Running KIN

October 12, 2012

Deborah Feltz went the distance for the Department of Kinesiology, and her team is ready for the next leg


In 1992, Feltz was inducted into the National Academy of Kinesiology, a group of leading scholars capped at 150 members. She also served as president of the academy from 2000-2002. Her leadership has been influential on editorial boards of research journals, international exchange programs and even the U.S. Olympic Committee, for which she remains a registered sport psychologist.

But Feltz had made her most lasting contributions to the field by advancing the theory of self-efficacy in sport, or the confidence that athletes, coaches, teams and referees need to perform at high levels. Her 2008 book with former students Sandra Short and Philip Sullivan, Self-Efficacy in Sport, summarizes more than 30 years of research and is considered the go-to reference on the subject.

Feltz hasn’t slowed down.

Putting her own theories to the test, she became the 800-meter track champion at the National Senior Olympics in 2009. She continues to train and compete as a mid-distance runner with coaching assistance from a former student, Johnny Allen.

And the next phase of her research is just starting to take off.

Feltz received a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to study how virtual partners affect motivation to exercise. In a lab using video chat and gaming technology, she and her team have found that people will work out up to twice as long when they are trying to keep up with a person appearing on screen.

Next, says doctoral student Samuel Forlenza, the goal is to determine whether the effects are similar when participants actually know the workout partner they are seeing is pre-recorded or the partner is computer-generated (like an avatar).

Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., Forlenza came to MSU to study with Feltz because she is a long-term leader in sport psychology who knows how to stay on the cutting edge.

“Dr. Feltz has really steered the department to where it is today,” he said. “She has been cognizant of everything going on, not just in the college and department, but in the broader world of kinesiology.”

Indeed, she has steered the faculty to focus more on improving the physical health and well-being of children and youth. Along the spectrum of studying physical activity “from cells to society,” pediatric kinesiology has the greatest potential to influence future generations in a time of growing concerns about obesity and sedentary lifestyles.

Not to mention that’s where federal research funding has shifted.

“It’s a really exciting time to be in this field as we look at the many issues surrounding physical activity, in terms of health and fitness, but also at the neuroscience level,” Feltz said.

She recently hired two new faculty members who study the connection between movement and brain functioning, such as how physical activity helps students with ADHD focus on reading and other cognitive goals.

Athletic training also has expanded greatly since the early 1990s through the addition of faculty members leading efforts to develop academic opportunities. Working with colleagues from Spartan Athletics, they received accreditation for the undergraduate program in 2003. In 2007, the program shifted from a specialization within Kinesiology to a separate Bachelor of Science in Athletic Training.

Like student enrollments, the size of the faculty has also ebbed and flowed over the past 20 years. Following several retirements, the faces of the department will be nearly all new to anyone who studied and worked there before or during the 1980s.

Crystal Branta, Martha Ewing and Dianne Ulibarri are each retiring in 2013 after more than 30 years.

Feltz herself arrived fresh from completing her doctorate at Penn State in 1980 and accepted the chairperson’s job (first as acting chair) eight years later. Professor Emeritus Vern Seefeldt, who led the committee that hired her, said he is still very proud of that decision.

“One of the important tasks is to keep faculty happy and make sure they have the resources they need to do their job. Deb was very good at that, very sensitive and perceptive to the needs of students, too,” he said. “When you put those things together, it makes for a productive department.”

Feltz says she is especially appreciative of her first and only administrative assistant Verna Lyon. Both new to their jobs from the start, they have been learning together along the way.

During those 24 years, Feltz stood up for her programs and peers under the threat of budget cuts. She advocated for curricular changes to make academic requirements more rigorous. She helped push faculty and student achievements into the ranks of the nation’s most reputable research destinations.

And she did it while remaining a department chair longer than anyone on campus.

“We have thrived because we have been flexible and adaptable to change, and it’s made us stronger,” Feltz said. “It’s been a great trip and I am glad to have been a part of it.”

Meet the new leader

Alan L. Smith is having a big year.

He finished collecting data on two major research projects, including a before-school physical activity program involving 180 kids.

He was named president-elect of the professional organization for sport and exercise psychologists, NASPSA (the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity), in June. In September, he was inducted into the National Academy of Kinesiology.

During that time, he also became the new chairperson of the Department of Kinesiology at Michigan State University. Smith, an expert on the links between physical activity and youth development, settled into East Lansing this summer to begin leading the next era of kinesiology at MSU.

He comes from Purdue University, where he was director of graduate studies in the Department of Health and Kinesiology and co-director of the Sport and Exercise Psychology Laboratory.

MSU Professor Dan Gould, who led the national search for a new chairperson, said Smith’s focus on pediatric kinesiology and, in particular, the social and psychological aspects of sport and exercise made him an excellent fit.

“We are already one of the top places for studying pediatric sport psychology and exercise psychology and Dr. Smith really helps us further improve on this strength,” Gould said. “He also has a history of collaborating with people across areas and departments, whether in exercise physiology, psychology or education.”

Smith’s current five-year project with colleagues from University of Vermont, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, explores the impact of a before-school physical activity program on K-2 students with ADHD. He is also well known for his work on how social relationships influence young people’s motivation in sports.

Smith has held several administrative roles at Purdue including associate chair of the Institutional Review Board (IRB) for Human Subjects Research. He also was a fellow in the CIC Academic Leadership Program during 2010-11.

Smith received his bachelor’s in psychology from University of Rochester, his master’s in exercise and sport science from University of North Carolina-Greensboro and his doctorate in exercise and movement science from University of Oregon.

He joins the MSU community with his wife Sarah Hatfield-Smith and their two children, ages 9 and 10.

“Clearly the youth focus of kinesiology at MSU was very attractive to me,” Smith said. “I am really looking forward to leading the department and contributing to such a highly regarded college.”

50 YEARS IN KIN, “A Spartan Forever”

Jo Ann Janes says she isn’t one for talking about her accomplishments. But her career, and the emotion that wells up when you ask her about it, definitely speaks for itself.

Janes retired this summer after 50 years as a staff person in the Department of Kinesiology at Michigan State University. She started as a research assistant in the Human Energy Research Laboratory (HERL) and leaves as secretary for both the lab and all matters related to graduate studies in the department.

Above any official job description, she is the person students and faculty members turned to when they needed support or a problem solved. In the words of long-time chairperson Deborah Feltz, Janes has been the “heart and soul of the department.”

“Not only has she been there to witness the department’s growth, she has been absolutely instrumental in its growth over the span of five decades,” said doctoral student Kimbo Yee. “Jo Ann helped each and every one of us by putting us in the best possible position to succeed with whatever our objectives or goals were for that day or moment.”

Janes was honored as one of the university’s best support staff members when she received the Jack Breslin Distinguished Staff Award in 1994. Throughout the challenges of her changing duties, from operating EKG recorders in the 1960s to rejecting student applicants in the ’90s, it is the people that have kept her in kinesiology.

“They are just good people. It’s a small department where everyone knows each other and gets along,” she said. “I was going to retire after 25 years and do something else but I just kept staying. I stayed because I like what I’m doing.”

She says she has loved being around the beauty of campus and students who, despite personalities and trends that come and go, still have the same high levels of energy and ambition. She handled the entire process for graduate students, from first inquiries to enrollment – the department receives about 200 applicants each year – and through to graduation.

“She is there for students from the start to the finish,” said Verna Lyon, assistant to the department chair and a close friend (in the same department for 28 years!). “They know they can count on her.”

And faculty members do too. Janes’ job includes arranging travel, purchasing lab equipment, paying research participants and much more. Professor James Pivarnik, director of HERL and a nationally known expert in exercise physiology, says Janes has more to do with his success than any other person at MSU.

“From her friendship, loyalty, personality and extreme competence, there never has been, and never will be, anyone better,” he said.

In retirement, Janes plans to spend more time with her husband, George, traveling and enjoying her favorite activities. She loves to garden, hike and boat while at their cottage on Torch Lake in northern Michigan. A resident of Haslett, she also plans to do volunteer work at the local library or food bank.

“If you see something that needs to be done, you just do it,” Janes said. “That’s the way I have always been.”


Jan Davenport, another long-serving staff member in the Department of Kinesiology, retired this summer after 26 years. Davenport has had many responsibilities during that time, handling class scheduling, student hiring and support for several faculty members. She also has helped oversee the reference library, department newsletter and annual awards program.