambition but it fell by the wayside until I began to be mentored by a sport psychologist. Growing up I played lots of sport and it began to feel quite natural putting two of my passions together.”
So what is it about sports psychology that captured his interest?
“I think it’s the fact that we’re focused on maximising human potential, rather than using a deficit model which is ‘There is a problem, now fix it’. I love that I can be really creative with how I get my ideas across. I don’t just work with an individual, but try and enhance a culture.
“I love the pressure that comes with trying to help a team or individual stay at the top, or get to the top. And I love the fact that I enjoy going to work every day because of the people I work with.”
He maintains a private practice in Hamilton (Vettise Psychology) because he says it keeps him balanced and grounded: “I think it could be easy to lose the gratitude and privilege of being in the position I am if I only worked with elite athletes and teams.”
He’s now contracted to work with the Black Ferns Rugby 7s, Canoe Racing New Zealand (specifically the men’s kayak squad) and the Silver Ferns netball development squad. His workload grew this year when he picked up contracts with Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic netball team, Auckland Aces cricket and Football Ferns development programme. He’s also working with individuals from Cycling NZ, Triathlon NZ as part of a contract with High Performance Sport NZ (HPSNZ), as well as other high performance athletes who don’t have funding from HPSNZ including jockeys and swimmers. (Contractual obligations mean he can’t identify those individuals).
It wasn’t long ago a sports psychologist would have been the last thing a player or team would have connected to, but Vettise says people recognised that while most athletes or teams train similarly “the mind is so variable in comparison because of the past experiences and beliefs we grow up with”.
“This impacts the way we think, perceive adversity or pressure, and the way you think affects the way you feel and therefore behave or perform. We now better understand that given the variety of experiences the mind has, we can make the most gains.”
He said previously psychologists were seen to be working from a deficit model; someone seeing a psychologist meant something was wrong. Now psychology is seen as a way to optimise human performance and behaviour or the culture of a team.
“The brain controls everything — how much physical work ethic you can handle, how well you discipline yourself to eat correctly, how you retain tactics — and all of this under immense pressure. So why wouldn’t a team get a psychologist involved?”
Vettise said culture was often the focus with teams; building a culture that lets people express themselves freely on and off the field, court or track. This may be done by presenting guidelines or values to optimise culture, allow vulnerability to be seen as a strength and building a sense of acceptance, belonging and trust.
“It’s about working with the leadership group to adhere and uphold values. And it’s about giving coaches and management feedback about their communication. With individuals, the primary focus is often about growing selfawareness, building an identity that is accepting of failure or mistakes, seeing these as an opportunity to grow, and demonstrate courage. It helps them realise that a strong self-concept goes beyond the medals or outcome, so ‘Sport is what I do, not who I am’.
“Then we begin to tie in work on a mental skills component — the visualisations, self-talk, emotion regulation and mental preparation — and building behaviours or rituals of optimal performance. The final piece of the puzzle is about simulating pressure situations which is where you need to be creative and a bit courageous.”
Vettise said it was vital a sports psychologist left their ego at the door.
“A common trap is the belief that you (as a psychologist) must make an impact. We need to remember not to fix what’s not broken and these athletes and coaches have mostly made it to this point without psychology, so they’re clearly doing something right. They are experts in themselves, so my job is to simply give them the confidence to find the answers for themselves.
“In some way I’m doing my best to make myself redundant. Likewise with coaches, my job is to help them become redundant, have the players and leaders running the team as they’re the ones who make the instinctive decisions on the field.”
Not all coaches and managers understand the role sports psychologists can have: “Some do and some don’t but I’m very lucky that I work with amazing coaches who give me free rein to create impact, are clear on what they need me to do or observe, and who are prepared for challenging feedback.”
But he said where it can fall down is when coaches only use the sports psychologist when the team or a player is underperforming; again the perfect “deficit model”.
“Used like this it makes a player feel like there is something wrong with them, or that they are broken and need to be fixed. A coach that allows me to do my work, especially when play is going well, fully understands my role.”
Vettise’s work isn’t confined to highperformance athletes or teams. He enjoys talking to school students to make psychology more accessible for all levels and he’s also talked at fundraisers to get young athletes to overseas sports events. More recently he has been asked to take his learnings from high-performance sports teams and leaders and apply it to businesses.
“I’m constantly looking for ways to enhance access to psychology, whether it’s through sport, mental health or business. I’m very lucky the teams I have been with have now started to give me the platform to do that.”
Vettise is guarded when asked how he measures his success in specialist field. He shies away from measuring his success by outcomes, such as medals when a team wins. The medal from when the Black Ferns won at Hamilton 7s went straight into the toy box and is a chew toy for his 10 month-old son, Theo.
“I don’t know how I measure my success. Maybe it’s by trying to remain authentic, hardworking and showing the courage to make mistakes and fail. As long as I’m improving, and giving my all to others, then that’s success, regardless of what happens after.”
He, wife Maria and two children, daughter Sienna, 2, and Theo, live in Cambridge and will probably be there for a while. He talks about “incredible colleagues” he works with including sports psychologist David Galbraith (who works with All Blacks and Olympic athletes) and former All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith.
The prospect of working overseas may come down the track but isn’t on his agenda yet. He’s happy where he is and wants to repay the people who helped his career.