A profile of DeJon Purnell in celebration of Black History Month
In the USA, sports are important, period. But many of us are aware that America’s cultural obsession with sports is not without its downsides. Still, I know people who are fine with 2020’s Super Bowl mascots (among other things; see The Onion’s recent Tweet), or who found the coaches and plots of Netflix’s sports documentaries Cheer and Last Chance U [warning: very strong language] endearing, rather than concerning. This week on the blog, we tackle sports and performance from the perspective of mental health, talking with IU’s DeJon Purnell.
Purnell is a Ph.D. student in the Counseling Psychology program in IU’s School of Education, and his specific focus is Sport and Performance Psychology. According to Purnell, who goes by DJ, he and others in his field “basically combine the fields of mental health counseling and psychology and apply them in the athletic performance domain.” While much of sports psychology translates directly into counseling the athletes themselves, DJ focuses on bigger-picture issues in sports and performance mental health, such as coaching behaviors and pathways to licensure for practicing sports counselors.
Originally from Chicago, DJ’s interests began with a B.S. in Psychology from The Ohio State University. He then spent a year interning as an intramural sports coordinator at Notre Dame before getting his Master’s Degree in Kinesiology (the study of bodily movement) with a focus on Sports Psychology at Southern Illinois University, all before coming here to IU to work with Associate Professor and Certified Mental Performance Consultant Jesse Steinfeldt.
From the Ground Up: Emotional Abuse in Youth Sports
DJ’s research is informed as much by his formal education as it is by his life-outside-academia as an athlete, referee, and coach. While pursuing his M.S., DJ worked as a Camp Counselor at Hi-Five Sports Chicago, a national Youth Sports Program which runs year-round sports training and camps, and as a high school football and basketball sports official (or referee). Working as a referee, where things can get tense as coaches and refs often disagree about a call or what is happening on the court/field, DJ noticed that a lot of behavior stemming from youth sport coaches qualifies, in a clinical sense, as emotional abuse.
With access to these close-and-personal interactions between coaches and their athletes, DJ wondered if he was the only one seeing examples of emotional abuse, so he did an interview-based Master’s thesis on interactions between coaches and athletes from the perspective of referees. DJ notes that he never defined emotional abuse for his interviewees, but that other refs’ experiences unfortunately paralleled his own: “over, you know, collectively 40 years of experience, referees in every game saw verbal abuse. Sometimes they also saw physical abuse, not necessarily at the player, but they did see coaches grab players; they saw coaches break things, kick chairs, throw jackets, break coolers, and things like that.”
Mentioning that a relationship between a coach and their athletes is a significant and important one, as many coaches spend as much time with youth as teachers and parents, DJ mentions that his findings “were kind of sad, really. This is youth sport — not college — this is fifth grade through high school; boys, girls, doesn’t matter.” Noting that even paid coaches do not have to have any training in mental health (or often any training at all!), we discuss how emotionally abusive coaching behavior is essentially part of the culture, and one that extends beyond coach-athlete pairs .
DJ links this to military and masculine fetishization in America in general; when discussing this in the courses he teaches at IU, he pulls up pictures of coaches yelling at players, “And then I pull up pictures of drill sergeants in basic training. They look exactly the same. Right? Exactly the same.” This training approach is damaging to adults in the military, and service members and veterans are a notoriously underserved population in terms of mental health care. Circling back to athletes, DJ is concerned about the ‘tough love’ or ‘tear-them-down-to-build-them-up’ approach: “this is [just as] damaging to athletes, especially children.”
Tackling the Problem: Mental Healthcare Access Issues Stem from Practices in Higher Education
With coaches seen as authority figures and important members of the community, DJ thinks coaching is a potential place for high-impact intervention, although “I’ll probably tackle that after graduate school.” (There’s a motto in higher education that a good dissertation is a finished one, and taking on toxic coaching behaviors is more of a life goal for DJ than just a dissertation project). Knowing that athletes and coaches are the major focus for most of sports psychology, but that “no one really looks at referees,” DJ’s doctoral research is focused on perceptions of sports psychology and impacts of team cohesion intervention on referees who officiate together as a group.
We discuss how conducting research and writing up a dissertation is only part of his program, with the other part being training and supervision in psychological counseling. When DJ gets his Ph.D., he won’t automatically become a Licensed Professional Counselor, or even a Certified Mental Performance Consultant, which he specifically came here to IU to become. That’s because academic training in counseling psychology is entirely separate from licensure in it, although you need the former to even try to attain the latter.
And the pathway from the degree to the license isn’t terribly straightforward for the counselors themselves (let alone for patients looking for a specialized counselor). On top of his research, teaching, and coaching, DJ travels twice a week to Indiana State University, in Terre Haute, to run therapy sessions and build a log of hours practicing as a clinician. In some states, over 2,000 hours of supervised therapy sessions are needed before you can take the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). Many students can’t hit this many hours while pursuing their Ph.D., so they spend a year or more working annual contracts — called pre-docs or post-docs (some states do not count hours from the PhD program at all, meaning you must get them post-doctorate, or after graduating) — with hospitals or other facilities just to get more supervised hours in the clinic.
To be fair, we all want our therapists to be adequately trained, but DJ and I talked about how the pre-doc/post-doc model creates implicit barriers to success for many would-be licensed professionals, because these positions require flexibility, mobility, and often independent wealth: “the pay for a pre-doc position is anywhere from $25,000-$35,000, maybe $40,000 if you’re lucky, and you can expect post-doc pay to be in the $40,000 to $50,000 range.” These wages hardly cover cost of living in places like DC, Chicago, or California (for context here, the median income of Bloomington is $33,000; Chicago is $57,000), and after years of specialized training at even lower compensation rates, pre- and post-doc professionals are arguably entitled to start a more permanent and stable life. We discussed how different states have different licensing rules, meaning that a license in one state likely doesn’t transfer to another: “we are highly encouraged, as emerging licensed professionals to pick five states we can see ourselves living in, and then work towards licensure for the hardest state of those five.”
This is especially true of professionals who can’t be underpaid and highly mobile for over a decade , like non-traditional or minority students; what’s more, people least likely to make it through the pipeline to licensure are those most-needed in terms of which populations require mental healthcare the most. In the last couple years, DJ and his mentors have realized that “There are less than 15 licensed mental health professionals with sports psych training who are black men.” DJ chose IU because it is one of “maybe 5 schools in the country that have Counseling Psychology Ph.D. programs with a structured path towards a license in sports psychology.” And he is doing supervised clinic hours at Indiana State — where about 40% of his case-load is athletes — specifically to work under the supervision of Dr. Lloyd L. Kenneth Chew, Jr., a black male mentor.
When DJ brings disparities like this up, people often understand him to mean that “black people need black therapists” to which he says “not necessarily, but it might help. This area [sports psychology] is so new that we don’t even know!” DJ will join the ranks of black male licensed mental health professionals one day, but he is hoping to be part of a bigger change in the field. “I don’t even think you can saturate the market with mental health professionals, regardless of you know, race and gender. Especially now, we just need quality mental health professionals of all kinds.”
Building Wakanda: Empowering Sustainable Communities
When asked what his end-goal was, DJ’s answer was direct: “I want to create Wakanda.” After we share a laugh, he lays it out for me: “I don’t mean Wakanda like ‘a specific place for black people.’ No, to me the whole point of Wakanda is: let’s create something that we can sustain, like a society, a community, neighborhood, or a group where we take care of each other and take care of ourselves.”
Regardless of what scale they’re at, DJ wants to help build communities “where people feel like they have a chance to thrive… where there’s hope for a meaningful life.” And he, and others, think this community building work fits perfectly into the existing sport and performance domain. DJ mentions the NCAA’s launching of the Athletes into Medicine and Science Pilot program, a collaboration between Division II and the Association of American Medical Colleges and National Institutes of Health to specifically recruit black student-athletes into college and medical professions. It appears that work on DJ’s “Wakanda” is already underway.
As for his specific role as a sports therapist, DJ has what I think is a great plan: start at the top. We circled back to our earlier discussion on the lack of training and education for coaches and on the importance of leadership within and outside the sports domain. First off, he wants perceptions of coaching to change from the inside, so that coaching is treated as a profession, rather than an ad-hoc or volunteer gig. Under this type of system, coaches would be motivated, or even required, to have some training in leadership skills and mental health awareness. If that training comes from an insider like DJ, all the better: “If I work with 1,000 athletes, that’s a lot of well-spent time. But what if I work with 1,000 coaches, right? That presumably has effects on all the athletes they work with, too.”
 DJ notes that, unlike sports officials, coaches are often hired because they know someone, or because they are the only available and willing volunteers; thus, they have no formal training or education specifically for coaching, and aren’t ever required to work on coaching skills. DJ states: “One of the main reasons I became the director of Hi-Five Sports camp was to address the lack of coaching training and education. As the director I made educating and training the camp coaches my primary focus and, given the disturbing coaching behaviors I’ve noticed throughout my career, I wanted to try to steer coaching behaviors in a more positive direction.”
 On this specifically, DJ states: “I’ve been a student, and you know, took one year to work. And did a two year masters, then six years here, that’s 8 years… and another year to get licensed. That’s nine years. So 10 years, at the point of which I graduated from undergrad, I actually might get a salary job. And thinking about who can do that, it’s like ‘only people who have time and money’ and then you think about who does that exclude? I don’t think this is consciously maintained now, but if that was the original intent, and we haven’t done anything to change it, it makes this path to become a therapist unnecessarily difficult.”