Interview with Dr. Lindsay Ross-Stewart
John Cody of SportsDegreesOnline.org spoke with Dr. Lindsay Ross-Stewart from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. They touch on her career trajectory, some interesting insights from the world of sport psychology, how to decide between different sports psychology programs, and advice for people breaking into the field of sport and exercise psychology.
About Dr. Lindsay Ross-Stewart
Dr. Ross-Stewart is an Associate Professor in the Department of Applied Health at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. She is the Graduate Program Director for the Exercise and Sport Psychology graduate program. Dr. Ross-Stewart obtained her PhD in Psychology from the University of North Dakota, her M.S in Kinesiology from the University of North Dakota, and her B.A. in Psychology from Mount Allison University. Dr. Ross-Stewart’s research is grounded in Albert Bandura’s Self Efficacy and its role in behavior change. Of particular interest to Dr. Ross-Stewart is how imagery impacts efficacy and sport performance. Dr. Ross-Stewart is also the Director of Mental Performance for the SIUE NCAA Division I Athletics Department. In this role she helps individual athlete, coaches and support staff as well as teams work on their mental training as part of the SIUE High Performance Team.
John: I see that you started your academic career with a degree in Psychology, and also have earned a Masters in Kinesiology, and a PhD in Psychology. Can you tell us a bit about your academic journey, and why you choose this path?
Dr. Ross-Stewart: I always knew I wanted to go into sports. Back then sport psychology was a pretty unknown field, so I started with my undergraduate degree in psychology. Then I switched to my master’s in kinesiology but with an exercise and sport psychology focus and specifically working with my mentor who worked in areas like imagery and confidence. I have a PhD in general psychology. I think the benefit of having some combination of psychology and kinesiology is that you can see the experiences of the athletes from both perspectives which allows you to look at things in a different way. I’ve always felt really fortunate that I have both of those educations because it can help me see the issues in different ways. I think right now for readers on your website to think about is what they want the ultimate job to be, it really can dictate whether or not you get a PhD. In the field of sport psychology you do really have to think about all these different paths and in what degree makes the most sense for you.
John: Do you recall a particular moment, or was there any event in your life that helped you decide to pursue a career in the sports industry?
Dr. Ross-Stewart: I played a lot of sports in high school really throughout my entire life and I knew I wanted to stay in sports. I was passionate about it, and I couldn’t really see my life without it. Despite the fact that I love sports, I hated anatomy, and nothing about physiology interests me at all so I had to be prepared to look for other things. At the time it really felt like your choices to go into sports were in sports marketing, physical therapy, athletic training or coaching and none of those things really appealed to me so I started to look for other options.
That’s when I started to learn about sport psychology when I was in high school and then when I was in college I suffered a career ending injury and that certainly has impacted the work that I do and impacted my focus and probably increased my desire to be in the field of sport psychology.
John: Some people out there might not understand the scope of exercise and sport psychology. Can you please explain a bit about the field, and what sorts of careers a student with a degree in this field would be a good fit for?
Dr. Ross-Stewart: Exercise psychology is really looking at the why. Why do people exercise or not exercise? And then how we get people to exercise, and then the second component is what are the impacts of exercise on people. So looking at issues like the impact of exercise on anxiety and depression and cognitive skills and then it is how we really help people exercise.
Everybody knows exercise is important. You never get anyone who says “Exercise, I haven’t heard of that before.” Everybody knows you’re supposed to exercise, but very few people are doing it, or at least doing it properly or for the right time. Exercise psychology is really focused on that so our students who focus on these questions tend to go into physical activity promotion based on Phd programs or into corporate wellness working in companies helping the companies design programming and implementing that with their employees. Also, many go on and work in nonprofits or youth programming and things like the YMCA, or youth level sports, building exercise programming, or designing sports recreation facilities. Those are examples on the exercise psychology side.
In sport psychology there are two areas. One is how do we help athletes perform their best based on their mental skills? So how psychology impacts their performance– the more elite an athlete gets, the less the physical difference matters. You know there is a certain point because everyone is physically the same or really, really close it’s the mental skills that make the difference. So in sport psychology we’re looking at how we can help athletes develop those tools… What are the mental skills they need and how can we help them get those?
The other thing we do within sport psychology is really look at the impact of sports on us. Some people say all the time that sports builds character. Well is that actually true? What do you get from being in sports? Is sports something you should want your kids to participate in? What are the pros and cons of being a part of a sports environment? And all that’s really important when you work with athletes… I’m the director of mental training for our athletics program SIUE. When I work with athletes I have to think about what’s going to be best for them as human beings. Because they’re people, and how I can help them perform at their best and also enjoy the experience the most they can.
John: It’s really interesting what you said about the difference between athletes at the highest level…how the physical differences are generally smaller. I’m not sure if having mental strength is the right word, or best to describe the mental advantages.
Dr. Ross-Stewart: Just having the skills to know how to handle situations is important. So I think we have this misconception that some people are born mentally tough, that’s really not the case. It’s about having coping skills, having strategies or knowing how to handle certain things. So it’s really about building resiliency or just building skills, and that’s what we spend a lot of time working with athletes on because elite level sport is stressful. Elite level sport is constant and often it’s an athletes entire identity. So how do you help them deal with all those challenges and even the losses and stay confident? Even if a coach is frustrated with them, helping them stay focused, and to be able to do those things, a skilled athlete has to work on that and a lot of times in sports we forget that that the mental side is a skill that has to be worked on. So that’s a lot of what we do within the field of mental training.
John: Do you think in recent years there’s been more of a focus or emphasis on that?
Dr. Ross-Stewart: I think sport psychology is constantly evolving and growing. Certainly in the fifteen years I’ve been in the field I have seen more and more job opportunities come up within universities and professional leagues. A few years ago the NCAA put up their best practices for mental health and encouraged that every university should have someone related to mental health or mental training on staff. The NBA also has a mandate that every team has to have someone in mental training or mental health. The NFL, NHL, and almost every MLB team has at least one person in mental training and several who work in the minor leagues. So I think it is really developing, but it’s still not as well known as say everyone needs a strength and conditioning coach for athletic performance. But more and more, mental training is being understood as just as necessary a component of a high performance model.
John: I see you do research on imagery, self efficacy and performance. Could you explain to us a bit about your research and its findings?
Dr. Ross-Stewart: Sure, so my area of research has been looking at how athletes can use imagery to increase their efficacy, which is you can just think of this confidence, situation specific confidence. So looking at how that then impacts performance. Imagery is being able to fully immerse yourself in a sport experience without actually being in it. For example, it might be the football quarterback being able to see the reads on the field, and hear the sound of the crowd, and taste the dry mouth, and feel their arm muscle mechanics, even though they’re actually just standing on the field by themself. To be able to image those things, to imagine those things, and it really has to be vivid and has to be something that an athlete can incorporate.
We know that from the research we also now know that imagery use is incredibly important for sport performance and that it doesn’t just increase efficacy, it can also increase confidence because it gives you more reps. So you can do even when your body can’t do more so it gives you more reps and builds your confidence. But athletes who use imagery can actually control their emotions better. They’re able to learn skills and strategies faster and at a more effective level and they stay more motivated and all of that’s about developing the right imagery and using the right imagery for each athlete. Because it’s individual.
One athlete might want to image themselves amped up before they compete and another athlete might want to image themselves calm. Being able to use imagery individualized can really help athletes increase their efficacy and all these other things and therefore really help their performance. I think you’d be hard pressed right now to find top sport psych. techniques for the elite athletes that didn’t include imagery. It’s really built into most Olympic training programs to build imagery. And now across most countries it really is just an understood technique that’s necessary to really to the highest elite level, and during covid it’s incredibly important because athletes can’t get out the same level that they could before. Maybe they can get to the gym, but they can’t work out their team and so being able to use imagery increases mental reps.
John: What advice do you have for students comparing programs? How can they find a school or program that is a good fit?
Dr. Ross-Stewart: I think the first thing is to really think about what you want the outcome to be. Think about the job you want and think about why you are interested in a degree in exercise and sport psychology? I think that the first step is to really understand the why because it can help you navigate everything because the programs are really different. Some programs have more applied opportunities, some programs are more research based, some are just focused on exercise, or a combination of both so really understand what you are interested in and why you want to do that is a really important first step. A lot of times it can be ‘I just want to stay in sports.’ And that’s okay, but at least be starting to focus on what you think that might look like at the end.
The other thing I would say is to understand that sport psychology and exercise psychology both are still a developing field so you have to really be passionate about it. This isn’t something where you’re going to get a master’s degree and then people are going to be begging you to come work with them. You have to be passionate about it for the job to be there. People in the field who work hard and do the extra steps outside of their classes, they can be very successful, but you really have to love it. Grad school is difficult so you have to love the topic you’re going through. sport psychology is a developed field, but is continuing to grow and you have to make your own space. We talked to a lot of students about it, and you have to be able to put the work in and put in the hustle to get the spot you want.
When it comes to picking a grad program I think it’s really important to think about the courses that are being offered and to think about the faculty. When students work with me they can work with me on imagery research, but we also allow students to work on areas of their own interests. At other schools that may not be the case. You may have to do what the faculty member does if you want to get research experience so make sure you ask what they are researching. And see if you want to research with them and that there’s a match their personality match. It is important and there’s no reason why you should have to get a master’s degree without talking to the faculty first. Now we can all do it over zoom… and just to invest some time and do some research.
John: What separates SIUE’s Exercise and Sport Psychology graduate program apart from other programs?
Dr. Ross-Stewart: At Southern Illinois University Edwardsville we have designed our program to really fit students with varying job desires or varying long term career goals. So if you want to come in and you want to be a certified mental performance consultant which is an optional certification you can get we have designed a path that you can get the course work for that. At the same time if you want to work in the exercise side you can be a thesis student and go on to get your PhD. If you don’t want to get your PhD and you want to take coursework instead of a thesis that we have we have built an opportunity for electives. So we really designed our program to be what it should be for each student. I also think what separates our program apart from other programs is that we are very invested in our students. As a faculty, we mentor our students. We very much care about what happens to them. We stay connected to them. There’s a real faculty-student relationship that our students and our alumni talk about it a lot as a big part of their education. That’s something I think is really important.
John: Why do you feel that sport psychology as a degree or being in the professional field could be an excellent choice for young people out there who were athletes themselves or who are passionate about sports?
Dr. Ross-Stewart: So there’s sort of different reasons why people take a masters degree I think in the one way it’s an excellent degree if you were considering going into coaching. Several of our students want to go into coaching because if you have the mental knowledge, you’re going to be a better coach. If you know how to coach the mental skills, not just the physical skills, that is going to be your advantage point. Certainly I think for people who are interested in sports, there is such an advantage to a degree in exercise and sport psychology because it really gives you the knowledge to be an excellent coach. And then for people who want to go into the field of sport psychology specifically, it’s an amazing job. It is incredibly powerful and impactful to be able to help people be successful in the things they love the most and teaching athletes skills that they can use– your confidence on the court let’s say– those are skills that will translate to other parts of their lives and there’s a real impact you can make in people’s lives and the people who are interested in that and are coming into sport psychology for those reasons I think it’s a really incredible field.