Mental performance specialist Vanessa Shannon, Ph.D., on overcoming disruptions

Dr. Shannon is 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.

Vanessa Shannon, Ph.D., is more than a captivating and insightful mental performance specialist. 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 decisions.

Dr. Shannon is the director of mental performance for Norton Sports Health and the University of Louisville Athletic Department.

As a former NCAA Division I volleyball player, Dr. Shannon understands the challenges associated with balancing performance in the classroom and performance in sport. After completing degrees in psychology and health and human performance at Rice University in Houston, Texas, she earned a master’s degree in exercise psychology from Kansas State University, in Manhattan, Kansas, and a doctorate in exercise, sport, and leisure studies with a concentration in sports psychology from the University of Tennessee, in Knoxville.

Dr. Shannon finds a way to empower everyone who comes in to contact with her.

Here’s an interview I did with her recently. I think you’ll see what I mean.

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.

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-plus D-1 programs. The majority of 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.

The mental performance field 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 the field that there aren’t endless possibilities.

I do believe there is a huge space to be filled with high school athletes, youth sports athletes, youth sports organizations and other types of performers — dancers, surgeons, CEOs. All are performing at high levels on a daily basis and I think this is 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 is 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.

There is often an 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 may come from cultural nuances and socialization perspective where it is more “acceptable to be emotional” around a woman because women may be more understanding and less judgmental.

But, I am lucky to work with coaches and staff who appreciate my expertise and knowledge of sport, so I have faced very little pushback in my work.

Are there differences in how you work with your female 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 issues 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. Whereas men tend to develop independent self-concepts meaning their self-concept is likely to be affected by their interactions with others.

When it comes to team interactions, there is a  gender effect  in the relationship between team cohesion and performance; specifically 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 would say that understanding individual differences no matter what they are informs my work with our athletes.

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 high performance and 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

I heard a sports scientist suggest that performance can be explained as a mathematical equation, where performance equals potential minus distraction. With that in mind, mental toughness can be characterized as our ability to prevent, manage, tolerate, resist and recover from disruption. Disruption can occur in many forms; for example, injury, the weather or a flat tire. At the elite level, we find the majority of those disruptions are mental. So, if you want to achieve your goals, the key is to learn how to handle the disruptions that occur between your ears.

There has been a big positive psychology movement, and there is great research out there about how optimism can improve quality of life, time it takes to recover from injuries, and a number of other outcomes. Unfortunately, I find that positive psychology has been misconstrued by many and been made to seem as though it is the only thing necessary for success and the only way to handle disruptions. It is important to remember there is a continuum from positivity and negativity, and what lies in between is the truth. So don’t be afraid to prepare your mind for the discomfort. Mark Twain said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not the absence of fear.” Similarly, excellence and high performance occur in a vacuum. It will be difficult and there will be disruptions, be prepared for them, and when they come, they will be easier to tolerate.

If we aren’t honest with ourselves about the difficulty and the potential disruptions, when adversity strikes — which it will — we won’t be prepared for it, and we will struggle, and be more likely to quit.

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Expect the expected. Welcome discomfort.

What is the biggest mental performance mistake athletes make?

One big one is what I just mentioned, 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 perfectly (NO!). Michael Phelps has some great examples of this: He broke a world record and won his tenth Olympic gold medal at the Beijing Olympics even as his goggles filled with water. The reason he doesn’t seem to be affected by disruptions like others is because he has prepared his mind to be ready for potential disruptions.

If the disruption 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?

My current position is pretty darn close. But 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 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 University at some point and help the athletes there who likely have fewer resources and potentially greater perceived academic pressures. I would love the opportunity to give back to a place that gave so much to me.

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 sports talk radio or be a part of a show like “GameDay.”

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, Chicago Cubs, Chicago Blackhawks, Chicago Bears, New Zealand All Blacks (rugby): They are a high-functioning team, and I am fan of success done the right way.

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

Kind, empathetic and authentic.

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