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Published: 29 Mar, 2021

Understanding human nature through sports

PROFILE Paul Davis, professor in sports psychology at Umeå University, wants to learn more about how emotions, stress, and relationships affect our performance in sports, and in life.

Text: Elin Andersson

We need to understand what works best for the individual under dynamic conditions that impact upon the performer’s thoughts, emotions, physiology, and behaviour.

Growing up in Winnipeg, Canada, Paul Davis dreamt of becoming a star athlete. He had all the optimal requisites to succeed: excellent facilities and equipment, as well as being coached by the National team coach that also coached the world champion at that time.

– Despite optimal training conditions I didn’t ‘make it’ as an elite athlete at the senior level after a fairly successful career as a junior. Admittedly, I was a bit of an ‘angry athlete’ that was known to break racquets. So maybe, like the cliché, I went into psychology to work out my own issues. At the university I became very interested in how individuals respond differently to training. More specifically, ideally, we want to find the magic ingredient that works for everyone to maximize performance and health; as such, we develop evidence based strategies that can be applied most widely. However, peak performance is inherently out of the ordinary, but it is trainable. In order to increase the frequency and duration of peak performance we need to understand what works best for the individual under dynamic conditions that impact upon the performer’s thoughts, emotions, physiology, and behaviour. The integrated systems associated with psychophysiology are fascinating, the complexity of the interaction is amplified when athletes are required to perform optimally in wide ranging environments that can either be highly pressurized (e.g., world championships with large audiences) or mind numbingly mundane (e.g., early morning training on a treadmill).

The beauty of conducting research in sport is that it is a microcosm of society which includes “the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

Emotions and stress in sport and life

Throughout his career, Paul Davis’ research has focused on emotions and interpersonal relationships in sport, exercise, and health.

– The beauty of conducting research in sport is that it is a microcosm of society which includes “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” As such, we can gain a better understanding of the human experience by studying the experience of athletes. Importantly though, we have to remember that athletes (and coaches) are human too. So, what we study between the first drop of the puck and the final whistle also has implications for life off of the playing field. Topics like emotions, stress/burnout, and relationships are important in sport and life. If we can optimise the sport experience, we can enhance the lives of individuals and the wider society.

Collaboration to tackle complex issues

Paul Davis defended his thesis at Bangor University in 2008. After working at the University of Nottingham and at Northumbria University, he moved together with his family to Umeå and Umeå University in 2016.

– Both myself and my wife Louise, who is Docent in psychology, were attracted to Umeå University as the situation within Higher Education in the UK was deteriorating due to a number of factors. The differences in the comparative situation between British and Swedish academic systems appear to have been amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be interesting to observe the longer lasting effects. Upon reflection of conversations with colleagues in the UK, and around the world, it makes me grateful to be here.

My experience is that the most effective teams thrive when there is an environment that both challenges and supports individuals to ‘bring their best’ in pursuit of a shared goal.

In March 2021 Paul Davis was appointed professor in sports psychology. As professor, he aims to establish and extend collaborations both locally and internationally.

– The current global issues in sport and society require teamwork and collaboration. One individual can’t have all the answers for complex issues. My experience is that the most effective teams thrive when there is an environment that both challenges and supports individuals to ‘bring their best’ in pursuit of a shared goal. I enjoy cross-disciplinary collaboration as my experience in high performance sport and research has taught me that combined efforts, in a supportive team environment, realise the best outcomes. Like they say, “If you want to go fast go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”