Tess Armstrong – Reflections on being a Community Researcher

Tess is a first year Recreation and Leisure master’s student and a varsity rugby player. Having graduated from Concordia University last year, she is continuing both her academic and athletic endeavors at Brock University. Read to learn about Tess’s experience conducting community-based research this past summer

Introduction

Upon starting graduate studies within the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at Brock University, I was presented with the opportunity to work with a not-for-profit organization dedicated to protecting and promoting the mental health of Canada’s post-secondary student-athletes.  As a student-athlete and a novice researcher, contributing to the partnership between the Brock Centre for Sport Capacity, Community Researchers, and the Student Athlete Mental Health Initiative (SAMHI) was a fantastic learning experience. The project examined the experience of mental health professionals working with varsity athletes with the goal of understanding the facilitators and barriers to implementing this role, as well as the outcomes – specifically looking at how student athletes have benefitted from this support. Within this blog, I reflect on the lessons learned and challenges encountered throughout this project. Admittedly, most of the learning came out of the challenges. Constantly reflecting and taking action to overcome these challenges, resulted in some personal, professional, and academic skill-development which I detail below.

Reflexivity in Practice

First and foremost, my positionality as both a student-athlete and novice researcher were important to acknowledge throughout the research process. Such a position helped me to develop a connection to the community organization, SAMHI , informed the interview guide I created, assisted in guiding the conversations, and connecting with and establishing context for the mental health professionals.

Having spent a significant amount of time within varsity spheres at two post-secondary institutions over the past 5 years, I can relate to the context of the research and understand its significance. More specifically, I have seen athletes undergo mental health crises and suffer due to a lack of support in place. While my prior knowledge and personal experience shaped the beginning stages of the project, I had to take a step back during the data analysis and acknowledge any preconceived ideas about what the results should look like. Though my own subjectivity is likely impossible to erase from this project, I practiced reflexivity by actively listening to the voices of the professionals, by utilizing some conventional research strategies. While developing the methodology for this project, I advocated for the recording and transcribing of interviews as it provided the opportunity to stay close to the data, return to the source of the information whenever necessary, iteratively analyze the data, and showcase the participants’ direct insights and lived experiences through emerging themes and quotations. Maintaining my identity as the researcher and refraining from making assumptions based on my own personal experiences was challenging, but necessary. Taking the time to practice reflexivity and acknowledge my positionality will help me in future research I conduct.

Redefining Success

When considering varsity athletics, wins and losses are the predominant measures to define success. While putting such emphasis on these performance-based measures, academic institutions can sometimes neglect the less measurable implications of competitive sport participation, such as student-athlete mental health. Further, student athletes wear many hats, including being a role model and a representative of their school, community, and sport. Such expectations can result in an insurmountable level of pressure, having significant consequences on their wellbeing (USports, 2020). To best support athletes, we must expand the scope of success, including being able to provide a positive experience for student-athletes, helping student-athletes to graduate with transferable life skills, and building their capacity to cope with stress.

Optimizing this redefined version of success in varsity spaces requires a commitment to listen to all stakeholders; athletes themselves, and those that work with athletes. This project sought out the voices of mental health professionals to help determine the barriers and facilitators to their work. The expertise of these professionals helped to provide insight into the daily lives of varsity athletes, the struggles they encounter, and how to best support them. Interviews aided in developing recommendations for mental health support in varsity spheres – finding the balance between what is ideal and what is realistic.

What the position entails varies across Canadian post-secondary institutions, their responsibilities possibly including but not limited to the following: 1-on-1 counselling services, mental performance coaching, facilitating workshops, conducting research, etc. This role is limited to being occupied by one individual who coordinates a multitude of services.

Success might look like these services being available in every college and university across Canada.

Maintaining Momentum

Conducting a research project remotely was challenging. The COVID-19 pandemic has required people to be flexible with their work schedules, and to commit to an online presence to stay connected. As someone who enjoys face-to-face interaction and is most engaged with what is right in front of them, losing momentum was a significant challenge throughout this project; almost stopping in front of the hurdles as opposed to jumping over them. Consequently, internet problems, email delays, missed messages, and all other issues that arose virtually had a greater impact on the efficiency of work. Sometimes, email communications that I did not immediately address became forgotten, and the entire process slowed down. Awaiting responses from stakeholders was immobilizing. Thus, staying motivated and invested became more and more challenging. Reflecting on what I could have done differently to maintain momentum throughout the project; I would have made a more conscious effort to maintain constant communication (even if just a weekly check-in) – setting the standard for myself and stakeholders from the get-go.

In losing momentum, it became easy to get caught up in comparing myself to my peers in the placement, who were collecting hundreds of survey responses. Interviewing less than five participants sometimes felt inadequate. The time constraint for participant recruitment was something I struggled with – having a short window, two to four weeks, to find, reach out, and interview participants. Those who were working in academic spaces were often away from their desks this summer, taking time off – meaning it was hard to get in touch with the ideal participant. In future projects, I would take a more fluid approach, by not waiting to collect all the data, and conduct all the interviews, to begin the process of analysis.

Additionally, the loss of momentum carried over into when I analyzed the data. Transcribing and analyzing the interview recordings felt daunting. I became wrapped up in trying to find the answers right away, trying to make sense of the data by identifying one truth or reality. Completing the project required a shift in my mindset, an acknowledgement the process is as significant as the outcome, and that there are no “right answers” in qualitative research.  There is value in listening to the voices of those with lived experience. Being able to understand, communicate, and mobilize the knowledge being gained through in-depth interviews can only be achieved patiently, one step at a time. 

Filling the Toolbox 

Through engaging in this project, I acquired a wide variety of tools that will impact how I conduct my research in the future and how I manage projects. Below are some of these skills I developed and/or improved during the project.

  • Building confidence in conducting interviews
    • Creating space for the participants to speak freely
    • Learning how to guide the conversation and be adaptable
    • Navigating imposter syndrome and self-doubt (who am I to be talking to these professionals? What if I am messing this up?)
  • Expanding my online abilities 
    • Becoming comfortable with different video call platforms
    • Using different virtual resources to facilitate transcription
    • Getting creative in the process of data analysis (using Google Forms to sort and categorize raw data)
  • Representing knowledge visually
    • Exploring Canva
    • Practicing using graphics and images effectively
    • Presenting findings on PDF slides

With each opportunity and experience, I can add to my “toolbox”. Moving forward, these skills will be useful in my academic life. Diversifying my online abilities and improving my ability to express project findings visually and virtually is important moving into this post-pandemic world, where hybrid teaching and learning is the new normal. Having gained confidence in conducting interviews will be key when approaching future qualitative research projects.

Conclusion

While at times hard, what motivated me throughout the research project was the notion that lived-experience and professional expertise can be used to directly influence action within community-based organizations. The collaboration between SAMHI, Community Researchers the Brock Centre for Sport Capacity will hopefully help build a case for the role of a varsity mental health coordinator and continue to advocate for more effective mental health services for student athletes, by mobilizing the knowledge gained through the project.

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