Sport psychology resident Adam Shunk, PhD, knows about competitive pressure: He's ranked as one of the top 25 men's high-jumpers in the world--a status he achieved while earning his doctorate in educational psychology and neuropsychology from Ball State University in 2007.
Shunk, 28, will be one of 24 athletes trying out for three high-jumper slots on the U.S. Men's Track and Field Team and is hoping for the chance to compete at the Olympics in August. His personal best jump is 2.3 meters (7 feet 6 and a half inches), right in the range of the best 2004 Olympic trials jumps of 2.27 to 2.33 meters.
If Shunk is going to make it to the Olympics, this year is his best shot. "To me, there's nothing greater or more honorable than representing your country at the biggest sports venue in the world," he says.
Shunk is currently completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the St. Vincent Sports Performance Center in Indianapolis. As part of his fellowship, he also consults with Indiana University and Purdue University, where he teaches athletes mental training skills, conducts neuropsychological evaluations and under supervision, treats clients' depression, anxiety and other disorders.
In his work with athletes, he sometimes draws on his own experiences to help them deal with the pressure of competition, sharing his personal "pre-performance mental routine," which he relies on at championships. One distraction technique is focusing on a cue word, usually a technical term that he associates with his best jumps.
"There's an ideal zone that an athlete can teach themselves, how to perform at their best," he says.
A native of Muncie, Ind., Shunk was born into a family of athletes. He was a four-sport athlete in high school and earned a track and field scholarship to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 2003, he won the NCAA's high-jump championship, graduated from college and received an endorsement contract with Nike. Combined with the prize money Shunk has won at international meets, the endorsement deal helped fund his doctoral education.
At Ball State, Shunk followed a strict training regimen, scheduling classes as early as he could in the morning, and spending three to four hours a day working on the strength, speed and technical training skills needed to make it to the Olympics.
"That competitive drive I learned from athletics has carried over to academics and into my career," he says.