Last Updated on February 3, 2022
Interview with Professor Mark Aoyagi
Sports Degrees Online interviews Professor Mark Aoyagi – Co-Director of Sport and Performance Psychology at the University of Denver – about a wide range of issues related to Sport Psychology. Professor Aoyagi discusses the growing importance of treating the whole person, trends in Sport Psychology, and advice for students beginning their journey into the field.
About Professor Mark Aoyagi
Professor Aoyagi is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Denver's Graduate School of Professional Psychology. He is the Co-Director of Sport and Performance Psychology at the University of Denver and the founder of the Center for Performance and Excellence. Professor Aoyagi holds a Ph.D. in Counceling Psychology with an emphasis in Sport Psychology from the University of Missouri.
Bryan Haggerty: Professor Aoyagi, can you tell us a bit about your academic journey and how you found your way into sport psychology?
Professor Aoyagi: I grew up in Utah and studied my undergraduate degree at the University of Utah. It just so happened that one of the best sport psychologists, Keith Henson, was there at the time. I was an athlete, I played rugby at the University of Utah. Prior to hearing of Dr. Henson, I had no idea about sport psychology.
I was always interested in psychology, but as I would put it back then – (not something I would say today) – I didn’t want to work with crazy people. I was a pre-med major for lack of creativity and foresight of what I wanted to do. After a couple of athletic injuries, I became interested in orthopedic surgeries, but then I heard about Dr. Henson and became aware of sport psychology, and became interested in combining my interest in psychology and applying it to growth and performance as opposed to problem resolution. And I’m also working with a population that was of great interest to me – athletes. That was the introduction to sport psychology and the rest of the academic journey was applying to grad schools.
I did a master’s at Georgia Southern in Kinesiology with Dr. Kevin Burke and Dr. Charlie Hardy. And then I went on to the University of Missouri for a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Sport Psychology emphasis with RickMcGuire, Rich Cox, and Neils Beck.
Bryan: Thanks for sharing that. And now you have been at the University of Denver for over a decade, correct?
Professor Aoyagi: I started in 2007, so it looks like it has been 15 years now.
Bryan: It looks like you have built quite a program at the University of Denver. Sport Psychology has entered the mainstream over the past year. We have situations where we have things like the NBA Bubble, and players coming out of the bubble talking about the drain of that situation. You have Naomi Osaka pulling out of the French Open for reasons related to mental health. And just a short time later, Simon Biles pulled out of the Olympics after deciding that she could not compete at that level anymore. It is clear that mental health issues are affecting athletes a great deal, and that mental health issues are finding their way into the headlines more than even a decade ago. What are your thoughts as to why things are trending in this direction?
Professor Aoyagi: Well there are a few reasons. In order to talk about mental health, you need to be aware that you have a mental health issue going on. While that statement sounds incredibly obvious, without some degree of mental awareness, and emotional intelligence, it is really easy to not even recognize that you are suffering from a mental health issue or anything in that regard.
I have two young daughters in elementary school, and it is amazing that they are learning about emotional intelligence and talking about their feelings and supporting their classmates and learning about their feelings. These are things that were not even talked about when I was their age. Younger generations are getting more exposure to education and training around emotional intelligence, and that leads to an awareness that emotions have an impact on me and can result in different things.
I would hypothesize and speculate that historically – say 20 years ago – if an athlete was getting a lot of injuries, or if they were not recovering because of sleep disturbance, they would think is it physiological or biological, or there is a supplement they need to take, but probably wouldn’t recognize that it is something in the mental/emotional range affecting, if not the primary source of what was going on. So, the awareness part is huge, just being able to recognize and label something as a mental health issue.
And then I would say the second factor would be that through social media platforms, things like The Players Tribune, where athletes and performers have an outlet to talk about their experience in their own words, I think that’s where you’re seeing almost all the people, whether it’s Kevin Love, DeMar DeRozan, or Naomi Osaka, they almost all initiated the story through their own social media, or an outlet like The Players Tribune where it is their own word, not having an intermediary. Prior to 5 to 10 years ago, if an athlete or an agent wanted to get a story out, it had to go through the media.
For me, I am a pretty disinterested third party, and many times I can sort of somewhat see how a story like this came out of that conversation, but not really. And for these professional athletes who are accustomed to having their words mixed and mingled and distorted, who is going to want to talk about something super personal and vulnerable through that medium? This ability to communicate their message directly to the public with their own voice, through their own mechanisms, is really key to athletes being comfortable to be vulnerable.
Bryan: On that same note, just in the last 2 or 3 weeks, I have heard NFL several athletes who gave permission for their stories to be told. Jordan Power, the All Pro safety on the Buffalo Bills, and Pro Bowler Maxx Crosby of the Oakland Raiders both publicly shared their personal battles with alcoholism. Their ability to talk directly with fans to inspire people out there in a different way is something I do not remember from when I was younger. That’s a very positive change, I think.
Professor Aoyagi: I would add that having worked with several professional franchises, that there’s a very different relationship [between players and their teams] now. It is different from league to league, but the NFL it is a management to coach league. The players do not have a lot of power. They have non-guaranteed contracts, the NBA is probably a little more player-driven, and the MLB is a little more between management and the player’s union.
Anyways, I bring that up to say that another factor at play with athletes speaking up now is that in addition to having the voice to speak their truth, they also have a recourse if the team, coach, league, whoever doesn’t like what they have to say. Back in the day, if an athlete spoke out, they would be gone the next day, no explanation or reason given. That certainly still happens – I don’t want to minimize that – but now an athlete has an outlet to give their side of why they were released.
Back when I was young, if a player said they were an alcoholic or had a mental health issue, the public sentiment would be ‘glad they’re gone’ whereas now the public sentiment would be ‘that’s a pretty unjust reason to fire someone’. They would at least have the opportunity to get picked up by another team or something like that. Some of those dynamics have changed quite a bit as well.
Bryan: You mentioned briefly that you participated in competitive rugby at the University of Utah. I know that at one point or another you played baseball, football, and wrestling. Do you recall a particular moment when you realized that you wanted to pursue a career in sport psychology? And in what ways has your experience as an athlete affected your professional journey?
Professor Aoyagi: It would be hard to peg a particular moment when I was playing sports because for the most part I wasn’t even aware that sport psychology existed. In retrospect, I can think about a lot of things. I remember playing high school baseball, and I don’t remember how I thought to do this, but we had a very good baseball team and were in contention for the state championship, and we were playing one of our rival teams and they had probably the top pitcher in the state. He had this very unique delivery and the day or two leading up to the game I started visualizing hitting off of him and this delivery. I don’t remember how I got this idea or who taught it to me, but I had some glimpses into the idea that the mind can impact the ability to be successful.
Even as I say these words, I am not sure if I would even attribute this to the mind. I think I just thought it was a way to get my body ready. My point is, I don’t think I was recognizing the power of the mind in that equation. Specifics aside, I think the general trend would be that like many athletes, I felt like my mind and my mindset and emotions prevented me from getting the most out of my athletic experience. Both from a skill delivery perspective and getting better, but also enjoying it, having fun, and getting the most out of the experience that way.
Bryan: Professor Aoyagi, what part of sport psychology are you most interested in?
Professor Aoyagi: You probably heard shades of this when talking about my experience, and what I have alluded to when talking about what I have done recently, and it has been an evolution. At this point in my career, it is 100% about the person first, the athlete second. And, even larger than that, my interests are society first, individual second. I really now use sports as a vehicle for social change. I have kind of come full circle in that after retiring from sports myself, I went through this phase of thinking sports are way overdone in society, I missed out on all these other opportunities, I’m not having time to pursue these other interests, develop these other passions, and that led me to thing “what the heck am I doing in my professional life then?” and started pursuing this thing called sport psychology.
I mentioned Rick McGuire being one of my mentors, and his choice point in life was to either go into the ministry or go into coaching. And what he realized is that he could reach more kids through coaching than he could through the ministry, because more kids seek out help from coaches than they do through preachers or ministers. That’s essentially ‘how I utliize sport and performance psychology now?’.
I realize that athletes, high level performers, CEO’s, these people have an outsized influence on our general, social, cultural experience. That’s my goal – is to work through the medium of sport and performance domains to influence the people in those domains and learn how the journey toward being a more complete, whole, and satisfied person can also be compatible with a highly successful, high-achieving, tip-of-the-sward performer. I think for a lot of history – or at least in my own personal history – a lot of times those things are not compatible. You need to make your own personal sacrifices to be a success as a performer. And that’s not to say that there’s no sacrifice involved, but it doesn’t have to be with your personal values and who you want to be as a person. That’s kind of the big picture of my interests now. How to optimize people, systems, and ultimately society to get the most out of themselves both individually and collectively and to use high-pressure and high-stakes environments as a testing ground and a proving ground for how to do that.
Bryan: Professor, you have held a number of distinguished positions for the Association of Applied Sport Psychology (AASP). Can you talk a bit about why students who are interested in working in sports and with athletes should get acquainted with AASP? What are some of the ways that aspiring sport psychology professionals can engage with AASP?
Professor Aoyagi: AASP is the largest, and really the only professional body dedicated to sport and performance psychology. The only one that parallels it is Division 47 of the American Psychological Association. Division 47 is Sport, Exercise & Performance Psychology. APA is a massive organization, as you can tell by the division numbers. And that is general psychology focused, and then you have this little niche of sport and performance psychology there. AASP as an organization is dedicated to sport and performance psychology.
I think the answer to your question is that professional regulation and professional organizations providing that regulation are so important to the establishment and the recognition of our profession. Sport psychology has been notorious, and has had a reputation for a lack of regulation and that has opened the door for people who say “Oh, I’m a mental skills coach” or “I’m a peak performance coach”. Based on whatever they read or life experience they say, this is what we’re going to do. But these folks do not have ethical training, let alone a scientific foundation for how to bring about change in people. What AASP does, what APA does, is that they provide the safeguards that attempt to ensure that consumers in the public receive what they intend to receive that they receive it in a professional manner with the underpinnings of an ethical framework which is necessary to have in a well-regulated profession.
Bryan: Thank you for explaining that. I know you take pride in the fact that your program at the University of Denver is very student-centric. Can you tell me a little bit about this approach and how this may be different than other sport psychology programs out there?
Professor Aoyagi: Well it is hard for me to compare and contrast other programs other than the ones I have been in. I get some feedback from students and alumni that have interacted with graduates of other programs, or met them at conferences and so on and so forth. I’ll talk about what we do, but I don’t want to come off as a compare and contrast because I don’t know enough about what other programs are doing.
My instinct earlier in the conversation was when you gave me credit for creating one of the top training programs in the U.S. if not the world, but it wasn’t me. It was my faculty, colleagues, and students, and I’m in there as well, but we collectively and collaboratively created what we have.
We do have a very student-centric approach, and we have a lot of flexibility built into our curriculum and experiences, so students can within reason tailor the program to the experiences they want to have. We are pretty focused on performance psychology, and that is what we do – that is our value proposition – and that would distinguish us from a general counseling program, or kinesiology program. Within the boundaries of sport psychology, we want students to explore and discover their interests, and begin to explore what niche or aspects of the field appeal to them. We have flexibility in our curriculum, we have flexibility in our field placements. And the place where I think we do a really good job at supporting students is our supervision.
When we talk about applied sport psychology and training professionals, it’s really the supervision piece that is the most important for the students to receive and is the most important for professional oversight and developing competent professionals. We take supervision very seriously and that has really what has allowed our students to thrive in the job market following the program.
Bryan: Your program makes earning a Certified Mental Performance Consultant Certification (CMPC) very straightforward for students pursuing a master’s in sport psychology. How does this certification help students become more marketable, and why do you think this certification is valuable for students that want to work with teams and athletes?
Professor Aoyagi: CMPC is the credential that AASP offers. There are a few levels of professional certification. At the top is licensure. Psychology does offer licensure, to become a licensed psychologist. Sport psychology does not offer licensure. You could be a licensed psychologist, and specialize in sport psychology, but there is not that top level of professional oversight with sport psychology.
Following licensure, the next level is certification, and that is what AASP offers. The Certified Mental Performance Consultant Certification. But it goes back to the same conversation about AASP. It allows the public to identify people who are ethically trained and bound to adhere to an ethical code that has gone through consistency, and that’s the other thing too is that people in sport psychology can be all over the map. You could be a classically trained therapist or someone who has never taken a psychology or kinesiology course.
What CMPC does is it offers consistency. All people that have this credential are going to have a similar skill set and knowledge base that they are coming from that is scientifically founded and based upon research and also have some degree of professional oversight and supervision that should create more consistency in their professional skills. That way you are not getting a huge variance between someone who calls themself a peak-performance coach, and someone who calls themself a mental skills coach, and they are doing things miles and miles apart. With CMPC you are getting more regulation and consistency among professionals that allows a profession to emerge.
Bryan: What advice do you have for students that are trying to choose either a master’s or a doctoral program in sport psychology?
Professor Aoyagi: You have heard me harp on the supervision component, but let me add a caveat – know why you want to go to graduate school. If you want to be a researcher, then supervision and applied practice doesn’t matter. If you want to go to school to be an academic, outside of the lab, but still teaching at a university, then supervision probably does not matter all that much. What I’m talking about is for people that want to be sport psychology practitioners.
In that case, I would say make sure and do your due diligence as to what supervision looks like in that program. That will tell you something about the field placement, and it will tell you something about the engagement of the faculty with the students. If the faculty is farming out supervision to adjuncts or outside people, just understand that those are people who are not as tied to the program. It’s going to be a different experience than if you were with people who you were with day to day providing that experience.I would say that’s Number 1.
After supervision, the second thing I would encourage them to do is to get connected with students in the program. The faculty has a different perspective on what happens in the program than what the students do. The faculty may think that they do something very well, and it is not that they are trying to mislead, but a student may say that they disagree and think that the school does not do that thing very well. It is the student experience that matters. I always say connect with students in the program and ask them “what is supervision like?” or “what are the alumni doing?” Are they doing something similar to what you want to be doing after you graduate?
So those are my two things- look into supervision and talk with students in the program.
Bryan: Are there any books, podcasts, or blogs you recommend for students that are interested in keeping up with the latest trends in sport psychology?
Professor Aoyagi: There’s a lot. Full disclosure, I have really broad interests both within sport psychology and outside of it. So something like podcasts I actually listen to things outside of sport psychology. But two sport psychology podcasts I listen to are “Finding Mastery” with Mike Gervais. He’s a wonderful person and a wonderful practitioner and a great podcast. He is at the tip of the sphere in terms of our profession. Another one is the “Sport Psych Show” podcast by Mike Abrams.
The “Finding Mastery” podcast is more of a chance to observe a sport psychologist at the top of their game and him interviewing guests. The “Sport Psych Show” does a lot of interviews, but they are primarily with practitioners and with academics producing research. So that is one where you can stay up to date on what is going on in the field.
One of my mentors Rich Cox had a book, “Sport Psychology” that was the best primer on the field in terms of being updated on research. He was a machine reading 10-20 research articles a day and was constantly updating this textbook. Unfortunately for the field, but good for him, he retired about 10 years ago. It still is a great book, but the last most current years have not been captured there.
Also, the second foundational text in the field is the Williams and Krane textbook, “Applied Sport Psychology”, which I think is in its 8th version now. Similar to Rich’s book, it covers the research foundations and introduces more of the applied side as well. There are a couple of practitioners that have put out some good stuff as well. Mike Gervais has an audiobook called “Compete to Create” that he and Pete Carroll did together. That’s a contemporary view into a leading practitioner’s view on how to do sport psychology. And there are several others, George Mumford has “The Mindful Athlete”, lots in that genre.
In terms of research articles, if people want to dig into it, AASP has the journal of Sport Psychology in Action and Journal of Applied Sport Psychology. Both of those are pretty accessible ways to follow sport psychology research literature.