Photo by Richard Howard
Just because she’s a sports psychologist doesn’t mean Jessica Pfeifer Stewart sits around talking free throws all day. “Athletes are people, too,” she says. “They’re going to be presenting with a lot of the same concerns as their peer population, but I also understand and appreciate them as a unique cultural population.”
Stewart came to Wellesley in the fall of 2017 to focus on that unique population as part of a larger effort by the Department of Physical Education, Recreation, and Athletics (PERA) to bolster the support for student-athletes on campus. With funding from the Friends of Wellesley College Athletics, the department brought in Stewart as the director of Student-Athlete Mental Health Initiatives.
But this wasn’t her first experience with the College. Stewart worked as an assistant soccer coach for the Blue in 2008, when she was deciding whether to take a coaching path or become a clinical psychologist. She ended up choosing the latter and now splits her time between private practice and her work at Wellesley. “One of the things that I came to learn and appreciate about Wellesley was the true nature of a student-athlete, where both are really valued, emphasized, and prioritized,” she says, as well as “the focus on holistic development and wellness.”
That holistic view is where her expertise comes into play, as PERA looks to help student-athletes with their mental health as well as their physical well-being. “Having an ability to fight through pain and discomfort and push themselves and pursue excellence is something that has defined [student-athletes],” says Stewart. One must “understand that as a strength, but also an area that could be causing a lot of stress.” She speaks not only from years of experience working with student-athletes, but also years of experience as a student-athlete herself, playing Division I soccer.
Stewart’s work thus far has focused on three areas: providing resources for student-athletes, providing support and collaboration for coaches and PERA staff, and campus outreach. The first year of the initiative laid a lot of educational groundwork. “What we’ve focused on in the first year was skills training, trying to support student-athletes in identifying and building the skills that they have to tolerate and manage stress,” Stewart says. “That included mindfulness and relaxation skills, and skills to understand and balance their relationships, and their relationships with teammates specifically.”
For PERA staff and faculty, Stewart led seminars on some of the common issues faced by student-athletes and how to supportively respond. Although Stewart does not work one-on-one with students (students in need of direct assistance are referred to on-campus resources like the Counseling Service), she does collaborate individually with coaches to help them support the student-athletes on their teams.
Stewart is excited about where the initiative, now in its second year, is headed. “There’s growing awareness across the country about the mental health needs of student-athletes. Wellesley College is right at the front of that,” Stewart says. “We want to continue to build on that.”