• Brynn Nash

A Deeper Dive into Mental Performance & Body Image

Updated: Mar 25

UNB WIS is excited to highlight our second Friday Female Feature, Michelle Denley (She/Her/Hers). Michelle is currently working towards completing her Masters of Science in Kinesiology at the University of New Brunswick. Michelle came to UNB in the fall of 2019 after completing a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology from the University of Illinois, where she was also a member of the university's women's soccer program. Sport has been a motivating and influential part of Michelle's life since she was a young girl. Her earliest memory of sport is playing Timbits soccer. Though she was shy and quiet, that did not stop her from participating and excelling in sport. Michelle was a multi-sport athlete for most of her childhood to youth but was able to find the most success and enjoyment between the goalposts as a soccer goalkeeper. After being introduced to opportunities and experiences at the high-performance level in soccer, Michelle decided to pursue her student-athletic career slightly south of the Canadian border. Michelle's introduction to Kinesiology at the high school level influenced her to learn more about the field during her undergraduate degree. However, her university sport experience opened her to an area of kinesiology that would later lead her to her post-graduate career aspirations: sport psychology and mental performance coaching.

As a member of the women's soccer team at her university, Michelle was able to work with a sport psychologist who helped her realize that sport is more than just your physical abilities. You can be physically fit and technically strong in your sport and still not see success. Often, this lack of success on the field can be related to athletes struggling with their mental performance. Michelle became intrigued by sport psychology, specifically the connection between negative body image and female athletes. Over her athletic career, Michelle has shared experiences with body image and mental performance. Body image was often a conversational topic between her teammates in the locker room, coaches and other female athletes. Michelle believes individuals outside of sport often have a hard time understanding why an athlete may have a negative body image. The belief often is that athletes are typically incredibly fit and, therefore, they shouldn't be self-conscious. But what people forget to consider is the pressure athletes are constantly under to perform their best, feel their best, be in the best shape and that if you aren't the best shape, then someone else will be. Michelle argues that the constant comparison within the sports culture can be detrimental to an athlete's mental health. Then, Michelle notes that society has standards on body image. Through the majority of Michelle's athletic career, she explains that often her and her teammate's bodies struggled to fit society's description of beauty even though their bodies were allowing them to perform at their best in their sport. She explains that it was a constant battle of want versus need and Michelle knew she wasn't alone with those feelings. She listened to athletes of all ages and sports negatively discuss their body image, both inside and outside of sport, and wanted to learn more about how to validate athletes' thoughts and hopefully address a potential issue that has been allowed to continue for far too long.

Michelle found that UNB and her supervisor Dr. David Scott gave her the best opportunity and platform to help advance her research in kinesiology and sport psychology. Michelle's master's research focuses on how female varsity athletes perceive their body image and self-esteem when referencing their sport environment compared to how they may perceive their body image and self-esteem when referencing their everyday nonathletic environment. Michelle's objective of her thesis is to highlight the ongoing body image issues within women in sport and the negative effects it can have on self-esteem. She mentions that society forces female athletes to try and meet their description of the ideal body and, in addition, those athletes are also to meet their sports ideal body. Not meeting both or one of these ideals potentially can lead to negative self-esteem, hindering an athlete's ability to perform at their best.

While completing her master's, Michelle has also had the opportunity to work as a mental performance coach for the UNB Reds women's soccer and volleyball teams. Sports psychology and mental-performance coaching have a long history of being male-dominated. However, Michelle believes that the environment at UNB is giving her the support and knowledge she needs to tackle and excel at this profession. Michelle regards her work with Reds to be very rewarding and it has made such a positive impact on her journey as a mental performance coach thus far. She has been able to find the comfortability, style, and techniques she excels at and has begun to see her positive influence in her athletes. Many of the Reds female soccer and volleyball players have nothing but positive words to say about Michelle. They strongly express that her expertise and coaching have positively influenced their mental performance on and off their field of play.

Michelle is challenging and redefining the stereotypical norms, conversations and issues women face in sport. Her research about female athletes and body image is a very relevant topic for most women in sport. Her influence as a female mental performance coach is an example of what women can do in kinesiology and yet another example of the many women working, innovating, and enhancing the field of sport for those who participate in it. Her contributions to the UNB Kinesiology Department and the UNB Reds are much appreciated. We thank her for taking the time to share her experiences as our November Friday Female Feature.

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“There’s no substitute for hard work. If you work hard and prepare yourself, you might get beat, but you’ll never lose.” – Nancy Lieberman

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