Facing down adversity: Kinesiology alum teaches the art of resilience

For most of us, stress is part of living that can’t be avoided. Moving away from home for the first time, starting college or a new job, dealing with a break-up or other loss—all can be painfully difficult, and sometimes paralyzing. But how to deal with stressors that can make it a challenge to even get through the day? Polo DeCano, a School of Kinesiology master’s graduate and currently a doctoral student at the University of Washington, wondered exactly that. To that end, he has co-created a course at the University of Washington designed to help undergraduates learn to deal positively with stressful events and become stronger and more resilient in the process.

Polo.Resilience 101: Introduction to Resilience in College was developed by DeCano and Dr. Clayton Cook, former faculty member at UW and currently associate professor in CEHD’s Department of Educational Psychology. The resilience course originated as a class shared with a sport performance class taught by a former sport psychologist in the UW athletics department, Dr. Ron Chamberlain. From virtually his first day at UW, DeCano, along with Cook, worked with Chamberlain to support student-athletes’ ability to manage stress and anxiety. It was clear to DeCano and Cook that managing stress and anxiety had the potential to minimize athletes’ cognitive and emotional distractions and greatly improve their performance and concentration. Soon after this course was taught as a supplement to the sport performance class, UW College of Education offered it as a stand-alone course to support any students who experience stress and anxiety. And that’s pretty much everyone.

“Experiencing stress can undermine our ability to be our best in any domain in our lives,” says DeCano. “Transition and change are often accompanied by higher levels of stress, and attending college can be one of the most change-filled times of our lives.”

A key component of the course is a resilience framework called APT–Adapt, Persevere, Thrive–that DeCano and Dr. Cook created to help students develop resilience. “The lens of a school psychologist includes identifying ways to support wellness before a need arises or is identified,” says DeCano. “In this way, we can minimize difficulty and distress from reaching a level of more intensive need. Helping support students’ success upstream can minimize the occurrence of episodes of mental illness and dropout.”

The course focuses on helping students cultivate awareness, a sense of purpose, the experience of positive emotions, and healthy attachments and connections to support others. DeCano offers strategies targeting reasoning, resources and routines to support resilience. “I’ve received emails from students describing how they have grown and feel more capable of handling difficulties and the daily stressors they encounter,” says DeCano. “They’ve developed a willingness to pursue challenges they previously viewed as beyond their capability.” From a sport performance standpoint, one student-athlete described how noticing negative thoughts and changing them to be more positive–a topic in the resilience class and a strategy of APT Reasoning–helped to maintain that athlete’s composure on the way to winning a recent national championship.

DeCano graduated from the U of M in 2009 with a master’s in Kinesiology with a Sport and Exercise Psychology emphasis. He was advised by Prof. Maureen Weiss. “My master’s work has been integral to my work to this point. I was introduced to a developmental perspective, theories of motivation, and positive youth development during my work with Dr. Weiss. My time at UMN and my master’s work will always play an important part of my work.”

This is evident in another course DeCano co-developed with Dr. Cook for aspiring college coaches in the Intercollegiate Athletic Leadership M.Ed. program at UW. The Center for Leadership in Athletics (CLA) recognized the need for coaching education that goes beyond Xs and Os. DeCano says, “It’s a course that draws from positive psychology, motivational theory, education, and traditional sport psychology to prepare aspiring college coaches with knowledge to get the most out of their athletes in competition and to support their wellness in life during and after competing at the highest levels of their sport.

While my overarching function has to do with mental health and wellness, athletics is the domain wherein much of my passion originates. Ultimately, supporting athlete wellness optimizes their performance in all domains of their lives.”

Last spring, DeCano received the University of Washington’s inaugural Husky 100 Award, aimed at recognizing undergraduate and graduate students engaged in meaningful activities while attending UW. Criteria for the award were based on a student’s demonstration of a Discovery Mindset—seeing challenges as opposed to problems, committing to an inclusive community, demonstrating leadership and readiness for “What is Next,” and an ability to “Connect the Dots.” “I think my work on cultivating resilience and advocating to adopt a college-wide approach to supporting mental health and wellness was viewed as meeting these criteria,” says DeCano. He feels the coaching education course was another example of taking action to “Connect the Dots,” and likely contributed to DeCano receiving the award.

After graduating, DeCano aims to continue teaching and fostering resilience through establishing universal resilience supports in organized youth sports and schools, as well as in collegiate and professional athletics. Also, he says, “I would love to develop programming that supports athletes’ transitions out of sport, which is a particularly challenging time for them.”

DeCano says, “My hope for this course is that it will be embraced across this campus and others and is even included as a requirement for every major. The beauty of resilience is that it’s very dynamic and can be taught within various contexts. That’s why the military, athletics, undergraduates and early learning educators have resilience curricula that are relevant. It’s an ambitious desire, but the reality is, resilience is teachable and has a place in everyone’s life and in every discipline.”

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