As the new director of MSU’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports (ISYS), Professor Karin Pfeiffer is ready to tackle some complex questions.
How can coaches adapt to meet the unique needs of today’s young athletes? In what ways does sport participation affect broader health-related variables like physical activity, mental health or academic outcomes? Can communities and schools engage more kids in sport through intramural opportunities? And how can the institute support coaches to make teams more inclusive and equitable?
These questions, and a host of others, are helping to shape the future research priorities of ISYS under Pfeiffer’s leadership. She assumed the role of director in August 2022 following the retirement of Professor Dan Gould, who held the position for nearly two decades.
“I appreciate the history and the legacy,” said Pfeiffer, “and I feel honored to be involved in continuing its direction and exploring new areas of youth sports.”
LEADERS IN THE FIELD OF YOUTH SPORTS
ISYS is comprised of Department of Kinesiology scholars who work with researchers and sport organizations across the nation to provide leadership, scholarship and outreach that improves youth sports.
Throughout its more than 40-year history, the institute has fostered important partnerships with organizations like the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) and the Detroit Police Athletic League (PAL).
Pfeiffer is a nationally recognized leader in the field of kinesiology and exercise physiology and has studied physical activity and health-related fitness in children and youth for the past 25 years. She recently wrapped up a one-year term as the interim chairperson of the Department of Kinesiology.
Incorporating multiple perspectives and sub-disciplines of kinesiology is at the core of Pfeiffer’s work. Through her connections to the National Plan for Physical Activity, the National Youth Sports Health and Safety Institute and the American College of Sports Medicine, she sees opportunities to continue the institute’s commitment to supporting national activity and sports initiatives.
Pfeiffer has roughly defined four research priorities she hopes to advance through the work of the institute:
- Continue a longtime focus on coaching education, a research area that’s come to define ISYS. In partnership with MHSAA, the institute’s coaches training materials are used state- and nation-wide, and more than 80,000 young athletes have completed their Captains Clinic. This summer (2022) also marked the return of MSU’s annual Summer Coaches’ School, a two-day event where experts in the field share the latest information in sport science and coaching.
- Explore how sports participation influences a child’s physical activity and how that activity affects other health-related variables, like academic performance and mental health.
- Engage with national conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion. One potential area of interest is providing coaches with guidance on how to handle and prevent racism in youth sports.
- Examine benefits of youth participation in intramural sports. Pfeiffer hopes to explore research that examines the benefits of participation in a variety of intramural sports to keep youth engaged in physical activity regardless of performance or skill level.
“We’ve gotten more geared toward this elite sports model where you have to be ‘this good’ or you just drop out,” said Pfeiffer. “Then there’s no opportunity for you to play anymore. I’m hoping to try to find a way to support a more intramural-based model.”
GOULD’S LEGACY AS A DIRECTOR
The institute was launched in 1978 after members of the state legislature were concerned by negative and unhealthy practices in children’s sports. ISYS was created to scientifically study the beneficial and detrimental effects of sports participation on children and youth and then work to maximize the beneficial effects.
Under founder inaugural director Vern Seefeldt, Dan Gould was the first faculty member hired through the institute and became its director in 2004.
“Our job was to educate coaches and parents in the state by studying what’s going on in sport and disseminating that information,” Gould explained. “In the early days, we were driving all over the state doing clinics for our parents and coaches. We’d do about 50 or 60 coaches education events a year.”
Gould was inspired by the university’s land-grant mission to use research to affect change, but he also prioritized listening to coaches, parents and athletes to help understand their primary needs. Those relationships helped develop key partnerships with sports organizations across the U.S. and opened opportunities for collaboration and research among Kinesiology faculty and graduate students.
“There are huge shoes to fill,” said Pfeiffer. “Dan’s impact on youth sports has just been tremendous over time, from both a scholarship and an outreach perspective. He’s a great scholar and a great thinker, but he’s a great human too.
“I really want to protect his legacy, as well as that of (former directors) Drs. Seefeldt and Malina, and continue a lot of the things they started and/or maintained. I will definitely be welcoming his continued involvement and expertise because he’s such a wealth of information.”
Learn more about inaugural director Vern Seefeldt and a decades-long research project examining movement in the 2021 New Educator magazine.