How Do­minic Vet­tise builds cham­pi­ons

Whanganui Chronicle - - Front Page -

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.


It’s not all mind games for Do­minic Vet­tise. He was the drinks car­rier for the Black Ferns 7s at train­ing in Canada in 2018.

Do­minic Vet­tise was part of the man­age­ment team awarded gold medals when the Black Ferns won the women’s 7s ti­tle at Hamil­ton in Jan­uary. That’s him in the mid­dle row at the right.

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