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From D1 Softball To Army Resilience Coach – Exclusive Interview With Valerie Alston

Drawing from a rich background as a former D1 softball player and a Certified Mental Performance Consultant, she boasts over 15 years of experience dedicated to teaching and training Soldiers in the intricate art of mental toughness and resilience. As a distinguished author and coach, she brings a unique perspective to the realm of performance enhancement. Currently, her passion lies in empowering today's youth, leveraging her expertise to build and foster resilience through sports and mental toughness training, ensuring the next generation thrives in both their athletic pursuits and broader life challenges. With a comprehensive approach to athlete development, she extends her expertise to parents and coaches. Committed to enhancing understanding, she collaborates with them to impart valuable insights on building the mental toughness of young athletes, fostering an environment that nurtures resilience and unleashes their full potential.


Image photo of Valerie Alston

Valerie Alston, Mental Performance and Resilience Coach


Introduce yourself! Please tell us about you and your life, so we can get to know you better.

 

My name is Valerie Alston. My passion in life is to help clients be better at what they do. The vast majority of people are average. They perform their job, their sport and their life, just about the same as everyone else. My goal is to help clients excel. The difference between average and excellent is mental toughness. Exceptional performers develop the mindset, grit and mental skills to overcome obstacles and outperform the competition. And despite what most people think, individuals can learn to become mentally tough.


I grew up trying to keep up with my older brother. Whether it was soccer, baseball or roller hockey, I was always playing with the older boys. And even when they tried to chase me off by blasting hockey pucks at me from three feet away I wasn’t going to let them chase me off. Looking back on those years I think that was my primary education in sports psychology.


At age 8, I began to specialize in fastpitch softball. And for the next ten years I played on elite nationally ranked travel softball teams based in Southern California. My teams competed in the National Championships for 9 of those ten years. We finished in the top ten 8 times. 


Competitive travel softball in Southern California was a competitive grind. Playing softball and volleyball for my high school while maintaining my status as class Valedictorian was a time management challenge. Performing at the highest levels in sports and school while dealing with the stress of college recruiting was a challenge. I suppose that was my secondary education in Sports Psychology and when I was first introduced to the science of it.


I went on to earn my B.S. in Kinesiology while playing college softball as the starting second baseman for the University of Minnesota. After 15 years of competing against the best players in the country in softball I learned to deal with the failures, successes, and challenges of the game.


I was never the best athlete on any of the teams I played on. But I fought my way into the starting lineup and became a significant contributor to the team’s success. Along the way I saw players with more raw talent than me never reach their potential. That is when I finally understood that talent and performance are linked by mental toughness. Modest talent combined with mental strength will outperform great talent without focus over time.


I began studying everything I could about the science of performance. I learned about physical training, nutrition and skill development. I learned how to coach clients successfully.


But I was most intrigued by the mind-body connection and how negative thoughts could destroy performance. That was when I decided to pursue graduate education in Sports Psychology. I earned a Master's Degree in Mental Health/Sport Psychology from Boston University in 2008. 


But education without experience is ineffective. So I sought out the most challenging job I could find that would allow me to practice performance enhancement psychology everyday. I became a Master Resilience Trainer-Performance Expert with the Army’s Performance/Resilience Program in 2008.


Since then I've traveled all over the world training Soldiers to perform at their best when it matters the most. In sports we often consider game performance as “do or die.” For Soldiers their performance truly is critical during combat deployments. This focus has helped me hone my skills under the most rigorous of conditions. 


Now I not only work directly with the Soldiers but as a Regional Advisor in my company, I train the trainers as well. My mission is to build resilience, self-awareness, self-regulation, optimism, mental agility, strength of character, and human to human connections in my clients and mentees using Positive Psychology.


I completed my training as a Certified Health Coach to further enhance my skills in engaging clients in their own success. Since health can affect performance, this new skill set helps me provide even more value to my clients. 


I enjoy coaching, especially teenage athletes, who are struggling with performing in their sport under the glare of college recruiters and often their own unrealistic expectations. I understand the stress of being a student-athlete and have the perspective to help students and their parents struggling with the process. Most parents have no experience with elite athletics, performing under pressure, or college recruiting, so I provide them with the skills to get the best out of their athletes by supporting them effectively rather than adding to their stress.


I love to travel and have been to 35 countries. I enjoy exploring new places and learning about new cultures through food, drink and music. Some of my favorite travel memories include bungee jumping in New Zealand on Christmas Eve, sky diving over Hawaii, riding camels in Morocco, eating street food in Korea, Oktoberfest in Munich, biking through Tuscany, and watching ballet in Moscow. I've had some great opportunities to meet people from all walks of life, and I try to bring that perspective to my work.


In my spare time, I get my sweat on at the local Crossfit Gym. While I am no longer a competitive athlete, I love the camaraderie and opportunity to practice what I preach. Crossfit gives me the opportunity to meet great people and attempt to stay fit. 


I am the author of the Amazon best selling, Confident, Calm and Clutch book series. I am a proud Auntie of my brother’s children, Ireland and Greyson. I love to play games of all kinds. I spend most of my time outside of my Army commitments working with private clients when I am not exploring local breweries. Three years in Germany has left me with a “thirst” for a good beer.

 

Officially, I am a Certified Mental Performance Consultant with the Association of Applied Sport Psychology and a trained Health and Wellness Coach from the Functional Medicine Coaching Academy (FMCA).

 

Can you tell us more about your journey from being a Division 1 softball player to becoming a mental performance consultant? What inspired you to transition from athletics to coaching and mentoring others?

 

My pathway to becoming a Certified Mental Performance Consultant began long before I became a College athlete. I said earlier that travel softball in Southern California was a grind. From age 8-14 we played tournament softball virtually every weekend from February through November. Once players entered high school we were not allowed to play travel ball until the high school season ended. But we still practiced with our travel teams weekly.

 

The travel teams assembled their rosters from players throughout California so the competition to make a team and stay on a team was fierce. Many coaches treated the team like a job that demanded dedication and commitment to the team. Miss a practice or weekend and you could lose your place in the starting lineup. 

 

The teams would form in September and play a winter schedule to test whether players could hang with their squads. Some would not be invited back for the Spring season. Then starting in February they would add and subtract players until their rosters were finalized in late May for the National Championship run. Then from May through August they would fight to win a berth to Nationals. The season would culminate in the National Championship tournament in early August. And then the process would begin again for the next season.


All the coaches would fight over the 5-star athletes who had the superior power, speed and talent to become a potential Olympian. But the rest of us had to find a way to perform well enough to catch a team’s attention.

 

I was not blessed with foot speed but I had an above average arm and decent bat to ball skills. So I had to learn to get the most out of my physical skills so that I could carve out a place in the game going forward. 

 

Because the competitive age brackets were in two-year increments, each step up in age required re-evaluating what it took to compete at the next level. Since the older players tend to dominate the action between the ages of 8 to 14, it took a minute to figure out that being a dominant player as a ten-year-old meant you would not as an 11-year-old. The mental challenge of this transition and the grind required to give up most of your free time, caused several players to drop out each year.

 

I was fortunate to have a Father who understood these dynamics and was able to help me develop the right attitude and habits to get the most out of my talent. He had a way of asking questions and framing things to help me to decide whether I wanted to reach my potential or not.

 

I remember one conversation as an eight-year-old who was a bench player for the 10U All-Star team. I was frustrated because I didn’t get to play as much as I thought was fair. I wanted to play 2nd base but there was an older girl who had that starting spot. I remember complaining to him after one game,

 

“How come the coach never lets me play 2nd base?”

 

Instead of sympathizing with me he asked, “Have you watched her play second base?” I said yes.

 

“Does she play second base well?” I said yes.

 

“Is she a good hitter?” I said yes.

 

“Coaches don’t decide who plays, players do. If you were a better defensive player and a better hitter do you think the coach would let you play?” I begrudgingly had to agree.

 

“So if you want to make your coach put you in the game what do you have to do?”

I guess I need to be a better defender and a better hitter.

 

Okay so now we have a plan.

 

Looking back on that conversation, I think that was my first lesson in performance psychology although I didn’t really know it at the time. My Dad framed the situation correctly, so that I had a clear goal and a clear pathway to success. And while I could not guarantee more playtime I could start to focus my energy on what I could control. What I could control was my effort, attitude and dedication to excel.

 

My Dad and I had several of these types of conversations over the years. And the theme of those conversations was always the same. You can’t control outcomes but you can control effort and attitude. I think that is a critical lesson for all young players and their parents. If you assume the coach's job is to put the best team on the field then the players job is to continually make it difficult for the coach to keep you off the field. And when my Dad saw me struggling in my junior year of high school, he had the self awareness to know that we needed outside help to address the issues. He located a Sports Psychologist to work with me privately and get me back on track.

 

Competitive sports is a challenge because all athletes fail. Success is what we remember but how you deal with failure is the crucible in which success is forged. In my book Confident, Calm and Clutch I weave several of these stories into the narrative because I look at the athlete and their parents as a unit of success. Parents need to learn how to guide their child correctly and athletes need to have that support system to achieve their potential. So when I work with young athletes I am actually training the parents and athletes to create the environment for success through the science of performance.

 

The beautiful thing about sports is that you can identify clear links between effort, preparation and success. Great performers share similar attitudes and ethics. They outwork their competition and then learn to harness the growth potential in failure. Remember all athletes fail. Those who learn from their failures improve. Those who let their failures defeat them underperform.

 

So to get back to your original question, “How did I go from being a Division 1 athlete to a Mental Performance coach?” 

 

I loved to play sports. I wanted to excel. I had the proper support to teach me the true pathway to excellence. And I had the support I needed to learn from my failures. I experienced good times, like winning the State Championship in softball by hitting the walk-off double as a Junior and winning the National Championship tournament in Oklahoma as a ten-year-old. I experienced the bad times of having my starting job handed to a returning college player for the big tournament, as well as striking out with the bases loaded in the State Championship as a sophomore and losing the National Championship game as a nine-year-old.

 

And what I learned from my experience is that athletes need support and guidance and their parents do also. So many athletes see a college scholarship as the end game. But they don’t understand that earning that scholarship (only ~3% of athletes ever will) or even playing in college is predicated on developing the right habits, attitudes, mindset, and resilience needed to survive the grind.

 

Once I made it to college the journey was not over. I was recruited as a catcher, but in my freshman year, there was a senior catcher ahead of me. So I played some first base, outfield and designated player (DP- you hit for the pitcher and can come in and out of the game defensively) to get on the field. The next season, they recruited a heavy hitting Freshman catcher who could also run. So I worked hard to become the best defensive second baseman in the Big Ten who could hit with left-handed power.

 

In college and being around your teammates everyday you develop a deep understanding of each other. I watched some shrink under the stress of failure. I saw some good friends quit the team. I saw attitudes that were helpful and ones that were not. I saw people with physical talent waste it. And I saw people with the right effort and dedication excel.

 

As part of my Kinesiology degree I took a course in sports psychology and I was hooked. When I started to learn the science of it a light bulb went off in my head. I understood how I had let my failures affect me in the past. I understood how I used mindset and resilience effectively when I thrived. I finally understood the value of the stuff my Dad had done over the years and how ignorant coaches unintentionally undermine their athletes' success.

 

I realized that the reason that eight-year-old Valerie, whining about playtime, became a Confident, Calm and Clutch Valerie who was a left-handed power bat and an excellent college defender, was because I approached the game the right way, with the right mindset and the right attitude to get the most out of my abilities. I realized that the lessons I learned through softball competition were the lessons I needed to become a Confident, Calm and Clutch adult human in everyday life.

 

I remember how much a sports psychologist had helped me in High School. I decided to earn a graduate degree in Sports Psychology and devoted myself to helping young athletes learn these same lessons. The goal is not to make them college athletes. The goal is to allow them to use their athletic career to learn the tools they need to thrive as a competent adult.

 

While at Boston University I went to the Association of Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) Conference and saw a presentation about a small fledgling program that was doing mental skills training with the Army called the Army Center for Enhanced Performance. They shared how they were applying sport psychology principles to Soldiers and I found it fascinating. At that time, it was such a unique thing to be working outside of sport.

 

I had not anticipated working for the Army. I assumed I would be a Softball Coach and use my knowledge of sport psych to help my players. But one of the presenters at this conference was a graduate of BU so I reached out to her and she explained that the program was expanding and they would be looking for talent to launch the program worldwide. 

 

I was intrigued. This was in 2006 and our Soldiers were in the thick of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. I felt that if I could help my team, the United States of America, perform at their best during this challenge then I would be honored to do my part. I have learned so much since then about the best tools and techniques to help keep my Soldiers well and thriving that a few years ago I circled back to begin thinking about how I could apply what I have learned to my foundation in athletics.

 

So I guess that is a long story to get back to your original question but I hope this makes sense. I learned valuable life lessons through my athletic career. I studied the science of performance and how to teach others to learn these lessons. I honed my skills by working everyday with the dedicated men and women of the Army. And I developed a way to translate what I have learned into a program that Parents and Young Athletes can use to develop their own core set of success skills.

 

I hope that makes sense to you.

 

Teaching mind body pointing to head

How do you integrate principles of sport psychology into your resilience classes for Soldiers, and how do these principles help them navigate and thrive amidst the challenges they face?

 

People are people. Everyone’s brains work the same way. The physiology and chemistry of the mind-body connection controls how our bodies respond to stimuli. 


If a baseball batter lacks confidence and interprets their at-bat as a threat/scary their brain feels the stress of performance. The body prepares to protect itself from the “threat” and turns on the fight or flight response. The body gets tight and diverts all of its resources to the muscles and senses required to fight or flee. At certain levels, this effect is helpful for an athletic performance. But with improper thought processes or the inability to manage your physiological response the brain shifts from productive observing the world to an over-stimulated fight or flight response which causes changes in your visual perceptions, non-essential sensory input like sound to be ignored, heart rate skyrockets, breathing rates go up, muscles tense and you lose fine motor dexterity and the ability to use your “thinking brain” (prefrontal cortex). The result is a batter gets tight, loses the fluidity of their swing and is unable to hit the ball. Fear of striking out causes them to strike out.

 

On the battlefield a Soldier who freezes is no longer a moving target and can be a detriment to the entire unit. A stationary target and dysfunctional unit is easier to attack. Therefore, it is critical that Soldiers continue to process stimuli and react properly to survive the battle. They need to have the proper training so their muscle memory and battle drills work to keep them out of harm’s way.

 

Confidence, calmness in the face of chaos, focus on what’s important, the motivation to train properly to become battle ready, and the muscle memory to respond as trained are essential.

 

The key principles of Sport Psychology are embedded in everything we do with our soldiers.

 

First we focus on helping them understand that the way they choose to interpret their circumstances and the way they choose to respond to challenges dictates their success. Regardless of what is thrown at them they need to control their emotions and respond effectively.

 

Second, we help them understand that emotional and physiological regulation is essential to produce effective action under duress. We teach them to understand what they are thinking and feeling and to be self-aware of how those thoughts and feelings are affecting their response to the stimuli. Then I teach them emotional and physiological management techniques and the mental tools they need to be productive.

 

Third, we teach them to be self-aware without judgment. The Army is well known for their AAR’s (after action reviews). After any training exercise, drill or battle they determine what worked and what didn’t to hone their tactics over time. After all, lives are at stake.

 

I work with Soldiers to critically analyze what worked and what didn’t (personally and as a team) during any training activity so they can logically refine their responses over time. We acknowledge the emotional responses but we don’t allow them to perpetuate ineffective responses. We acknowledge failures and logically strategize a more effective response in the future.

 

Once they've discovered something isn't working a lot of my training is helping them use tools that regulate how to think, feel or behave more effectively. 

 

This is where we end up applying the sport psychology techniques of having effective self-talk, being able to visualize and mentally rehearse, to keep their focus on the right thing, to have effective goals, the ability to regulate physiology through breath and so much more.

 

The basic principles are pretty straightforward. The uniqueness lies in the individual performances and situations that the Soldiers find themselves as opposed to athletes. The biggest difference usually being the consequences for Soldiers. If they are unable to perform at a high standard it can become fatal. 

 

In the training environment, Soldiers aren't generally in life threatening situations, however they are preparing to be, so the attention to detail for them matters more than it does for athletes.

 

Outside of the training focused on specific performance events, believe it or not the bulk of my resilience training focuses more on managing the everyday life “stuff” that all people have to deal with (money, relationships, bad bosses, sick kids, cars breaking down, etc) so that they can put their focus on training for the life and death moments. Just like for athletes the off-the-field distractions can prevent on the field success.

 

Drawing from your own experiences of facing anxiety and pressure during your junior year, what are some key strategies or techniques you learned from your sport psychologist that you now incorporate into your coaching programs?

 

Wow, there are so many experiences over the last 20 plus years I don’t know where to start. I mention several in my books. All available on Amazon by the way, shameless plug intended.

 

But I guess one important story is the story of our State Championship softball game my sophomore year. I had established myself as a top quality softball player on nationally competitive teams by the time I was 14. I felt good about my abilities. I generally played smart, performed well and had confidence in my game. 

 

My travel teams were much better than my high school team. My high school was a small Christian school that played several levels below my typical travel teams. I was the catcher, cleanup hitter on the high school team. I was leading our league in batting statistics.

 

I helped propel our team into the championship game with my first over the fence homer in the earlier playoffs. But in the build up to the final game something changed. I don’t know if I heard the chirping from the crowd or felt the expectations of my team, or felt that I had to be the one to win the game but when I stepped to the plate in the first inning with the bases loaded I could tell something was different.

 

I couldn’t control my breathing. I felt uncomfortable at the plate. I swung and missed at pitches I normally hammered. And I struck out on a 3-2 pitch called strike. I got it together later in the game but we ended up losing 2-1. And I felt that I alone owned the loss. I felt that I had let the team down. And that carried over into the next season when I was trying to focus on earning a scholarship offer from a college.

 

I am not sure what was going on but my Dad who knows me so well, sensed it. I had lost my confidence and was struggling to find it again. That is when he connected me with Dr. Smith. He and I worked together for several weeks. He introduced me to the essentials of Sports Psychology.


I learned to:


  1. Focus on the process not the outcome

  2. Control my emotional response through proper breathing

  3. Develop the deliberate practice to build confidence

  4. Control what I could control and ignore those things that I could not

  5. Set productive Goals

  6. Visualize success

  7. Relish the big moments as the most fun

I learned to believe in myself again.

 

I went from having a mediocre Junior season to catching fire during our late season run. During the playoffs I had the game tying or game winning hit in each game.

 

And in the State Championship game, I stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the seventh with the winning run on second and two outs. The pitcher kept pitching me high and away but I was determined not to fail. I fouled off ten straight pitches and then on the next pitch I dug in, took a calming breath and…struck out.

 

But unlike in my sophomore year when I let that moment beat me, I was undeterred. I knew if I got another chance I would succeed. The game stayed tied and in the bottom of the 10th inning my leadoff hitter walked with no outs. I dug in at the plate. I knew she wasn’t going to throw me an inside pitch ever. And I was ready to hit.

 

The pitcher rocked and fired, up and away again and I smoked a line drive down the left field line to the wall. Our runner came around to score and we won the State Championship.

 

The crowd went wild and my team dog piled at home plate. People watching the game saw my big hit and cheered. But I am not sure they understood the process I went through to be able to become Confident, remain Calm and Perform in the Clutch. I knew. My Dad knew and we shared a private understanding of what it took.

 

So when you ask how do I incorporate this into my coaching programs? How can I not? Everything I believe and teach has its foundation in my past experiences. The 7 principles I mentioned above that I learned from Dr. Smith I have refined and honed over the years into a program that can help anyone.

 

I not only have 15 years of experience as a top tier athlete but I have 16 years of experience developing my abilities as a coach and mentor.

 

I asked my Dad recently what he saw happening in my Junior year to make him seek out a Sports Psychologist. I knew he saw something but we had never talked about what it was. 

 

He thought for a minute and then said, “You were not acting like you. Your confidence in everything you do had always bordered on brash rather than fearful. When I saw that confidence wane I feared that perhaps something I said or did something that had caused it. I wasn't sure how to help you get it back so I sought out professional help. And I am so glad I did.”

 

Look, my Dad is a pretty smart guy. He has a Doctorate degree in Pharmacy. He is a coach, author and an entrepreneur with a track record of success in his endeavors. But what I always appreciated over the years of my softball experience is that he worked as hard as I did to learn and understand the factors that lead to success. He didn’t always get it right. There were times when I had to help him refocus or realign because his methods were not helping. No one bats 1000 ;-). But what we always had was open dialogue, mutual respect, love and understanding that we both wanted me to succeed. 

 

Not every athlete's parents have the education, knowledge or time to help their child thrive. I know I have been super lucky to have a strong support from my family (mom, dad, brother) and some amazing coaches along the way.

 

The reason I am passionate about my work helping athletes and their parents is because I saw too many talented athletes fail to achieve their potential because they lacked the type of support I had. I don’t want anyone to miss the amazing benefits they can attain. By learning these performance skills and the effective ways to collaborate as a parent/kid, every young athlete can build Confidence in themselves, the internal Calmness to stay focused on the process, and the ability to perform at their best in the Clutch moments of life.

 

Valerie holding book

Could you elaborate on the specific challenges and emotional rollercoaster you encountered as an elite youth athlete and collegiate-level competitor? How do these experiences inform your approach to coaching and mentoring young athletes today?

 

I think the two main things I dealt with as an elite athlete were sacrifice and expectations.

First and foremost on the emotional rollercoaster was dealing with the sacrifice of being elite. What I mean by that is that every athlete reaches a stage where they have to decide, “Do I want to be really good at this sport, and if so, what am I willing to give up to do that?”

 

In order to be elite you have to spend time working on your craft. This is true for any field sport, music, theater, etc. Most people are not willing to give that time and energy, and that's okay. But for any kid who knows they have the potential to be great and are striving for it, inevitably they have to give something up. There's only so much time you have in a given day.

 

So, for me, the emotional roller coaster showed up specifically in high school when I had to give up more and more social events like dances, hangouts, birthday parties, and sleepovers because I was playing in a tournament or had practice the next day or was traveling to play softball. I ended up having to say no to many experiences and that ultimately led my more casual friends to just stop inviting me. Which often meant being left out from social stuff. 


That's really hard to deal with as a teenager. During the teen years, kids are trying to discover their identity and establish independence by joining teams, engaging in school politics, and getting involved in clubs and other activities. They are worried about how others perceive them. Questions about who they are and what they stand for constantly buzz in their head creating anxiety and uncertainty. When your peer groups no longer include you because “you aren’t around” that’s a tough issue to deal with.

 

I had a unique experience (to my peers, not other elite athletes) in that I had wonderful friendships and really close bonds on my travel softball teams but I never got to see them outside of softball because they didn't live near me. 

 

Whereas the people I saw every day at school didn't always connect with me on that deeper level. And honestly, until I could drive and actually go hang out with friends from softball several towns away, it almost felt like I had two lives: my life when I was playing softball and my life when I was at school. 

 

I know this is an experience that's heightened even more today because at the elite levels kids are traveling way more than I ever did as a kid. If their relationships on their teams aren't good or they don't have a core group of very close friends in their hometown or school this can often feel alienating or distancing. Learning to navigate relationships and expectations was something that took time to figure out.

 

Once you get to College (at least my experience at the D1 level) it's “easy" you literally don't have time to meet other people. Teammates and other athletes become your social sphere and literally everybody's in the same boat trying to be elite. So it's much easier to connect and have strong friendships.

 

But my junior year was also a roller coaster because in the travel season that summer I had a coach who was pretty crappy and decided to bring college kids back to play for the national tournament (which is ridiculous on so many levels). And those kids happen to play my position. After playing the whole season as a starter so I could play in front of all the college coaches at nationals, I had to ride the pine so that a player who was already playing in college could play.

 

But because I thought “I should be playing”. I've earned the spot I've been here all year”


I developed a really bad attitude. Because my situation no longer matched my expectations and it affected my play. I was pressing because I felt I had to get a hit in order to get play time. It got so bad that I struck out nine at-bats in a row which I had never done before or since. 

 

Thankfully, I had pretty awesome parents in my corner who saw what was happening and gave me a reality check. My dad reminded me that my character needed to show through adversity. That I should control what I can control and ignore what I can’t. He told me that my response to the situation was going to be more important than what actually happened on the field. He took me out to a park one day and we just hit wiffle balls and talked. 

 

He reminded me that if I was destined to be a role player for the rest of the summer then I should be the best darn role player that ever existed. I should be the loudest supporter of my teammates. I should be the first one to congratulate good plays and the first one to support a teammate. I should be the most engaged, loudest cheering bench player ever. I needed to demonstrate to anyone watching that I was a great teammate. And when I got the chance to play I needed to play hard and have fun. I needed to make it obvious to observers that this situation was not going to keep me from being me. 

 

And it was this response that ended up earning my scholarship. My team played 6 games at nationals before getting knocked out of the tournament. I didn't play in the field at all and I got a grand total of 6 pinch hit at-bats. I hit the ball hard each time including a line drive out off of one of the best pitchers ever to play college softball, Cat Osterman. I think I ended up with two hits total in all my at-bats.

 

But during the game I was standing and cheering all game every game. I was the first one out of the dugout to greet a run scoring player. I offered to warm up the relief pitcher to get them ready to come into the game. And when it got to the late innings and I felt like I may be used as a pinch hitter I pulled out a batting T and began my pre-at bat work out to get ready to hit. I never hung my head, pouted or grumbled.

 

When the final game was over my dad came over to me as I was gathering my equipment. He gave me a big hug and said,” I have never been more proud of you.” As we headed over to the snack bar to get something to eat we were stopped by several college coaches who said they were amazed that a. I was not in the games and b. How well I handled the situation.

 

I went from worrying that I had blown my chance to earn a scholarship leaving town with 5 offers for a recruiting trip. I don’t know if those coaches know how much I appreciated their faith in me but maybe they will read this and I can thank them now. Obviously, my coaches from Minnesota know how much I love them, but the coaches from Northwestern, Syracuse, Boston College and Boston University in 2001 also deserve a shout out. 

 

The coaches saw how I dealt with the really crappy situation and wanted that kind of player on their team.

 

Often young athletes struggle when they have specific expectations about themselves, their play time, or what position they should be playing. When reality does not match those expectations it creates strong emotions.

 

One of the biggest things I do with the young athletes is help them to create more realistic expectations about their scenario, about what it means to be successful, about what it means to be a good teammate, so that they can enjoy their experience and thrive in it regardless of what reality throws their way. 

 

And let's be honest, sometimes I'm also helping the parents create more realistic expectations about their child's sports experience. In this day and age parents are often the cause of unrealistic expectations.

 

Maybe they have unrealistic perceptions of their child's level of skill/talent or they want their kid to play a certain position, or at a certain level. When that's the case, I really work hard to help both the parents and the athlete come to an understanding of what reasonable expectations are for their sport participation and their performance expectations.


As a Certified Mental Performance Consultant (CMPC) and Health and Wellness Coach, how do you combine these two disciplines to support the mental and physical well-being of your clients, both athletes, and non-athletes?


I work hard to be a coach who collaborates with my clients, not an expert who dictates to my client. I recognize that while I am an expert in my field, I am not an expert in my clients' lived experience. Everything I learned about helping people move through the stages of change and helping people take charge of their wellness/mental toughness journey I apply to my clients. And whether it is a performance psychology skill or a physical ailment that impedes their progress I work to help them succeed.


I have chosen not to do specific health and wellness coaching as it is not where my passion lies but the training absolutely helped me become a more effective coach for my athletes and my Soldiers.


I understand that the overall health and wellness of a client impacts performance. They are a whole person not just an athlete, Soldier, etc. If they are stressed out, exhausted, not getting much sleep and eating like crap their body won’t be able to perform at its best regardless of how confident or calm they are in a performance context. 


If their relationships with coaches, parents, peers or teammates are strained or unhealthy it will affect their performance. Long story short, I now take a much more holistic view when helping clients build their mental toughness. 


While I don’t provide any kind of nutrition, sleep or medical advice, I do ask questions about whether they are fueling themselves effectively, getting rest etc. I have a basic model that I use and teach my clients called the Discover, Build, Apply Method. Essentially, I help clients:


Discover the barrier that is getting in the way of progress or success.


Build tools and skills to address those barriers.


Finally, I help them Apply what they have learned in real life. 


This method is great because it allows the client to take charge of their journey. My background in sport psychology, positive psychology, resilience, and functional medicine coaching, allows me to have different options for helping people achieve their performance goals. And if we discover the barrier getting in the way of performance is something out of my lane as a Certified Mental Performance Consultant, then I make sure to get them to the right resource. 


Overall, the health and wellness training really helped me look at the whole person, not just the “presenting problem” that they sought help for. 


Teaching mind body

What motivated you to establish your coaching business, mental toughness programs, and create resources like books and apps? How do these resources align with your overarching goal of empowering young athletes and preparing them for success in both sports and adulthood?

 

In 2020, a new military family moved into town and started going to my gym. Their daughter was a rising softball star and when they heard about my background they asked me to work with their daughter.


After working with her for several months, I realized I loved working with young teens and helping a younger generation learn from my experience trying to earn a scholarship and my years of expertise training soldiers. I started working with other athletes from her team and decided to create my first coaching program specifically for softball players because many of them were having the same challenges.


Now, I'm training and coaching young athletes from all different sports to be mentally tough as they play their sport and learn to thrive in life. I wrote an Amazon Best Selling book, Confident, Calm and Clutch, to help even more athletes learn from my experience. I now support young athletes through coaching, online classes and workshops on how to better deal with mistakes, to build unshakeable confidence, nerves of steel and the ability to grow and develop in their sport. I am helping athletes build the tools they need to grow and thrive in today's world.


I started my business because I am passionate about helping young people push back against the alarming trends of anxiety, depression and suicide. I believe sport is an amazing pathway for young people to develop the necessary mental and emotional skills they will need to succeed in the classroom, in their relationships and in their careers.


For many reasons, today's kids are significantly less resilient than previous generations. I am tired of hearing horror stories of young people taking their lives because they didn't understand that a temporary hardship or setback was temporary, that they didn't have the mental tools to maintain a healthy perspective on achievement, they didn't know how to create meaning and joy in their life.


I have also come to realize that helping kids is great, but if coaches and parents don't understand these tools and lessons or how to help their kids build the mental toughness and grit they need, then it will be an uphill battle. So now I am also working with parents and coaches to better understand the truth behind building mental toughness and how they can foster it in their kids by having effective mindsets on excellence, understanding how to give feedback and truly understanding the importance of building character, work ethic and sportsmanship not just athletic prowess.


What good is a kid with amazing talent and skills who melts down at the first sign of failure or small mistake? What happens when a kid/parent is so focused on stats that they aren't focused on getting better?


These mental tools are teachable! They can be trained! No kid has to go through life terrified of making mistakes or so anxious about how they compare to their peers that they can’t eat or sleep. They shouldn't be so weighed down by unrealistic expectations that they have no joy or fun in their life.


I want to help athletes, their parents and coaches learn to Play Hard and Have Fun by using athletics to learn the life skills they need to thrive. 


I want to help families better handle the stresses and demands of youth sport in a way that allows for strong and loving relationships. I want kids to have the tools to handle life's ups and downs, so that they can experience a life of purpose and meaning. I want to help them become the amazing leaders and adults of the future.


Tell us about your greatest career achievement so far.

 

I’d have to say becoming a published author! I don't think this is something I ever aspired to originally. But as I started my coaching business and realized that many young athletes were having similar problems and I had some good answers and ways that I could help them, I wanted to be able to give those answers to as many people as possible. And a book seemed like a great way to do that.

 

It took me 2 years to craft and finalize my first book and then 6 months to finalize the second. My first book, Confident, Calm and Clutch: How to build confidence and mental toughness for young athletes using sports psychology really focuses on helping athletes at the high school level. I weave my own experiences as a high school athlete and the sports psychology techniques that I teach into a cohesive process for developing mental toughness. It's doing pretty well and people are buying it, so that's very exciting. 

 

Even more exciting is that many coaches reached out to me and said, “wow this is amazing, so useful and straightforward I want to use this book with my team” which became the inspiration for my second book How to Teach Mental Skills to Athletes Confident, Calm and Clutch Coaching Companion: The Ultimate Guide to Coaching Mental Toughness.

 

This book distills down a lot of my years of experience training leaders in the Army to help them understand how to apply mental skills to their Soldiers. After 15 years of working with leaders, I developed specific strategies and processes for non-sport psychology experts to apply when training others. I realized the same principles would hold true for coaches.

 

Since the coaches were already asking me for help using my 1st book with their teams, I sought to create a handbook for coaches to use simple strategies and tools to help young athletes start building mental toughness. Most coaches are not experts in sports psychology and so it's written at a very practical and easy to use level that any coach at any level could apply these basic conversational strategies and drills to help their athletes develop mental toughness. 

 

I’ve officially caught the author bug! I am partnering with my dad (who is a certified pickleball instructor and expert coach himself Greg Alston) to write mental skills training books for pickleball players and a series of father/daughter stories that teach mental skills, character and effective relationships through semi-autobiographical stories. We’ll pull from our experiences as father/coach, daughter/athlete, and all our years of travel ball shenanigans to help other parent/athlete pairs learn and grow together. 

 

We’ve got the outlines now and are slowly making our way towards actual written text. So stay tuned for more!


Visit my new email newsletter and my books.

 

Read more from Valerie Alston

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