The Gift of Being Understood
By Dr. Kristin Mauldin, Ph.D.
This past week I held the last class of my Sports Psychology course. The students expressed sadness over it ending, took the time to share contact info with each other, and then gave each other (and me!) hugs as they left. Several of them made comments about how amazing the class was, a comment that absolutely makes my day (week? year?), but I also only take a small bit of the credit for. See, what I know, is that they were the ones that made that course amazing.
Let me give a little background here. Sports psychology IS a course that lends itself to fun and introspection. We talk about things such as group cohesion, imagery, and communication, all topics that are very relatable and focus on increasing confidence and coping skills. Then we get to enjoy some experiential learning through various activities such as obstacle courses and untangling human knots. These activities are fun, but what is really neat about them is how they break down the barriers between the students. On the first day of class, like in most classes, the students are fairly quiet and reserved, sort of feeling things out. Not too many weeks in, after various activities and discussions, the room is filled with discussion and banter. I LOVE watching this transformation! We go from a class of several individuals to a cohesive group. A team. Friends. And, yes, I’m including myself in that.
So how am I giving credit to the students for this cohesive ending? The students are willing to be vulnerable. They each, in their own time, and their own way, make the decision to come forward and take a risk. And this is what that looks like. That risk is my shy, introverted student stepping in to a rather raucous class activity, and speaking up. That risk is my students sharing the struggles they are currently experiencing, or have experienced, because they see how it ties to the topic that day. That risk is my students pairing up in unlikely partnerships and putting in effort to connect with each other. That risk is my students bravely participating in activities that ask them to reveal fears and insecurities in front of each other. What comes out of all of this risk taking is the students begin to understand each other, and they feel more understood. When that quieter student talked, the rest listened and responded. When that struggling student shared, the other students showed empathy and care. When emotions rose, hugs were given. With all of these difficult and scary moments, came an equal amount of support, bonding, and laughter.
Just a few weeks ago the Sport and Performance Psychology (SPP) program participated in the 2019 Bullying Prevention Conference. This is a part of our ongoing partnership with Riverside Medical Clinic Charitable Foundation to prevent bullying in Riverside high schools by pairing SPP graduate students with high school students. Through these pairings, our graduate students teach the high school students to put on presentations and events at their high schools with the hope that they will teach these skills to their peers. While the link between sport and performance psychology and bullying prevention may not be obvious to all, the overlap is actually quite strong. Techniques used to increase performance are effective because they lead to more positive framing, imaging, self-talk, communication, self-awareness, stress management, coping strategies, and self-confidence. All of these skills can be used to help adolescents deal with the stressors that come with high school.
A major component of sport and performance psychology, and of bullying prevention efforts, is increasing social cohesion. In his presentation, Bullying & The Bully: How Can We Address This Behavior?, Joseph Antonelli discussed how bullies ostracize their victims in order to increase their own social capitol. By focusing on differences between their social group and the victim, the bully increases the cohesion within their group, as well as their own group status. Thus, focusing on differences and splintering social groups can advance bullying activities, whereas creating a culture of empathy and inclusivity can undermine bullying activities, making it ‘cool’ to bring in group members rather than ostracize them.
And, of course, creating a culture of empathy requires the participation of students willing to be vulnerable. Willing to take a step forward to try to connect with their peers, include them, and understand them. It requires the type of behavior that I saw from my Sports Psychology students this past semester, leading us to have an amazing semester together.
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Dr. Kristin Mauldin
Director, Sport and Performance Psychology, California Baptist University
Dr. Mauldin graduated with her Ph.D. in psychology from Miami University and conducted research as a postdoctoral fellow at University of California, San Diego. She specializes in the cognitive neuroscience of learning and memory and sport, performance, and exercise psychology. She enjoys her role as a professor of psychology because it gives her the opportunity to study topics she loves while connecting with her students. Now, as the Director of the Sport and Performance Psychology program at California Baptist University, she has had the opportunity to build a graduate program that serves its students and the community. Dr. Mauldin’s own experience growing up with a physically debilitating disease has helped fuel her efforts to design programs that helps others increase their own physical and mental health through the use of techniques grounded in psychology.