Great Insights at the 2011 Midwest AASP Conference

Life skill acquisition. Sport and gender. Mental toughness. The culture of high-performance youth sport. These topics and more were discussed at the 2011 Midwest AASP conference (Feb 18-19), hosted by Miami University in Oxford, OH. The conference was heavily student-driven, and included over twenty presentations of research and research proposals. There was a strong contingent of undergraduate presenters… always good to see undergrads getting involved early. I’ll discuss a few of the presentations that resonated with me in my post below.

Eric Martin from Miami University presented an interesting piece on passion and burnout in college sports. He spoke about “active burnout,” or a process where athletes persist in their sport despite lowered levels of motivation and interest. This might have some interesting overlaps with the concept of “presenteeism” in the field of organizational psychology, where employees attend work despite being ill or psychologically exhausted. Scott Pierce, also of Miami, presented some interesting findings on life skill development. How do athletes gain the mindset to learn life lessons from tough sport situations? Pierce suggested that influences from family and coaches could help athletes see the life skill values attained during sport.

Courtney Robinson of Bowling Green State University presented some interesting findings on how female athletes mediated the level of effort when playing against boys in co-ed sports. This has always fascinated me when it comes to coaching men and women swimmers in a co-ed setting. Women often hesitated to give efforts that would outperform the men unless they were more comfortable with the men they trained with. It’s an interesting dynamic to consider if you are a coach of a coed team.

Will Massey of UW-Milwaukee presented some preliminary findings of his immersion study with MMA athletes… along with a black-eye to prove the depths of his immersion in the sport. He found that while many athletes were somewhat hesitant about sport psychologists (because by seeing one is to inherently admit a mental weakness), they were much more cognizant of the fact that a mental lapse in the ring could lead to very detrimental effects, such as being harmed physically.

The Michigan State contingent presented well. Dana Voelker presented a Captain’s Leadership Scale, and wondered how coach motivational climate might overlap with character building practices. Missy Wright presented findings from her work with adolescent girls in an under-served community, and their perceptions of getting involved in sport… getting an early start in sport seemed to be crucial to maintaining sport participation. Moe Machida presented some preliminary findings leading to her dissertation on female athletic administrator’s intent to pursue promotion… Moe is potentially considering the Theory of Intended Behavior as a theoretical model for her study. Evie Oregon presented a proposal to study the sport history of collegiate athletes to determine if early sport specialization was necessary to participate at the Division I level. This is an interesting area to research, given the proliferation of early-specialization and training that is being given to athletes as young as eight.

Ian Connole and Peter Kadushin of West Virginia University presented their experiences working with the “forgotten athletes” on a college campus… club sport participants. All future AASP-Certified Consultants must pursue between 400 and 700 hours of supervised consulting experiences (depending on the terminal degree: PhD or Masters), but it is often difficult to get a foot in the door consulting with intercollegiate athletic teams, especially at Division I universities, where athletes assume a public profile that is highly managed by coaches and athletic department staff. Peter and Ian suggested that club sport athletes were thrilled that sport psychology consultants in training were willing to volunteer their services… in fact, club sport athletes seemed grateful that someone had simply taken notice of their club. They provided an overview of their workshop method, and some advice for those who might pursue working with club sport teams.

I presented a research proposal with fellow Spartan Ian Cowburn. We are planning to examine swimmers’ perceptions of how mental toughness is developed. We got a few good questions from the audience, which will shape how we look at the mastery climate and how it effects mental toughness development. Swimming coaches seemed to believe a mastery climate helped develop mental toughness, but swimmers’ perceptions will help to clarify whether this is true or not. At this point, I believe that an ego climate is more likely to develop swimmers who are practice monsters but who are afraid to take risks in competition for fear of failure. A mastery climate could develop a swimmer with a strong ego orientation coupled with a strong mastery orientation (picture a swimmer who is competitive with himself and with others). We will also need to take a long, hard look at whether swimmers perceive mental toughness to be innate, developed in childhood, or a constantly evolving characteristic.

The panel discussion ran very effectively and was completely audience driven. Panelists included Dr. Barbara Walker, a privately practicing sport psychologist (and AASP-CC), Dr. Jack Watson of West Virginia University (a professor and also an AASP-CC), and Nate Lie, a current sport psych graduate student at Miami University and also the assistant women’s soccer coach. I found their discussion of the modern athlete to be spot-on. The modern athlete has experienced a high-level of parent-involvement, and may struggle when the realities of sport participation set in… for instance, they may have more trouble navigating some of the failure experienced when moving to the collegiate level. The high-performance sport era provides more work for sport psychologists, and Dr. Walker provided some excellent insight on how to navigate the demands of parents while keeping the care of the child athlete in mind. While we may dislike the nature of early-specialization and high-performance youth sport, it is hard to argue with this climate as it provides work for sport psychologists.

The students and faculty of Miami University did an excellent job hosting the conference. Talks were kept right on schedule, and most speakers were able to get some good questions from the audience members in a setting that was a little more relaxed than a national conference. The amenities were excellent… save the Saturday morning coffee… But seriously, we were treated to excellent hospitality with an excellent buffet and open bar in the Goggin Ice Center, overlooking the hockey rink. Friday’s festivities culminated with an extensive trivia quiz, covering sports history. Can you name all of the Olympic hosts going back to 1992? Remember, 1992 was the last year in which summer and winter games were held in the same year. Or, could you name the locations of the Volleyball, Soccer, and Swimming Halls of Fame? Or the ten most common collegiate mascot names (according to Wikipedia)? The quiz culminated with a flash round – pictures of famous athletes appeared for 8 seconds at a time and we had to scramble to write them down. Dr. Bob Weinberg from Miami U scored 33/43, the highest score in the room… however, it was not enough to eclipse the team score of “Stephen Hawking’s Football Boots.” If you don’t get the reference on the team name, this video should clear things up a little.

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