Exercise and sports psychology bridges the gap between mind and performance

Why do we exercise? Why do we stop? Exercise and sports psychology aims to answer this.


According to APA Division 47, exercise and sports psychology are scientific studies meant to apply psychology to the matter of performance in physical activity.


At SIUE, the master’s program devoted to this study helps to introduce students to many career options in both specialized psychological practice and standard exercise and sports careers.


The program divides both exercise psychology and sports psychology respectively into two areas of study, with respective instructors for each.


Benjamin Webb, an associate professor and the director of the program, said he primarily oversees primarily exercise psychology. For his area of study, he said one of his interests is finding out why people decide not to exercise.


“Considering the mountain of evidence we have for the health benefits of exercise, we continue to have a very low endurance rate. Most estimates say that less than 10 percent of U.S. adults adhere to physical activity guidelines,” Webb said.


Although Webb said he teaches many classes, he said the topic of theory in exercise psychology has been his favorite to teach.


“There’s two prominent theories in exercise psychology: self-efficacy theory and self-determination theory. In layman’s terms, it has to do with people’s confidence and their ability to exercise and their motivation to do so,” Webb said. “I think those are the two most important factors determining whether someone is willing to adopt and adhere to an active lifestyle.”


Webb said the program attracts a lot of students with many of them being former athletes. He said this can help with discussion in class but that it also can open up to more personal discussions.


“A lot of times the problems that come up are sometimes very personal for students. In those classes a lot of times it has to do with adherence — so students who aren’t maintaining an active lifestyle feel like a hypocrite learning about this stuff but not doing it themselves,” Webb said.


On the other side of the program, Associate Professor Lindsay Ross-Stewart said she teaches sports psychology. Unlike exercise psychology, Ross-Stewart said sports psychology deals primarily with athletic performance and mentality.


“The field of sports psychology is really interested in how the mental side of a person impacts sport performance and looking at the psychological side of performance versus the physical side,” Ross-Stewart said.


Ross-Stewart said the field focuses a lot on performance in athletics, but also focuses on what being an athlete does to a person’s mindset and how society impacts sports and athletes.


“Sport is a microcosm of society, so the same issues that exist in society exist in sports. Whether that’s issues related to racism or activism, gender issues [and] issues related to sexual orientation,” Ross-Stewart said.


Drew Dueck, a second year graduate student from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, said he studies sports psychology remotely while also helping to coach the cross country team at the Milwaukee School of Engineering.


Dueck said the program has helped him in his coaching a lot due to it having courses specifically tailored to the psychology of being a coach and training athletes. Dueck also said he personally relates to what he’s learning due to his experience as a collegiate track and field athlete. 


Due to his focus on sports, Dueck said his thesis has to do with the topic of grit, or passion and perseverance in long-term goals and its validity in sports due to its similarity to other concepts.


“Unfortunately it’s received a lot of criticism because it’s just so closely related to other well-established concepts such as resilience, conscientiousness or hardiness, so you question the utility of it in sports,” Dueck said.


Matthew Scott, a second year graduate student from St. Louis and student delegate for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, said he has interests in stereotype theory towards Black athletes using the lens of critical race theory and is doing his thesis on the topic.


Ross-Stewart said the field of sport psychology consists of many different careers for athletics such as coaching, training or clinical practices. She said their program helps students make connections to athletes of varying sports and ages.


For more information about the program, visit their page on the SIUE website.


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