The EMU women's volleyball team huddles around head coach Casey Steinbrecher.

Getting their heads in the game

EMU athletes sharpen their mental performance through partnership with JMU

EMU’s cross-city neighbor James Madison University is celebrating a string of sports successes on the national stage.

Its football team finished the season ranked in the top 25 and will play in its first-ever bowl game. The men’s basketball team remains undefeated and is ranked No. 18. And the volleyball team competed as a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Championship before losing its first-round match. Much of the success can be traced back to the work of the Challace J. McMillin Center for Sports Psychology at JMU, which caters to the needs of its athletes and teams. 

Fortunately for EMU, a new partnership between the two Harrisonburg, Virginia, universities provides EMU Athletics with many of those same resources at no cost. JMU doctoral students from the McMillin Center are working with athletes, teams and coaches in counseling sessions and mental performance workshops at EMU while earning hours of valuable practicum experience for their graduate studies.

EMU women’s basketball players run out of the tunnel before a game at James Madison University. A new partnership between the two schools offers sports psychology resources to EMU athletes and teams from JMU doctoral students.

The McMillin Center, led by Director Dr. Bob Harmison, offers programs on how mental skills can increase performance both on and off the field. Some of its workshops teach athletes how to prepare for competitions, manage performance anxiety, enhance focus and maintain motivation.

Casey Steinbrecher, head coach of women’s volleyball at EMU, lauded Harmison as “one of the most prominent people in the nation for what he does.”

“To have him and the McMillin Center just down the road as a resource, we are super lucky to have that, and we’re grateful,” he said.

Steinbrecher, former associate head volleyball coach at JMU, left the Dukes to join EMU in 2020. He said his volleyball players meet with JMU doctoral student Tahlia Wilson-Nealy every other week during the season. They work together on building confidence and being relentless as well as on in-match strategies for performing better, Steinbrecher said.

“They just love having someone to talk to,” he said. “Having someone teach us and work with us on mental performance is huge. And, at the end of the season, I was a little upset because we were still improving, we hadn’t peaked yet, and it was exciting to watch how we were performing better in bigger matches.”

The EMU women’s volleyball team gathers together at Yoder Arena. The team wrapped up the 2023 season in early November with a win over Hood College.

For the past several years, graduate students from the McMillin Center have offered sports psychology services to EMU Athletics through a team-by-team partnership. But, this is the first time a student from the program is fully embedded on campus in EMU Counseling Services and is available to all student-athletes. The partnership officially began on Oct. 27 and is set to run through the end of the academic year.

Lauren Shoss, a first-year JMU doctoral student in the program, said the McMillin Center has worked with other colleges, but not to the same degree as EMU.

EMU Director of Athletics Carrie Bert agreed: “I know that, at least within our ODAC colleagues, having free access to sports psychology services does not seem to be the norm.”

EMU’s men’s soccer players huddle together on the pitch. Athletes at EMU can meet with Lauren Shoss, a first-year JMU doctoral student, and address any mental blocks that are affecting their play.

Shoss meets with athletes and teams for about 10 hours each week. She conducts workshops for teams on topics such as bouncing back quickly from mistakes, setting goals and preparing for performance.

“Let’s say a team has a big competition or tournament that weekend,” she said. “We can cater our discussions to getting them in the right headspace to perform their best.”

Shoss has a space in the counseling center where she can meet one-on-one with athletes and coaches. She can also meet with them virtually through Zoom. Some of her work with individual athletes might focus on achieving their performance-related goals or tackling their stress, anxiety or mood fluctations.

“Maybe an athlete is having trouble feeling like they can’t focus when they’re in a game,” Shoss said. “So, we do a lot of work around attentional control.”

Throughout the past month, Shoss has worked with EMU softball players to help them process their grief after the loss of teammate Sara Monger, Bert said. Monger, a first-year student from Elkton, Virginia, died in a car accident in October.

EMU women’s basketball head coach Jenny Posey coaches from the sideline during a game. “I’m grateful that we have the opportunity to pair with JMU’s McMillin Center for Sports Psychology this season,” she said. “Our student-athletes will get to develop critical mental skills like building a positive mistake response when faced with adversity or developing positive self-talk to overcome doubts and insecurities.”

Bert, head coach of the EMU women’s volleyball team from 2015 to 2019, recalled her players meeting with someone from the McMillin Center about once a week during the last two seasons she was coach. 

Over a couple years, she said, they continued to get better, win more and finish games in ways they had not been able to before.

“I think what it did, most concretely and immediately, was help with the way the team interacted with each other in our communication both on and off the court,” Bert said.

She expressed gratitude for JMU and the McMillin Center for their role in the partnership.

“It’s an extra resource for us to make sure that we’re doing everything we can for student-athletes here to find success in a variety of ways,” she said.

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