Athletes enjoy secret weapon in mental performance coach

GREENSBURG, Pa. (AP) — Melissa White might be on the sidelines during Friday night football games as a Hempfield coach, but she doesn't care what the scoreboard says.

Instead, the school's mental performance coach — who holds a doctorate degree in sports psychology — is worried about how the players are performing mentally, and that they're reaching their full potential each game.

"I'm the person that's looking out for the athletes that are maybe struggling in the plays or struggling with anxiety, or maybe they're hurt and they don't want to say anything," the 38-year-old Latrobe resident said. "And so I do check-ins with that, so that's kind of how my role plays out on Friday nights."

White is one of two mental performance coaches in state, according to Chloe Grandin, spokesperson for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, an international program that certifies sports psychologists. The other coach works with the Uniontown Area School District, she said.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, an Indianapolis, Ind.-based national leadership organization for high school sports and performing arts, almost 32% of adolescents deal with anxiety. Of those, over 8% have a severe impairment.

In her role, White works individually and in group settings to help athletes overcome mental blocks, dissect what went wrong during practices and games, and encourage athletes to do their best.

Earning her doctorate

A sixth-grade teacher at Hempfield's Wendover Middle School, White received her bachelor's degree in teaching.

"From the time I was little, my goal in life was to make a difference in people's lives," she said. "That's all I wanted to do and then I built my career around that and I was like, 'OK, I want to be a teacher because I can make a difference in kids' lives.'"

During that time, she coached a state champion and multiple record-holders on the high school's pole vaulting team. But "there was still something missing," she said.

Looking back, White can pinpoint one moment when she realized what it was.

Coaching Hempfield pole vaulters at a meet in Edinboro about two years ago, White had the opportunity to speak with a student from another team who was nervous to compete after not performing well during warmups.

"I just looked at him in the face and I just high fived him and I just said, 'Today's going to be a great day.' And after every single jump, I was like, 'Remember, today's going to be a great day.' And after we said it a few times he started to believe it and that was just it," White said.

By the Monday after the meet, White was enrolled at California University of Pennsylvania for her master's degree.

Today, White realizes she was always a "cheerleader" for all athletes, despite of what team they were on.

"I just tend to be a positive person and I'll go and say, 'Oh, your warm-ups looked great' .. When they'd win, I was the first person there high-fiving them, even if they beat my athlete because I wanted people to get that feeling," she said.

Now, White works with the track athletes and the football team at Hempfield Area High School. Through her business, Performance Edge Consulting, she has worked with gymnasts, runners, lacrosse and field hockey players.

Joining the football team for practices every Tuesday and Thursday, she often hosts optional group sessions where the team can dissect practice and talk about issues with their game.

Hempfield Athletic Director Greg Meisner said White's sessions are especially helpful when it comes to football, adding that any sport is based in mental preparation and toughness.

"Other than the first day of football camp, there's not a day you go through the season where you feel 100% healthy," he said. "Something's always nagging you. So you need to learn to mentally overcome that and play. It actually makes you play better knowing, 'Hey, I'm not 100% so I've got to pick myself up.' That's how NFL players make it through a whole 16-game season."

High school football coach Rich Bowen agreed, adding, "I think (the students) enjoy it. I think they enjoy going in (sessions) . It's basically a lot of leadership type stuff and how to support each other. . We get great turnouts and the kids look forward to it. She's just been a great part of our program."

Sport psychology

Working with kids one-on-one and in group settings, White focuses on positive self-talk, visualization, confidence and goal-setting.

"Mental blocks is the main thing," White said. "That happens all of a sudden. There's been stories, and I haven't worked with any of these people, but there have been stories of baseball players who all of a sudden can't pitch well. Like they just can't throw a certain pitch. Their mind just kind of went off and so those are kinds of blocks. Gymnasts who can't go backwards. They can still do all of their forward tumbling, can't go backwards."

To break those blocks, White takes the athlete back to when they stopped being able to do their skill. After that, White said it's about reframing the thinking, meaning that athletes need to realize it is a skill they have performed multiple times in the past, so they know it is something they can do.

And when it comes down to it, White advises her athletes to not step on the mat, field or diving board until they're ready to go.

"If you were afraid to go off a diving board and you stood on the edge of the diving board, the longer you stand there, the less chance you have of going," White said. "If you just walk out and jump off, it's over."

For Hempfield, White's role is a "win-win," Bowen said.

"I think it's a good, positive message," he said. "Anytime you can get someone in there that can get a positive message to the kids and . I think it helped us last year going through a trying season."

He added that he hopes the program remains in the district in coming years.

"Being on the sidelines on Friday nights is just incredible or being at the state meet with my pole vaulters and being able to give them an edge," White said. "Because they have something that no one else has.

"And I feel a responsibility and other coaches then will be like 'Hey can you come talk to my athlete, they're feeling really nervous today?' And I might not even know that athlete, I might meet them right there and just be like 'Hey, we've got to talk. I'm Coach White.'"

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Information from: Tribune-Review, http://triblive.com