Q&A with Rob McCaffey – A New Kind of Kinesiology Graduate Student
Sports psychology trailblazer Rob McCaffey (left) stepped out of the comfort zone of his Canadian homeland to join the first cohort of the Department’s new non-thesis master’s degree track.
The Department created the program in response to an increasing demand for a graduate education for students who want to become allied health professionals instead of researchers.
“We created this program to meet needs of students – that there’s lots of things you can do in the field that don’t involve research but that do require graduate training,” said Associate Professor Gary Diffee, who heads up the non-thesis program.
McCaffey’s focus on overcoming mental barriers to athletic performance and helping professional athletes deal with stress and depression fits in well with the purpose of the program, Diffee said.
“The thing is, there’s not really a good model of how to do sports psychology – psychologists may have specialty clients who are high level athletes, but there isn’t really a niche for true sports psychologists (with kinesiology expertise) so Rob is basically creating his own niche,” he said.
Soon after starting at UW, McCaffey began working with the Milwaukee Admirals minor league hockey team to develop a mental training workbook. He has also met with the UW women’s soccer coach and will work with the team this fall on mental barriers for athletes, particularly while recovering from injury.
Word of McCaffey’s work “got out” and a representative from the Kansas City Chiefs asked him to work with their rookie athletes at training camp to develop resources and a workbook for mental training, Diffee said.
“Because of his own initiative, (McCaffey) has really created some great opportunities for himself to get practical experience doing the kind of stuff he wants to do,” Diffee said. “He is exactly what we had in mind – he’s taking the course work that we’re doing and running with it.”
What was your career goal after finishing college? What inspired you to continue for graduate school?
“I initially entered university thinking that I wanted to be an athletic therapist. However, while playing varsity soccer as a freshman, I was introduced to the concept of mental training through an assistant coach. This had such an immediate impact on me that I switched my career path from physical therapy to mental practice. I enrolled in a bunch of psychology classes, eager to better understand the role that psychology has on athletic performance. After much reading and researching into the relatively new field, I found out that most who are practicing sport psychology have PhD's in either clinical or counseling psychology. However unlike most majors, the area of sport psychology has not had an established pathway created. Some practice as mental consultants, while others apply concepts of psychology to the athletic field. What I did know was that in order to get to where I wanted to be, I had to pursue some form of graduate school.”
What did you hope to accomplish with the non-thesis degree program in Kinesiology?
“I was first interested in the non-thesis program at UW because of the ability to apply my own interests and seek out opportunities that would be of value to my future direction. Having been accepted to other, more traditional thesis programs, I finally made the decision to attend UW because of the flexibility the program afforded me. Being that my future career is relatively new and the pathway is still being developed, I wanted to afford myself the ability to learn from multiple disciplines in order to adequately prepare for the challenges ahead. Coming from a psychology background, being afforded the opportunity to learn about other kinesiology topics like epidemiology, physiology and neurobiology (among others) would better prepare me.”
How has the program affected your life and career plans?
“The master's program at UW-Madison has changed me in a variety of ways. First and foremost, being involved in a major American university has been an eye opener to a student who came from a relatively small Canadian undergrad program. Everything in the USA is on a larger scale. The education system, style of teaching, and approach of the students is dramatically different than back home. As for my future career, coming to UW enabled me some opportunities I probably wouldn't have been afforded elsewhere… (being) able to learn from some of the leading faculty members in the field. Apart from that, the opportunity to seek out applied practicum experiences with professional, amateur and varsity teams was a major draw. This experience not only provided me with the opportunity to network with leaders in the field, but to also really see into my future and to apply the knowledge.
Moving to a new country, far from your friends and family, is a further challenge I have had to overcome. While American culture is very similar to my own, the distance alone becomes a major challenge. Not being able to go home for a weekend to see family was a major change. Missing traditional celebrations like Thanksgiving, birthdays and special occasions also takes a toll mentally and challenges your willingness to chase your dreams. I was personally challenged within the first week of moving to Madison, before the program even started, with the death of my stepmother. I was faced with the tough decision of packing up and moving back to support family or stick it out and carry on with my dreams. For me, with the help of a very supportive family, I was able to overcome a lot of challenges to stay focused on my end goals. Having a great support cast is key.”
What excites you most about the experiences gained because of the program?
“The challenges alone excite me to keep on going. My mother once told me that the good things that are worthwhile in life are discovered at the end of a long hard journey. I like to think of myself as an extremely driven person. Once I set my sight on a goal, I put all my efforts into achieving it. Looking back on the past year, I am proud of the distance I have traveled but I know that there is still a long road ahead. Hard work does pay off and if there is something you really want in life, and you set your aim on it, nothing can stop you. I am excited for the opportunities that exist at the end of the journey. Being able to see what others who are already in the field are doing provided me with additional motivation and drive to keep on charging ahead.
One thing that has surprised me is the opportunities that have already presented themselves to me. An NFL team approached me about doing a pilot project with their rookie class during fall camp in relation to stress and anxiety management, and coping strategies. Furthermore, I have had the privilege of working with professional hockey players. I was able to create a mental skills handbook that hopefully will bridge some of the gap between the academic setting and the applied field. This summer, I was also able to come back to Canada and work with athletes who were preparing for the Olympic games in London.”
What's next for you?
“I am researching PhD programs right now. This fall I will be applying to begin the next stage in my journey. Being an applied sport psychologist is not an easy, direct route. Some professionals in the field are psychologists who specialize in sport performance while others receive a PhD in kinesiology and focus on concepts such as arousal, anxiety, emotion regulation and team dynamics. For me, the challenge is to find a program that can best prepare me and provide me with the necessary tools for my future career. The draw to be back home in Canada is great, however, the USA still provides more opportunities in the field. With the large emphasis on sport and performance here in the USA, there is a large demand for mental trainers/sport psychologists.”