How Training My Brain Made Me A Better Athlete (And Person)

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I met Kara when I was a twelve. She spoke at volleyball practice about how to focus during games. At the time, I experienced limited success in volleyball. I felt isolated from my teammates, I was frustrated with my coaches, I dreaded going to practice and I considered quitting the team. In the car on the way home from practice, I expressed how captivated I was by what the sports psychologist taught us at practice. Mom called Kara the next day. I spoke with her every week for a year. Six years later we still talk at least once a month.

I recently emailed Kara and asked her if I could use our monthly Skype call to ask her questions about her experiences as an athlete, coach and sports psychologist. She agreed.

Sport has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. When I was six, my parents signed me up for soccer and I continued to play until I started high school. At fourteen I switched to volleyball. I played for my high school team and as a member of the Peel Selects volleyball club. I think being the tallest girl in my class made volleyball the obvious choice, but I realized that it was the right sport for me.

I learned within my first year of competitive volleyball that it’s a sport of accountability. Every point ends with one person. You missed your serve, or she let the ball drop or I hit the ball into the net. No matter how the point ends, it’s someone’s fault and the other team gets a point. The new level of pressure to always preform at my best intimidated me. But I stuck with it.

I remember playing in high school, when our game came down to the final few points and it was my turn to serve. My head was a whirling mess of “don’t screw this up,” “if I miss they win,” “the whole team is counting me” and “if I can’t do this I’m a failure.”

I stood at the end line with the ball in my sweaty palms, my heart racing, my head pounding and I started to cry. I couldn’t control the emotions exploding in my mind long enough to make one simple serve, even if I did it a thousand times in practice. I missed the serve. We lost the game. My emotions controlled my game, not my ability. I will never forget my coach saying, “Toughen up! There is no crying in Volleyball!” at the end of that game.

My varsity volleyball career at the University of Ottawa was where I became familiar with what I call, “the zone.” My difficulties controlling my emotions never went away, but I discovered what it felt like to be performing at my best.

Time slowed down. I would play an entire game and it only felt like a few minutes. I lost myself in the game. I wasn’t distracted by anything going on in the atmosphere and I wasn’t worried about who was watching me or what they thought. Playing was easy, free, effortless and rewarding. Every time I stepped on the court, I wanted to feel like this. I played exponentially better in “the zone.”

When I graduated, my focus shifted to the national volleyball team. I spent two years training on the court before I made my final switch to the beach. Beach volleyball appealed to me because there are only two players. I would be involved in every play. It wasn’t until I started competing that I realized there is even more pressure in beach volleyball. It’s just you and your partner, which means half of the mistakes are probably yours. My perfectionism and fear of failure dominated my game during my first years playing internationally.

I remember playing on the beach in Phuket, Thailand. Our game was tied and we needed a win to advance into the medal rounds. I stood with the soft sand between my toes and the bright sun shining on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, totally miserable and afraid. I was paralyzed by my attachment to winning and too worried about what it meant if I lost, that I sabotaged my own success. I couldn’t get out of my head and into the game.

I stared out over the ocean after that game and decided there has to be a better way. There has to be a way for me to recreate “the zone” on purpose. There has to be a way for me to play well and be happy at the same time.

I spent my final years on the international stage committed to improving my mental game. I talked to other athletes from all over the world about how they managed their emotions and mental training. All the best players worked with a mental coach or sports psychologist. I decided to do the same. Once I started training my mental game with the same intensity I trained my physical game, I always enjoyed playing. I accessed “the zone” with ease and felt less pressure. I wasn’t afraid anymore. I earned two international gold medals for Canada before the end of my career.

When I decided to retire from volleyball, it was obvious what I would do next. I wanted to provide all athletes, performers and corporations easy access to simple mental tools, to help them master their mental game. Since then, I have worked with people of all ages and all disciplines. It took fifteen years from the first time I cried on the court to discover my pathway to “the zone.” Now I help people reach their full potential much faster than I did.

In all of my international volleyball experience, I never qualified for the Olympics. I like to say, though I can’t tell for sure, that I would have been an Olympian had I developed my mental game at a younger age. TC mark

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