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Inside Springfield’s Athletic Counseling program

By Jacques St. Jean

With such an abundance of focus on athletics, it’s no surprise that Springfield College offers master’s degree programs in athletic counseling and Sports and Exercise Psychology. Springfield is one of the few colleges in the nation that separates the two programs. Both offer master’s of education and science, and the sports psychology program even offers a PhD after a masters is attained.

Athletic counseling and sports psychology are similar in their goals to help student-athletes, but what they focus on is what differentiates them. Sports psychologists specialize in performance enhancement, and use psychological aspects to create peak performance for athletes. Athletic counselors look at the student-athlete as a whole and help them with other non-athletic aspects of their life, like social, academic, and personal aspects, along with performance.

Georgia Miller, a first-year graduate student in the Athletic Counseling program, has been putting her studies to work as a counselor and a graduate assistant coach for the women’s volleyball team. Miller graduated from Alma College with a degree in psychology, and after coming to Springfield for the athletic counseling program, she was dropped right in. Within the first two weeks she was working with athletes. While she is a coach for volleyball, she also serves as an athletic counselor for other athletes on other teams.

“Part of my role is to help the athletes and teams here on campus,” Miller explains, “work through any thoughts or concerns they’re having regarding sports, school, relationships” and many more topics in student-athletes’ lives.

Along with her fellow athletic counselors, Miller also works with teams as a whole, giving them mental performance techniques that are transferable between sports and daily life. While there haven’t been many competitions this year, Miller sees her role as an extremely important one amidst the pandemic.

“It’s very special to have someone that can relate to their student athlete life,” Miller says, “so it’s nice to just allow the athletes to come into a positive, open, confidential space, work through their thoughts, break it down, [and] give them tools to use to help with any of their concerns… and with teams it’s just giving them tools to add to their toolbox to use” for an array of things, including mental performance, goal setting, life, and team cohesion.

Miller and other athletic counselors are in a thankless role on the campus, but it’s the “little comments” that she holds onto that bring her work to fruition.

“Going off of what they tell me, I think they’re in a much healthier place.”

Miller describes herself as “ a huge advocate for athletic counseling” and hopes it becomes more common in a high school setting. While they may not focus entirely on performance-based tactics, athletic counselors play a role in forming positive relationships with their student-athletes.

“Being that support system for them, and something that they can confide in, I love being that person,” Miller exclaims.

Similar to Miller, sports psychology graduate student Robert Mendoza has spent his past four years here working with student athletes to better and sharpen the performance aspect of their sports. Specifically, Mendoza has worked with the wrestling team in the last two years of his PhD program. From being at practice daily, hosting his “Mendoza Mondays”, and traveling with the team on the weekends to competitions, Mendoza has been able to “help improve on [athletic] performance” which is the sole purpose of sports psychology.

“I hope I’ve been able to make a positive [impact],” Mendoza continues, “I’d like to think that what I did and the time I spent was able to help the guys in preparing for a competition.”

Originally from Los Angeles, California, Mendoza has gained a new perspective living in western Massachusetts, and learning on another level in the doctorate program in sports psychology.

“I was basically taught how to be a teacher, and that was really helpful,” Mendoza says.

Although he strives to pursue a career in applied work, the lessons Mendoza learned in the classroom has helped him in his experience with the wrestling team. Mendoza was a key part in the success at last year’s NCAA Northeast Regional Tournament, with nine out of ten wrestlers placing, and four of them qualifying for nationals. Mendoza recalls a specific time at the regional tournament where he was there for one of the wrestlers.

“At the regional tournament… he was one who took a loss quite hard, and I was with him in those moments following his loss…and I didn’t say a word to him.”

Mendoza adds, “I wanted him to understand that he wasn’t alone even though he had just suffered a big loss in this tournament.”

Mendoza pinpoints this as a defining moment in his job. He doesn’t “want athletes that [he works] with to ever feel alone.”

His passion for athletics, and sports psychology, really make Mendoza a standout and an example of what his program can do.

“I’m not sure that everyone understands the emotional toll it may take on you to work with a team or an athlete…there is a part of me that hurts when I see my athletes lose, and I don’t think I could do a good job at this if I didn’t have that about me. I think you have to be able to give a piece of yourself to these athletes.”

Mendoza, Miller, and all other sports psychologists and athletic counselors strive to make Springfield student-athletes better in every aspect. These are just a few examples of how both programs play a pivotal role in athletics.. The programs help students learn how to help student-athletes, not only in competition, but outside of it as well. For more information on both programs, head to this website.

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