Dr. Emilia Boeschen, Black Hills State University assistant professor of psychology, and a group of BHSU students are heading to PyeongChang, South Korea, for the Special Olympics World Games.
BHSU student Devon Halajian, far left, assists an athlete on the slopes of Terry Peak in the Special Olympics South Dakota’s event last February.
For several years, Dr. Emilia Boeschen, Black Hills State University assistant professor of psychology, has been leading the way in the study of performance anxiety in athletes with intellectual disabilities. Boeschen along with a team of BHSU students and graduates are now headed to PyeongChang, South Korea, to take their research to the next level.
Later this month, the research team is flying to South Korea for the Special Olympics World Games. They will spend two weeks with athletes from all over the world furthering their research.
The research team also recently found out they will also get to attend the Global Development Summit on Ending the Cycle of Poverty and Exclusion for People with Intellectual Disabilities. The groundbreaking summit is the first of its kind focusing solely on people with intellectual disabilities.
During the event, occurring in PyeongChang, the students will listen to various international dignitaries including President of Malawi Joyce Banda; Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Bekele Geleta; and Chairperson of the National League for Democracy in Burma (Myanmar) Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
“It is quite possible that some of our BHSU students will get to personally meet some of these dignitaries and discuss this research project as it fits into the summit’s main objective of limiting exclusion of people with intellectual disabilities from scientific literature,” Boeschen said.
“This is going to be a once in a lifetime experience,” said Lauren Lund, BHSU psychology major from Hot Springs. Lund has been working with Boeschen for more than two years.
“Ever since I started working on this research project with Dr. Boeschen, we would get beyond excited when we would go to an event and collect 20 surveys, and now we have a chance to meet 1,000 athletes from countries from across the world and ask them to take our survey.”
She said she is looking forward to interviewing the athletes and making a connection with them as people. “We are aware of the language barriers and will have someone there to assist us, but I hope to have a lot of time to listen to what they have to say. The odds of having another experience like this are slim to none which is why I am hoping to gain anything and everything from this trip.”
The students are expanding on research Boeschen began in 2007 as a doctoral student at the University of North Dakota. With an interest in sport and exercise psychology, she decided to do her dissertation on whether Special Olympic athletes experience the same performance anxiety as another Olympic, high school and college athlete.
“This is something that has never been researched before in psychology, special education – anything that would find interest in looking at people with intellectual disabilities,” Boeschen said. “The reason why it has been ignored in scientific research, so far, is this idea that these are people with a disability so we should look at them differently.”
Instead, the experiences of people with intellectual disabilities need to be studied, she said.
“We can learn something from them,” Boeschen said. “Is there something they do that can help me out as someone who doesn’t have an intellectual disability and does compete in sports – a pre-game ritual, a way I can learn to calm my mind?”
In her research in North Dakota and South Dakota, Boeschen discovered that athletes with intellectual disabilities do experience similar levels of competitive anxiety. “Right before they go to perform, their palms are sweaty, their stomach hurts,” she said. “So now that I have that information, I want to see if there’s a difference in the level of anxiety when the competition heats up.”
The team’s research begins on Jan. 28 with the opening ceremony.
The research team includes Boeschen, Lund, Alyssa Niesen, a psychology and sociology major from Milbank; Devon Halajian, business administration management major from Milbank; Janie Borkowski, psychology major from Wolsey; Morgan Dixon, psychology major from Rapid City; Nicole Jurgensen, psychology major from Rapid City; Nicole Dickenson, 2012 graduate from Davenport, Iowa; Peter Soverns, psychology and sociology major from Spearfish; Amanda Koepp, 2012 graduate from Sheridan, Wyo.; and Hilary Eaton, 2012 graduate from Rapid City.
While most of her research students are psychology and sociology majors, the team also includes a business major who is involved with the project for a different reason. Devon Halajian has been a volunteer with the Special Olympics, and during the winter games he will be helping the skiers and snowboarders go safely up and down the slopes.
“He is less interested in the psychological aspect, but has really helped us with the fundraising, writing up form business letters and arranging meetings with major leaders on campus,” Boeschen said.
Boeschen and the students will be backstage with the Olympians prior to the parade of athletes. The Special Olympics World Winter Games will feature world-class competition in alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, figure skating, snowboarding and speed skating, among other sports.
“We will get a chance to interview them and find out how it is for them to represent their country,” Boeschen said.
Some countries, like the United States, have individualist cultures which emphasize personal achievements and “winning for me,” Boeschen said. Other countries, such as Korea and China, have more collectivist cultures where athletes are competing for their country.
Part of their research at the Special Olympics World Games will be studying which athletes experience more pressure. “We want to find out if there is a difference between individualist and collectivist cultures and how the athletes in these cultures experience anxiety,” Boeschen said. “Sometimes you may feel more pressure when you have the weight of your country on your shoulders, or it might be the opposite.”
In their research, the team uses a list of 27 questions which is broken down into three parts, physical, cognitive and self confidence, with nine questions each.
Feedback from their survey shows that athletes with intellectual disabilities have similar levels of physical anxiety as an Olympic, high school or collegiate athlete, and they have higher levels of selfconfidence. However, still more research is needed on the cognitive part of the study, Boeschen said.
Athletes with intellectual disabilities have that cognitive delay that somebody without intellectual disability may not experience, Boeschen said.
“It is easy for me to say that I’m worried,” she said. “Somebody who has a cognitive delay may take a little more time to realize it and by thetime they realize it they are already competing. Is there a benefit to not thinking about it and just going?”
Boeschen and her research team are excited for their upcoming experience. “There will be a lot of people going to the events,” she said. “The Special Olympics World Winter Games are better attended than any of the Olympic events we see on TV.”
To help them adjust to the Korean culture, the team has been practicing speaking Korean so they know the basics of the language.
Lund said the experience she has gained through her participation in the research is something she will take with her far beyond graduation.
“I believe that this research shows that great things can come out of small places and out of those small places are individuals who can be shaped into strong, confident men and women who will soon be put into the world and be able to apply their broadened perspectives to every aspect of their lives.”