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Penn State Athletics works to ensure athletes have needed mental resources through performance psychology

Penn State Women's Soccer vs Iowa, B1G Semi-Finals, Coffey (17)

MIdfielder/forward Sam Coffey (17) dribbles the ball down the field during Penn State women’s soccer’s Big Ten Tournament semi-final game against Iowa on Thursday, April 15, 2021 at Jeffrey Field. Iowa beat Penn State 1-0.

The life of a Penn State athlete can be stressful.

The expectations they deal with on the field and in the classroom are enough to weaken their mental strength, which can lead to poor performance in both.

In Penn State’s athletic department, the mental strength of its athletes is treated with an incredible amount of importance.

The performance psychology department, led by Carl Ohlson and Adrianna Napoletano, works tirelessly to teach Nittany Lion athletes and coaches the skills necessary to be successful in all aspects of life.

Working in unison with Penn State’s Counseling and Psychological Services, Ohlson and Napoletano’s mission is to instill an attitude and belief system that allows athletes to form championship habits.

“We want to proactively build mental skills,” Ohlson told The Daily Collegian. “Then, in response to certain situations, build the coping strategies, the reset skills, the ability to very intentionally walk yourself out of a negative situation into a neutral situation, and then from neutral into positive.”

Ohlson’s path to being at the forefront of performance psychology at Penn State wasn’t exactly a traditional one.

After attending the United States Military Academy West Point, Ohlson served as an Airborne Infantry Ranger officer.

It was at that time he was presented with the opportunity to explore something different.

“I was a company commander at Fort Benning, Georgia, with 202 soldiers under my command at the time, and things were going really well,” Ohlson said. “Then, the army offered me a three-year assignment at West Point at the center for enhanced performance.

“They said, ‘The only thing is you have to go get yourself a master's degree in sports psychology, whatever that is.’”

To secure that master’s degree, Ohlson headed to the University of Virginia where he would learn from Bob Rotella, one of the most renowned sports psychologists in the world.

It was in the classrooms of Virginia that Ohlson realized sports psychology was becoming his passion.

“I sat there listening to what mental skills really are and how it's connected to everything I've experienced in the army,” Ohlson said. “So there were these ‘aha’ moments with flashes going off in my brain the whole time, and in that moment in the classroom in 1994 I fell in love with sports psychology.”

Fast forward to today, and Ohlson is using the skills he learned from his time in the Army and under Rotella’s tutelage to positively impact Penn State Athletics.

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“I proposed that if I partner with coaches, it changes the way that coaches are coaching,” Ohlson said. “So we can multiply the influence across an entire organization with one relationship.”

Teaching coaches the skills they need to benefit the mental strength of Penn State athletes allows Ohlson and Napoletano to widen their influence over every team on campus without needing to be physically present at all times.

Christina Diaz, who currently works as the special assistant to the vice president of intercollegiate athletics, acknowledges how vital it is for performance psychology to be present throughout the entire athletic department.

“We can serve our students as much as we want, but if our staff and our coaches aren't at the best that they can be, then we're not giving our student athletes as much as possible,” Diaz told the Collegian.

For Ohlson, the key to successfully implementing performance psychology in Penn State Athletics has always been about personal connections.

“It all starts with relationships,” Ohlson said. “And that's why it's so essential that we're out in the environment with the teams and coaches. Everybody knows us because we will stand in the rain or in the snow. Whatever it is, they trust us.”

While Ohlson and Napoletano’s personal relationships are essential to providing athletes with the psychological resources they need, they are not alone.

Nicole DeFerrari of Penn State’s Counseling and Psychological Services helps to treat the clinical and subclinical mental health concerns of athletes.

That partnership has created a highly organized and well-structured system that ensures athletes have the care they need.

“We are unbelievably collaborative,” Ohlson said. “This is the most collaborative unit I’ve ever been a part of anywhere and a lot of that has to do with who has been selected for the job and the leadership.”

As a former volleyball player at the University of Florida, Diaz lived the life of a student athlete and intimately understands how meaningful the work of the performance psychology department is.

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“What they do best is they come see our student athletes and coaches in their environment, not just games, but practices, team meetings, strength and conditioning sessions, and leadership councils,” Diaz said. “They're gathering all of this type of information to be able to develop relationships.”

Current Nittany Lion fifth-year senior Sam Coffey might know that better than anyone.

Throughout her career on Penn State’s women’s soccer team, Coffey had multiple interactions with the performance psychology staff, both individually and through the team.

The most notable of those interactions came during the height of the pandemic when some college athletes were struggling to find a clear sense of direction.

“With the tools that they gave us, and the training and the hours of dedication with our programs, we’re set up to respond well in those moments of adversity,” Coffey told the Collegian.

Coffey attributes much of her personal success, and the success of the women’s soccer program, to the importance Ohlson and Penn State Athletics put on the mental health of athletes.

“I think the mental side of athletics, mental health, mental strength, resiliency is arguably the most important part of any sport,” Coffey said. “I think if you don't have that element of the game in check, then everything else is set up to fail.”

The resiliency of athletes is something Ohlson has preached ever since he arrived in Happy Valley.

Rather than treating athletes for mental problems they might be dealing with, Ohlson’s entire philosophy has been predicated on teaching individuals the skills they need to increase mental strength.

“Everybody is going to have a bad moment, or a bad day, or score a negative experience,” Ohlson said. “If you have already built these mental toughness skills, these championship thinking skills, you have more skills to use to navigate tough times now.”

The work Ohlson has done has gone a long way in ensuring Penn State’s athletes are equipped with these skills, which is directly reflected in the success various athletic teams have had.

Since Ohlson first learned the in’s and out’s of performance psychology from Rotella, the field has expanded immensely.

However, much like many other industries are discovering, there’s still so much more that can be done to improve the mental health, of not only athletes, but of everybody, Ohlson said.

“So now in the 21st century, we're talking about people celebrating the fact that athletes are going to get some assistance with mental health and the stigma is sliding further and further away,” Ohlson said. “But there’s still plenty of growth left and plenty of work out there for all of us.”

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