Last Updated on February 8, 2022
Interview with James Rushton
John Cody from Sports Degrees Online sat down with James Rushton. They talked about his path and pursuit of a career in sport psychology and what current opportunities are out there for young people looking to break into the field of sport psychology.
About James Rushton
James Rushton is a 5th year Doctoral Student at the University of North Texas' Counseling Psychology PhD program, specializing in sport psychology. Within my program, I work as a sport psychology consultant for the UNT Center for Sport Psychology and Athlete Mental Health.
Can you tell us how you got to this point in your career?
So like a lot of people in the sport psychology field, I saw it as a chance to combine two passions of mine- sports and helping people. I played soccer in college, and that was when I was first introduced to a sport psychologist through the university’s athletic department. At the time I was a psychology major and I knew I wanted to be a psychologist, but I didn’t know what route or what population I wanted to work with. Upon learning about sport psychology, it seemed like a great opportunity to stay in sports and also become a psychologist.
After that, I became involved in some research opportunities around campus and reached out to anyone who had any involvement in sport psychology so I could get as much information as I could about it. I knew that after undergrad I wanted to go straight to grad school, so I applied to various Ph.D. programs as well as master’s programs and fortunately got into the University of North Texas’s Counseling Psychology Ph.D. program where I’m specializing in sport psychology.
What potential paths do you see for someone who is interested in studying sport psychology?
Very generally, you could go down either a research path or an applied path. For example, if you wanted to pursue a career in academia within sport psychology you could go down a teaching and research path. And generally speaking with the applied path, you could work in a system that has already been established like a university’s athletic department, a professional sports team, or you could go the private practice route and connect with clients individually. Even within the applied side, some people will focus more on performance, and focus on things like mental skills. But there are also paths where you are focusing on performance and mental health, so you could work in a position where you are working with a wide range of presenting concerns.
What sort of research have you done? Can you share with us some interesting findings?
Right now I am working on my dissertation and we are looking at whether athletic participation increases resilience for those that experienced maltreatment, and if so, how? What are the pathways and how does athletic participation increase resilience. We are doing a qualitative study where we screen student-athletes at the NCAA level who experienced childhood maltreatment and interview them about their experiences of athletic participation and how that may have impacted their ability to be resilient. We are still waiting on the results, so interesting findings there yet!
The hope is that down the road this study could inform intervention work and demonstrate the power of sports.
In the past, I have also participated in research about the prevalence rates among athletes that have mental health concerns. At university, we did a mental health screener for all athletes within the university and we asked about mental health concerns. There were questions about anxiety and depression, but also questions about performance. So we asked something like “Does your psychological state affect how you perform.” And we had criteria where if a student-athlete endorsed certain items or a certain number of items, we did a follow-up with them about those concerns and how we can connect them with resources going forward.
With this study about half the athletes met that criteria, and it shows how much of a demand there is for mental health professionals and performance specialists to work with student-athletes.
How do you see the field of sport psychology changing over the next 5-10 years?
I think there is going to be an increased demand for sport psychologists. I feel like I am getting into the field at a really good time. And within that, there is an increased demand for mental health training. These job postings are not just for people that can work on the performance side, but also have mental health training and can work with athletes holistically. Knowing that performance and mental health impact each other, and as mental health is talked about more and more and the stigma becomes less so, this will be more of a focus within the field.
For yourself, where do you see your career going in the next 5-10 years?
My career goal now is to work in a university’s athletic department as a sport psychologist, but also work in the school’s counseling department and work with the general population of the school.
What are the traits of a successful sport psychologist?
The first one is having really strong interpersonal skills. The ability to develop relationships and connections is very important. As the field becomes more accepted and understood by other coaches, athletes, and athletic departments, we need to build relationships and help people understand our role before we are doing actual intervention work like workshops and working with athletes individually. All this is possible when you work with people and athletes individually and build that trust.
Building off of that, is taking the initiative. Because people are still understanding how sport psychology can be used, and still accepting it, a lot of the work that I have seen so far is putting myself out there. People don’t necessarily know how to use a sport psychology, so it is important to prove my worth as a sport psychologist. It’s not about sitting back and waiting to be called upon.
Another thing I would say is open-mindedness and the ability to be flexible. Through our training there is a lot knowledge about the research out there and the tools we can use like imagery and self-talk, but it is about being able to meet the athletes where they are at and tailoring that knowledge. For example, How can we use imagery with this athlete, or how does self-talk work specifically with this athlete is important. Knowing we have this baseline knowledge, but then being able to tailor it to exactly what the athlete needs.
What is something you wish you had been told before you started studying this field?
Something that I was not expecting as much was that there is a need to create a space for ourselves and having patience for educating people about sport psychology and educating coaches and athletes. It can take time to develop those relationships and provide that education before you are doing the work that you read about what you think the work was going to look like. Doing the work to build relationships and educate is just as much a part of sport psychology as doing the intervention work.
Do you have any advice or recommendations for someone pursuing this field?
I would reach out to as many people as possible take advantage of resources like your website here. There are so many different paths to working with athletes and there is no one structured way to do it. It can be confusing when you are starting out, but gathering as much information as you can, recognizing that there is no one way to do it, but also realizing your specific interests is important.
Are you interested in working with athletes in mental health, or are you more interested in working with the performance side? Then you can narrow down programs by seeing what they focus on. I had a lot of people who helped me during the first few years in the field by just talking about their experiences and hearing about their paths. That helped normalize for me and helped me realize that there are so many different ways to enter the field.
Are there any interesting books, podcasts, blogs, or other media that you recommend for young people interested in sport psychology?
Early on in my journey, I read a book called Mind Gym and it had a lot of different anecdotes about working with athletes across different sports. It’s a great introduction to the different types of works and it is a pretty easy read with various short stories of this person’s work with athletes.
Also, what was helpful for me was a directory of sport psychology programs. It helped me understand what programs are out there, and it lists out all the programs and outlines what types of experience or focus do these programs have in terms of research and applications.
This is more of a textbook, but there is a book called Sport Psychology for Coaches and it does a great job of introducing basic tools and techniques of sport psychology.