Athletes and Mental Health: Professor's Passion for Change

Posted on March 23, 2022 by Amber Day
Amber Day

Dr. Caitlyn Hauff standing on track outside on campus. data-lightbox='featured'
Dr. Caitlyn Hauff, an assistant professor of health promotion in the College of Education and Professional Studies, is passionate about mental health issues and athletes. Personally, she has been involved in sports since she was a toddler. Her current research at South centers on health promotion, mainly through the use of behavior change theory and psychological skills training.

Dr. Caitlyn Hauff was featured in Episode Five of the College of Education and Professional Studies "Sincerely, South" podcast titled "Exercise is Medicine, Addressing Mental Health Issues and Athletes with Dr. Caitlyn Hauff." To listen to the episode, click here. 

The College of Education and Professional Studies emphasizes the cross-disciplinary foundations of health, kinesiology, and sport while providing both theoretical and practical knowledge related to the biological, physical, socio-cultural, philosophical, and psychological factors underlying health and all forms of physical activity and sport. 

Dr. Caitlyn Hauff, assistant professor of health promotion in the Department of Health, Kinesiology and Sport, is passionate about mental health issues and athletes. Personally, she has been involved in sports since she was a toddler. Her dad was a collegiate tennis player, and Hauff was a multi-sport athlete growing up, participating in tennis, basketball, volleyball and softball most of her life. Much of her attention now is directed on running. 

It was in college that Hauff realized the importance of the mental side of sports. Her demeanor and behavior were completely different on and off the tennis court.

“On the court, I was the person throwing my racquet and screaming,” Hauff said. “While off the court, I was completely ‘normal,’ as my friends would like to say. By the time my senior year rolled around, I knew that studying sport psychology was something I wanted to make a career out of, mainly because I was really invested in my own behaviors and how significantly my mental health and mentality affected my physical performance.”

Hauff earned a master’s in sport psychology, and her Ph.D. research focused on body image in sport and exercise. 

“I identified myself as an athlete for the greater part of my life, and now I identify myself as someone who helps athletes. My experiences very much go hand in hand, but my engagement in sports has definitely taken on different forms.”

Hauff’s research at South centers on health promotion, mainly through the use of behavior change theory and psychological skills training. 

She is involved in several projects with the College of Nursing, School of Computer Science, and professors in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program. Their research team received a $22,794 internal grant from the University to examine stress, physical activity, nutrition and numerous other psychosocial variables in nursing students. 

“Over the last several years, we have been collecting data on nursing student mental and physical health in the hopes of bettering their overall health and well-being,” Hauff said. “The main initiative for this team is to secure funding to develop and implement a mental health program for our nursing students that focuses on building hope and resilience, and avoiding academic and clinical burnout. We hope to eventually build this program into the nursing school curriculum so that nursing students can build these skills throughout their tenure at South and take these skills with them into the workforce.” 

A separate focus of Hauff’s and College of Nursing faculty involves producing resources and evaluating the effectiveness of those resources for raising awareness about weight bias in healthcare settings and decreasing weight stigma in healthcare providers. 

She also works closely with fellow professors in the Department of Health, Kinesiology, and Sport. Hauff has spent time working on an interdisciplinary project with Drs. Brooke Forester, Shelley Holden and Mitchell Woltring that examines how to enhance the student-athlete experience. The group received a $3,536 internal grant from the College of Education and Professional Studies and will look to revamp the current “Life Skills'' course created for incoming student-athletes.

“This project has been extremely interesting, mainly because we have obtained several unexpected findings,” Hauff said. “Specifically, we have learned of the significant challenges our international student-athletes face, and many of those challenges are not being addressed. Through a partnership with the Department of Athletics and further external funding, we hope to create a more holistic Life Skills program that will focus on transitioning to campus, how to succeed as a student-athlete, and how to prepare for life after college athletics. This revamp of the program would also include a specific focus on the needs of our international student-athletes, potentially developing a handbook about transitioning to campus.”

Future projects include working with members from the Department of Psychology to create a mental health center for student-athletes at South. 

“This would be a large collaboration between Psychology, Clinical Mental Health Counseling, our department, and Athletics,” Hauff said. “The center would focus on performance enhancement from both a physical and mental perspective. We currently do not have specific mental health services for our student-athletes and many of them are referred to the main University counseling department or elsewhere. The hope with this program is to provide a main hub for student-athletes where they can go for all different types of performance enhancement services, including mental health counseling, sport psychology consultations, VO2 max testing, DEXA screening and nutritional information. Right now, this program is in the proposal stage, but we hope to receive positive feedback with the potential to implement the program next year.”

Externally, Hauff is collaborating with colleagues from California State University, Monterey Bay and Appalachian State University on a study that aims to assess the knowledge students in kinesiology and exercise science programs have regarding working with diverse specialized populations, such as persons with obesity, older adults, or those with physical or cognitive limitations, in physical activity settings. 

“We have noticed that many kinesiology and exercise science program curriculums do not explicitly help future providers gain the cultural and social competencies necessary to work with specialized populations,” Hauff said. "Ideally, this study will shed light on some of the gaps that currently exist in our program curriculum and generate a conversation surrounding changes that could be made to enhance our students’ knowledge in these areas.”

The team has received an internal grant from California State University, Monterey Bay to complete this research, and the plan is to apply for external funding to complete the second stage of the project, which will involve creating materials for kinesiology and exercise science programs to use in their curriculums moving forward. 

“Creating inclusive physical activities spaces is important for physical and mental health, and providers should be aware of how to talk, treat and assist individuals of varying abilities, body sizes, ages, etc., so that everyone feels welcome and included,” Hauff said.

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