Two-time Olympian counsels and coaches at Pentagon

'Mental coaching' teaches athletes ups and downs are part of the fun

Courtney Thompson holds a volleyball while speaking to a circle of youth players on the volleyball court at the Sanford Pentagon.

Two-time Olympian Courtney Thompson won a silver medal with the United States women’s national volleyball team in 2012 and a bronze in 2016 and makes periodic visits to Sioux Falls to work with the Sanford POWER Volleyball Academy.

These are not autograph sessions. Thompson, whose primary occupation is as a mindset coach for Compete to Create, an organization co-founded by Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, addresses fundamentals of the sport with local athletes. She also coaches them on the mental and emotional challenges of competition.

She is an Olympic-level friend to many of the girls involved in the Academy according to Mark McCloskey, club director of volleyball at the Pentagon. When he recognizes a situation where counsel and encouragement from a two-time Olympian might help, he doesn’t hesitate to ask.

“We’ve had times where we’ve had kids who were struggling during the season,” he said. “I’d shoot Courtney a text and ask if she’d call this kid sometime and talk through a few things. Then she’ll do it. She’s great about it. She’s great with humans overall. It’s not just kids, it’s everyone.”

Thompson’s recent visit included a pickleball match with Pentagon staff. She said later she never plays, but no one who saw her competing would have guessed. She was also part of a Pentagon demonstration of the NeuroTracker, a video training game that can hone cognitive recognition and is utilized by the Sanford staff.

Thompson: Enjoy the process

More importantly she worked with the girls with their volleyball skills and talked with them about developing a positive and productive attitude toward volleyball and sports in general.

On that count, Thompson is also a professional.

“My overall goal is to help give kids the tools to enjoy the pursuit of what is possible and enjoy the process of getting better,” Thompson said. “I try to help them understand that the ups and downs are part of the fun.”

That comes down to developing a relationship with stress and challenge. Can people find a way to like it? To embrace it?

“That’s the name of the game,” Thompson said.

Typically, athletes will hear slices of advice on competitive attitude from coaches, though it is most often woven into messages involving tactics or effort or an upcoming competition. Thompson makes an attempt to dig a little deeper.

Understanding your brain

“Growing up I always heard ‘Go be confident.’ But what does that mean?” she said. “People want to be confident, but how do you actually train yourself to be that way? Some of it is understanding how our brains work when we’re stressed. We can train our minds to not let that hijack us.”

Mental skills, Thompson said, come down to front-loading them early. An understanding of why your brain can aim you in unproductive directions is the first step toward avoiding and diffusing those situations.

It can be difficult to communicate to some people exactly how mental coaching works, she said. But it does work.

“People ask ‘So what do you do when you doubt yourself?'” Thompson explained. “Well, that’s how the brain is designed. We have a negative bias. We have to understand that doesn’t mean you’re weak or that doesn’t mean you’re an idiot. It saves so much energy that you can put toward being productive. You’ll likely perform better if you train your mind but for sure you’re going to have so much more fun being aggressive and playing free. I don’t know any coach who wouldn’t want both of those.”

That group definitely includes Coach McCloskey.

“We’re really lucky that she has agreed to be a part of this,” he said. “She just keeps giving back.”

Wide-ranging, far-reaching

Thompson’s involvement is part of what represents the Academy’s unique commitment to the sport.

The Sanford Pentagon is home to nearly 20 teams that will travel around the country from January to June. These squads practice twice a week at the Pentagon, which will host 12 club tournaments in 2020. The venue also hosts the Northern Sun conference tournament, as well as other college matches featuring area schools. In addition, the Pentagon will again host the NCAA Division II national championships in 2021.

Led by McCloskey, a national championship AAU club coach with college stops that include Wyoming and Northern Colorado, the staff features Mandy Mercil, a recent college setter, and former SDSU standout Ashlyn Smith. Athletes get skills work plus access to strength training at Sanford POWER, as well as on-site sports medicine care from Sanford certified athletic trainers.

“We have one of the most unique environments in the country,” McCloskey said. “The access to our facilities, programs and staff create opportunities for players to become well-rounded student athletes. We are looking forward to our continued growth and the opportunities to help our players achieve their goals.”

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Posted In Faces of Sanford Health, Health Care Heroes, Sports Medicine

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