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From PSP to PhD, Scott is in the zone


8 December 2022
A man with a football stands in from of a soccer net

Sometimes the nearest things can seem so far away. Just ask Southern Cross University PhD graduand and soon-to-be Dr Scott Goddard.

During his days as a greenkeeper at Coffs Harbour Golf Club, Scott would pass the University campus on the other side of Hogbin Drive and wonder how he might change from one kind of course to another.

The answer came via the Preparing for Success Program (PSP), which makes university study possible for people seeking a career change or those who may not have graduated high school. It set Scott on a pathway of study and research success.

Through the PSP and his subsequent studies, Scott's passion for sport aligned with a burgeoning interest in psychology. Alongside peers such as Associate Professor Christian Swann and Dr Chris Stevens, Scott learned, contributed and thrived as part of a cohort of researchers doing highly reputed work around sport and mental health.

Growing up beside the ocean at Scotts Head on the NSW mid-coast, Scott attended Macksville High School – alma mater of rugby league great Greg Inglis and the late Test cricketer Phillip Hughes. His own sporting prowess lay with soccer, and he was promising enough to undertake trials in Germany.

"It didn't work out for me, which was obviously disappointing from the perspective of my aspirations as an athlete. However, more concerning was what I was actually going to do with my life," he says.

"I knew I wanted to be involved in sport in some way, so I undertook a greenkeeping apprenticeship between 2010 and 2014. Working at the golf club, I would see the University just up the road and the thought of education gradually built in me. Towards the end of my apprenticeship, I was giving sincere consideration to study without really knowing how to go about it.

"The PSP was ideal. It provided clear information about my study options and obligations. I felt motivated and supported. I started my Bachelor of Psychological Science degree in 2015 and graduated in 2017, then did Honours in 2018."

For his PhD, Scott investigated one of the more intriguing aspects of sporting performance – flow states – which refer to when a person becomes fully immersed in an activity, or ‘in the zone’. In a sporting context, time seems to fall away, performance feels effortless and one's abilities and instincts are at their peak.

Think of basketballer Michael Jordan in his heyday. Tennis great Roger Federer. Runner Cathy Freeman. Swimmer Michael Phelps. At their best, every performance was a masterclass in flow. Unsurprisingly, many sports around the world are keen to know more.

"It is an amazing psychological state and I am interested in seeing if a flow can be reliably induced on demand," says Scott. "It is considered the Holy Grail for sports psychologists and athletes due to its association with positive subjective experiences and exceptional performances. This is reflected by the large amount of research on flow. The problem is that flow states remain very rare and elusive, and that’s why finding strategies to reliably produce these experiences is so important."

Scott's PhD project monitored runners on treadmills in a laboratory setting. Importantly, pressures and stresses that can come with competition or specific goal-setting were removed. The research included a systematic review of previous attempts to induce flow, interviews with runners about their flow states and perspectives on potential intervention strategies, before developing and evaluating a flow intervention across a pilot study and then a larger trial.

"For the intervention, I covered the digitaI displays on the treadmills, so there were no readouts of speed, distance or other performance indicators," says Scott. "At various times during the run I would relay positive feedback about their performance, but otherwise, the runners had no information other than how they were feeling.

"Focusing on flow states opens up questions about how to approach different events, thinking about what you are trying to achieve, and being able to perform positively without experiencing unnecessary pressures or feeling let down by any perceived failure.

"Instead, you should set more open-ended goals and approach events with a sense of exploration rather than setting specific goals and ramping up the pressure. This can help athletes enjoy the experience more, while being able to perform at their best. This can also have a positive impact on your well-being, confidence and consistency as an athlete."

Since finishing his PhD, Scott has remained involved with the University, including work as a research assistant. His journey with Southern Cross University is also a great example for others pondering a return to study.

The question is: has Scott’s flow state research helped with his own sporting endeavours? He still plays soccer, turning out for Coffs City United Football Club

"As I'm getting older, I find myself being moved away from centre-midfield [offence/playmaker] and spending more time at centre-back [defence]. Maybe I need to activate my own flow state to find my way up the field again."

Learn more about studying exercise science and psychology at Southern Cross University: