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Reflections on presenting MST4Life research at NASPSPA, 2019

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

The annual North American Society for Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity (NASPSPA) conference was held in Baltimore, US, June 2019. Ben Parry, a PhD student and research associate for The Sprint Project was accepted to present two academic posters. Here, he reports on this opportunity to disseminate his work on an international stage and to learn more about the ever-growing field of sport psychology.

Presenting at NASPSPA, 2019

At some conferences, poster presentations can feel like a side show to the refreshment break or tagged on the end of a long day. As a result, people are usually tired or hungry (or both!) and resign themselves to completing an obligatory lap of the poster display.

I’m pleased to say I didn’t get this feeling at NASPSPA. The organisation of the posters presentations were split into odd and even numbers, encouraging those not presenting to support their peers and created opportunities to arrange future discussions.

The first poster I presented was titled: ‘Health Outcomes of Physical Activity-based Positive Youth Development for Disadvantaged Young People: A Systematic Review’ (see below for abstract). This poster’s main aim was to convey the message that physical activity-based PYD programmes have the potential to yield a number of positive health outcomes, yet this is infrequently acknowledged in the research. People generally seemed receptive of this message and the rigour of the review process was recognised as an asset of the research.

My second poster was an overview of the research I’m currently working on: ‘Sport psychology in the community: A realist evaluation of the My Strengths Training for Life™ programme’ (see abstract below). I wanted to present the unique work of the MST4Life™ programme, highlighting the impact of applying sport psychology to the lives of some of the hardest to reach people in society. People seemed very interested in the PYD and community-based principles of the research. There was little research from this area at the conference, and it was evident that our research was a strong example of how sport psychology can be applied in community settings.

Take away messages and considerations

What is sport psychology…?

This conference was evidence of how many different research interests can fall under the umbrella of sport psychology. On one hand, this poses a great advantage of bringing together so many different views and perspectives, which makes conferences like NASPSPA a rich resource for learning and developing as researcher. On the other, it can muddy the water when we consider what sport psychology actually is. Perhaps the origin of fusing psychology with sport performance and well-being in athletes is a good starting point. Whilst a large majority of the research at the conference reflected this identity of sport psychology, there were also presentations on utilising sport psychology to address issues around mental health in student athletes, improve our understanding of neuro-developmental changes in infants, and how to motor control can impact health in older adults.

The main message I got from the conference was how this area of research can positively impact the lives of athletes and the average person alike. (But good luck explaining the whole breadth of sport psychology to your friends!)

Embrace going to a conference on your own

One of the things I enjoyed most about this conference was going alone. Admittedly, having already been to a few conferences and being in the latter stages of my PhD helped me feel confident and comfortable in this setting. However, I’d recommend that all students attend at least one conference on their own. And, in doing so, my advice would be:

  1. It’s important to approach to the conference with an attitude of being open to engaging with likeminded professionals. The NASPSPA conference made this easy by creating a supportive atmosphere for those in attendance.

  2. Get involved with the informal opportunities set up to help people meet others. Again, NASPSPA offered a few structured opportunities for this; for example, they arranged a social on the Friday night, and wine and cheese round the hotel pool!

  3. Finally, and possibly most importantly, put the phone down! When we’re nervous it’s easy to pick up the safety blanket of our mobile phone. But during refreshment breaks and lunch, try to leave it in your pocket and get chatting to those around you instead. (Top tip: If you’re not sure what to say, take some mints! People hate having coffee breath and often don’t want to chew gum, so offering a mint is a good ice breaker.)

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it…

During the conference I attended two keynote speeches. Both speakers knew their research topics very well and had conducted some fantastic research. Yet one delivered a significantly more engaging presentation. What I narrowed down as some of the key characteristics of this speaker was their ability to be informative but informal, and passionate without being overbearing. As a result, the speaker had her audience (well, certainly me) captivated by her research.

It was clear to me before but these examples underscored the importance of harnessing effective communication and presentation skills when disseminating your research through this kind of platform.

Closing thoughts

For my first international conference, NASPSPA set the bar high. There was a supportive atmosphere from all the attendees and a high standard of research presented. I was satisfied with the presentation of my work, and having the opportunity to discuss it with fellow professionals gave me lots of new ideas and perspectives.

The next stop for NASPSPA is Vancouver, 2020 – check it out here:

Appendix: Abstracts

Poster 1: Health Outcomes of Physical Activity-based Positive Youth Development for Disadvantaged Young People: A Systematic Review

Background: As young people transition from childhood to adulthood, rapid rates of physical and mental maturation can leave them vulnerable to poor health. Disadvantageous social determinants exacerbate these health disparities, with consequences extending into later life. Physical activity-based positive youth development (PYD) interventions promote life skills and well-being; however, their effectiveness in addressing health inequalities among disadvantaged young people is not well known. The current systematic review addressed this gap and contributes towards developing evidence-based guidelines for programme implementation.

Methods: The review process followed PRISMA guidelines. Inclusion criteria were: participants aged between 10-24 years; definition of disadvantaging circumstances; a physical activity intervention adopting a PYD approach; and quantitative measurement of physical, social, or mental health outcomes. Eight databases were searched resulting in 17 papers meeting the inclusion criteria. Quality of papers was assessed using Joanna Briggs Institute critical appraisal tools. Outcomes were categorised using the Transdomain Model of Health.

Results: A narrative synthesis was conducted due to the heterogeneity of outcomes and measurement tools precluding a meta-analysis. Results indicated the short-term effectiveness of interventions for improving indicators of mental health, social skills and physical competencies. Follow-up measures were rare, but this limited long-term evidence suggested potential for these programmes to sustain health benefits.

Conclusions: Physical activity-based PYD programmes can elicit a range of short-term health outcomes for disadvantaged young people, and may therefore be an effective method for addressing the multifaceted health inequalities facing this population. Further high-quality research is required to explore the effectiveness of these programme across a broader range of disadvantaged young people and the sustained impact over time.

Poster 2: Sport psychology in the community: A realist evaluation of the My Strengths Training™ for Life programme

Background: My Strengths Training for Life (MST4Life™) is a community-based programme working in collaboration with a housing service. The programme meets call to apply sport psychology to advance social change. As such, MST4Life™ is a complex social programme, informed by theory and structured to meet the diverse and complex needs of homeless young adults. The presented study adopted a realist evaluation framework to more clearly identify contexts, mechanisms and outcomes; with the aim of understanding why and how the programme works.

Methods: The sample consisted of programme participants (n=23; Mage=20.2), their support workers (n=6), and the outdoor instructors (n=5) who helped to deliver the programme. Each participant received 10-weekly sessions followed by a 4-day/3-night residential trip to an Outdoor Education Centre. Contextual factors, mechanisms and outcomes (CMO) were captured through various qualitative methods (informal interviews, focus groups and diary rooms) during and 3 months following the programme. Data were thematically analysed first into separate CMO themes, and second, into CMO configurations constructed from individuals’ narratives.

Results: Key contextual conditions identified were structure, empowering, group-based and novel (e.g., the outdoors). Programme activities that met these conditions was likely to facilitate feelings of intrinsic motivation and enjoyment, provide opportunities for structured reflections, group bonding and transfer of skills, and strengthen facilitator-participant relationships. Outcomes included social well-being, commitment and mental health benefits.

Conclusions: The middle range theories proposed in this study can support the continued

development of the MST4Life™ programme. More broadly, the results highlight possible contexts and mechanisms that facilitate the application of sport psychology to elicit positive changes in populations with complex and co-occurring problems. Findings from the evaluation may inform future community-based interventions which aim to address to health inequalities.

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