Published: April 15, 2020 By

The new critical sports studies certificate at CU Boulder offers students the opportunity to combine their interests and career goals in relation to sports

Until her AP psychology teacher in high school pointed her to sports psychology as a field of study, Brooke Guarienti, a former dancer, was unaware that she could combine her interests in psychology and sports.

Since then, Guarienti, a psychology major, took every class related to sports at the University of Colorado Boulder to fit both her interest in mental health and its impact on athletes. Eventually, she became the first student to be awarded the critical sports studies certificate at CU Boulder.

Nick Villanueva

Nick Villanueva, an assistant professor in ethnic studies and director of critical sports studies.

"Sports psychology is a particularly interesting intersection between psychology and an athletic discipline. Often athletes are placed in positions where the pressure that they feel is enormous,” said Guarienti. 

She added that this combination really acknowledges “that there are two sides to sports psychology; on one hand there's the performance enhancement piece, which is what people get really excited about and very interested in, and then there's also the mental health aspect to it which is equally as important.” 

“My goal is to be a clinician who's well developed in both of those areas.”

The critical sports studies certificate allows students like Guarienti to explore the field of sports in greater detail, regardless of their major. Nick Villanueva, an assistant professor in ethnic studies and director of critical sports studies, created the certificate to broaden students’ understanding of the world of sports.

“This (certificate) prepares our college graduates for a career in sports where they have the courage and the knowledge to question: why does this problem exist in my sports? Or why does this problem exist in my team or in my athletic department?” Villanueva explains. “It prepares our graduates to work in a career in sports that makes them conscious of social issues, culturally conscious.”

In addition to the courses Villanueva offers in ethnic studies on topics like discrimination and marginalization in the sports scene, the certificate also requires students to take sports-related classes in other departments—such as in classics, psychology and philosophy. 

For me it was particularly important to become a student of that context and really tailor my academic classes towards sport so that I could become a better clinician eventually.​"

Students can also take Villanueva’s study abroad course, “Athlete as a National Symbol,” to explore sports and society in a foreign country. As an “added-value” certificate, the interdisciplinary nature of the certificate allows students to connect their own major to the sports field.

Guarienti, for example, hopes to pursue a PhD program in sports psychology to become a clinician. As a sports medicine intern with CU Boulder’s lacrosse team, Guarienti learns the importance of understanding the world of sports.

"My sporting experience was decently limited, which is another reason why I thought it was really important that I worked in this internship so that I could be submerged in that world, be knowledgeable about it, and not feel like an outside person coming in because a question that I was asked early on was, ‘How do you expect to be a good sport psychologist if you haven’t been an athlete?’”

In line with her desire to become a clinician, Guarienti took a class with Villanueva in her first year at CU Boulder, where she understood the importance of thinking critically about sports. 

"That meant for me taking classes that really would bolster my knowledge in the context where athletes live, where they live their lives, and what pressures sociologically are influencing their experience."

“You can't separate a person from their context. For me it was particularly important to become a student of that context and really tailor my academic classes towards sport so that I could become a better clinician eventually.”


Brooke Guarienti, photo by Matthew Tyrie.

As a sports medicine intern, Guarienti sees how thinking critically about sports helps her interact with athletes. The questions she asks about social position stigma and oppressive systems help her understand the influences they have on these athletes.

“Anytime I can be more aware of different intersections facing athletes, being mindful about language, and trying really hard not to allow my biases to creep into microaggressions or things like that. The certificate is really helping me develop my clinical skillset in terms of interactions with athletes because we’ve been able to look at the context and think critically about it,” she said, adding: 

“It comes down to a multicultural competence piece that I think is often missing from the conversation.”

Critical sports studies is a growing field in academia nationwide. Alongside Villanueva’s courses, he created his own textbook, Critical Sports Studies: A Document Reader, to give students an interdisciplinary approach to what critical sports studies examines. This collection of essays from other scholars, including his own essays, are designed to help students see different perspectives in the field.

In hopes of seeing CU Boulder take the lead on this field of study, Villanueva hopes the certificate becomes an online program.

"Thankfully they (the university) had a lot of classes that really fit with my interest in sports and I'm so grateful for what Dr. Villanueva did because he gathered all of those pieces, all of those components from a variety of disciplines and put them all into one certificate to represent that,” said Guarienti. “I'm really grateful."

Interested students can find more information on the Certificate in Critical Sports Studies on the Ethnic Studies website. To apply for the Critical Sports Studies Certificate, contact the director at