Professor helps improve Lady Tops’ mental game

Nick Bratcher

WKU softball began this season trying to recover from the loss of seven starters from last year’s team.

The Lady Toppers (15-11) needed a way to rapidly mature their young team and believe they’ve found an answer with Betsy Shoenfelt, sports psychologist and WKU professor.

Shoenfelt, who’s taught at WKU since 1983 and also worked with the volleyball and women’s basketball programs, presented a series of workshops to the softball team over the past month to improve the players’ mental toughness.

Head Coach Tyra Perry said speaking with Shoenfelt brings the Lady Toppers to a new level.

“It’s pretty common in most of the top programs in the country,” Perry said. “Most of them have a sports psychologist on staff. In the past, we’ve purchased books from those teams’ psychologists, and we’ve talked about their points as coaches.

“But when you have someone come in that’s a professional whose methods have been proven, it really helps reiterate those points.”

Shoenfelt said the sessions have revolved around harnessing the mind to focus on what a player can control.

“There are lots of things you can’t control — whether you’re home or away, your opponent, if the cute guy in the stands is looking at you,” she said. “But you can control how you respond and react to these things. Control is the essence of mental toughness.”

The Lady Toppers, who have typically started just two upperclassmen each game this season, appear to have grasped the concept.

Despite its youth, this year’s team recorded more than twice as many wins as last year leading up to its first Sun Belt Conference opponent.

But how is the team controlling what seems to be a natural response?

Shoenfelt said the key is to practice the three “P’s” to proper focus, which means focusing on the “present, the positive and the performance.”

Shoenfelt said the “present” refers to concentrating on what can be accomplished in the current moment.

She also said many of WKU’s problems provided easy fixes by using her second “P”— positive self-talk.

“Psychologists have found that the body doesn’t respond to ‘dos or don’ts.’ It responds to the action,” she said. “It’s as simple as stating things to yourself in the positive like, ‘Keep your eye on the ball,’ instead of, ‘Don’t take your eye off the ball.’”

The techniques sound easy, but Shoenfelt said many athletes struggle with separating the outcome from her third “P”— performance.

“Focusing on your score rather than each of the points as you play uses up focus space,” she said. “Giving your full attention to the current play is the most effective means of attaining that outcome.”

The Lady Toppers credit Shoenfelt for some of their success.

Junior Amanda Walden said this season’s hotter start resulted from the mental toughness the team has gained.

“The team is obviously benefiting from the classes because we know how to slow the game down, and we’ve done tremendously better mentally than we did last year,” she said. “Everyone trusts what she’s saying, so they’re trying these things on the field.

“It’s so much better to be out there and be mentally tough and know you’re not going to break down.”

The Lady Toppers may need to use Shoenfelt’s techniques after a rough trip to South Alabama last weekend, where they dropped three games and were out-scored 36-4. WKU plays a doubleheader tonight at home against Belmont.

Perry said Shoenfelt’s talks about leadership help the team shake off rough outings, and she hopes the relationship with Shoenfelt will continue well into the future.

“We will use her as much as she will have us,” she said. “She has a great way of saying things, and just having a professional come in and speak to your program is outstanding.”