GREENSBURG, PA. — It’s been a heartbreaking spring for athletes whose sports seasons were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but a pole-vault coach with a doctorate in sport psychology has a prescription to help cope with the ongoing crisis.
“Doctor Coach” Melissa White has been making virtual “house calls” to help athletes process their grief and prepare for whatever comes next. Her Performance Edge Consulting practice helps athletes overcome obstacles and achieve their goals, even in a time of historic hardship and uncertainty.
When she’s not teaching 6th Grade English at Wendover Middle School, White is the high school and middle school pole-vault and javelin coach at Hempfield Area High School in the Pittsburgh Metro Area in Western Pennsylvania. She also spent this past fall as the mental performance coach for the school’s varsity football team.
White recently posted a video specifically for pole-vault coaches with suggestions on how to help athletes cope with closed runways and broken dreams. The video is free to watch by following this link.
“We’re dealing with a crazy, unprecedented situation right now,” says White. “There are no books, no guidelines, no articles on how to deal with sport during a worldwide pandemic. We’re all trying to figure this out as we go along. I’ve had a lot of coaches and athletes reach out the me. And I thought I’d share some of what I’ve shared with them with you.
“One of the things that coaches have asked me is, ‘What should I should say to my athletes? I’m just unsure how to approach the situation.’ Several of the coaches have said, ‘I’ve said nothing. I didn’t want to share the wrong thing.’ That’s not the right answer.”
Since the pandemic shut-down, White has met with senior athletes who lost their seasons through virtual online meetings. Each of them have issues to cope with, depending on how committed they were to their sport, and what their future holds once things get back to normal-ish.
“Anything you can say that can keep your athletes focused and mentally ready for the sport and looking forward to it is going to be the best option for them,” White said. “They rely on us and depend on us during every training session, practice session and every competition and we need to there for them at this time.”
The five-minute video stresses the importance of having athletes set forward-looking personal performance goals for this forced off-season, and beyond.
Suffering emotionally and separated from their team, White’s high school vault crew seems to be holding up well, considering that all eleven of them have been sidelined.
“They’re less discouraged than you would think, but they have limited resources. We don’t have any pole vault clubs around here at all, so that is not an option. Until I’m allowed to go on to school property, they don’t have a place to vault. One of our vaulters has been doing a lot of sprinting and pole runs with a broom. She has a pull-up bar at her house and does core work watching YouTube videos.”
As a vaulter in high school, White was inspired by Olympic champion Stacy Dragila. As a pole-vault coach, she listens to guru Shawn Francis, founder of the Team Hoot website and YouTube vlog, and the author of The Pole Vault Toolbox.
In addition to referring to her textbooks on sport psychology, White deploys the young adult novel, Maggie Vaults Over the Moon. She discovered the book a few years ago, based on the recommendation of Shawn Francis, and at the time of this interview, she had just enjoyed listening to the story on audio book performed by Tavia Gilbert.
Like many coaches, White uses the story to communicate important truths to her athletes headed for big competitions. KIRKUS Reviews says Maggie Vaults Over the Moon is “A fine YA novel about perseverance in sports and in life.”
“I dog-eared one of the pages in the book where Maggie was at the state meet and talking to her rival, Amanda. Amanda was just all in her head, but instead of being stressed out, Maggie was focused on enjoying the moment. I shared that part of the book with my vaulters and we adopted the slogan, “Celebrate the moment.”
Like the storybook heroine, White was the first female vaulter at her high school and had no one at her school to coach her. She learned by asking lots of questions of athletes from other schools and eavesdropping on conversations with their coaches.
“I’m sure that the people that I was competing against were rolling their eyes whenever I showed up,” she said. “No one was there helping me, and I was probably a nervous wreck most of the time. But I really loved that time in my life and I had a lot of fun.
“Maggie did much better than I did,” White added with a laugh. “She jumped a lot higher than me as well.”
Even without a vault coach of her own, White was able to qualify for the state meet and set a school record that stood for 10 years. She went on to vault and throw the javelin at Bethany College in West Virginia, where she earned her bachelor’s degree.
As a new track coach, White was able to teach her athletes the physical side of the sport, but said the mental performance piece was missing. So, she went back to school to earn her master’s degree in Exercise Science: Sport Psychology at California University of Pennsylvania. And, in 2018, she earned her doctorate in Sport and Performance Psychology at University of Western States. She is working toward Certified Mental Performance Consultant (CMPC) certification.
Doctor White’s “house calls” can take place virtually online via Zoom, or by phone. Team sessions can take place the same way. She also offers private sessions with coaches, to handle different problems that arise in a team situation.
Meeting with her clients, White focuses on:
- Goal Setting
- Performance Routines
- Focused Breathing
- Attentional Cues
- Achievement Reminders
- Positive Self-talk
- Mental Rehearsal
- Overcoming Distractions
- Anxiety Management
- Preventing/Overcoming Burnout
- Performing in the Zone
- Mental Blocks (YIPS)
- Injury Recovery (mental side)
Many of White’s athletes have gone on to compete in college, including Bridget Guy, her first pole-vault state champion. Guy earned multiple NCAA All-American honors at the University of Virginia, and won the bronze at the World University Games, clearing 4.31 meters (14’1.75”) for the United States.
Guy’s next goal is clearing the Olympic standard of 4.70 meters and moving up the ranks of America’s best women vaulters. Doctor Coach White believes Guy has the resiliency, grit and discipline to make her Olympic dream come true.
Another former vaulter, Lexi Masterson was a team captain at Penn State, and, Hayden Fox, White’s first javelin state champion, qualified for the NCAA championships for the Naval Academy track and field team. Also competing at the college level are Molly DeBone at West Virginia, and Adam Gamber at Dickinson College.
Current pole-vaulter, Lukas Kissell, has been selected for the US Olympic Development Team in the bobsled skeleton event. White told a local newspaper, “Lukas is a driven person. I’ll never doubt what he wants to do. When he makes the Olympics, I’ll buy a ticket to watch him.”
“Team Hoot” pole vault guru Shawn Francis is one of White’s biggest fans. The author of The Pole Vault Toolbox held a summer pole vault camp with White’s athletes a few years ago and was impressed by her ability to see the potential greatness in her young people.
“When I met her, she was already changing lives in the classroom and on the pole vault runway,” Francis said. “A few short years later, armed with a degree in psychology, Dr. White is still helping people find success on the track, and also within themselves.”
ORDER MAGGIE VAULTS OVER THE MOON TODAY!
Maggie Vaults Over the Moon is the story of a gritty Kansas farm girl who rebounds after tragedy and reaches new heights as a pole-vaulter. The novel is available in paperback, ebook and audio book. Bulk discounts are available for clubs and schools. Contact the author for details.