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Center for Sport and Human Development to Offer Mental Health Support for Coaches, Athletes

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Matt Meyer



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A football player and a coach

Often, w­­­hen research and athletics intersect, the focus centers around on-the-field performance and optimizing training to produce faster, stronger athletes.

The psychological health of athletes is often lost in that quest. Mental health issues, burnout and other stressors can be just as detrimental to performance as any physical struggles. That’s true for the trained athlete and the recreational weekender.

At the forthcoming Center for Sport & Human Development, the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology hopes to bridge the gap separating physical performance and mental health.

The founding donor and visionary behind the center is Sheila Walker, a behavioral geneticist and former professional tennis player. From her vantage point in the community, she considers DU particularly well-equipped to support the mental well-being of student-athletes.

“The 4D Experience is crucial to this,” Walker says. “Advancing intellectual growth, promoting well-being, exploring character and pursing lives of purpose. All four of those tie into the holistic view of an athlete. I’m also incredibly psyched for the [James C.] Kennedy Mountain Campus and how we can leverage that to help our big-picture aim.”

Brian Gearity, associate professor and director of GSPP’s Coach and Sports Education Program, advocates for meaningful coach education and will be among the faculty involved with the center.

One of the center’s key goals is to provide easily accessible information on coaching safety and sports psychology, starting with DU student-athletes, then moving to the broader DU community and eventually scaling to Denver and beyond. Gearity says he hopes the research can help “connect the dots” and build relationships.

The center’s four pillars for change—workforce development, community partnership, research and advocacy—compliment the core mission of optimizing health, well-being, quality of life and human potential through sport.

Walker bemoans the lack of focused academic research on the mental health of athletes. Current plans for the center aim to address that by including full-time research faculty, a postdoctoral fellow, graduate student fellowships and a program coordinator, all focused on practical, applicable academic research that coaches and athletes can use.

The coach-athlete relationship is a key ­aspect of the work, Walker says, because it can shape an athlete’s future. Habits—good and bad—built in youth sports carry into adulthood. One negative experience can permanently sour a person on physical activity. That, in turn, contributes to increases in largely preventable chronic diseases, which, Walker says, account for the majority of the country’s health care costs.

“There are a lot of youths, particularly at-risk youths, who need these positive developmental relationships more than anyone else,” she says. “The long-term goal is to make this a sustainable system grounded in mandatory coach education and athlete safety standards.”

Like Walker, Gearity worries that the United States doesn’t adequately fund sports research. That’s in part because the bulk of research addresses other priorities—everything from chronic disease, biochemical research, psychological issues, or how physical stressors affect the military.

“When you look at sport, although it’s a billion-dollar enterprise and the U.S., quite frankly, leads the world in the business of sport, there isn’t a lot of funding for things like this,” he says. “Although we want to help youths and young adults, we also recognize that sport is something that can be enjoyed hopefully throughout somebody’s lifetime. That’s where the four pillars come in and our need for scholars to do this important work."