Last Updated on July 27, 2022
Interview with Carla Meijen
John from Sports Degrees Online sat down with Carla and they discussed the current state of sport psychology, what it is like to study sport psychology abroad, and both current and future job opportunities in the field of sport pscyhology.
About Carla Meijen
Dr Carla Meijen is a sport and exercise psychologist and course lead for the MSc Applied Sport Psychology at St Mary’s University, United Kingdom. Her research focused on stress in sport and the psychology of endurance performance.
Can you talk a bit about your career path? How did you get to this point in your sport psychology career?
It might be a bit unconventional. I grew up in a town in the Netherlands, north of Amsterdam. I loved sports and wanted to study sports at university. At the university level, there really weren’t that many opportunities to study sport sciences, and I didn’t see myself being a P.E. teacher for the rest of my life. I came across the idea of combining sports with psychology and got really excited, but realized that the opportunity to study this did not exist in the Netherlands at the time. So I studied psychology at the University of Amsterdam, and graduated with a master’s degree in social psychology and took the one sport psychology module that was on offer. Throughout my studies, I tried to take any opportunity to specialize in sport psychology, and I managed to secure a placement at Lund University in Sweden. This was through an Erasmus exchange program, which is a European Exchange program. In Lund, I worked with a handball and basketball team to deliver sport psychology workshops and it was a fantastic experience to live in a different country and immerse myself in sport psychology. This ignited the fire and confirmed this is what I really wanted to do.
After I completed my degree at the University of Amsterdam, I went to the University of Edinburgh on a scholarship from a Dutch foundation and completed a master’s degree in Performance Psychology. During that time I was contacted by my supervisor in Lund and asked if I was interested in pursuing a Ph.D. I never even thought about this. I was the first in my family to study, never mind completing a master’s or Ph.D. and I didn’t think I was clever enough to achieve anything like that. I started to think about it and although the position could be part-funded, that wasn’t feasible at the time. So I went back to the Netherlands and I approached a sport psychologist and shadowed him for a day, but ended up getting offered a position to be his personal assistant. He was so helpful! He took me everywhere and explained everything that he did. I got a really good insight as to what it is like to work as a sport psychologist and realized that getting a Ph.D. would make me stand out from others. Not many in the Netherlands had a Ph.D. in sport psychology at that time. I applied for Ph.D. positions in the U.K. and managed to obtain a funded Ph.D. position at Staffordshire University with Professor Marc Jones.
That was a really good experience, and I had a lot autonomy throughout my Ph.D. I got chartered as a sport and exercise psychologist and got my teaching qualifications at the same time. I started at the University of Kent as a lecturer and moved to St. Mary’s University in London where I am the Course Lead for MSc Program for Applied Sport Psychology and it is a great place to be for sport psychology!
What are some topics or areas of sport psychology that have exciting and promising research?
There are loads! Traditionally the field has been very much performance-focused but it is shifting. In the last 5-10 years, well-being has had a stronger focus and there are a lot more integrations and overlaps with other areas of psychology which is really exciting. Also, things like resilience and gratitude are topics that people are very much interested in, as well as taking a holistic approach and seeing the athlete as a whole person, understanding that and incorporating organizational psychology. The integration of biological, psychological, and social factors is also very fascinating. What I’m also very fascinated about is the different ways to deliver sport psychology. With the pandemic, it has been highlighted that it is possible to use online resources to deliver sport psychology and make it available to a lot more people. I think traditionally sport psychologists felt they were a little bit limited on how we can deliver sport psychology, but really we have many ways to deliver the information, but there is very little research on the effectiveness and efficiency on that. And it’s not only about performance, but do participants like this delivery method? They may like it and enjoy it more, even if it is does not directly lead to a performance improvement. There is a lot that we don’t know.
And then there are topics like mindfulness and acceptance-commitment therapy that were new at sport psychology conferences 15 years ago, but now it is everywhere. That is something that is fairly new, but it is also booming.
…things like resilience and gratitude are topics that people are very much interested in, as well as taking a holistic approach and seeing the athlete as a whole person, understanding that and incorporating organizational psychology.
Can you share some interesting insights from your own research?
My Ph.D. research and something I’m still working on is focused on challenge and threat states. How do we see a stressful or demanding situation as a challenge rather than a threat? It’s about the balance between demands and resources, so if demands like pressure and your competition outweigh your resources like your own self-belief and self-efficacy, and whether you feel you have control or no control, or if you see it as an approach or avoidance, if the demands outweigh your resources, then you tend to see it is a threat rather than a challenge.
What you want to do is make the resources weigh heavier so the scale tips and the resources outweigh the demands. There’s a lot more research that we need to engage in. For example, how do we grow those resources? But it is interesting to see how the body interacts with our thoughts and so on. A lot of this derives from different American researchers including research done at Stanford and other institutions.
It suggests that what happens cardiovascularly can be impacted by this demand/resource ratio and we are looking into how can we work with individuals to increase the resources to get to a more healthy beneficial challenge state. This is a key takeaway from our research and it should hopefully give insight as to how you can engage and use different psychological techniques to try to improve your resources and feel like you have more control over a situation and hopefully see these situations as more of a challenge rather than a threat.
I’m also very interested in endurance performance and the unique psychological demands that endurance athletes face, I tend to highlight four of these psychological demands, pacing, motivation, time to think, and pain. For example, when it comes to “pacing” you get to the finish line and you have given it your all, but you don’t ruin your body. In terms of pain, with endurance performance you know it is going to hurt, and you still make that decision to expose yourself to this, this volitional pain is quite unique. Most other sports have start-stopping components, like a stoppage of play in football or basketball when a foul has been committed. So you can stop to stop the hurting, but endurance performance tends to be whole-body continuous exercise.
And then there is the motivation. What makes you get out of bed in the morning to do the training? Because you cannot skimp on the training. And then there is the length. You can of course talk yourself out of it, but you can also talk yourself back into it. Those unique components of endurance performance are interesting and we have done some recent research on if-then planning to help deal with those demands. For example, what obstacles might you face, and how can you approach those obstacles. There’s a lot of scope there, and we don’t really understand enough yet about these mechanisms.
What makes you get out of bed in the morning to do the training? Because you cannot skimp on the training. And then there is the length. You can of course talk yourself out of it, but you can also talk yourself back into it.
And another area that has a lot of promise in sport science generally is research related to female athletes. How the female body works is different compared to the male body, this has of course long been known, but because the female physiology is so complicated, sport science has often favoured male participants over female participants. Thankfully, there is now more awareness of this, and the female athlete research is gaining more research interest. I am particularly interested in gaining a better understanding of the link between psychology and physiology of the female athlete.
From an outside observation, it seems like the field is getting bigger and has changed quite a bit over the years. What jobs or opportunities are out there for people studying sport psychology that maybe did not exist 10-20 years ago?
I can mostly speak from a British perspective, but now some sport organizations, football academies in particular have integrated sport psychology into their academy setup. This means that for junior sport psychologists and those in training, there are more entryways into sport psychology. When I started, these opportunities were not there. It was rare for a sport psychology vacancy to be published that required only some experience, in fact, it was quite rare to see sport psychology vacancies advertised. It was quite inaccessible, and coming out of a degree, many would wonder how can I get that experience?
There are more people that complete a sport psychology master’s than there are vacancies, but I think that is the same for many other disciplines. I believe a master’s teaches you a lot of different skills and allows you to do jobs beyond that specialized master’s.
Now there are more entry-level jobs which is great, but as sport psychologist is a specialized profession, and in countries such as the UK and the USA, ‘sport psychologist’ is a protected title. This means that you need to do further training and gain certifications depending on where you are and the local regulations. There are definitely more placement opportunities, and I think sport psychologists now have a bigger role in informing policies at sports organizations. In terms of well-being and mental health, I believe sport psychologist are a bigger part of the sport medicine team. I think if you look at the balance of sport medicine teams, sport psychologists are usually more often part-time, or one of the first ones to go compared to the physiologist or physical therapists, so there is still work to pave the way and to fight hard. We also need to work more on making sport psychology accessible for everyone. There is so much scope for providing sport psychology education and support for all levels of sports, and we need to integrate it for everyone across the board..
It does happen where people get very anxious or have a fear of failure, and this occurs at all levels of performance, they can stop enjoying it, give it up, and there is scope for offering sport psychology support. Maybe not 1-to-1, but there could be a more low-key sport psychology support so that they enjoy it and get so much more out of the experience.
What systems, protocols, or policies do you think should be in place for athletes of all ages to help support their mental health and allow them to achieve their potential?
I think normalizing it is the first thing. Many years ago a colleague of mine was doing research with a professional team sport athlete and one of his participants went to the toilet to complete his questionnaire because he didn’t want his teammates to know that he was involved in sport psychology research. It has changed since then, but sometimes things like that do happen.
There’s a reason why sport psychology is much more prevalent in academy setups compared to the elite setup, and the mental welfare of academy players has been made part of the Elite Player Performance Plan. Despite this, as far as I am aware, a systematic integration of sport psychology and mental health support is not in place for the Premier League and the lower professional football league. It is getting better. The FA (Football Association) has employed sport psychologists at the top to ensure that policy is informed.
When we think about elite levels, we need to build mental health literacy at the ground level. People need to know about it and know what it is. We need to incorporate screening and when there are warning signals, we need to use that as detection for early intervention and give specialized care. Rosemary Purcell wrote a very good paper about that in 2019 and broke it down. I think if we have better mental health literacy across the board, then we can recognize it in our teammates as well.
When we think about elite levels, we need to build mental health literacy at the ground level. People need to know about it and know what it is. We need to incorporate screening and when there are warning signals, we need to use that as detection for early intervention and give specialized care. I think if we have better mental health literacy across the board, then we can recognize it in our teammates as well.
It’s not just the coaches and the support staff, but also that our teammates have psychological safety to share that they don’t feel well. Then we can prevent some of these issues, and people can understand that it is okay to not be okay and that it is okay to seek support. And it’s quite nice that this has been in the limelight a bit more. This whole idea that to survive in a sport for such a long time you need to be a warrior. For example in the 1996 Olympics, Kerri Strug competed with a broken ankle and she was praised for that and was a hero to people. But if we were to look at it now, is it really the heroic thing to do? Is that what you want to teach your child? You have a broken ankle, just ignore it, or do we say “Okay, you have a broken ankle, let’s heal it so that you’ll be okay.”
Do you think that athletes like Simon Biles and Naomi Osaka who have withdrawn from major sporting events to focus on mental health brings awareness to the field of sport psychology? If so, what do you think the impact of these events are for people working in the industry?
I think it is encouraging that there is a place for sport psychology, at the same time, especially for outsiders, it’s also a bit confusing because there is a blurred line between when is it clinical psychology and when is it sport psychology.
But what I hope it will do is remove the stigma that sport psychology may have. And it seems that there are a lot more news stories coming out about the positive role of sport psychology. I set up a google news alert almost ten/fifteen years ago and before I would only see articles around big events, but now there are much more regular updates in the field.
Some people still think that psychology is for people with whom there is something wrong, and I’m not sure if we can ever completely get rid of that, but it comes back to literacy. Sport psychology is very much about building on one’s strengths, and not just about fixing something that is wrong. Hopefully, people who are role models speak out, it does help for it to become more accessible. It really is not just for the elites, but sport psychology is something that everyone can benefit from.
Sport psychology is very much about building on one’s strengths, and not just about fixing something that is wrong.
Do you have any recommendations for books, podcasts, blogs, or any other sources of information that would be helpful for young people looking to stay up to date in the field of sport psychology or are important to learn some of the fundamental concepts of sport psychology?
There are loads of general academic sport psychology books, and when I started the book Applied Sport Psychology: Personal growth to peak performance was by far my favourite . They could probably do a quick google search depending on where they want to focus and whether they want an entry level sport psychology book or a more academic, in depth book. There are so many great sport psychology books, but the problem is that none of them cover everything. When I teach my students I would love to give them just one book to buy, but unfortunately, there’s not just one! In terms of endurance, a book I really Enjoyed was Endure by Alex Hutchinson. He is a journalist, and the book is about human performance and endurance..
Podcasts can be really nice. There’s a British podcast by Dan Abrahams called The Sport Psych Show and he interviews practitioners and researchers and it is very insightful. There is an American podcast by Dr. Cindra Kamhoff called The High Performance Mindset which is more performance oriented. But I would also recommending listening to things outside of the sport psychology field. There is a really fantastic podcast called How did We Get Here? It’s by a presenter, Claudia Winkelman, who interviews a clinical psychologist, professor Tanya Byron. In the podcast you listen in on a real-life conversation with a clinical psychologist and a member of the public and this provides a really good insight into the raw thoughts and feelings that are expressed and how the clinical psychologist makes sense of these. If you have a strong interest in psychology, it helps to understand how that process works.
There is another podcast by a British Doctor called Fell Better, Live More with Dr. Rangan Chatterjee and he talks about a range of health issues and features some psychology but also other areas of health.
Have you worked with American students before? What advice would you give an American who is looking to study sport psychology in another country such as the UK?
The big difference is that American degrees are usually quite generic. Which is great because you get that broad background. But in the UK and Europe, generally, you tend to specialize in one subject area, like sport psychology. With master’s degrees it is one year full-time in the UK compared to two years full-time in the US, so it really becomes quite an intense year.
So you are expected to immerse yourself into that topic full-time, including the summer months. Generally in the summer months you are expected to be working on your research project. Campus life in the U.S. is massive, but in Europe it really depends where you study. If you are in a city campus, you don’t tend to have the “Campus Life” that you have in the U.S. You can’t quite compare it. There are some campuses in the UK where you have that campus life and at St Mary’s University, even though we are in London, the campus has a small town feel, there are a lot of trees, we are close to the river and parks, we have a an athletics track in the middle of campus, student accommodation on campus, and good sport facilities. At the same time, you will still have a lot of students who commute. It is a lot more of a mixture of people who come to the university. However, in the UK, it is generally cheaper as it is one year, and it is more specialized as you go straight into the subject area. You would probably be with mostly the same group of people who are doing the same program, and that’s quite nice. Students will make WhatsApp groups and they will share questions and study together.
The sport psychology programs in the U.K. are fairly set, for example we don’t have any optional modules on our program. You don’t have as much choice in the curriculum. You might have one or two optional modules, but it’s not like you have 20 different optional modules to choose from.
I would say that the UK is the primary location to go in Europe if you are looking to study sport psychology- a lot of the experts are here. If you are open and willing to trya new experience it’s great. It might be a year, it might be the rest of your life! I mean I’m still in the UK…who knew?