Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Performance psych program gives athletes an edge

When triathlete Nicole Thibert returned to training following her pregnancy, she realized that a lot had changed with both her body and her mind.

The psychology doctoral candidate realized that there were very few resources for female athletes who were returning to competitive sports following the birth of a child. She decided to research the topic for her dissertation with the help of Steve Portenga, interim director of DU’s new Sport and Performance Psychology Program. 

Thibert is studying sport and performance psychology as a complement to her doctoral degree and plans to integrate this burgeoning field into her future private practice.

“More and more money is being put into sports programs, and those programs need to be successful,” Thibert says. “Many programs are seeing a need for additional support for athletes and coaches.

“Performance psychologists can be helpful in targeting and enhancing performance issues that may be overlooked by coaches who don’t have specialty training.”

The program, housed in the Graduate School of Professional Psychology, offers both a one-year certificate and a full master’s degree. It is intended for individuals in the sports, performing arts, health and fitness, or mental health fields. 

The certificate program was launched in 2006 and the master’s degree curriculum will begin fall quarter. Portenga hopes to have 10 to 14 students in the master’s program.

Students study the psychology of high-performing teams; the role of leadership in individual and team performance; the components of successful coaching; how to implement educational programs to enhance psychological development in athletes, organizations and businesses; and how to design effective psychological skills training programs.

Performance psychologists work with surgeons, astronauts, military personnel, fire and police departments, corporations and athletes.

Portenga puts study to practice by working with DU’s athletics teams on both an individual and whole-team basis, in addition to his teaching duties. 

“I teach them confidence-building skills that they can draw on for the rest of their lives — relaxation, imagery, self-talk, teamwork,” Portenga says. “I’m also here to help them deal with non-athletic life issues and challenges they are facing.”

Senior volleyball player Alyssa Hampton has worked with Portenga and sees the value of specialized performance psychology. 

“So often, our focus is so strong on the physical that we neglect the mental component,” Hampton says. “In this way, athletes’ needs are different than non-athletes.”

DU is one of only a handful of schools in the country offering an integrated performance psychology curriculum.

“This is such a young field,” Portenga says. “Many schools are offering a few courses in sports psychology, but few really know how to teach it.”

“In the past, if you wanted to study sport and performance psychology, you had to take courses in different departments across campus — kinesiology in the biology department and psychology through the psychology department,” Thibert says. “It was up to the student to figure out how the topics went together.

“This program lays it out for you — it’s truly a systemic perspective to performance.”

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