A coach and athletes on the field

Motivated to Research

Johannes Raabe's research in educational sport psychology looks to enhance the relationship between coaches and student-athletes.

By: Therese Boyd

“Going into my master’s, I didn’t know I wanted to be a professor,” says Johannes Raabe, assistant professor of kinesiology at Penn State Altoona, when asked about his career direction. Originally from Germany, Raabe came to the University of Wyoming to work on his master’s in kinesiology and health and that’s when his path became clear. “I was really fortunate. [At Wyoming] I had an experience close to that of a Ph.D. student. With Dr. Tucker Readdy as my advisor, I had the opportunity to really be involved in his research.”

(Left to right): Dr. Johannes Raabe, Dr. Svenja Wachsmuth, Dr. Oliver Höner, Dr. Svenja Wolf, and Dr. Tucker Readdy

(Left to right): Dr. Johannes Raabe, Dr. Svenja Wachsmuth, Dr. Oliver Höner, Dr. Svenja Wolf, and Dr. Tucker Readdy

Image: Johannes Raabe

That experience, Raabe feels, gave him an advantage going into the Ph.D. sport psychology program at the University of Tennessee, “one of the top programs in sport psychology,” he says. “For me, the bigger determinant was the advisor. I looked for somebody who would be a good fit, who had a research interest that aligned with what I wanted to do.” That advisor was Dr. Rebecca Zakrajsek, and Raabe spent three years at Tennessee, which he says was “a great time to develop professionally.”

After his Ph.D., Raabe decided to do postdoctoral work. An opportunity to work with Dr. Oliver Höner at the University of Tübingen in Germany allowed Raabe to continue his professional development and gave him the opportunity to help with a research project funded by the German Soccer Association. In addition, he says, “at that point all my professional relationships were in the States. I wanted to make some connections in Germany.”

“My research is about finding ways to foster optimal motivation among athletes,” Raabe explains. His research studies how different situational and contextual factors in the athletic environment influence motivation. “In educational sport psychology it’s more about performance enhancement”; they may have a “lack of focus, or not being able to focus on the right thing, or not the right motivation.”

“The aspect I am most interested in is how we can work with coaches to enhance that coach-athlete relationship? How can we set up an environment to help these athletes?” Raabe notes that college athletes are “more than athletes, they’re ‘student-athletes.’ I think it goes beyond performance—how can we make sure they have a good experience? Not discounting the competitive edge, but we also need to take into account that they are people.”

“Everyone has physical needs, but there are also three psychological needs everyone has: Competence: Am I able to do what the coaches ask me to do? Relatedness: Do we feel connected, comfortable, with the people around us? Do I feel valued? Autonomy: In athletics, can I make decisions, am I autonomous? With coaches that plays a big role. What can a coach do to foster these three needs?” Raabe is aware that it could be simpler “just to motivate by punishment. But if we take the time and get more creative, we can foster these needs and get better results.”

As an active researcher, Raabe acknowledges that being a part of Penn State has advantages: “a lot of internal grant opportunities. There’s a research development grant” as well as “support for undergraduate research students in my lab.” Being at Penn State Altoona has its own advantages: “It’s part of the larger Penn State system and here we have the luxury of smaller classrooms. It’s a pretty good balance,” he says.

He also really likes the mix of classroom and research. “I enjoy being in the classroom, I enjoy interacting with the students. And I am drawn to sport psychology because it’s so applicable. Whenever I do research there’s interaction with athletes or coaches. I like some application to the real world. Once I have a study done, could I take it to a coach, an athletic trainer? I always ask myself ‘so what?’ Once I do this and I find what I’m looking for, what can I do with it? That’s also how I got interested in this profession, I wanted to continue the research.” In other words, he’s motivated.