Kimberley Dawson is a professor in the Kinesiology & Physical Education department at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, Ontario (coincidentally down the street from where I completed my undergrad). She specializes in understanding what drives an individual to participate in exercise, and has done quite a bit of work in the field where psychology meets rehab. She often combines forces with her husband, a massage therapist, to help get both athletes and patients where they need to be. Find out more about her work here:
Kim was the only professor to define sport, something I really appreciated as this concept seems easy to frame, but when you start thinking of fringe examples like chess, or darts, or card games where speed is a winning element… things quickly get blurry. According to Kim, sport is “an activity involving physical exertion and skill that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often undertaken competitively”. This neatly matches my own working definition of sport as an activity that can (but doesn’t need to) be performed competitively in front of an audience, and where success lies largely in meeting predetermined physical/muscular performance requirements.
Working with elite athletes
Kim’s lectures were peppered with academic content as much as with real-life advice, so she became a quick favourite of our group. When speaking of working with athletes, a point of Kim’s that I really took to heart was understanding that professional athletes really are a much different subset of society than the rest of us. They often do not know how to define themselves beyond what they do (a huge problem when reaching their inevitable exit from competition), and the same competitive edge that drives them toward gold can also manifest itself in an absence of social graces. An example was a swimmer Kim once worked with who was a “competitive monster”, explaining his situation so: “I swim for 8 hours a day; I live in my head and not with people.” Socialization is as large an element of psychological work required here as is anything having related to amping performance. However, Kim underlined that you cannot change an athlete’s world; you can only nudge their perspective a bit in one direction. For this reason, she prefers working with a less-skilled athlete but one with drive than the inverse — drive can build skill, but skill cannot directly improve drive.
Another point was one which I’ve talked over many times with Ashley, an American figure skating coach (and former skater herself) from our program. This was concerning the demands of certain sports being directly at odds with the development of their participants. Two classic examples that immediately come to mind are figure skating and gymnastics, where athletes peak in their mid-teens and where they must go through an intense psychological maturation before their bodies have fully crossed the threshold of adulthood. Sports like these are often judged on aesthetics, so athletes — usually young girls — develop esteem and body image issues, many of which result in physiological symptoms of stress. This is often the result of pressure to outdo the competition, a force which only escalates as the sport evolves. For example, see the inset for what was required to win gold at the 1956 v. the 2012 Olympic vault competition.
I am still unsure where I stand with this idea of sport clearly being a negative influence on life, but would probably draw the line at the level of policy: it is the job of the rule-makers to address the issues of safety sufficiently so that their athletes are not hurt by the sport experience itself. Spectators always flock to the new, and so even the scandalous becomes not only accepted but expected as norms change. Since spectators provide the much-needed funds to pay for it all, yes, it is important to give them a good show (we all remember the recent shock of wrestling facing Olympic expulsion for being too “boring”). Still, excellence and novelty, yes… but not at the expense of health.
This pursuit for citius, altius, fortius — and its apparent accomplishment for the human race as a collective — leads to a second stream of thought, presented very well by David Epstein in his TED talk. Here he muses over whether athletes are actually getting better, or whether it is technology and tactics that only makes it seem so:
Kim wrapped up this more academic side of her talk with mentioning the Hawthorne effect, wherein performance improves because of the motivational effect of observation; ie, when you know you are the subject of a study or intervention, you get extra drive to perhaps work a bit harder than normally. This is useful information when trying to get an athlete out of a slump — these small, short-lived increases in performance may just be enough to move an athlete off a plateau.
The importance of exercise psychology
The next group of athletes Kim tackled was that of 30-year-old males, especially in Western countries like Canada. They are one of the groups who exercises least, largely because as youths they predominantly trained sports for competition and so have no idea what recreational sport means, or how to go about starting it as part of a healthy, lifelong lifestyle. Performing a quick mental check on my own circles of friends, this is immediately confirmed: the guys are extremely fit throughout high school and, to a lesser extent, throughout university, but the moment they no longer “have” to play sports, they give up activity for armchair coaching with a beer.
A big element of this problem, Kim pointed out, is the frequent misunderstanding that “exercise” must be boring, or — more common yet — that people are “too tired” after work to exert more energy in the form of a walk or of tossing a ball around with some friends. This is where we come in, Kim said. We can easily show that exercise isn’t boring (rock-climbing! bowling! walking to the corner store and talking with neighbours along the way– so many options!), and can explain that — though people are often mentally tired after work — our physical energy is still largely untapped and a quick dose of sport might just be the mental relief we need! Plus, movement gives us a great opportunity to problem-solve and to be creative, and not creating time for these processes may very well hurt their development in the long run. The above are applications of Ajzen’s Theory of Planned Behaviour, wherein attitude towards the behaviour, subjective norms, and perceived behavioural control are seen as the most important factors affecting an individual’s decision to change their behaviour. Basing an intervention on specific, relevant information is key in making communication persuasive. You need to find what matters for your audience, and use this for connecting what they want with how to get there. For example, teenagers will not often quit smoking for health reasons, but if you use social reasons (no girl is going to want to kiss you because you smell bad), then the behaviour change suddenly matters. Kim neatly underpinned this with the following phrase: “Sometimes intention will be the longest walk you will ever take”.
But all is not lost. Kim boosted our self-confidence in underling that this is why we are studying what we’re studying: we have the responsibility to educate the rest of the world on the importance of increasing physical activity. This led to the informal proposal of a new potential job category, that of a physical activity counsellor. Something of a trainer and a mental consultant and coach all rolled into one, whose goal is the betterment of quality of life through promotion of movement and exercise. Our degree is very applied, and we are better fit for this role than anyone else… the only problem is that this requires us to go out and create our own jobs, something that isn’t particularly easy for anyone, let alone those creating their own niche market like us. But Kim was full of hope: “There are people out there who want the expertise you have, you just have to figure out how to get it to them.” To hammer home the potential impact our work in this field could have on quality of life worldwide, Kim played us the following video:
In addition to the many benefits outlined within the video, upping the exercise dosage of people can correct the worrying statistic that the current generation just being born has, for the first time in modern history, a lower life expectancy than the ones that came before it… because of sedentary lifestyles. It would also decrease the painful effects of falls in old age due to falls — falls are a leading cause of trauma with seniors, and the majority of them are caused by bone weakness. Having a history of sport has been shown to push back or “buffer” bone weakness.
Programs and social media
Kim, being Canadian, proved to be a solid resource in showing what cutting edge programs exist in my home country for exercise and sport. Here are a few:
- Own the Podium: through extensive private and public funding, the goal of this program is to raise Canada’s performance in international sport to a level matching its economic and developmental potential.
- Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute: a national research agency educating Canadians about the importance of leading healthy, active lifestyles.
- Exercise is Medicine: this is a grassroots movement to “make Canadians healthier”, based on the evidence that exercise reduces the risk of chronic disease.
- Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology: An organization attempting to unite all elements of exercise research, though they are currently lacking a psychological edge to match their physical focus.
Creating or joining groups like the above answers the question that makes anyone with a non-purely technical degree jittery: where will you work after school?
Kim also dropped a very important note on social media in class. She was surprised by how, when she created accounts on the popular sites of today, she immediately garnered quite a number of followers. “You don’t know me,” she mused in class, “Why are you giving me this power in your life?” Given my own interest in changing the current social network set-up, I found this point particularly relevant and important.
Life in Europe v. Canada
Final points from Kim’s lectures were simply thoughts on what Europe does better than Canada. Having lived here for close to a year now, and with the question of where I will work in the end ever-present in my mind, these comparisons are always running through my head and I think they’re worth some reflection. The main one that stuck was that everything is much more connected in Europe, both physically, as in distances are much shorter and the continent is much more dense than our home country, but also in terms of lifestyle opportunities. It is much easier to connect an exercise route to everyday life, be it through biking or walking or even boating, depending on the city. This is much different than big cities in Canada, where driving from place to place is often not only necessary because of distance, but also the only option available.
Q & A:
- What is one career-related regret you have? “I don’t actually have a career regret. I have a point of decision making that I think about at times. I started my first academic job at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia in a tenure line position. I was also transitioning in relationships at the same time. I didn’t feel that I could both stay in Virginia while advancing my relationship with the person I wanted to be with, who lived in Waterloo. I knocked on the Chair’s door at WLU and made them aware that they needed my expertise in their department as they did not have a faculty member in the area of sport psychology. Surprisingly, they agreed and found money for a 1 year position. I took a leap of faith and left my tenure line position at GMU to take a one year position at WLU and see where the relationship would go. Things worked out. My appointment became tenure line and I married that boy. Every story always involves a boy doesn’t it! However, I had always wanted to live in the Southeast US and loved the area so oftentimes I think about how it would be if I could have had both in some way. In the end, I came home and lived in the same city as my parents. My father unfortunately died in an accident way before he should have. Moving home gave me 10 wonderful years to share my life and family with him while living in Waterloo. I wouldn’t change that for the world.”
- And one career-related satisfaction? “I love when students or athletes say that they really like talking to me. I like helping people sort out their lives. I think I’m a natural problem solver with an academic basis of knowledge. I really like when I have an easygoing, stimulating conversation with a student or athlete. I believe the best conversations are highly interactive. We both share who we are and learn from it. I’m satisfied at the end of the day if I’ve made a meaningful connection with another human being in some capacity.”
- What is a favourite psychological technique or skill you find yourself using often with athletes in the initial stages of intervention? “I like helping athletes become aware of who they are. I want them to define their strengths and challenges. This is important in the early stages of our relationship together. I want them to identify where they see opportunity for growth. I also like to help them focus on elements of their personality that they haven’t necessarily identified. For example, an athlete may say that they don’t have confidence and I will point out numerous occasions where they demonstrated great confidence in their choices.”
- And in later stages? “At later stages, I challenge their identities to help them become more productive. I use a lot of cognitive restructuring techniques to help the individual see the same stimuli in a different way. I make them aware of the fact that life is largely lived in their heads. They hold the power about how they perceive objective situations.”
- Any favourite book(s) you’d recommend, either related to sport psychology or not? “I loved the books Gone Girl and The Lovely Bones for the same reason. Both authors really delved into the reality of relationships and not just the superficial element of environmentally-determined roles and expectations. It’s not always pretty to define relationships or accept our thoughts but doing so is necessary. I like authors who are not afraid to write about some of the these realities. I don’t like pretense in books or people. I also just finished reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed. It’s a memoir about hiking the PCT after her Mom dies. I could relate with the loss of a parent and the need to be in nature to heal. Again, she let the reader know how blemished she was. I love understanding humanity.”
- And how about movie(s)? “I love Field of Dreams because of Moonlight Graham’s story. Everyone assumed that because he didn’t play in the majors that he would regret it. Societal expectations would say that this was an opportunity lost. I like how Moonlight responds that if he didn’t become a doctor, that would have been the real tragedy. It always reminds me not to put my assessment on anyone else’s appraisal of the value of their lives. It’s all about individual perceptions. I also love Lost in Translation because it also deals with identity and who we are. Connections between people can happen anywhere at any time. I also love the last scene where Bill Murray says something in Scarlett’s ear. It had such a powerfully soothing effect for her. I love the fact that the director had the courage not to let the audience know what it was. I tell my kids, Gray (12) and Ben (11) every morning to go out and live their best lives this day. I want them to engage with everyone and anyone and let the adventures begin. And of course, I love Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrrell. The Internship always makes me laugh as does Anchorman. My 3 invites to my dinner party would be Vince, Will and Shaun White. They all fascinate me.”