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Dr Karen Howells

Profile summary

  • Central Academic Staff
  • Lecturer, Sport and Fitness
  • Faculty of Wellbeing, Education & Language Studies
  • School of Education, Childhood, Youth and Sport
  • Childhood, Youth and Sport
  • karen.howells

Professional biography

Karen is a Lecturer in Sport and Fitness (Sport Psychology) at The Open University. Previously she worked as a lecturer in psychology and sport psychology in a number of face-to-face universities and further and higher education colleges.  Karen joined the Open University in 2015 having completed her PhD at Loughborough University. The title of her PhD thesis was ‘A Qualitative Exploration of Adversarial Growth in Elite Swimmers’. 

Karen’s specialist area is sport and performance psychology. She is a Chartered Sport Psychologist with the British Psychological Society (BPS) and is registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).  She regularly provides sport and performance psychology support to athletes from a wide range of individual and team sports competing at a variety of levels.  She has also delivered non-technical skills to teams within the Oil and Gas Industry and is an ex-Royal Air Force Officer.

She is also a UKCC Level 2 swimming coach and currently coaches in voluntary and paid positions.

Research interests

Karen has used qualitative methods and analyses to explore issues relating to adversity and psychological growth, post-Olympic blues, body image, elite swimming, and applied sport psychology consultancy.  Her research has contributed to both theoretical knowledge in sport psychology and to practice in the applied arena.  Her PhD research has been published in highly regarded sport psychology journals and has been presented at domestic and international conferences. 

The importance of her research in the area of adversarial growth was recognised by the British Psychological Society's Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology (BPS DSEP) who announced Karen as the recipient of 2016 PhD award which is awarded annually “to a PhD student whose thesis is regarded to be an exceptional, and innovative contribution to knowledge in the field”.

A core commitment of Karen’s philosophy involves evidence based practice and the impact that her research has on sport performers. Her practice with athletes has been published in international applied sport psychology journals and has been presented at domestic conferences.  Of particular note is her application of developmental psychology to applied practice to provide a more diverse perspective on the performance of a young gymnast experiencing fear of a particular move.

Current Research Projects

Karen's expertise is being brought to bear in a number of ongoing collaborative projects which involve further exploring the nature of growth, and researching the proposition that Olympic athletes experience a period of blues in the period following their return from the Games.

She is currently seeking elite athletes who have experienced an adversity in the last 18 months to take part in an interview study. Please contact Karen directly for further information karen.howells@open.ac.uk:

Her peer reviewed publications include:

Howells, K., Sarkar, M., & Fletcher, D. (in press). Can athletes benefit from difficulty? A systematic review of growth following adversity in competitive sport. Progress in Brain Research. doi: 10.1016/bs.pbr.2017.06.002

Howells, K. (2016). Butterflies, Magic Carpets, and Scary Wild Animals: An Intervention With a Young Gymnast. Case Studies in Sport and Exercise Psychology, 1(1-4), 26-37. doi: 10.1123/cssep.2016-0006

Howells, K., & Fletcher, D. (2016). Adversarial Growth in Olympic Swimmers: Constructive Reality or Illusory Self-Deception? Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 38(2), 173-186. doi: 10.1123/jsep.2015-0189

Newman, H., Howells, K., & Fletcher, D. (2016). The Dark Side of Elite Level Sport. An Autobiographic Study of Depressive Experience in Elite Sport Performers. Frontiers in Psychology, 7:868. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00868

Howells, K., & Fletcher, D. (2015). Sink or Swim: Adversity- and Growth-Related Experiences in Olympic Swimming Champions. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 16, 37-48. doi: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2014.08.004

Howells, K. (2014). The dual relationship – the neophyte dilemma. Sport & Exercise Psychology Review, 10(3), 87-90.

Howells, K., & Grogan, S. (2012), Body image and the female swimmer: muscularity but in moderation, Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health 4(1), p. 98-116. doi: 10.1080/2159676X.2011.653502.

Howells, K., & Ross, A. (2012). Conference Report: The Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology Conference 2012, Sport & Exercise Psychology Review, 8(2), 74-76.

de Lima, P., & Howells, K. (2004). Tackling them young. Mental Health Today (Brighton, England), 28

Her conference presentations include:

Howells, K, & Lucassen, M. (2017, October). Returning from Rio: The Post-Olympic Blues, A Qualitative Exploration. Paper accepted by the Association of Applied Sport Psychology Annual Conference, The Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista, Orlando, FL, 18-21 October 2017.

Howells, K. (2016, December). Swimming upstream: growth in elite swimming, a PhD challenge.  Paper presented at the Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology Conference, The Mercure Hotel, Cardiff, 12-13 December 2016 (Award Presentation).

Howells, K., & Fletcher, D. (2016, December). Coaches’ Perceptions of Elite Swimmers’ Adversarial Growth.  Paper presented at The Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology Conference, The Mercure Hotel, Cardiff, 12-13 December 2016.

 Howells, K. (2016, December). Swimming against the Aging Tide – Reflection on Masters swimming workshops.  Poster presented at The Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology Conference, The Mercure Hotel, Cardiff, 12-13 December 2016.

Howells, K., & Fletcher, D. (2015, December). Adversarial Growth in Olympic Swimmers: Constructive Reality or Illusory Self–Deception? Paper presented at The Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology Conference, The Queen’s Hotel, Leeds, 14–15 December 2015.

Howells, K., & Fletcher, D. (2015, August). Recent developments growth research in performance sport. In D. Fletcher (Chair), Recent developments in resilience, growth, and thriving research in performance sport. Symposium conducted at the American Psychological Association Convention, Toronto, ON, 5-10 August 2015.

Howells, K. (2015, February). My story so far: A journey of interlinking roads. Paper presented at The Association for Applied Sport Psychology Student Conference, Loughborough University, Loughborough, 21-22 February 2015.

Howells, K., & Fletcher, D. (2013, December). Sink or swim: Adversity and growth in Olympic champion swimmers. Paper presented at The Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology Conference, The Midland Hotel, Manchester, 16-17 December 2013.

Howells, K., & Grogan, S. (2012, April). Body Image and the Female Swimmer – A Qualitative Investigation. Paper presented at The British Psychological Society Annual Conference, Grand Connaught Rooms, London, 18-20 April 2012.

Selected non-peer reviewed articles/reports include:

Howells, K. (2016, August).'Super-human' athletes are at risk from the post-Olympic blues- here's why. The Conversation, http://theconversation.com/super-human-athletes-are-at-risk-from-the-post-olympic-blues-heres-why-64266

Lingam-Willgoss, C., & Howells, K. (2016, March). Becoming a superhero: what are the limits of human performance? OpenLearn, http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/health/sport-and-fitness/physical-fitness/becoming-superhero-what-are-the-limits-human-performance

Howells, K. (2015, July). The performance story that is pushing Chris Froome to Tour number two. The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/the-performance-story-that-is-pushing-chris-froome-towards-tour-number-two-44998

Howells, K. & Fletcher, D. (2014, January). Sink or swim. Swimming Times, 44-47.

de Lima, P. J., Mackenzie, J., Hutchison, A., & Howells, K. (2005). Mapping Ethnicity in the Highlands and Islands, http://bemis.org.uk/documents/MappingEthnicityReport2005.pdf 

Teaching interests

Karen has been involved in the writing and development of several sport and fitness modules ( E117 and E314).  She is currently module chair for E314 - Contemporary Issues in Sport and Exercise and has previously been module chair for E233 Sport and Exercise Psychology: A Case Study Approach (2015).

Impact and engagement

Karen's philosophy as an academic and sport psychology consultant involves a focus on evidence-based practice.  Currently she is involved in a number of action-research based projects including the delivery of a goal setting intervention to elite level swimmers.

Karen was the lead academic on the OU Learn online activity "Medal Quest" which involves participants attempting to mentor a budding athlete to Olympic or Paralympic Success. 

External collaborations

Karen has been involved with a number of sport psychology journals:

Journal of Sport Psychology in Action - Editorial Assistant (2012-2015)

Sport and Exercise Psychology Review - Student Editor (2014-2016)

She has reviewed manuscripts for: Psychology of Sport and Exercise (PSE), Journal of Sport Psychology in Action (JSPA), Journal of Applied Case Studies in Sport and Exercise Science, International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology (IJSEP), The European Psychologist, Sports, and Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise, and Health (QRSEH)

Publications

Adversarial Growth in Olympic Swimmers: Constructive Reality or Illusory Self-Deception? (2016)
Howells, Karen and Fletcher, David
Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 38(2) (pp. 173-186)
The Dark Side of Top Level Sport: An Autobiographic Study of Depressive Experiences in Elite Sport Performers (2016)
Newman, Hannah J. H.; Howells, Karen and Fletcher, David
Frontiers in Psychology
Butterflies, Magic Carpets, and Scary Wild Animals: An Intervention with a Young Gymnast (2016)
Howells, Karen
Case Studies in Sport and Exercise Psychology ((In Press))
Sink or swim: adversity- and growth-related experiences in Olympic swimming champions (2015-03)
Howells, Karen and Fletcher, David
Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 16(3) (pp. 37-48)
Body image and the female swimmer: muscularity but in moderation (2012-03)
Howells, Karen and Grogan, Sarah
Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 4(1) (pp. 98-116)
Can athletes benefit from difficulty? A systematic review of growth following adversity in competitive sport (2017-10)
Howells, Karen; Sarkar, Mustafa and Fletcher, David
In: Progress in Brain Research ((Early Access))
ISBN : 978-0-12-804215-1 | Publisher : Elsevier

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