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The Psychology Behind Athletic Performance

Corrina Nickerson
Corrina Nickerson

When Corrina Nickerson first arrived at Keene State College she referred to herself as “a small fish in a big pond” intimidated by her swim teammates and the impressive times they were posting in their respective events. While the breast stroke specialists from Torrington, CT, always had the drive and the athletic ability to be a top performer in the pool, by her own admission she lacked the mental toughness to compete at a higher level.

Four years later, Nickerson, a psychology major, has not only overcome psychological barriers in the pool to become one of the top swimmers in the Little East Conference, but through her course work at Keene State has taken the first lap in helping other athletes overcome their performances anxiety as a sports psychologist.

“What I remember the most is how mentality strong I got through the years,” Nickerson, who often went up against larger and stronger competitors. “I learned how to be mentally strong and rely on my coaches and teammates.”

One of those coaches and teammates was Diana Pimer, who as a fellow breast stroke swimmer, was able to accurately gage the mental makeup of Nickerson and offer insight and advise. “I knew what would happen in her brain before it happened, said Pimer, a 2015 Keene State grad. “She trusted my opinion.”

A course, Psychology and Social Aspect of Sport, taught by Dr. Fitni Destani, an associate professor in the physical education department, was also beneficial. “In the course we deal with anxiety issues,” said Destani. “Corrina absorbed the material and framed it for herself.”

Overcoming her swimming solicitude and gaining confidence, Nickerson had a supper senior season, winning the 200 breast stroke race at the Little East Championship for the fourth year in a row and setting personal best times in the 100 and 200 breast stroke events at the MIT Invitational.

Outside the pool, Nickerson has been busy in the classroom preparing for her career. Dispelling the naysayers who told her to switch majors, Nickerson credits Dr. Fitni Destani, an associate professor in the physical education department and her advisor Dr. Susan Menees, a professor in psychology, for their encouragement and helping her chart a course in the growing field.

Like a swimmer looking to post a strong performance, Nickerson dived right in, doing a year-long study during the spring semester that would not only be a valuable learning experience, but appeal to graduate schools, who encourage students to bring more to the table.

Going into the honor program for psychology, Nickerson devised a research project focusing on the imagery Keene State athletes visualize for motivation while playing their sport. According to Nickerson, the imagery takes two forms: those who picture coaches, parents, or star players for positive reinforcement or self-imagery, athletes who are more internally and intrinsically motivated – seeing themselves performing and succeeding in athletic competition.

While her survey data produced mix results, Nickerson, who will spend the summer working as a swim camp counselor at the Harvard Pool, quickly narrowed the field when it came to graduate school, deciding to attend Springfield College where she will begin work on her master’s degree in athletic counseling. “I want to help athletes preform at their highest level,” she said.

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