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Vanessa Shannon: Preparing Athletes to Take on the Mental Challenges of Sports and Life

When I first met Vanessa I was asked to sit in on her interview for her current position, there was little interview involved, rather it was five people, myself included, being mesmerized by her knowledge and poise. I don’t think that you can hear Vanessa speak and not be impressed. The truth is when you are as passionate as she is about what you do it will show and people will be captivated by that. But she is more than just an absolute bad ass sports psychologist, she is also one of those rare people who can see everyone’s side on an issue, speak truth to you in a compassionate way, and provide advice in a way that still allows you to make your own choice. She is truly one of those women who you just want be around because she finds a way to empower everyone who comes in to contact with her. I couldn’t even begin to put all her knowledge and awesomeness in one post, but here is just a piece of a woman we should all be lucky enough to know and learn from.

Tell us a little bit about yourself:

I grew up in Southern California. I played college volleyball at Rice University. I have a Master’s degree in exercise psychology from Kansas State University and doctorate in sports psychology from the University of Tennessee. My area of emphasis was group dynamics and team culture. I have been an athlete my whole life and I am very passionate about teams.

I’ve been lucky enough to have had a variety of experiences within my field including being on the academic side, doing research, working with individuals, and working with teams ranging from young athletes to professional athletes.

I am currently the Director of Mental Performance for the University of Louisville and Norton Sports Health.

Would you tell young women to pursue a career like yours?

For me this question isn’t gender specific. I would encourage any young adult who is passionate about it to pursue the career, but first they need to really understand the job I have and the profession as a whole. People always say to me “your job sounds so cool, I want to do what you do.” Which is true my job is very cool and fun but you have to know what you are getting in to. The honest truth is I got really lucky because I truly enjoy helping people and I love sports and it is a great job for me because I get to combine those two passions.

But you have to know getting in to this that there are long hours and working with teams all year round, there is rarely down time with this job. It is also having an understanding of what you can really do. Positions like mine, in the Division I athletics setting, are very rare, and when you just look at performance psychology there are probably about 10 of us at the 300+ D1 programs. The majority of sport psychology or mental performance professionals work with the military which is also a great setting but it is a unique population of performers and you have to understand that context. In general, mental performance is still a small group of professionals, it is growing as people continue to understand the importance of it, but I always want to be honest with anyone who is looking to get in to field that there aren’t endless possibilities.

I do believe there is a huge space to be filled with high school athletes, youth sport athletes, and youth sports organizations and I think this where the profession will grow in the future.

Are there any difficulties associated with being a woman in your career?

Any career that a female has in sports will have its battles. Part of it just comes from the logistics of sport, the likelihood that I, as a woman have played a sport like football in my life is minimal, given my age and opportunity when I was younger compared to most men. So it usually doesn’t cross a male athlete’s mind when he works with a male consultant whether or not he has played football or knows football. The irony is, and I joke with some of our players on campus, that I probably know more than some of them do about football. In my profession for the most part if a male athlete is working with a male consultant, it may never cross their mind that the consultant doesn’t know about or have experience with their sport, but as a female I have heard from male athletes things like “I’m not sure how much you know about [sport]” or “I don’t know if you know much about [sport].”

There is just a subconscious assumption that a male consultant can relate to their sport and female consultant won’t be able to. There is also an assumption that males connect better with other males, but what we find is that when it comes to ‘helping professionals’ males may actually prefer to work with females. The reason for this, we think, comes from a cultural and socialization perspective where it is more ‘acceptable to be emotional’ around a woman because women would be understanding of that and less judgmental. I am lucky to work with coaches and staff who appreciate that I am an expert in my area and I am knowledgeable on the athletics side of things so I have faced little pushback in my work.

Are there differences in how you work with your females athletes versus your male athletes?

There are certainly some gender differences. It won’t necessarily modify my work with the athletes, but it will modify the problems that they present to me. For example, we find in research for as long as we can remember, that women tend to be more interdependent, meaning that their self-concept is made up not just by what they think of themselves but their interactions with others.

When it comes to team interactions there are gender effects on team cohesion and performance; there is a larger performance-cohesion effect on female teams than male teams. But I wouldn’t say gender informs my work with our athletes, I would say individuals inform my work with our athletes. I wouldn’t change the way I consult with a female athlete because she is female, unless the athlete expresses to me that she believes that her challenges are gendered.

What are you passionate about?

In regards to my work, I am really passionate about helping people maximize their potential. I am constantly trying to learn more about the best teams, CEOs, military personnel, etc. and what creates those successful environments and how I can teach that to other people to help them do the same. I am passionate about learning. I believe you have to practice what you preach, and if I am always challenging the athletes to attack the gap between where they are and their best then I have to be willing to do that as well. I love sports outside of my job as well, I still play volleyball, golf and tennis.

Best advice for female athletes and active women:

Think of performance as an equation, performance is our potential minus any disruptions that may occur during training and competition. With that in mind, mental toughness can be characterized as our ability to resist disruption. Disruption can occur in many forms; for example, injury, the weather, or a flat tire. However, at the elite level, the majority of those disruptions are mental. Therefore, if you want to achieve your best, the key to preventing and managing disruption is battling those mental challenges.

There is a big movement in positive psychology and mindset that is dead on and there is great research out there about how it can improve one’s quality of life. I do however personally think that is has been misconsumed which has led to the idea that we have to always be positive and that it is a bad idea to be anything but positive. But there is continuum from positivity to negativity and what often lies in between is the truth, honesty and realism. So don’t be afraid to prepare your mind for the discomfort. There is a quote I love, “you can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf”. It is ok to acknowledge that there will be waves and that when they do occur that you are frustrated or discouraged by them. You have to be realistically optimistic. Preparing our minds for the stuff that will be difficult helps us to take on those challenges when they come. Otherwise when adversity strikes and we aren’t prepared for it we will struggle and will be more likely to quit.

Manage your expectations. Expect the expected. Welcome discomfort. Don’t be afraid to prepare your mind for the challenges and know that some of it will be difficult.

What is the biggest mental performance mistake athletes make?

One big one is assuming it will all go perfectly because it will not. We tend to assume to be the best or do your best that everything has to go perfect (NO!). Michael Phelps has some great examples of this, he broke one of his own world records when his goggles were full of water, he got on to the blocks before a race and his suit tore but he still found a way to win. The reason he doesn’t seem to be affected by those disruptions like others might be is because he has prepared his mind to be ready for things to not go perfectly. If the disruptions is something within your control, for example you tend to binge watch Netflix and miss sleep, then you want to try to prevent the disruption by setting a bedtime alarm. But if the disruption is something outside of your control, for example the weather, then you want to try to manage the disruption by adapting your behavior (i.e., what you wear, when you train, how you fuel) in order to be successful despite the hot or cold or rain.

Do you have an ultimate career goal?

I would never say that I have reached my ultimate career goal because even though I love my current position I am firm believer that there is always a gap between where I am and my best. I think it’s ok to dream even bigger when you reached what you once thought was your career goal.

I like winning and helping teams win. The greatest challenge is to do this job when resources are limited. With that in mind I would like to go back to Rice at some point and help the athletes there who likely have fewer resources and potentially greater perceived academic pressures.

My ultimate career goal, no matter where I am, is to help as many people as possible maximize their potential by minimizing disruptions. I’d love to do sport talk radio or be a part of a show like Game Day (editor’s note: I 100% am behind this and think ESPN needs to look to hire Vanessa ASAP!)

Worst Career Advice:

I was in the middle of my master’s work and someone told me to uproot myself and move to another school because the person did not believe that I would reach my goals where I was. What I learned was that for me staying, and doing what I thought was best, ended up leading to a variety of experiences that have helped me reach my career goals in ways I don’t think I otherwise would have.

Best Career Advice:

Never do anything because you have to, always do it because you want to. No matter how helpful you think it will be, you won’t gain anything from it if you don’t want to do it.

Favorite Sports Teams:

University of Louisville

New Zealand Allblacks: they are a high-functioning team and their long history of maintaining it is impressive

Quality teams: I am a fan of success done the right way

If people could only use three words to describe you what do you hope they are?

Compassionate, Empathetic, Grateful