When a sports psychology class was re-introduced this spring semester at Dominican University of California it was perfect for psychology major Catherine Johnson ‘21.
She knew the new instructor Dr. Ben Rosenberg, the flexible class fit into her busy schedule as a student-athlete, and the content was intriguing and transformational.
“This class has already helped me. Learning about motivation and mental toughness has inspired me to focus more on the psychological aspect of sports,” says Catherine, who is recovering from knee surgery to play volleyball again for the Penguins. “The class also requires that we send articles and stories to each other periodically, which has been really fascinating to see other athlete’s stories. This has also inspired me to keep going.”
The class has been an inspiration to other students as well. When Rosenberg, a full-time faculty member, reintroduced the sports psych class back into the curriculum in the School of Liberal Arts and Education, he expected maybe 25 students would sign up. He got almost twice as many.
“I was floored,” Rosenberg says. “It's cool to see that so many folks are interested in the topic. That said, it does make some sense, as the class combines two things that many find interesting: psychology and sports. The waitlist on the original section of the course was huge.”
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The class, which Rosenberg also created to accommodate students taking a sports management minor in the Barowsky School of Business, now is divided into two sections. Both sections of the course are scheduled online for 3 ½ hours once a week at the same time, 2-5:30 p.m.
“Which in this Zoom world seems pretty untenable to me,” says Rosenberg, who earned his PhD at Claremont Graduate University and contributes a regular blog for Psychology Today and weekly podcast called `Head Games.’ “I've found – and research backs me up – that the optimal length for an asynchronous online class is around 1 ½ hour or less. I took that information and randomly assigned my 40 students to two shorter sections that meet synchronously once/week. Students prepare for class by watching video mini-lectures based on course material and filling out notes packets (i.e., outlines of the lecture slides); that way, they are prepared for discussion during our class time.”
For example, one of the recent topic discussions in class was about the subject of motivation, why people are motivated, and what can increase motivation.
“I think this is one of the most important aspects of athletics,” says Maxwell Pierce ’21, a global public health major and lacrosse player at Dominican who intends to enter BSB’s MBA program this fall with an emphasis on health care. “If an athlete is unable to motivate themselves then they will never get better at their sport. Learning tools and resources to help improve your mental strength can help in athletics and all aspects of your daily life. I hope that I can learn more tools to help my teammates on the field in our games, and off the field so we can be successful in all facets of our lives.”
Maxwell’s long-term goal is to attend a graduate school for Epidemiology, the study of diseases.
“I think that psychology has a big impact on how people understand and react to disease, such as the pandemic we are currently experiencing,” says Maxwell, who was recruited out of Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland. “Therefore, having some good understanding of the psychology of people and how they respond to stressors such as disease, could help my work as an epidemiologist greatly.”
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For Rosenberg, the sports psych class ties it all together. He wants his students to have a broad understanding that psychology plays an important role in sports and relates performance to the so-called research-practice gap that exists in sports psych and a lot of other fields.
“Put simply, there are years of research in sports psych on things like cohesion, motivation, and team performance, but coaches and other decision-makers are often unaware of the findings that could help them – and their players – succeed,” Rosenberg says. “I want students to have an understanding of this gap, why it exists, and what they can do to help close it.”
Students say the class is popular because of Rosenberg’s teaching style and that it appeals to student-athletes who have competed in sports most of their lives. According to Rosenberg, almost half of the class is comprised of students in the Penguins’ athletics program, which sponsors 11 NCAA Division II sports in the Pacific West Conference and one intercollegiate club.
“I think everyone can relate to sports and exercise in some sort of way, and learning more about the mental aspect of it is so important,” says Catherine, a graduate of Central Catholic High School in Portland, OR. “I think it's a great topic and is something that needs to be talked about more, especially in this pandemic time where mental illness is extremely prominent. Being an athlete, I personally was always focused on the physical aspect of my sport and was continuously taking care of my body. However, I wasn't educated about the importance of mental health when it comes to sports and how large of an impact it has on your performance. This class has done an amazing job of addressing these issues, while still having light and fun class discussions.”
That is Rosenberg’s game plan in his lesson plan.
“As with any class, my primary goals are for students to learn, be engaged, and have fun. More specifically for this course, I hope students gain a deeper understanding of what it takes to succeed as an athlete at any level – from youth to high school, to college, to pro,” Rosenberg says. “Much of the talk around sports analytics is about performance: How do we use athletes' past performance to predict their future performance? This equation leaves out the mountains of research showing that psychological, cognitive, and behavioral factors also play a major role in performance. I hope students also take away that nugget about the holistic nature of performance.”
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult to perform or even practice. It has put an additional strain on students, including student-athletes who are accustomed to routine.
In that regard, the sports psychology class is on target.
“Mental health in athletics is a field that is continuing to grow, and the more tips and tricks that we have to help our minds in our sport will only continue to elevate our play on the pitch, field, court, or whatever playing surface your sport uses,” Maxwell says.
“Moving forward, I hope to learn strategies concerning mental toughness in sports. Because I am a senior, I am only playing volleyball competitively for a couple more months,” Catherine says. “However, I think the information in this class can be used for a lifetime, so I can help my teammates, or other players, if I continue to coach.”