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Dr. Tara Scanlan
Dr. Tara Scanlan received the 2018 AHS Distinguished Alumni Award

My Story Is About People

Distinguished Alumni Award recipient Tara Scanlan credits Phyllis Hill and Rainer Martens for her pioneering spirit.


When Tara Scanlan came to the University of Illinois in 1965, there were three career options for women: teacher, nurse, and secretary. A longtime athlete who had played field hockey, basketball, and lacrosse as a high school student, Tara opted for teacher and enrolled in the Physical Education for Women degree program. There, she met two extraordinary people who changed the course of her life.


In accepting the 2018 College of Applied Health Sciences Distinguished Alumni Award, Dr. Scanlan, now a professor emeritus and research professor in the Department of Psychology at UCLA, credited Dr. Phyllis Hill with her love of teaching and Dr. Rainer Martens with her love of research.


“[Dr. Hill] taught my first lecture as a freshman. It ignited me right then. BOOM! This is what I want to do; this is how I want to do it. I want to teach at the college level and I want to make the impact that this woman has on students,” she said.


Tara completed a senior honors thesis on motor learning and perception and was encouraged to remain at Illinois for graduate studies. She was Dr. Martens’ first doctoral student in a new field he was developing that would eventually be called sport psychology. Because there was little research on the social and emotional aspects of sports participation, she augmented her studies on motor learning and perception with classes in social psychology, motivation and emotion, and industrial and organizational psychology. “Anything, in pursuit of research that would help us build a knowledge base,” she said.


UCLA was looking for someone to build their program in motor learning. Tara convinced them that what they really needed was a program in the social psychology of motor behavior. She built an extraordinary career there, and her influence on developing the field of sport psychology has been significant and widely cited. Of those early days, she said, “We set the research agenda and standards for others to follow. We launched and led organizations. We founded journals and served as editors and editorial board members. We developed courses, curricula, and programs. We taught and mentored undergraduate and graduate students and post-doctoral fellows.”


She also had a major impact on the broadening of research methodologies used in scientific research. She was the first to use both qualitative and quantitative methods in psychology in a study of elite figure skaters. She developed the Sport Commitment Model, which identifies five key factors related to the decision to continue participating in sports, and the Scanlan Collaborative Interview Method, which uses interview data to develop test, and expand psychological theory.


Today, she directs the International Center for Talent Development at UCLA, which is dedicated to understanding and facilitating the development of talent across a diverse range of skill levels and talent domains, including art, business, dance, education, music, and sport.


Her own talent—for teaching, mentoring, and pioneering—grew at Illinois, where, she said, “I was surrounded by fun, talented, motivated fellow students and wonderful, caring, gifted teachers.”


She continued, “As students, we were held to high standards and we were always in the middle of inventing things. This made us confident. This made us proud. When people knew you were from Illinois, they knew that meant something.”

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