Inside Pitch Magazine, July/August 2020

Inside Interview: Vanessa Shannon

Director of Mental Performance for the Athletic Department, University of Louisville

Vanessa ShannonVanessa Shannon has been the Director of Mental Performance for the University of Louisville Athletic Department and Norton Sports Health since October 2015. Prior to Louisville, Dr. Shannon spent time at IMG Academy, was an Assistant Professor of Sport and Exercise Psychology at West Virginia University, and served as the Department Chair of Exercise and Sport Sciences at Tennessee Wesleyan University. Dr. Shannon holds a PhD in Kinesiology, Recreation, and Sports Studies with a specialization in Sport Psychology and concentration in Counseling (University of Tennessee) a MS in Kinesiology with an emphasis in Exercise Psychology (Kansas State University) and BAs in Health and Human Performance and Psychology from Rice University, where she was a member of the Women’s Volleyball team.

Inside Pitch: How would you define ‘mental performance’?

Vanessa Shannon: Mental performance refers to the cognitive and psychological components of performance. I heard a sport scientist suggest that every athlete’s performance can be defined by an equation: performance = potential – disruption. I would argue, it’s a little bit more complicated than that, because athletes put in work. But, I think it’s a great way of conceptualizing performance and it’s a great way of demonstrating mental performance. If every athlete’s performance = (potential + work) – disruption, then my job is to help our athletes use tools and strategies to improve the quality of their work through better attention and focus and prevent, manage, tolerate, and recover from disruptions through mindfulness, emotional management, composure, and resiliency.

IP: Are you doing what you thought you'd be doing when you finished high school or your undergrad?

VS: I am actually doing exactly what I hoped I would be doing. I played volleyball at Rice University. I went in as PreMed initially and thought I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon. And it was a kind of windy road to get to this position, but I got here.

IP: What is your reasoning when you say, "I wanted to do this with mental performance and I wanted to do it in a college Athletics Department."

VS: In high school I struggled with my mind being my weapon, and by the time I got to college, I had a better handle on it, because I realized that the way I was thinking wasn't helpful to me. That was brought to my attention when a teammate’s mom actually told me, "You are your own worst enemy."

That got me thinking about how I think and how it affected how I perform. So by the time I got to college, I was implementing those strategies and I found them effective, and I was seeing that some of my teammates were not able to quell the voices in their head, the ineffective thoughts.

Another thing that drew me to this particular career was a Coaching Baseball class. We had a gentleman come in who had worked with the Atlanta Braves. He started talking about pairing psychology and sport together and how there's this other piece of psychology that can specifically influence performance and athletes.

And I thought, "I love sports, and I’m really interested in maximizing potential, but I also enjoy serving others." So it seemed like a great career path for me.

IP: Many high level athletes don't have access to a mental performance coach; what are some resources that you would recommend them looking into?

VS: That's a great question, and it's a hard question to answer because mental skills, mental training and mental performance is much like physical training, so individuals are going to respond differently.

So, for example, you have someone in the weight room for the first time as a high schooler, and they might be able to increase strength quite quickly. And then you have somebody else who doesn't catch on that quickly. And you may have somebody who doesn't need to increase strength, they need to increase agility. Mental performance is similar; you have to look at what they’re already doing well in the landscape of mental performance, and then what they want to get better at.

A lot of people tend to resonate with, "Oh, I'm going to listen to what a professional athlete does."One of our baseball players sent me a video of an MLB player talking about a mental strategy that he uses, and then our player asked me – and I was so glad that he asked me – "Hey, is this something that would be useful for me?"

The lesson is that what may be useful for an MLB player, who is far advanced in terms of mechanics, technique, and process, may not be useful for everyone else. So for a high school player, who may not have access to a mental performance coach, I would suggest learning more about what mental skills and mental training actually are and how they might be helpful in their game. Justin Su’a who is the Mental Performance Coach for the Tampa Bay Rays wrote a great book called Mentally Tough Teens: Developing a Winning Mindset and has a podcast high school athletes should check out called Increase Your Impact. Dr. Cindra Kamphoff has a podcast called High Performance Mindset in which she interviews practitioners in the field; it would provide high school athletes a better understanding of what mental training is and how they might incorporate it into what they are already doing to improve their mental performance.

IP: What is the defining trait for athletes who hope to improve their mental performance?

VS: One important concept is emotional agility. That's a term that was coined by a psychologist out of Harvard, Susan David; the idea that there aren't good and bad emotions, they're just emotions, and once we're good at understanding that it's acceptable to have those emotions, we can be better at performing at a high level despite them.

So, a common theme with high school and college athletes is nerves; they’re nervous and that’s a terrible thing. But it's not a terrible thing. It's normal to be nervous. You just have to find a way to play at a high level despite your nerves, because you’re never going to make them go away.

IP: Are there some differences that you have to remind yourself to be aware of as you work with both male and female student athletes?

VS: Yes and no. I think we're seeing some of those gender differences going away a little bit, just because most of those were really related to socialization; women were gender socialized to become moms and men were gender socialized to become breadwinners. Now we don't socialize our young people in that way, which is great, obviously. Instead, we engrain the perspective that anyone can be anything that they want to be.

We still see gender differences related to access to sport after college. Many of our male athletes hope to play a sport professionally, whereas most of our women do not, because it's not an option or it's just not their focus. So certainly because of that, we'll see some differences in how much they value their sport, how strong their athletic identity is, how well they deal with problems related to their sports.

In general, something that happens to disrupt our males’ athletic performance can become a very global concern for them very quickly because their sport is truly their life. Right? Whereas with some of our female athletes, it won't be quite as disruptive because they've already been thinking about their identity outside of being an athlete.

IP: Talk a little bit about the challenges that come with being in a prominent role in athletics as a female. What encouragement might you give to other females who are looking to work in athletics?

VS: Every year, a handful of male athletes will mention, "Well, I don't know how much you know about golf," or "I don't know how much you know about football."And I know that they would never say that to a male. Right? The assertion is a man must have played the sport or must know anyway. But the irony is that a lot of males in general, but specifically male athletes, actually prefer to talk about things like mental performance and mental health with women, because it's more acceptable to share your emotions and talk about your fears and inadequacies with a woman. I think it's just a matter of getting everybody over that initial hump of, "Well, do you actually know about my sport or not?"Once they realize I know about their sport, then it's pretty easy.

Another piece is – I'm not the sport expert, ever. I'm the mind expert, the psychology expert. So even if I'm working with a female volleyball player as a former female volleyball player myself, I'm going to allow that person to be the expert. I'm going to contribute my knowledge and expertise related to psychology and mental performance and together we're going to come up with a solution for whatever it is they're trying to solve.

You definitely have to have a baseline understanding of sports. You have to be able to speak the language.

IP: How do you go about defining mental performance goals for your athletes?

VS: As I mentioned before, there are a lot of individual differences in mental performance, so defining goals is really based on the individual. I start by assessing where they are in their mental performance, through conversations with the athlete, observations that coaches have shared with me about the athlete, and my own observation of their performance in practice and competition.

Once I know where an athlete is, then I want to know where the athlete wants to go and from there we can set goals. I was trained and taught by my mentors that mental skills are like tools and not all people or all projects require all tools, so its about figuring out which tools that athlete already has and which tools the athlete needs moving forward.

IP: What’s your advice to coaches who are trying to implement more mental game strategies in their programs?

VS: I know it's difficult because you all have to wear so many hats, but if you make it part of your program, it becomes more impactful and more important. Start with having a common language that involves talking about the mental game. Read Legacy by James Kerr, about the New Zealand All Blacks; one of their 15 principles of leadership is to have a common language. If you’re speaking about it, your players are thinking about it. And if they’re thinking about it, there’s a decent chance they’re doing it.

Another thing coaches can do is incorporate it into training. If we train people in an elevated demand environment, then we know that when we bring them back down to the actual demands, they will be able to perform at a higher level. So, whether it's exposure to stressors or planned disruptions in training, those can build up the tolerance for demand.

The biggest weakness that a lot of athletes face is they have no clue how they think, because they've never even considered it.We see this quite often in the transition from high school to collegiate pitching. If you look at high school pitching, most of the young men who are going to end up playing at top programs get a lot of strikeouts. Right? That's how they learn how to get most of their outs. But we know that when they get to the college level, that can't be your purpose every time you step on the mound – you're going to feel like a failure really quickly. So you really have to shift the way you think about things, and make your players aware of the fact that their thoughts can be a resource, how they think can be a resource, their mindset can be a resource.

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