Alumna Helps Athletes Overcome Brokenness
When we watch our college athletes perform, there are several recognizable traits on display that they all have in common: drive, competitiveness, self-confidence, focus, preparedness, discipline, a positive commitment to the team and a maturing commitment to maintaining their top form.
But for Divine Mercy University (DMU) alumna Samantha Kelley, it isn’t just the traits shown on the outside that affects athletes.
As a finance and political science double major at the University of Connecticut, Kelley thought that she would find herself either working within finance or pursuing law school after undergrad. But her own experience as a Division 1 soccer player, as well as those athletes she played with in college and with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), she noticed a pattern of hidden struggles that female athletes endure as they progress in sports.
“I was a college athlete myself,” she said, “and then I worked with college athletes through FOCUS for a number of years. I was managing 35 missionaries at that time who all had a bunch of students under them. I kept coming across a lot of brokenness. I kept finding that our female athletes were really struggling with a lot of confusion and misinterpretation about identity, femininity and sexuality.”
Kelley was a member of FOCUS when the organization entered a tuition reduction partnership with DMU. Having always had an interest in psychology, she saw the university as a great opportunity for her to build a greater understanding of the human person so she could better serve missionaries and their students.
She enrolled in the university’s M.S. in Psychology program and, even as she transitioned from FOCUS to the Theology of the Body Institute during her studies, she kept finding the lessons she was learning online integrating with the work she was doing.
“The M.S. in Psychology is very enriching,” she said. “It really put words to a lot of what I was experiencing in terms of the very holistic approach to the human person and the dignity of the human person. That’s the very foundation of what DMU teaches. It felt like I was encountering those teachings in my work with FOCUS and the Theology of the Body Institute. It really provided a greater sense of integration within both my personal worldview and my career. It also helps you recognize when individuals are struggling and how to properly refer them to the right professional. The awareness of what’s out there and what goes on in psychology is huge, and knowing the limitations of my own capacity to help and what to do when I’ve reached that limit is super helpful.”
The program also allowed Kelley to conceive her future vocation. As she transitioned from FOCUS to Theology of the Body while continuing her education, she felt called to start a nonprofit that promoted true identity and femininity in female athletics through this holistic view of the person, the human body, human sexuality, and understanding the values of the body. This nonprofit’s mission would also address the issues in body image, identity and mental health that she saw women struggle with in athletics. It was also a unique mission in that no other nonprofit was speaking directly to female athletes.
Through her studies, Kelley founded Fierce Athlete.
“It’s actually really interesting,” she said. “I did my capstone project surrounding female athletics and the issues that can appear. With the program’s capstone project, I was able to tailor it to my own interests and the career path I was finding myself journeying towards. So I developed a small group program study for female athletes. As I was actively pursuing this new nonprofit, I chose to actively pursue that through my education as well. Within my capstone, I was able to use positive psychology and cognitive behavioral therapy to help women transition their mindsets around whatever it was surrounding femininity or athletics in their own views. The program really helped form what I’m doing now, but it also taught me a lot about how to approach people, especially with some of the women I work with at Fierce Athlete. There’s a high percentage of these issues in female athletics, but they are also very well hidden, especially in high school and college level athletics, and our goal is to address and help heal from those issues.”
In 2019, Kelley called other top athletes to join the mission by starting a podcast featuring female athletes from across the nation, including runner Kerri Gallagher, former pro basketball player Jennifer Finnegan and Sr. M. Xavier, who was a star basketball player at Ohio State University before joining the the Franciscan Sisters of the Martyr St. George in Steubenville, Ohio.
Today, Fierce Athlete continues to help rising female athletes across the country. Kelley also brings the message and the mission passed down to her through her education from DMU by speaking nationally on topics of sports, femininity, Theology of the Body, prayer, and any other topics that fit within the mission of Fierce Athlete.
“The integration that DMU has between science, psychology and religion is unique, but just fits perfectly with what I’m doing today,” she said. “I think it’s a good idea for anyone who works with people. Human behavior wounds are complex, and the more that we can prepare ourselves to be able to care for people who are wounded and help them heal, the better. With the integration of faith and virtue, it becomes this very holistic approach that shows that everything is connected. I don’t have to make the connections myself.”
To learn more about Samantha Kelley and the mission of Fierce Athlete, click here.
If you’re looking for the best way to create change and help people, consider the M.S. in Psychology at Divine Mercy University.