Last Updated on July 30, 2022
Interview with Dr. Jesse Steinfeldt
Sports Degrees Online recently had the chance to interview Professor Jesse Steinfeldt of Indiana University. In the interview, they discuss his journey to becoming a Sport Psychologist, his passion for coaching and sharing his expertise, and the growing demand for Sport Psychology and Counseling professionals, among other topics.
About Dr. Jesse Steinfeldt
Professor Jesse Steinfeldt is a Sport Psychologist and Professor at Indiana University. In addition to teaching a wide variety of courses at the undergrad and graduate level, Professor Steinfeldt is also the Director for the IU Sport and Performance Training Practicum at both the undergraduate and Graduate level.
Professor Steinfeldt, you found your way into Counseling and Sport Psychology after earning your Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology. When did you decide that you wanted to specialize in this area of psychology?
I went to college as a teenager who didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I thought I might want to major in Business. Yale only had Economics as an option for business-type majors, so I plowed through as an Economics Major for two years until I took a Social Psychology class that I loved. So I decided to major in Psychology…with ZERO intentions of becoming a Psychologist. The universe is wild, right?
But sport was integral to what I did and who I was, so if I was going to be a Psychologist, it only made sense that it would be as a Sport Psychologist. My first word was “ball.” I was a three-sport collegiate student-athlete at Yale, kind of a rare bird in that sense, and then I went on to the even rarer feat of playing professional basketball, football, and baseball in Europe for three years before retiring to return stateside to start my graduate training.
I have had lots of exposure to sport at many levels, but it was while I was playing in Europe that I was first exposed to the field of Sport and Performance Psychology (SPP). It sure would have been nice to have access to those services while I was playing in college or even high school, but the field here in the States is still in its fledgling stage, so I had to hop over an ocean to find it.
I came home to get my MA in Sport Psychology from Iowa, then I got my PhD in Counseling Psychology from UW-Milwaukee so I could be on a path to become a licensed psychologist who could establish his content expertise in SPP. I have done lots of my own clinical practice in the field, but I have found that teaching and training was my sweet spot professionally. Now I am blessed to work with the best of the best as I train the next generation of SPP professionals here at Indiana University.
Do you think that is important for young people who want to work with teams and athletes to have a background in athletics?
I think there is value for clinicians who have participated in a sport because that can give you entry or enhanced access based on a sense of ascribed credibility you may possess. However, I would argue that having played the sport is not required.
In some cases, it can create unintended negative consequences, and this is something I am explicit about in training my graduate students. Just because I may look like the football player I counsel, that doesn’t mean that I know what his experience truly is – this assumption of shared experiences may be a shortcut to rapport-building that could inadvertently undermine the therapeutic alliance.
As a self-disclosure, I have done some of my best clinical work with gymnasts – a content area that I know NOTHING about – so I can attest personally and professionally that experience in a sport is not a prerequisite for success in our field. Helpful? Sure. But necessary? Nope.
You still find time to coach youth sports whenever possible. How has your academic background changed the type of coach that you are on the sidelines? Why should young people who are passionate about coaching and mentoring athletes consider earning a degree in Counseling or Sport and Performance Psychology?
My wife jokes that I am a fantastic Psychologist but a lousy businessman, because I spend huge chunks of my time coaching for the approximate compensation of 42 cents per hour, instead of spending that time in clinical practice where I could earn much more money. But I love coaching. I love directly impacting kids and enhancing my community.
I have spent the last 15 years in Bloomington coaching youth baseball, middle school basketball, and high school football, which has allowed me to directly impact the lives of thousands of young men and women. And I have been successful – my teams have won state championships and league titles and all that jazz – but my biggest successes are best measured in the smiles I help kids put on their faces and in the transferrable skills that former players of mine are able to use as they strive to become the best versions of themselves on and off the courts.
“I have been successful – my teams have won state championships and league titles and all that jazz – but my biggest successes are best measured in the smiles I help kids put on their faces and in the transferrable skills that former players of mine are able to use as they strive to become the best versions of themselves on and off the courts.”
I feel that I have been successful in coaching because I intentionally infuse SPP principles into how I coach, which allows my coaching to have a stronger impact. Plus, I have had a positive impact on my fellow coaches, which gives my efforts a multiplicative impact: I model appropriate behaviors for coaches, I conduct formal coach training workshops, I have informal conversations on best coaching practices over beers. There are lots of ways that a coach who has a Professor and a Sport Psychologist day job can influence other coaches who are impacting the kids. So while I admit that I am rare and that a full doctoral degree may not be feasible (not a lot of Sport Psychologists spend this much time coaching), I would highly recommend taking SPP courses if you want to become a coach.
I have created a curriculum at IU where students in other fields (e.g., Athletic Training) are required to take my SPP courses and where students in any Major can Minor in Counseling and take SPP courses. The principles of SPP are widely applicable, and coaching is just one area where there is an intuitive fit and overlap. And like me, if you love coaching, there’s a great chance you will also love Sport and Performance Psychology.
Professor, you currently oversee both the graduate and undergraduate placement programs at Indiana University as Director for the IU Sport and Performance Training Practicum. Why are experiential placements like this so important in this field? What are some factors that separate exceptional internships from average ones?
I believe strongly in a model of training where professionals take a holistic approach to providing SPP services – they should be able to address and treat Mental Health issues AND be able to effectively implement Performance Enhancement interventions. But this requires a lot of essential training that takes a lot of time. But it is worth it to become a one-stop-shop sort of SPP professional. And one of the biggest difficulties that our field faces is finding training sites where Sport-Psychologists-in-training can work directly with student-athletes.
“I believe strongly in a model of training where professionals take a holistic approach to providing SPP services – they should be able to address and treat Mental Health issues AND be able to effectively implement Performance Enhancement interventions.”
Sport is a very unique system that has nuanced and contextual elements that differ greatly from more traditional sites (e.g., Counseling Center or Community Clinic). And you need more than book learning to develop the necessary skills – this is very much an experiential learning process. That is why here at IU we pride ourselves on providing both curricular and clinical training in SPP that is positioned within the broader field of Counseling Psychology.
Our graduates have read about and conducted the science, and they have done clinical work with their populations of interest, working directly with high school and college student-athletes, managing difficult administrators, communicating with coaches, engaging entire teams. In providing this unique training, our graduates leave the IU PhD program with the ability to be effective, responsible, and ethical professionals who will help athletes deal with their difficulties and become the best versions of themselves, on and off the field.
And I would say that exceptional internships are a function of relationships. Competitive sport is a closed system, and outsiders are often distrusted and turned away at the gates. So it is important to build relationships with athletic directors, with principals, with people who have the keys to provide access. That is built by these gatekeepers being able to say “that Dr J is good people” while also recognizing that they are receiving great value for providing this access.
There is a symbiotic relationship that exists – we provide them with valuable SPP services while the sites provide us with valuable training opportunities. The Win-Win nature isn’t something that just happens – it takes time to build those relationships to gain access, to manage those relationships when challenges arise and tweaks need to be made, and to continue to collaborate on a shared vision of providing student-athletes with the resources they need to be successful.
And furthermore, I would further argue that while the professional, Olympic and collegiate settings are the attractive settings, high school athletic departments are in even greater need of services AND are great sites to develop your skills, given that the stakes can be perceived as much higher the further up the competitive ladder you climb.
“I would further argue that while the professional, Olympic and collegiate settings are the attractive settings, high school athletic departments are in even greater need of services AND are great sites to develop your skills, given that the stakes can be perceived as much higher the further up the competitive ladder you climb.”
To quote your IU bio page “Sport is a fertile field to examine social dynamics…” Do you feel that counseling through sport offers a greater opportunity to make real change than other clinical environments?
Sport is a microcosm of society. And I think that Sport provides the perfect laboratory for learning life lessons. An athlete’s sense of self is often inextricably tied to his/her identity as an athlete. We as a society spend huge amounts of time and attention on sport, and sport is considered the most influential socialization institution for youth and adolescents during this formative developmental period.
So that being said, I think that we can use sport to effectuate meaningful change in athletes’ lives on the micro and the macro levels – from individual life lessons that produce transferrable skills outside of sport to social justice advocacy efforts wherein athletes can use their platform to influence policy and other aspects of society where injustice arises. Sport is such a beautifully fertile field to examine social dynamics…and to effectuate meaningful change in peoples’ lives.
“I think that we can use sport to effectuate meaningful change in athletes’ lives on the micro and the macro levels – from individual life lessons that produce transferrable skills outside of sport to social justice advocacy efforts wherein athletes can use their platform to influence policy and other aspects of society where injustice arises. Sport is such a beautifully fertile field to examine social dynamics…and to effectuate meaningful change in peoples’ lives.”
In recent years, it seems that public awareness of mental health issues has increased dramatically, both with athletes and society at large. Do you think that the demand for the Counseling and Sport and Performance Psychology skill set will continue to grow in the coming years?
This is a GREAT time to get into the field. We haven’t yet defeated the Stigma Monster, but I would say that its powers are eroding. High profile cases like Simone Biles and Kevin Love have elevated the societal conversation about mental health, recognizing that it’s so much more than “rub some dirt on it” and “get over it”.
As Kevin Love eloquently said, “everyone is going through something.” Athletes aren’t robots. They are people. People who feel, who bleed, who hurt. Their successes AND failures are public, permanent, and global. They need support, both when things go sideways and, perhaps most importantly, preventatively so that athletes can work to create life balance for themselves – sport is a domain that is quite rocky and uniquely difficult to maintain a sense of balance.
Thus, psychological services are so important within athletic domains, and I think this will grow. I use the field of Athletic Training as an analogous trajectory – 25 years ago, the presence of Athletic Trainers on sidelines was sparse. Now, there are multiple professionals providing these services at just about every athletic event. So too will the field of Sport Psychology grow, in my hopeful opinion. The NCAA Power 5 mandate and NFL mandate requiring mental health services from all member institutions/teams are just two policy decisions that have contributed to this growth. And as society continues to recognize the importance of mental health – and as the Stigma Monster loses its powers and people normalize help-seeking as a strength – opportunities/jobs will open and these necessary services will be provided to all athletes.
What other advice do you have for young people who are considering a future in Sport Psychology and Counseling?
My advice? Reach out to the folks who are doing the kind of work you want to do. You would be surprised by how many will respond. Maybe not immediately (folks are busy and sometimes things like sabbaticals get correspondences lost or delayed), but more often than not, the person will respond. And while the passive communication mechanism of email is fine, take it one step further – come up to us at a conference, shake our hand, and introduce yourself.
While you may get the occasional curmudgeon who tells you to get off his lawn, you need to know that most of us got our start in this field through the help of someone we looked up to and reached out to in an unsolicited manner. And that person responded. So we pay it forward. Take that shot. We need more of you in our field.