Athletics & Recreation / Current Issue / Magazine Feature

DU sports psychologist keeps athletes motivated

It’s common for college athletic programs to provide the best coaches, trainers, nutritionists and health science experts to their student-athletes.

Now, DU student-athletes also have access to a full-time sport and performance psychologist. DU is one of about 12 programs in the country to offer the service to its students.

Steve Portenga is the director of sport psychology for DU’s Division of Athletics and Recreation and an adjunct professor of sport and performance psychology in the University’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology (GSPP).

Peg Bradley-Doppes, vice chancellor for athletics and recreation, says it’s just part of the personal care DU offers all its students.

“We have a student-centered management philosophy,” Bradley-Doppes says. “Our vision is to actively create, promote and sustain an environment in which each participant is challenged and supported in pursuit of personal growth in the areas of sports, wellness and recreational activities.”

Portenga has been at DU for several years developing the GSPP sport and performance psychology program. He became a full-time staff member in athletics in summer 2009.

He says sport psychologists work with athletes to help them understand how to translate what they do in practice to competition. “We work to have a quality practice where the student-athletes become consistent,” Portenga says. “That way during competition their bodies know how to perform.”

Portenga has been working with athletes for years. He helped the U.S. track and field team in Berlin as it trained for the 2012 Olympics.

During a recent practice with DU’s Nordic ski team, Portenga emphasized why student-athletes should prepare deliberately.

“You have to commit to the course, focus on the future, have a target and keep your eyes on it,” he told the team. Portenga gave students a handout on which they could evaluate their preparedness.

Hennie Kashiwa, assistant Nordic skiing coach at DU, and head coach David Stewart have Portenga working on relaxation and visualization techniques with the team.

Kashiwa says many of his student-athletes are familiar with sport psychology techniques because they compete on national and international levels. However, Kashiwa says, it is important DU offers this service to its student-athletes as well.

“Elite-level programs around the world are beginning to understand the significance of sports psychology, and I think that it is great that we are a part of that high-level, forward-thinking group,” Kashiwa says.

Portenga also works with the coaches to incorporate mental conditioning into their practices.

“We have met a few times one-on-one to go over mental training concepts,” Kashiwa says. “I feel like these meetings have given me some good new coaching tools for both competition and training.”

Portenga is passionate about helping athletes. When he first moved to Colorado, he planned to attend law school and took up coaching temporarily. He loved coaching so much, he changed his life’s path. He says his goal is to help student-athletes achieve their dreams.

“The biggest reward is seeing the giant smile on someone’s face when they’re able to do something in competition that they’ve had to work hard to achieve,” he says.

Watch a video interview with Steve Portenga here.


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