Gloria Park Perin was a competitive figure skater for over 14 years, and remains active in the sport as a coach. She received her BA in Psychology and Philosophy from Villanova University, and has a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Next year Gloria will receive her PhD in Exercise and Sport Psychology from Temple University. She is also the founder of The Good Body Project. Her interests include broader applications of positive psychology in the pursuit of promoting mind/body health and wellness, bridging positive psychology and sport performance consulting, and youth development through sport and physical activity.
Here are my 5 questions with Gloria and her answers:
1a) What role do you believe positive psychology plays in athletics (under the umbrella of sport psychology or otherwise)?
A working definition of positive psychology is the scientific study of optimal human functioning, and the conditions that enable individuals, communities, and organizations to thrive. I see positive psychology playing a role in sport psychology in the following ways:
- Augmenting existing approaches to performance enhancement and nurturing high talent.
- Providing new direction on cultivating well-being and happiness in athletes in ways that don’t necessarily involve achievement.
- Enhancing the understanding of sport as a positive, enabling institution in society and informing practices to enhance virtue and morality.
Many natural connections exist between positive psychology and sport psychology, and in fact, both fields share similar bedrock assumptions in theory and in practice.
You might be wondering how the teachings in sport psychology differ from what is taught in positive psychology, and the fact is, they’re not so different. There is no “aha!” in positive psychology, and many of the basic principles are things that we might have all learned in kindergarten, church, or in a graduate program in sport psychology. However, what positive psychology has contributed is rigorous, empirical research into concrete and tangible ways to cultivate more of what makes life worth living. I believe that the two fields have the potential to benefit greatly from working synergistically together, and I’ve made it my life goal to foster collaboration and connection between these two fields.
1b) Do you think that positive psychology can play a significant role in enhancing sport performance (or does the significance of positive psychology in sport play a different role)?
Absolutely! One of the most robust areas of research in the sport and exercise psychology domain is that which contributes to the understanding of the behaviors, mindsets, and characteristics of high-performers. Similarly, the positive psychology movement and its related fields, such as positive organizational scholarship, have contributed much to the understanding of the processes that enable optimal performance in other domains such as business and education. Each of these fields draws on the notion that by supporting well-being and happiness in human beings, we can nurture high performance.
Talking positive psychology with folks in the sport psychology domain is like preaching to the choir. However, emerging research in positive psychology has a lot to offer in the way of innovating existing performance enhancement techniques. For example, Barbara Fredrickson’s hypothesis that positive emotion has the ability to “undo” the harmful, physiological effects of negative emotions can inform new approaches to arousal control. Coupled with other emerging technologies, such as biofeedback and psychophysiology, I see so many possibilities for increasing the efficacy of performance enhancement interventions in the future.
2) In practice what has been the biggest surprise after you have introduced positive psychology into the overall regimen and rigor of a specific sport?
My applied work experiences (in terms of one-on-one or team performance consulting) have been limited because I’ve focused most of my energy on completing my PhD. However, one of the most life-changing experiences I had was working as a coach for Figure Skating in Harlem, a girls’ development program incorporating education with the sport of figure skating and designed to encourage positive psychosocial and physical development. During this time, I was able to observe concrete and positive changes in 65 girls from a marginalized area of New York City. This program was a living, breathing incarnation of positive psychology in motion that helped to connect the girls with their community and with their families, provided an outlet to produce and be a part of something in which they could take great pride, and taught the girls the importance of hard work, determination, courage, teamwork, and leadership. Coming from Harlem, many of the girls in the program faced adversities that I have never had to face, and still, in the shadow of all of these difficulties, the girls exhibited their resilience by thriving and continuing to make progress, on the ice, in school, and in their personal lives.
I believe it was this experience that drove me to pursue my graduate studies in sport and exercise psychology. I realized that the value of sport expanded far beyond the achievement domain: When structured properly, it had the potential to be a powerful enabler of the good life, even for those who never had a chance of making it to the top of the Olympic podium.
3) You previously made the following statement about your experience as a figure skater, “I wish I understood the gravity of negative experiences and their uncanny ability to linger around long after the fleeting high from a success.” As an elite athlete that had her career cut short due to injury – regressing back to that period immediately after the injury – what is one thing that you know now that you wish you had known then that could have helped?
If I think back to that time in my life, I wish I knew that there would be so much more to live for after skating was over. When I was injured, I felt like the world was caving in on me. For so long, my sense of identify, meaning, and purpose had been defined by my involvement with skating, and when I saw things coming to an end, I felt lost. In that moment, I wish someone would have helped me put the experience in perspective and provided me with a way to seek out a renewed sense of passion and purpose. I imagine the transition is a little easier for older, more mature athletes, but in sports like figure skating and gymnastics, where retirement age often coincides with puberty, having resources available to facilitate this process would be of huge value.
4) How has your unique experience as an athlete altered the lens in which you approach sport psychology in general?
A lot of people go into sport psychology hoping to become the next big performance enhancement consultant with a major league team or high profile athlete. While I think elite performance is fascinating, I don’t see that as a major focus of my life’s work as a practitioner of sport and positive psychology. I want to promote well-being and happiness with athletes (and in turn, enhance performance) and help research evidence-based approaches for creating institutions that can help teach virtue, grit, and healthy habits across the lifespan. I would also like to play a role during athletes’ transition out of sport by working with them to identify and embrace new passions and goals, and exploring ways to give back and stay connected to their sport communities by mentoring, volunteering, or coaching.
Through skating, I learned at a young age that nothing in life comes easy. It takes hard work, dedication, sacrifice, and courage to pursue anything that is of worth. My parents, exemplars of this philosophy on life, showed me the power of their unconditional love and support, and constantly reminded me that it is not enough to just be successful in life. True success is measured by the legacy you leave behind: By what you do for others, by giving back to the world and the community, and constantly striving to live morally, justly, and compassionately. I hope I can use my experiences to do just that.
5) As a practitioner of positive psychology one of your implied goals is to help people “flourish”. Since the field of positive psychology is still fairly new, how do you see sport and fitness fitting into this goal and this field’s evolution?
The field of sport and exercise psychology is defined by two scientific objectives: 1) To understand the psychological factors that affect physical and motor performance, and 2) To understand the effect of participation in physical activity or sport on an individual’s psychological development, and how it contributes to health and well-being. The latter speaks to the role of sport and fitness in flourishing. In much of positive psychology research, the human body is conspicuously missing, even though physical activity has a robust connection to cognitive and psychosocial development throughout the lifespan and can support psychological well-being by serving as an effective treatment for and buffers to illness. Sport is also a powerful enabler of flow because it is a source of fun, enjoyment, and social connection for youth and adults alike. It has the capability to cross over racial, religious, and socioeconomic boundaries and bring people together in the pursuit and celebration of a common interest. As I mentioned earlier, sport is a powerful mechanism to engage, motivate, and develop life skills and good character in youth, and has already been adopted by a growing number of organizations. Finally, as a vivid testament to the tenacity of the human sprit, sport has the power to move, inspire, and elevate each of us to reach for our full potential.