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Success & Impact

The Intersection of Sports and Mind

Track Star Olivia Wojtowicz explores the psychology of student-athlete mental health.

Olivia Wojtowicz in track uniform Photo credit: SJU Athletics

Written by: Luke Malanga

Published: May 19, 2023

Total reading time: 4 minutes

Olivia Wojtowicz recalls the day in elementary school when her parents came to talk about their professions. One of the parents was a psychologist, who spoke about his daily life helping children with anxiety. It amazed Wojtowicz’s young brain that this could be someone's job — to help people feel like the best version of themselves.

“I came home — I was like six — and I said, I'm going to be a psychologist,” Wojtowicz recounts. “I just love the premise of being able to help people live their best lives by teaching them tools that they may not realize could benefit them and their mental health.”

In high school, Wojtowicz also found a passion for running. After joining the track team, she swiftly made a name for herself as she broke record after record. When the coaching staff at Saint Joseph’s reached out during her senior year, she decided to visit.

“I fell in love with it, " Wojtowicz says. “The team was amazing, everyone was very kind and open hearted. I really wanted to be part of a Division 1 program, so that was a dream come true.”

It was at St. Joe’s that Wojtowicz’s love for athletic competition and psychology truly converged.

As a student-athlete, Wojtowicz was acutely aware of the pressures associated with balancing an academic course load, social life and training for sports competitions. But it was during her internship at Wolanin Consulting & Assessment that she began to uncover the breadth and nuance of these psychological pressures.

“I started to see the hard data of athletes experiencing mental health difficulties, what that may look like and how treatments are done,” says Wojtowicz. “That also informed the thesis that I wrote for my 4+1 program.”

At her internship, Wojtowicz acted as an apprentice for Andrew Wolanin, PsyD, Saint Joseph's Athletics sport psychologist. She worked side-by-side with Wolanin on research, statistical tests and compiling reports.

“Being at Saint Joseph’s gave me this amazing opportunity to be an apprentice to someone like Dr. Wolanin, who's had so much experience in the field,” says Wojtowicz. “I feel very grateful for that connection.”

As Wojtowicz’s one month internship gradually turned into three, Wolanin found that gratitude was a two-way street.

“Olivia was a conscientious and curious intern,” says Wolanin. “She was always very eager to take on challenges and try new ideas. I felt so lucky to find myself acting as her mentor.”

Wojtowicz’s thesis, “Mental Toughness and Self Compassion Predicting Facilitative Anxiety Interpretation,” investigated whether resilience and self-compassion were predictors for how well athletes dealt with anxiety.

“I wanted to see how athletes interpret their anxiety,” explains Wojtowicz. “I couldn’t find any actual measure for that in all my research, so I made one. And that’s something that I'm very proud of.”

The new measure was developed using anchor points from the Competitive Anxiety Scale to assess somatic and cognitive symptoms in athletes, with each symptom transformed into a two-part question to evaluate the intensity and negative impact on performance.

Halfway through her senior year, Wojtowicz had her own set-back with an injury that took her off the track and into a boot.

“That has been probably the hardest experience I've had in my running career,” says Wojtowicz. “It took me a long time to wrap my head around, but I think my study has taught me how to foster an inherent drive to make this experience productive.”

Wojtowicz was accepted into Lehigh University’s counseling PhD program, which she says would not have been possible without the opportunities she had at St. Joe’s, and the support of Wolanin.

“I'm a first generation college student and first generation American, so I needed mentorship and I've been able to find that in abundance at Saint Joseph's,” Wojtowicz says. “I'm also very grateful to be a scholarship recipient, both through merit scholarships, as well as the track and field team. I can't describe the gratitude I have. I always knew I could do it, but I needed help and I got all that I needed here.”