Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Sports psychology students learn from hands-on approach

Growing up in Texas, Jessica Dale started cheerleading in junior high school, but that’s not why she spends 10 hours a week volunteering at Cheer Central, a competitive cheerleading program in Broomfield. 

Dale also is a University of Denver student pursing a Master of Arts in Sport and Performance Psychology (MASPP). As part of the program, students are required to find field placements to get hands-on experience coaching and working with kids. Students can coach high school, college or youth teams in and around Denver.

“Our task was to find someone different from yourself,” says Dale. 

Dale chose to work with the Colorado Suns, Cheer Central’s competitive team for children with physical and/or mental challenges. The team consists of about 20 students between the ages of 9 and 19 with the challenges of autism, cerebral palsy and down syndrome. 

“I have learned not to pre-judge the physical and mental capabilities of the children because their routines have absolutely blown me away,” says Dale. “I absolutely adore working with the children because they thoroughly enjoy cheerleading and their enjoyment is contagious.”

Dale is one of 13 students enrolled in the program through the Graduate School of Professional Psychology. This fall is the first time the degree has been offered.

MASPP Director Mark Aoyagi and Steve Portenga, a clinical assistant professor, have extensive experience in sport psychology, even consulting for NCAA and US national teams.

Dale says she is trying to use techniques she’s learned in class to help her students with attention and motivation problems. 

“What’s really great about the program is that you can go back and talk with Mark Aoyagi or Steve Portenga about things, so if you’re having an issue on the field, they are totally willing to sit down and work through things,” she says.

Portenga says people sometimes think sport and performance psychologists focus on “troubled” athletes, but that is not the case.

“We take normal people and figure out how to make them great,” he says.

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