Last Updated on June 27, 2022
Interview with Brian Zuleger, PhD
Sports Degrees Online had the opportunity to interview Dr. Brian Zuleger, professor of Applied Psychology from Adam's State University. They touch on a variety of subjects, ranging from the rising importance for schools to have Sport Psychology and Mental Performance Consultants on staff, the benefits of earning a Master's degree Online, and the value that coaching degrees can bring to the profession of coaching.
About Brian Zuleger, PhD
Dr. Brian Zuleger is a professor of Applied Sport Psychology at Adams State University. He teaches courses in Kinesiology and Coaching Education in addition to sport psychology. Professor Zuleger is the program coordinator for the MS in Applied Sport Psychology graduate program at Adams State.
Professor Zuleger, can you tell us a bit about how you found your way into sport psychology?
I got into sport psychology on my path to be a college track and field coach. Specifically, my goal at the time was to be a head coach of a Division I track and field program. In that process I met one of my mentors Dr. Ralph Vernacchia. Ralph was a professor at the time at Western Washington University and retired cross country and track and field coach and I was finishing my undergraduate degree there. I was in his undergraduate sport psychology class.
I met with him to discuss coaching and sport psychology and my goals as I was working with the track and field team as a volunteer coach at the time, and I ended up applying to and completing his master’s degree program. I pursued the master’s degree in sport psychology to help improve my coaching.
In studying with Ralph, I got to know his friend and colleague Dr. Rick McGuire at the University of Missouri. Both Rick and Ralph were track and field head coaches and sport psychology professors. When I finished by master’s degree, I ended up going to Missouri to do my Ph.D. with Rick still thinking I wanted to coach full time and more knowledge in sport psychology would help me be a better coach.
When I was in my last year of my Ph.D. program, I started to think about what it might look like to be a professor instead of coach. Ultimately, I decided on going to Adams State University, where I work now as a professor. At Adams State, I also coach in my spare time with the cross country and track and field teams. and enjoy helping [the teams and athletes] as a mental performance coach.
You are now the coordinator for the MS in Applied Sport Psychology graduate program at Adams State University. Can you tell us a bit about the program highlights, who the program was designed for, and what some of the benefits are of having a MS program like this that is 100% online?
Some highlights of the program are the applied focus. This program prepares individuals to be mental performance coaches. A simple way to describe this, is sport psychology is the knowledge and applied sport psychology is the ability to coach/teach it to people in a way that they can use it.
Another highlight is that the program was designed by me, and the courses were developed by me and thus align with my philosophy and theory of performance excellence as well as my background in sport science, mental performance coaching and coaching.
The program is housed in our school of Kinesiology and Health Sciences and consists of faculty from that department. Since we are a small school and a small program, we are typically able to cover the courses with full-time faculty in our school. The two primary faculty are Dr. Sara Erdner, CMPC and me (Ph.D., CMPC). The program has been ranked as the #1 most affordable online master’s for sport psychology and in the Top 20 for sport psychology programs in the country.
The program is designed for people who are wanting to become mental performance coaches within sport settings. Students who want to work in other performance domains outside of sport and anyone looking to apply sport psychology in other careers will find the program helpful as well. Sport coaches are positioned well to apply sport psychology into their coaching and with my background in coaching, the program attracts a lot of coaches and teacher/coaches looking to apply sport psychology into their coaching and teaching.
Having this program 100% online has a lot of benefits. The ability to reach people where they are at [is awesome].Many people can not or do not have access locally to universities, much less one with a sport psychology program. Even if a person has access to a local university or can move to be local to the university, finding the time to attend class can be challenging, especially for those working full-time and balancing other responsibilities.
“Having this program 100% online has a lot of benefits. The ability to reach people where they are at [is awesome].Many people can not or do not have access locally to universities, much less one with a sport psychology program. Even if a person has access to a local university or can move to be local to the university, finding the time to attend class can be challenging, especially for those working full-time and balancing other responsibilities.”
A fully online program affords them the opportunity to get access when they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. Especially people who are working in sport as sport tends to happen outside of the traditional 9-5 workday. This helps to increase the number of people we can access to educate.
Sport psychology is becoming more mainstream, but we still have a way to go to catch up to similar professions that support athletes and coaches, like strength and conditioning coaches and athletic trainers.
“Sport psychology is becoming more mainstream, but we still have a way to go to catch up to similar professions that support athletes and coaches, like strength and conditioning coaches and athletic trainers.”
Check out our Guide to 2022 Sport Psychology Graduate Programs for more about degree programs
It seems that we are living in an era where awareness of mental health issues for teams and athletes is at an all-time high. Can you talk a bit about the current need for schools and teams to have qualified sport psychology professionals/CMPCs on staff? Do you expect the demand for these positions to grow over the next decade?
I think having qualified sport psychology professional/CMPC’s or mental performance coaches on staff is very important for schools and teams. Having these mental performance coaches on staff – as well as having counselors either on staff or accessible – is crucial to improving mental health.
“I think having qualified sport psychology professional/CMPC’s or mental performance coaches on staff is very important for schools and teams. Having these mental performance coaches on staff – as well as having counselors either on staff or accessible – is crucial to improving mental health.”
Ideally there are both MPC’s and counselors working in collaboration to provide mental performance and mental health services.
I think it is important in all sport settings, but in schools it goes beyond just performance in sport. [Sport Psychology and MPCs] can help with academic performance as well. I am a big proponent that high schools should have Mental Performance Coaches on staff to work with coaches and teams. [Even better] if they are able to make a performance psychology course available to all students [at their school].
“[Sport Psychology and MPCs] can help with academic performance as well. I am a big proponent that high schools should have Mental Performance Coaches on staff to work with coaches and teams. [Even better] if they are able to make a performance psychology course available to all students [at their school].”
I do expect the demand for these positions to grow in the next decade as awareness and education continues to improve and reach more people. I think the recent revamping of the certification process, new branding and coming advocacy for hiring CMPC’s will help drive this.
This is why I created this online master’s program, to fill a need for more qualified sport psychology professionals and to increase education and awareness around sport psychology to help make it mainstream.
I think as more people graduate from undergraduate programs and graduate programs having taken a sport psychology course or majored in it and go on to become professionals working in sport, this will help [the field grow]. We have people who go through the undergraduate and master’s programs and are coaches, athletic directors, strength and conditioning coaches, athletic trainers, counselors, physical therapists, etc. The more people we can educate about the importance of sport psychology, the higher the likelihood that the demand for positions will grow.
For more about jobs in the field, visit our Sport Psychology Career Guide
Professor, you also teach courses in Coaching at both the graduate and undergraduate level. Why should young people who aspire to work with teams and athletes consider getting a MS in Coaching? What are some of the most important skills that graduates gain when studying an MS in Coaching?
People who want to get into coaching should consider getting an MS in Coaching because coaching is a profession, and complicated one at that. Unfortunately, many coaches have little-to-no formal education and training in coaching outside of being an athlete.
There is a big push to have coaching more recognized as a profession and requiring minimum standards of education, etc. Coaches have the same access to people that teachers do, and often in more relaxed settings with less oversight, standards, and evaluation processes.
Sport is a big deal in society and thus coaches are in positions of power. This power can be used in a positive way to improve lives and society through sport, or can be used in a negative way. Unfortunately, there are too many incidences still where it is being used in a negative way at all levels of sport from youth to elite athletes.
Lastly, athletes are people, coaches need to understand that they coach people who play sport and understanding people (psychology) is an important part of being a quality coach.
Some of the important skills graduates’ gain are developing a coaching philosophy, leadership, communication, building caring coach-athlete relationships, understanding of athlete mindset and behavior, how to create physically and psychologically safe training and competition environments, how to improve well-being and mental health of the coach and athletes, proper training design for long-term athlete development, etc.
Be sure to check out our Master’s in Coaching Degree Guide for more information
What advice do you have for young people who are just beginning their journey into a career of working with student athletes?
I recommend that they get involved in coaching in some capacity for at least one season, ideally at the youth or high school level. Regardless of career, if you want to work in sport, your career with have something to do with coaches and athletes, directly or indirectly. Getting coaching experience will help you better understand both coaches and athletes, and there is a need for good people in coaching at the youth and high school levels. [Equipping yourself with this experience] will be doing a service to your community as well.
I also recommend that they attend live sporting events, when possible at all levels and watch them on TV/streaming when you can’t do that. The key is to start to watching sport through the lens of a sport scientist. This is different than watching as a fan. Watch away from the ball, watch the sidelines, watch coaches, support staff, administrators/leaders, news reporters, commentators, etc.
When watching, think about it from a holistic perspective that sees the performers and others as people first and the connections between them all. There is a lot that you can learn from observing and listening. Become a student of sport.
Lastly, find people who are doing what you want to do and learn as much as you can from them, having good mentors is a very important [part of your professional journey].