As full-time athletes — as well as full-time students — Penn State athletes manage both their physical and mental health, on and off the field.
Coach Jeff Cook said he believes his athletes' mental health is something that needs to be paid attention to and managing pressure is an essential part of the life of a student athlete.
“I think mental health is an absolutely critical component of preparing student athletes for success in the classroom, in life and on the field,” Cook said.
The blue and white has enjoyed winning games and competing with other teams this season, however, the players' wellbeing is a fundamental aspect of its program.
“If we’re not paying attention to our mental health, then I would indicate to myself, and all the coaches, that there’s something bigger going on here than just the score of the game,” Cook said.
Many Nittany Lions feel pressure to be successful going into games, and this is heightened due to the challenges they face from new opponents.
Each game comes with new competition and new challenges — meaning it can be difficult for the team to prepare — but Cook trusts his team to manage that aspect of playing the game.
“I think we have confidence in our group to handle a lot of different situations, a lot of different environments and focus on what we need to improve on,” Cook said.
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One of the more difficult situations to handle for the Nittany Lions are away games.
Junior forward Liam Butts said he thinks some of the crowds at away games can be a mentally straining environment — especially at the West Virginia game where the blue and white was forced to play a man down.
Butts also stated that away matches can vary in terms of how mentally taxing they are depending on how animated an environment the home crowd creates.
Cook tells his players to be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that if one game develops in a certain way that the next one is going to follow suit. Every game comes with a unique set of obstacles for the blue and white.
Butts said he believes that the coaches do a great job preparing the Nittany Lions — both physically and mentally — before a game. The coaching staff lays out where the players need to be on the field and tells them where they might need to put offensive pressure on the opponent.
“Just outlining the things we need to do before the game really takes the pressure off in the games,” Butts said. “When you’re under pressure, you might forget and just having the coaches reinforce that before is really helpful when you’re in the heat of battle.”
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And, Cook said Penn State does a lot of work behind the scenes with its performance and with its coaching staff.
“We make sure that the whole team knows that whatever happens, we have each other’s backs and that the relationships, individuals' mental health and wellbeing is absolutely the first thing,” Cook said.
Junior goalkeeper Kris Shakes is more familiar with the pressure than perhaps any blue and white player as the netminder’s performance can often decide the success of the team on any given day.
Shakes had a successful season last spring and is continuing to shine in the net this season. He totaled 44 saves in the 2020 season and has 17 saves in four games in 2021.
“[Shakes] is athletic in terms of his capabilities, his explosiveness and jumping ability, his power, but what sets him apart is his recognition of how to come up big in really difficult situations,” Cook said.
Shakes, a vocal and assertive leader on the pitch, uses his presence and performances to bring mental stability to the rest of the team in moments where the Nittany Lions face those “difficult situations.”
A challenge for the blue and white is having to play frequently and not having much of a break in between matches to relax and rest.
Cook said he is confident his squad can handle the fast-paced season and the mental strain it can bring.
“We feel we have the depth, the experience and the quality in our team to handle it,” Cook said.
The team is focusing on improving its performance and becoming the best versions of itself for this season.
Penn State is finding out what its strengths are and what some of its vulnerabilities are to be able to prepare for its fast-approaching conference schedule.
As the blue and white prepares to take on a host of top-leveled opponents, Cook said he prefers for the team to lean into the psychological stability of remaining as consistent as possible despite facing a unique challenge in each team it faces.
“We stay as consistent as we can with our beliefs,” Cook said. “I would say we do slight adjustments rather than wholesale changes of playing philosophy or strategy.”
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