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Embracing discomfort and uncertainty to increase mental performance

The newest MIZ-ZOOM event featured Assistant Athletic Director of Mental Performance, Dr. Scotta Morton

Last Thursday evening, the Tiger Scholarship Fund’s MIZ-ZOOM Inside the Huddle event featured Dr. Scotta Morton, Assistant Athletic Director of Mental Performance & Psychological Services, and I must say, it was one of the best ones— if not the best one— I’ve attended thus far.

It’s been cool these last few months to hear from coaches and former players about how they’re handling the pandemic and updates about their teams, and I’ve loved writing about them, but there’s something about diving into the mental health and mental performance aspect while so much is going on in the world right now that makes this topic so very relevant to us all— not just student-athletes.

So, who is Scotta Morton, anyway?

While playing college basketball at Montana State, Scotta was directed to a psychologist when she was having problems with her performance and just couldn’t seem to overcome it. Remember, 10-20 years ago, people didn’t openly talk about their mental health and performance struggles. It’s not like it is today with elite athletes like Kevin Love, Olympian Michael Phelps, and former players like Mizzou great, Keyon Dooling bringing issues to the forefront. There was a definite stigma behind it. Once Morton realized that you don’t just come in, lay down on a couch, and talk all about your repressed childhood memories, she realized what barriers were getting in the way of her performance.

That experience in college stuck with her and became her passion, and it’s what brought her to Mizzou. Morton has been at the University since 2011 when she began working on her PhD with the acclaimed Dr. Rick McGuire, director of what is now the Missouri Institute for Positive Coaching. While completing her doctorate, she worked with the gymnastics team, where she learned the language and context of the sport and really got into the mind of a student-athlete.

Now, her team of four (two mental performance coaches and two psychologists) works with teams as a whole and 1:1 to help them recognize that mental performance is important because we ALL need it, and we don’t need to wait until there’s a problem before seeing someone.

What does Dr. Morton and her staff do, exactly?

Easy answer: A ton. They provide skills and tools for performance enhancement for coaches and athletes. Not just enhancement on the performance field or court, though. They work with them to enhance their performance in LIFE, with the ultimate goal being to assist each athlete in building an identity that cannot be taken away from them. Why is this important? Because, Morton said:

We are conditioned in society to believe that our selves are determined by the results or the outcomes. Our best selves should be defined by WHO they become in their pursuit, not by what we do.

Additionally, they want the athletes to understand the true definition of what it means to be mentally tough. “Mental toughness,” she said, “is courageous commitment to the only moment that matters. And that the only moment that matters is right here, right now.” It’s hard to stay mentally tough, though. Even during the Zoom call, she said, while talking with host Lauren Holman, she mentioned having thoughts that were trying to hijack her out of the moment. She and her staff work to keep athletes in that moment.

How has Dr. Morton’s work changed during this time of extreme uncertainty? Broadly speaking, how have the student-athletes been doing? Is it important for them to get back to practices, their team, competition... for their own wellbeing?

As expected, this has involved a lot of Zoom calls to stay connected with each other, both team-based and 1:1. Some things they have done include listening to podcasts and then having a discussion about them and completing mindfulness exercises like deep breathing. The important thing, she mentioned, is to remember that we are all in this together. The Zoom calls, Morton said, have led to some really powerful conversations with teams.

It’s a privilege that we can use this time and opportunity to grow. Lessons we’ve learned, what we’ve learned about others... This has given everyone a chance to normalize certain things we’re feeling- discomfort, uncertainty, but also keep perspective that it’s not going to last forever.

This time, she said, has also revealed the importance of reality checking expectations that they have of each other. It has reminded everyone to be patient. Have compassion. Be kind. Offer themselves that with less judgement. Reminding them that they have everything they need inside of themselves already (from learning on the field or elsewhere) to adapt and adjust. Until the athletes are back on campus, however, it’s hard to determine what all has been learned. Maybe there’s more of a team vision than “me”. Maybe they have a chance to reflect upon why they started playing a particular sport from the beginning.

They’ve encouraged student-athletes can ask themselves: “What’s my why? What are ways I can nurture the intrinsic love for the sport I’ve had since childhood?” Hopefully she said, this time has brought forth a different sense of fire, team chemistry and culture.

Any tips for non-athletes who may find themselves in difficult situations right now, whether it be working from home or other things? What can they do to improve the environment around them?

You have permission to feel, she said, and use this time to utilize such things as mindfulness meditation. When you wake up, set an intention for the day. So instead of focusing on the “doing” — what I need to get done — focus on the “being.” Think about how you will respond to something that has been stressful throughout the week. Can you decide ahead of time how you will act? Putting your attention on others instead of yourself can also help.

In closing, how important is it to normalize making mental performance and mental health a priority?

This really stuck with me. Especially in these COVID times.

We are not meant to go it alone in this life. We are wired for connection. We are wired for belonging. And you have to find that understanding through that vulnerability... The truest victories in our lives live in the relationships we have with other people when we allow ourselves to be fully seen.

When an athlete puts their identity and character into that, they play more freely. Hell, I argue that when you have a normal everyday person like you or me think about life in this way, you can’t help but be inspired.

Y’all, if you choose one MIZ-ZOOM to watch, I can’t suggest enough that it’s this one.