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River Runners Program Studies Motivation and Mental Health in Adventure Sports

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River Runners Program Studies Motivation and Mental Health in Adventure Sports

Three men standing in front of river with arms around each other
Student riding a boogie board in a wave pool
Student wearing black shorts and a black shirt on a surfboard holding a rope

Associate Professor Ben Heddy (Educational Psychology) and Assistant Professor Cian Brown (Professional Counseling) are working together in creating the River Runners Project, an outdoor adventure education program combining Heddy’s background in transformative learning and Brown’s background in adventure therapy.


The pilot program kicked off this fall, thanks to a summer grant from the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education. Nine eighth-grade students from John Rex Charter School in Oklahoma City have been taking part in activities at Riversport in Oklahoma City, combining adventure sports with lessons in risk management (whitewater rafting), self-efficacy (surfing), resilience (rock climbing), emotions (kayaking) and self-regulation (high ropes course).


“We designed an educational program to promote kids applying those ideas to the adventure sports,” Heddy said. “Then, what we want to do is encourage students to apply those ideas to their everyday life.


“For example, we teach self-efficacy, and we have students surf. Surfing is really fun, but it is really hard. So, where do they notice self-efficacy while surfing? How does self-efficacy help them become better surfers? Then we have an educational program about how they transfer those ideas to their everyday life.”


“With Ben’s background in transformative learning and my background in adventure therapy, we are bringing these concepts together to provide the students this opportunity to learn about these important skills they can use in everyday life that might also have some mental health benefits,” Brown said. “It also gives them access to experiential activities that they might not normally have.”

2 people climbing at the top of a rock wall
A picture from above looking down at people whitewater rafting in a blue boat
A man in a green shirt on a surfboard with a person standing in front of him

Brown, who is in his second year on the JRCoE faculty, began thinking about this idea as he was making connections and seeing where he could build adventure therapy partnerships. That brought him to Riversport and Melanie Borger, the company’s director of corporate engagement and youth outreach. As the conversation continued, Brown realized he would need more support and came across Heddy’s work in motivation.


“We have a lot of similar ideas and approaches to education, learning and even the psychological and mental health factors,” Brown said. “We started that conversation and (Heddy) brought a lot of good ideas in fleshing out the program.”


Not a lot of people make a connection between Oklahoma, Oklahoma City and adventure sports. This program also brings awareness that Oklahoma can be a natural space where you engage in outdoor activities that can be transformative.


“I think in general that Oklahoma, and Oklahoma City, is not considered to have much outdoor wonder, but there is a ton of it in our backyards if we take a look,” Heddy said. “Riversport is one of the things, but there are tons of hiking and trails, places to access these sports. The other thing about these extreme sports is they offer a perfect opportunity to think about things like motivation and resilience because they inherently take resilience. They are extreme sports. They are hard. You fall a lot. You mess up a lot. And you need to have resilience. You need to have a belief in your self-efficacy, and you need to have motivation or else you won’t continue with them. It’s a uniquely useful place to apply ideas for motivation and resilience. Once you experience those things, it is so much easier to understand them and transfer them to your everyday life.”


Heddy and Brown both have experience working with middle school-age children in their research, and they knew this was the group they wanted to focus on for this project. Children in this age range are experiencing leaps in their psychological and emotional development, and equipping them with these tools is something that can be a resource. An already established relationship between John Rex and Riversport made it the perfect partnership.


“A lot of talk right now is on social-emotional learning and this ties into that piece,” Brown said. “At this age, we can equip them with the knowledge and skills they can apply as they continue to go through these new chapters of their life.”


A typical day in the program begins with the students arriving at Riversport and receiving a lesson on that day’s idea. For whitewater rafting, the lesson was about risk management — what is real vs. perceived threat and how does that influence behavior and decision making? After that, they participate in the activity. For whitewater rafting, they received prompts during the activity to think about those ideas. Afterward, they reflect on when they were thinking about risk assessment and how it changed the way they viewed the activity. When they return to Riversport for the next week’s lesson, they begin by talking about where they applied the ideas learned previously in their everyday life.


“That is the transfer piece,” Heddy said. “We don’t just want to teach people to be resilient during adventure sports. We want to have broader impact and have people apply those ideas to their everyday life. We send them home with homework, where they actually get to try to experience those ideas in their everyday life.”


The response from students and their parents has been overwhelmingly positive.


“They love it,” Brown said. “They are energized, especially after the activity. Sometimes it is fun but challenging to get them back to the processing piece right after having such an exhilarating experience. From conversations we have had afterwards and have heard from parents, they are really receptive to it and think it is something they should have more access to. Especially for some of these kids, at John Rex, they don’t have team sports, so this might be their only recreational or physical activity they get to experience.”


Heddy and Brown hope to use the research from this pilot project to improve upon and expand the program. The goal would be to have 200 students in the program for the fall semester and another 100 in the spring, with participants coming from Oklahoma City Public Schools and local charter schools. Those numbers will require finding additional funding resources. Costs for the program run $500 per student and the fees for the nine students in the pilot project were covered with the money from the JRCoE grant.


“A nice thing about this program is it is a true partnership with Riversport,” Heddy said. “They provide transportation and an employee. They provide access to all the sports; they shut down the facility. We have a unique guide for each activity. They are not making any money off this program. Any funding that we get would be to pay the students’ tuition to engage in the program and learn about these ideas.”


If you are interested in supporting this program, contact JRCoE Development Officer Jenn Doughty at