MENTOR SPOTLIGHT | WINTER 2014
Department: Health, Sport & Exercise Science
Describe your work in a few sentences that we can all understand: My research examines the benefits for individuals when they are in caring and supportive physical activity environments. It is key for people in both sport and exercise settings to be in positive environments that help them feel good when they give their best effort and improve over time. My research centers on helping coaches and exercise leaders develop strategies to create caring and supportive environments that help individuals of all ages and ability levels perform their best and maximize their experience along the way.
Q: How did you first get interested in doing research/creative work?
A: I taught high school physical education and English, and coached the boys and girls tennis teams at a large high school in Texas after I graduated from college with my undergraduate degree. Trying to optimize the motivation of all the students and athletes was harder than I anticipated, and after four years I decided to take a break and return to graduate school to study motivation.
Q: What do students in your discipline learn by doing research that they wouldn’t learn by just taking classes?
A: Students who take advantage of opportunities to be involved in research studies tell me that the concepts we are discussing in class really come to life when they see first-hand what research participants are experiencing and how they respond. For example, a number of students helped with a project this past year where we taught people to juggle in a positive and supportive environment vs. a very competitive environment. Students told me they were amazed at how quickly the research team could engage in a few behaviors that had the effect of either enhancing the participants’ motivation (i.e, in the positive environment) or killing it (i.e., in the competitive environment). It’s one thing to read about theories and research, and discuss them in class, but it’s another thing to observe them first-hand with your own eyes. When students help with research, another benefit is that they see behind the scenes everything that goes into conducting a research study. Even something that is seemingly small like preparing a survey for children to complete involves choosing developmentally appropriate measures, being thoughtful in not allowing the survey to be too long for kids, formatting the survey so that it is kid friendly (possibly has fun graphics with it), proofing it for errors, and piloting it to be sure it works well with the target population. These are the kinds of details that students might miss when they simply read a research article but aren’t directly involved in research.
Q: What do you find to be the most exciting part of doing research/creative work? What makes this line of work meaningful and interesting to you?
A: The most exciting aspect of research for me is when I see the findings trickle down and make a difference for people. For example, we have an abundance of research that shows that in physical activity settings (both sport and exercise), participants will have better experiences if they perceive the environment to be caring and supportive. By positive experiences, I mean that individuals will have more fun, try harder, be less stressed and anxious, like their teammates and coaches more, and want to continue to be physically active in the future. We’re even finding that participants will report greater psychological well being if they’re in a positive physical activity environment. The evidence is compelling for coaches and fitness professionals to create positive environments.
It saddens me, then to see so many sport teams where coaches lack knowledge and think that yelling, screaming, and making athletes feel terrible when they make a mistake is appropriate and will bring out the best in them. I recently watched a recreational level tournament with middle school aged children. As I was leaving the gym, a 6th grade girl was fighting back tears, and said to her parent, “Mom, I just want to go home.” On the other hand, when I learn that coaches, PE teachers, and fitness professionals are learning the value and committing to create positive environments, it is very exciting. I just wish that best practices based on sound research were evident across the board more quickly.
Q: What advice do you have for undergraduates interested in doing research in your field?
A: My best advice for undergraduate students wanting to get involved in research is to explore the possibilities in their programs. They should talk to faculty and ask about the opportunities that are available to volunteer to gain research experience. Sometimes students can get involved in research and receive independent study course credit for the experience. In our KU Sport and Exercise Psychology Lab, we typically have projects going on every semester. This semester, for example, we collected data with 400 young athletes in a youth soccer league; the purpose of this study was to see if athletes who perceived the environment on their teams as more positive and supportive would also be more likely to be honest and tell their coaches if they had symptoms of a concussion. Volunteers have also been helping one of my doctoral students, Susumu Iwasaki, with data collection for his dissertation. He is interested if examining whether athletes who perceive a very caring and supportive environment on their sport teams would report a greater skill at being able to be mindfully engaged in their sport. When athletes are mindfully engaged it allows them to focus on the present moment, and not be distracted by the past or the future, and it sets them up to perform their best. There is so much cool research going on all over this campus, and students need to explore and see what would interest them most.
Q: For many students, doing research is the first time they have done work that routinely involves failure and the need to troubleshoot problems. Can you tell us about a time that your research didn’t go as expected? Have you developed any tricks or habits that help you to stay resilient in the face of obstacles?
A: One of the things I’ve learned from research is that people have different definitions of success. Some people feel successful when they give their maximum personal effort and see their improvement over time. This definition of success is key for helping them maintain high motivation over time, because they’re trying to become the best they can be. They don't have the same distractions that people have who only feel successful when they win or outperform others. I have found this to be a key quality of people who do interesting and meaningful research. They try to put themselves in situations where they are challenged and excited to keep learning more. There are many things that can be frustrating when we conduct research studies. A recent example happened with our concussion study. The nights we were scheduled to collect data with the young athletes ended up being the same nights the Royals were playing in the World Series games, and many coaches canceled practice those nights. It was exciting to see the Royals do so well this season and when things happen that we don’t have control over, as researchers we just have to do the best we can and go with the flow.
Q: How do you spend your time outside of work?
A: I love spending time with my husband, son, daughter, and our three dogs and two cats. I like to be outside and I enjoy a wide range of physical activities.