I guess you could say that my career in sport started in 1980, when at the age of 6, I spotted an advertisement for skating lessons in the local paper. Not being able to read, all I saw was a smiling raccoon with a striped scarf around his neck and a pair of figure skates on. After hearing a fair amount of whining, my parents decided to take me to the local ice rink. Little did they know what that would mean for my future.
Sooner than I realised, I was training six times a week, and by the time I was 8, I had entered my first competition. My career was rising until the age of 15, when I reached junior level and sustained injuries that restricted my training. This is when I started (partly out of boredom) to assist younger skaters with their technique. Realising that I was actually fairly good at it and enjoying it, I decided to take part in the Finnish Figure Skating Associations' coaching programme (my home country being Finland) to obtain coaching qualifications. At 18, I had an opportunity to spend a year in California, U.S.A. Unfortunately, there were no ice rinks nearby, and I had to give up competitive skating. (It was a conscious sacrifice.) So after a memorable year abroad, the transition to coaching was very natural.
Coaching and Fashion
I've never regretted this decision. I guess you could say that during that year, not only did I "grow up" (although I am an eternal Peter Pan), but my career aspirations also became clearer. I wanted to study psychology and become a sport psychologist. For various reasons, that was just impossible at that point in my life, so I buried my dream and started to pursue other interests. I continued to acquire coaching qualifications (with a sports degree in synchronised skating and upper secondary-level vocational qualifications in figure skating, awarded by the Finnish Figure Skating Association under the Finnish Sports Federation), and I started studying fashion technology at the Helsinki Polytechnic. (I have always enjoyed making my own skating outfits.) By the age of 25, I was a full-time coach, responsible with another coach for a club of 300 skaters, and a qualified fashion technician. To me, the whole scene was like a dream come true, as I enjoyed being on the ice. For years I thought "What a great job--I get paid for something I would do for free!"
But being a full-time coach is not just about teaching others how to skate. You must strive to be a figure of authority, friend, mentor, physical trainer, physiotherapist, sport psychologist, secretary, musician, choreographer, and fashion designer--all rolled into one. And, as much as I enjoyed this multifunctional role, one part of it stood out above the others: yes, being a sport psychologist. I felt I was being held back in this role because I knew that I needed university-level academic qualifications to ever work specifically in this field, and in all honesty, I had never in my life been keen to study. Finally, in 2000, I got up one morning and decided to pack my belongings and move to the United Kingdom to fulfil my dream! Choosing the U.K. of all places was to me very obvious, because it is an English-speaking E.U. country with a wide range of universities offering undergraduate degrees in which I could combine the study of psychology with that of sport. I must admit that it was one of the best decisions of my life.
Four years later, I had completed a B.Sc. degree in psychology and sport studies from University College Northampton. The subjects I picked were sport psychology and sociology (because I did not particularly enjoy studying anatomy and physiology while earning my coaching qualifications), and a wide range of psychology disciplines, such as biological, cognitive, developmental, neurological, and social psychology. I obtained first-class honours and believe that determination and motivation truly are the keys to success.
I feel that psychology and sport studies were an excellent match, as all of my modules complemented one another. For example, the in-depth theoretical knowledge about motor learning (i.e., what happens in us when we learn new skills such as picking up a pen) that I gained from my cognitive psychology lectures would also be referred to in my sport psychology lectures (e.g., how we know how to kick a moving ball at the right moment). Similarly, group cohesion and behavioural theories from social psychology lectures were soon useful in understanding some of the issues that come up in a sports team. For my dissertation, I chose to conduct a study into the use of imagery by Finnish synchronised skaters, using a standardised questionnaire to collect their perceptions. To me, this exploratory, independent, and unique process of conducting scientific research was very interesting and gratifying.
Psychology of Sports Injuries
I thought that getting a degree would satisfy my hunger for knowledge, but as they say (at least in Finland), "Hunger grows while you eat," and I immediately found myself aiming for more. Five days after completion of my degree, I enrolled at University College Northampton for Ph.D. work. I am now looking into the use of psychological techniques by physiotherapists in their work with injured athletes--something I feel had been missing during my own injury rehabilitation 15 years earlier!
I hope that by the end of 2007, you'll be able to call me "Doctor." By then, I will be 33 years of age and have been in full-time secondary or tertiary education for 17 years. What I will do with my knowledge remains to be seen. One part of me wants to work as a sport psychology consultant and a lecturer in sport psychology, another part wants to be involved with skating, yet another to conduct research, and the rest does not know what it wants! In an ideal world, I would like to put it all into practice, in other words, create my own job. How I will do that has yet to be seen. At the moment, I am just trying to get my work into publications, networking, and joining relevant organisations. Perhaps one day an opportunity will come my way!
I must stress that none of this would have been possible without the full support of my family, particularly my husband, and now our 7-month-old baby daughter. She is the sunshine of my days and keeps me going. A lot of people ask me how I manage to have a baby and work toward a Ph.D. simultaneously. Being an independent and practical Finnish woman (as Finnish women generally are), I do not see any clash between the two. In a way, I see it as an ideal situation, as I get to work at home for the first few years of my daughter's life instead of having a 9-to-5 job. And I do think that everyone, including us mothers, needs mental stimulation and an intellectual break from the nappy change and weaning!
As it stands now, I feel that I am well on my way toward my dream of becoming a sport psychologist, and that I have gained so much more than I hoped along the way. What is best about it all is that I have fully enjoyed every minute of it. And I know that I will continue to do so. So I strongly encourage everyone to follow their dreams--who knows what you might find there?