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SEP graduate receives NCAA grant to support student-athlete mental wellness

Leigh Skvarla (formerly Bryant), has blended her passion for research and performer wellness, leading her to receive an NCAA grant. Skvarla, along with Mary Jo Loughran, submitted the topic, “The development of a web-based program to assist coaches as they support the mental health needs of student-athletes,” which has been funded by the NCAA.

Skvarla, SEP 2017 PhD graduate, is an adjunct professor at Chatham University, Pittsburgh, PA. Additionally, she serves as a mental skills trainer and peak performance consultant at KPEX Consulting in Pittsburgh.

Born and raised in Chester County, PA, Skvarla says she chose WVU CPASS, and specifically the SEP program, above all, because of the faculty and alumni.

Skvarla explains: It is hard to find another program anywhere in the U.S. with that level of expertise and emphasis on student-centered learning. I also chose WVU SEP because of its reputation within field. WVU was highly respected by members of AASP and APA Division 47, and I knew I wanted to be a part of that kind of ‘family.’

Not every sport and exercise psychology program trains you to develop competence in applied settings as well as mental health services. The SEP program is unique in its partnership with the Masters in Counseling program. The master’s degree has allowed me to work with some clients and teach some classes that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to say ‘yes’ to.

Currently, I’m pursuing licensure as a professional counselor in Pennsylvania so that I can work with a broader range of athletes and performers who are presenting with mental health issues in addition to performance concerns. Finally, the program fit my personal needs in terms of affordability and geography. I didn’t want to come out of a PhD program with significant financial debt, and with graduate assistantships, that never became my reality. And I wanted to be somewhat close to my family in Pennsylvania.

Skvarla describes what led her to the SEP major: I’m someone who enjoys interacting with people and being physically active. Growing up, I knew that I wanted to help others and perhaps find ways to incorporate sports or movement (e.g., teacher, dance therapist, psychologist, coach). Throughout high school, I began collecting newspaper clippings and web articles about athletes and performing artists who were overcoming obstacles such as anxiety and injury.

The collection became a sort of vision board and it accompanied me to Bucknell University, where I majored in psychology and minored in dance and philosophy. Having a background in psychology gave me the foundational knowledge to then go straight into a PhD program in sport and exercise psychology.

Skvarla talks about the focus of her research, related to the grant: My individual research projects have collectively focused on student-athlete and performer wellness. I’m still early in my career and so the scope is somewhat broad. This theme of supporting healthy development has carried over into our grant-funded project, which is a collaborative effort between my department chair, Dr. Mary Jo Loughran, three Chatham students, Eden Bloom, Meredith Deal and Amanda Halula, and me.

The research team met several times last fall to brainstorm as they fit with the NCAA grant’s mission. One thing that we noticed is that several former grant recipients focused on directly serving student-athletes, while few had looked at indirect ways to positively impact athletes. Therefore, we shifted our focus to coaches, who have a strong influence on athlete/team culture, and potentially, the power to help destigmatize mental health issues.

In our study, coaches will complete six web-based modules focused on (1) rapport building, (2) help-seeking behaviors, and (3) the referral process, so that they can better assist student-athletes who need additional support. As part of the grant, we are also asked to present our findings at the NCAA Convention in Orlando next year.

At the early stages of the process, Skvarla reached out to Dr. Dana Voelker, SEP assistant professor. Voelker had previously been awarded the grant for her work with the Bodies in Motion program. Skvarla’s research team then worked with Chatham officials and the university’s grants office to finalize the proposal. Ultimately, the NCAA contacted Skvarla to announce that the project would be funded.

Skvarla talks about her WVU mentors: My academic advisor was Dr. Damien Clement. From week one, he encouraged me to communicate with him and the other faculty members, while at the same time building a sense of autonomy. I appreciate that now, since projects like these require equal parts confidence and entrepreneurship, and an understanding of process and permissions.

Additionally, Clement offered support to research what was interesting to me. That freedom to explore my passions was really motivating. What’s special about the WVU SEP program is that, while you have a primary advisor with whom you meet periodically about personal and professional development, you’re encouraged to collaborate with all faculty members.

For instance, I often went to Dr. Jack Watson when I had a question about a teaching method, and to Dr. Etzel when I had an ethics or consulting-related question. I learned how to condense a lot of information into few words, which was necessary with this kind of grant proposal, from Dr. Sam Zizzi’s and Dr. Peter Giacobbi’s classes.

Skvarla’s advice for students with a passion for research is two-fold: I believe that you can learn from research by conducting it and reading it. Join a graduate student who is working on their dissertation, or ask a faculty member if you can get involved in their projects. Whatever it is, learn the process of taking an idea from the brainstorming table to a conference proceeding.  I’ve come to appreciate the work that goes into seeing a project from outline to publication.

Reading research has also given me confidence in my abilities. Starting as a first-year student at WVU, we are asked to read several foundational articles and that put me on the path of approaching research with curiosity rather than intimidation. And for those who are interested in research but don’t want to leave applied practice, there is room at the table for case studies and pilot programs.
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