By Meagan Ernd
Meagan is a former NCAA division one volleyball player for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She currently works as a digital media specialist at JCDecaux and as a media contributor for The True Athlete Project.
Buddha once expressed, “All we are is a result of what we have thought.” Any of the Olympians who competed in Rio this year would attest to this, especially prolific champions like Michael Phelps! But it's not just Olympians who deserve access to mental skills training; The True Athlete Project believes it should be a staple in the life of every athlete!
Today, we talk to sport psychologist and member of The True Athlete Project board of directors, Michael Johnson, PhD.
Dr. Johnson is the Director of Clinical and Sport Psychology at the University of Arkansas. He was also a member of the NCAA division one men’s swim team at Brown University - he's our very own Michael Phelps! We explore some of his current work, and discuss what it was like for him as a student-athlete, and how his experiences have influenced his work in the athletics department at University of Arkansas.
Me: Hi Dr. J! It’s great to have this opportunity to interview you for the TAP blog, since you are such an integral member of this amazing team. What’s new over in the athletics department at UA this fall?
Dr. Johnson: Hi Meagan!! Have you heard of Kognito?
Me: No, would you mind explaining what that is?
Dr. Johnson: Kognito is a psychology-based computer program that enables faculty, staff, students, and student leaders to promote emotional wellness on college and university campuses through learning situations. Programs like Kognito allow members of our staff to develop a better understanding of our athletes, especially of those who are undergoing mental distress or have experienced past trauma.
Me: Wow! I wasn’t aware that programs like that were available. It makes me wonder how many other athletic departments would be willing to invest in a program like that.
Dr. Johnson: Well, shockingly enough, only a small portion of budgets are allotted to mental health specifically. Luckily, I work within a department that is willing to make such investments more of a priority. As you know, it is imperative that student-athletes maintain a healthy emotional state or else their performance suffers as well as their quality of life.
Me: You are absolutely right about that! I know that you swam during your college career at Brown University – can you elaborate on what your experience was like as former student-athlete?
Dr. Johnson: During my time in college, the concept of sport psychology was still fairly new and rarely did athletes seek professional help, nor were those services really offered. For me personally, I was able to confide in one of the priests on campus. He became a confidant and someone I could turn to during difficult times. I’m very grateful for that support because I faced the challenge of battling depression. In addition to the support of the priest, I had support from the Brown community in general, but again mental health services were not really offered when I attended school.
Me: Have you found that your experiences as a student-athlete have helped you in your practice as the sports psychologist for UA?
Dr. Johnson: Of course! It elevated my level of empathy with student-athletes because I experienced the same physical, as well as mental, stressors during my athletic career. Now as the psychologist, I can support the athletes by attending their practices to observe how they are being treated and can step in when coaches need to be told ‘No’ – a word they are not told too often. The environment of student-athletes is very important.
Me: How did you become interested in sports psychology and how did you end up becoming a sports psychologist?
Dr. Johnson: I worked several different jobs throughout the years. My degree from Brown is actually in Economics and I worked for the government for quite some time managing budgets for the Fairfax County (Virginia) school system. After sixteen years, I experienced a shift in motivation for my work. I coached my own travel team and realized how much I enjoyed doing that. I wanted to get back into the athletic world.
Me: What are some of the challenges the athletes you see face?
Dr. Johnson: Student-athletes face the challenge of adjusting to their environment, academics, and social pressures like normal students but they also have demands from their coaches as well. A fair amount of the athletes I’ve seen experience anxiety, depression, homesickness, mental abuse, lack of emotional awareness, high physical stress etc. When I have the chance to work with these athletes, I can offer my support by simply asking them the right questions that provide insight into their behaviors and emotional states. One question I will often ask them is, “What did you get out of that?”
Me: Besides asking good questions, what other techniques are part of your repertoire?
Dr. Johnson: Personally, I am a huge fan of imagery techniques and also just letting my athletes know that I care about their well-being. It is really important for the athletes that I work with to know that I understand them. I will never forget my second grade teacher Mrs. Phillips because she understood me. In that understanding, she was able to encourage me to pursue athletics further and perform even better in school.
Building strong interpersonal relationships with my student-athletes is something that I strive for and also encourage them to do with their peers as well.
I help provide student-athletes with the tools to develop vital mental skills, coping mechanisms, and enhanced performance. Programs like The True Athlete Project are great because they are enabling young athletes in those areas as well.
Dr. Michael Johnson is the director of clinical and sport psychology at the University of Arkansas. He holds a Ph.D in counseling Psychology from Florida State University and has published scientific articles addressing a range of performance-related topics. In addition, Dr. Johnson regularly consults for the World Anti-Doping Agency. He was previously a professor at the University of Texas, a division one swimmer for Brown University and he coached high school swimmers for 17 years.
“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.” – Nelson Mandela
Seven days ago a controversial and contested presidential election rocked the United States. Many felt that the contemporary ideals of inclusion, unity, and diversity were rejected, sparking fear, protest and confusion around the world. With a campaign season defined by misogyny, racism and xenophobia, this election sits in direct opposition to the feelings felt by many Americans eight years ago, as history was made when the United States elected their very first black President. A man who inspired a nation to believe in change, hope and the idea that we are better together. There is a necessity to remember those feelings of understanding and optimism, as the world faces a time period defined by uncertainty, division and fear.
As America looks to the future, there is so much to be learned from history and the triumphs of those who defied discrimination before us.
On December 5th, 2013, Nelson Mandela passed away. In his wake he left a legacy of equality and empathy; unifying a nation and earning his place in history books through struggle, perseverance and faith. While Mandela will be remembered for many awe-inspiring accomplishments, his understanding of the power and potential of sport to affect change and promote peace was and continues to be unparalleled among world leaders. Mandela placed trust in the influence of sport to reconcile a nation.
Just a year after the country’s first multiracial elections and Mandela’s election as the first black president of South Africa, the country hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Rugby in South Africa was a white man’s game, a symbol of apartheid to many non-whites, a reminder of minority rule. As the South African Springboks reached the World Cup final, Mandela sported the green Springbok jersey; a symbol of oppression, beloved by his apartheid jailers. The Springboks took home the 1995 Rugby World Cup, but this sporting achievement was much more than a game, it signalled the beginning of a united South Africa.
While the political process in America may have failed to bring unity and inspiration to many, powerful tools, such as sport, may be the answer to bridging divides in society and promoting environments of compassion and empathy. Sport has a unique ability to promote acceptance, integration and understanding; working as an influential instrument to encourage respect for rules, peaceful reconciliation and non-violence. Sharing in the success of sport, be it on the sidelines or on the court, allows for the humanization of those around you. Pushing people to view one another as human beings and not opposing opinions. With so many stories similar to the 1995 Springbok World Cup victory sprinkled throughout history, sport maintains its place in society as a unifier and a source of constant inspiration; two things that this week our current world is in need of.
“The ultimate power of sport happens inside the huddle…it doesn’t matter whether you’re black, white, Middle Eastern, Latino, Asian or Native American. It matters not whether you’re Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslin, Sikh Hindu or believe in any other religion or in no religion. It does not matter whether you are old or young, gay or straight, from a rich family or poor family. The team simply cannot win unless everyone pulls together. Imagine if that power of sports spread to all institutions and communities across the globe.” – Richard E. Lapchick
Written by Catherine Houston - Houston holds an MSc from the University of Edinburgh. A retired university volleyball player, Katie remains passionate about the power of sport as a transformative social tool and force for good. With an extensive background in both Sport for Peace and marketing, having worked previously with the UNHCR and PeacePlayers International, Catherine has joined The True Athlete Project as media and marketing officer.