Last Updated on December 16, 2021
Interview with Dr. Judy Van Raalte
In this Expert Interview, Bryan Haggerty of Sports Degrees Online speaks with Professor Van Raalte of Springfield College about the growing importance of Sport Psychology in today's world. Professor Van Raalte discussed the importance of treating the whole person, how the industry is evolving, her research interests, including self talk.
About Dr. Judy Van Raalte
Professor Judy L. Van Raalte (CMPC) is a Professor of Psychology and Athletic Counseling at Springfield College. Her research interests include Self-Talk, Professional Issues in Sport and Exercise Psychology, and Mental Warmup and Cool-down.
Bryan Haggerty: Professor Van Raalte, in reviewing your career highlights, you presented your work and research in eighteen different countries. Can you tell us a bit about your academic journey and how you found your way into sport psychology?
Professor Judy Van Raalte: I started as a Psychology undergraduate major, and I joined a research team with a professor at my university. That was really a good way to kind of get to know a professor up close and personal – not just in the classroom. I was the only varsity athlete who was part of this research group so when the professor came across some information that was related to anything sporty, she would pass that on to me. That sparked an interest in me which I probably already had. I was interested in psychology and interested in sports – being an athlete myself – and when I learned that it was possible to combine a career and study both sport and psychology then that was a fit for me.
BH: The field of Sport Psychology has become much more prominent during the course of your career. Do you recall a particular moment when it was that you first realized that you might pursue it? What were some of those early research projects that piqued your interest in this area?
Professor Judy Van Raalte: It’s an interesting question because the research this professor was doing was not in sport psychology at all. There were a number of projects involved. In this case one of the big ones I worked on was understanding how people interact with the environment. We were looking at how people feel on campuses, both everyday, and also when there were art exhibitions out on the campus. Do they notice walking around? Does that affect them in any way?
For me, I think the idea of sport psychology being a potential career – it’s a while back – was a pretty big stretch. There weren’t a lot of sport psychologists or a lot of people working in academic institutions, but there were a few. So I reached out to people in the field and I trained for a career in sport psychology with the hope that I could specialize.
I think in some ways, my journey is similar to people who are students now, in that they might have an interest in a career that didn’t exist when they started their undergraduate studies and might exist when they’re done. Because the world is changing relatively quickly, and there are ever-new and growing career opportunities. Jumping on something when it’s not fully established might be okay, although it can make parents very nervous when you choose a path like that.
BH: Some people out there might not understand the scope of sport psychology and why Master’s in Sport Psychology programs are beginning to pop up around the country. Can you explain a little bit about the field and what sorts of careers a graduate with a Master’s in Sport Psychology would qualify someone for?
Professor Van Raalte: There is a long history of Sport Psychology graduate programs so I think it’s reasonable to say that the field has been around. Early on, most of the people got master’s degrees [which were classified as] Physical Education, Exercise Science, or Kinesiology [programs] on the sport science side of the spectrum. Some of them went on to work as coaches, or go on and earn doctorates, and work as professors in other types of research settings.
More recently – and by that I mean the 1980s which is not that recent actually – some programs were developed in the psychology and counseling side of things. That’s where more of my expertise is, because I work in a program that provides a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology with a concentration in working with teams and athletes in athletic counseling.
The alumni [of our program] go on in a number of areas. Some go on in coaching, but a number go on in general counseling psychology, where they might work with teams and athletes at a college or university if they choose to become licensed. They also are working in fitness gyms, or they’re working for the Army.
The U.S. Military has hired a number of people with sport psychology training. On the mental health side, sure, but also in terms of working with people on performance and kind of seen more as almost a performance sport. These positions are master resilience trainers, another area where people are working.
I’m going to follow up with one more piece, and that is – my impression is that if a person were to ask me, “Where is the most opportunity for me as a professional?” I might say that to become Certified as a Mental Performance Consultant (CMPC) by the AASP – that’s the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. The CMPC is an organization-level certification, but a lot of places are also looking for someone who is licensed at either the master’s level or doctoral level as a clinical mental health counselor at the master’s level, or as a psychologist at the doctoral level because those people can be reimbursed by insurance companies. So if you have sport and counseling or clinical psychology certification or licensure, then you’re sort of a one-person band who can provide a lot of services. So people with those credentials seem to have an edge in the job market.
So for students who are choosing a master’s degree and thinking, “What would give me the most opportunities to work in the field?” They will be well pressed from my psychology-based perspective to consider a master’s program that will allow them to become licensed by the state as either a clinical mental health counselor or to be licensed by the state as a psychologist. That would be the master or doctoral program that they choose.
There are also master’s programs offered by exercise science programs in which people get great training, but it doesn’t meet the requirements to become licensed as a clinical mental health counselor or psychologist. So they would not be eligible for some of those jobs that have a little bit broader focus. Sometimes people say, “Oh the psychologist or the clinical mental health counselor, they are focused on mental health.” But I think a lot of them are focused on the whole person, and the whole person includes their performance, their relationships with friends and family, their mental health all-in-one. That’s a very broad training. I think a lot of places are looking for someone who has that broad training, and then could specialize and work with teams and athletes.
BH: In reviewing your biography, Professor Raalte, I see that you were a CMPC certified consultant for the AASP for many years. Looking specifically at that CMPC Certification, can you talk about what that is and why that’s a good first step for students to consider if they want to work with teams and athletes?
Professor Van Raalte: Students can decide if their master’s training as an exercise science – and especially for people who want to be professors and go on and get doctorates – the exercise science side of things. There are more jobs for people who want to be practitioners and do applied work. The counseling and clinical side of things seems to have more positions. So both groups of people can become certified as certified mental performance consultants by the AASP organization.
[The CMPC certification] requires taking eight academic courses that cover a range of topics: sport psychology, human development, exercise science, counseling skills. They also need to do applied work working with teams and athletes that’s supervised. And finally, when all of that is complete they sit for an exam, and if they pass that exam they become certified. Unlike a number of other certification programs, it is possible to maintain that certification over time. It’s kind of a way of showing that you have that sporty side of expertise.
BH: You said eight courses, that is significant. So this CMPC certification is something that a master’s program would include, basically, that certification. Do most sport psychology programs have the same kind or required courses as the CMPC certification?
Professor Van Raalte: I think some master’s degree programs do include those courses, but not all of them do. Two of the eight are courses that can be taken at the undergraduate level. So six graduate courses and two that can be taken either at the undergraduate or graduate level. You are right that it would be nice if your students had those courses be part of the requirements for a graduate program. That would be kind of getting it all done in one fell swoop.
BH: Professor Van Raalte, I see you have done a lot of research on self-talk and performance, mental warm up and cool down, and professional issues in sport and exercise science psychology. Can you please give us a little context about your research and your interests?
Professor Van Raalte: Sure. I’m going to start with self-talk research. I think that some of my interests related to that are – the sport I played when I was in college, and the sport I’m still involved in today – competitive tennis. If you’ve watched competitive tennis, really at almost any level you’ll see that tennis players talk to themselves on the tennis court. It’s something that you can observe and see and also sometimes notice that self-talk might be related to performance.
One of the things I noticed when I was an athlete, even when I was a kid, is that the best athlete isn’t always the one who wins or performs the best under pressure. To me, that’s kind of fascinating. My research in self-talk was looking at exploring some of the factors that contribute to how people feel in sport and things that help them perform better. We’ve also lately been doing research on mental warm up and mental cool down, sort of analogous to the physical warm up and physical cool down that people do, with an idea that if we could use the mental side of our game to be prepared, to perform well, and process what happened, that can also be useful. And then finally, as a professor who works with students who are learning about the field, awareness of professional issues and actively providing as much excellent training as well as I can, is another goal or area of interest.
BH: Professor Van Raalte, what advice do you have for students who are trying to choose a sport psychology master’s or doctoral program?
Professor Van Raalte: Interesting question. I would say ten or twenty years ago, I would give you a different answer than I would today. In the past, if you want to be a professor in sport psychology, I would say an exercise science kinesiology doctoral program is required. For most colleges and universities, you need a doctoral degree. Although if you want to teach at the community college level you need a master’s degree only to teach, and the pay is generally better. You do a lot more teaching, but you also get paid pretty well at community colleges.
If you want to work with teams and athletes – and I guess there are some professor jobs in psychology departments and sport psychology – I have one, and I have colleagues at Springfield College and in other places – but there are fewer [of those positions]. If you want to work with teams and athletes on performance and other issues then you might decide between a master’s degree in clinical or counseling psychology, or a doctoral degree. It used to be that only doctoral level people were licensed, but this is [one area where we have seen significant changes in recent years.
Over time we’ve seen a lot of downward pressure in our healthcare system. It used to be that [only] the doctoral level psychologist saw patients, and now that person might be the administrator who’s signing off on things, and the master’s level person is working with the teams and athletes. The difference in their pay also seems to have shrunk [because of that] downward pressure. [It’s a situation like, “We have this much that we can pay, and if we get a master level person, great, and if we get a doctoral level person, great.”
So when I talk to students, I also think about the training that they would have to do. At Springfield College, you can get a master’s in sport psychology, and can do so in two years with 48 credits. But if they want to do all of the requirements to meet the requirements for clinical mental health counseling, they need to stay for one additional year of study. If they wanted to go to a doctoral program after a 48 credit master’s degree, they would probably need 3-4 years of full time study and a one year pre-doctoral internship. Then they’d need to be supervised before they can sit for a licensing exam.
Back to the master’s graduates with their one additional year of study, they [then] need two years of supervised work. They can work and get paid [during that time], but they’re not paid as much after they sit for the exam after two years and become licensed.
I’m really back and forth on [which path is a better choice]. I think it is really up to the needs of the individual. Some people want to get to work and get started, and they say, “A master’s degree is for me, and if I want a doctoral degree there are online options that I could do later.” And for other people they say, “I’d like a doctoral degree. That’s the highest degree I can have. That’s where I would like to go.” So I think it’s really a personal choice in terms of ability, interest, time, and money to pay for school.
BH: At Springfield College, you offer both Sport and Exercise Psychology and Athletic Counseling graduate programs. Can you explain how these programs are similar and what separates them?
Professor Van Raalte: I think they’re similar in that they share or overlap on some content areas. There’s some similarities in that students who are interested in working with teams and athletes might pick them. If I were talking about the programs, I would say I think Springfield College may be the only place in the country that has both types of programs on one campus.
I think the distinction is most clear if you look at the required courses. You’ll see that the Athletic Counseling program has much more of a focus on counseling. A lot of the students who choose the program are Psychology majors as undergraduates, although plenty of students are not. There’s a focus on working with teams and athletes, and students do get a lot of applied experience. Most of them get the required number of hours to become Certified Mental Performance Counselors, CMPC, as part of the program along the way.
The exercise science Sport and Exercise Psychology program has more students who are exercise science or physical education undergraduates, and the courses are more strongly focused on exercise and exercise physiology. They also both overlap in terms of some application. The students definitely do applied work, but they are also all required to complete a master’s thesis which takes a good bit of their time. So it’s a little bit more research focused. Athletic Counseling students can choose to do a thesis or not.
BH: Let’s say that you have a student who is considering master’s programs at several different colleges or universities. What specific factors do you think prospective students should be considering when they are comparing programs, and what questions should they be asking of their prospective professors?
Professor Van Raalte: I think graduate study is really different from undergraduate education where there might be sort of a national feeling about what schools are good schools, and there’s an admissions office whose sole job is to pick the students who will be studying at the college or university.
At the graduate level, it’s a much more social process, and generally the professors who will be working with students are the ones who are making the admissions decisions. So it can be very helpful to look at what courses are offered, and what the professors are like, to reach out and talk to students who are in the program. That’s something that many programs will offer.
There’s a wonderful book called The Directory of Graduate Programs in Applied Sport Psychology. The Directory of Graduate Programs in Applied Sport Psychology is available online. There’s a paper version that is a little old, but for a few bucks you can get them used. They describe the focus of all of the sport psychology focused programs in the English speaking world. Some are in Australia, the United Kingdom, and other places where there’s English speaking programs. They include the faculty, the areas of emphasis of research, and links to websites – all information that students should [take into account]. In the appendix of this book there are some great materials for people who are considering graduate education – questions to ask, career paths, interviews with people who are in the field. I would say that’s a really good resource to look at.
It’s appropriate to reach out and talk to people in the field to learn more and to be in touch. It’s a social process. Sometimes students say to me, “Well, I only want to go to school in this location.” That can be really important for some people and families, but I would also encourage people who are able to consider moving further afield for a couple of years to find the program that could be the best fit for them because that could open up opportunities.
[I also will emphasize that it is very important to do your own] research, and look not just at reputation, but what are the classes and requirements involved, [what other factors do you notice, and what did you learn from] talking to people. This is a really good model for students to look at a program online, but also [be sure to do your due diligence and] reach out and talk to people to learn [as many specifics as you can about all aspects of the program and faculty].
BH: With that in mind, do you think it’s a good idea for people – if students are interested in a particular research area, should they be seeking out professors who also do research in that area?
Professor Van Raalte: I think a lot of times – I mentioned that admissions is a social process. Professors are eager to have students who are happy and successful. So if a student has a particular research interest and they connect with a faculty member with that same interest, then that could be a really good fit because the professor thinks, “Well good. They’re going to want to do this work. They’re going to work well, and be satisfied.” And the student is, in fact, happy. So sometimes a student who maybe looks less strong of a candidate on paper, but who matches well with the faculty, might be selected for admissions. I guess that’s a tip in writing your application. If you have broad interests and you could be interested in a lot of things, doing some background research and indicating what it is about some professors’ work that is interesting to you can be helpful.
BH: My final question for you professor, are there any books, podcasts, or blogs that you recommend for young people who are interested in staying up with the latest developments in sport psychology?
Professor Van Raalte: I’ll kind of go through these. For books, for people who might be just getting started or interested, there’s a textbook called The Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology written by Wineberg and Gould that has a nice overview of the field. It’s one that’s widely used if you took an undergraduate sport psychology class. That can be a good one to look at.
If you are interested in learning more about how the theory fits in with application, then Exploring Sport and Exercise Psychology is a book I edited with my colleague Brit Brewer. That book might have a little bit more theory to practice. In terms of podcasts, there’s a woman named Cyndra Kampoff who has a podcast, and another one is Michael Gervais called Finding Mastery.
A great place for students to connect with the field is to think about – if they are college aged – becoming student members of some of the sport psychology organizations. Because now you might be able to attend a conference remotely. You might go to a conference and meet other people and talk to the faculty. Some of the organizations to consider are the American Psychological Association which has a division of sport exercise and performance psychology, including Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) which we mentioned. Then there’s the International Society of Sport Psychology that has its world congress going on right now. That’s another organization where there’s usually pretty low student rates – especially the American Psychological Association and ISSP – low rates to join as a student and get involved.
The AASP organization, they have regional conferences around the country that are usually a day or day and a half. A lot of students attend and present their own work. So that can be a way to meet people and do something manageable.
The last resource for people who are interested in the overlap between sport psychology and business, Kirsten Peterson, who was a sport psychologist for the US Olympic Team, and then was in Australia for some years with the Australian Olympic Team, has a newsletter called Frictionless Performance. I think she addresses information in a nice way, and that’s something you can access for free.