The 2017-18 school year was a memorable one for West Seneca West Senior High School’s athletics program. The students and coaches not only worked hard, but found new ways to improve their training and take themselves to the next level.
One large component of their advancement this year was the addition of the West Mental Skills Training Program, spearheaded by Jessica Raniero (West athletic trainer, girl’s lacrosse assistant) and Ashley Bonetto (JV softball coach), who were both NCAA athletes.
“We know the student-athletes have a lot of talent but what we have noticed is that we struggle a lot with the mental aspects of the game and that is what our program is all about,” Bonetto shared.
“Coach Bonetto and myself have discussed the need for more of a ‘full’ athletic package at the high school level,” Raniero added. The pair said they took advantage of opportunities available to them in college to help achieve more as athletes such as study habits, learning to prioritize, sports psychology, focusing techniques and other methods. “We have often discussed the lack of support for the high school athlete to develop strengths outside of physical attributes and cited the need for the high school athlete to be mentally tough going into college. We put our minds together and developed West Mental Skills Training. We used what turned out to be a banner year for West to bring our athletes together and let them realize that we can really continue to grow on this if we all learn together.”
The mission of the program is to give student athletes the ability to learn more about the mental aspect of athletics in a group setting. They meet about once every two weeks during the school year. Though the number of attendees fluctuated due to schedules and practices, the program started with around 50 athletes and ended with just under 100. They expect the numbers to continue to grow.
“At the beginning of the development of the group, we had each athlete create a folder where we can keep important messages, skills and awareness evaluations, and mental strategies to try,” Raniero shared. A variety of coaches visited the program throughout the year to speak about topics such as leadership, overcoming mistakes, body language, how to focus, thought stopping/starting and self-examination. Several of the coaches had valuable input for the students, including football coach Mike Vastola and soccer coach Jenn Bell, who are both also former college athletes.
“So many times do we hear as coaches that athletes are struggling with performance because of something mental, and even more so do we hear of coaches telling players to ‘suck it up’ or that they’ve got to be tougher,” Raniero said. “Now, we can teach that instead of just expecting it.”
“A lot of time as a coach, you spend all your time focusing on skills, conditioning or plays and either forget about the mental part or you don’t have time,” Bonetto said. “In reality it’s probably one of the biggest parts of the game, especially because of everything that all the kids are dealing with in their personal lives.”
As coaches themselves, Bonetto and Raniero were able to implement the mental skills training into their practices.
“I see athletes in my office or at games talking about how poorly they played or a mistake, hanging their heads on the bench and now their teammates and coaches go up to them and say, ‘You need to get to Mental Skills Training this week.’ We had coaches asking for sessions the week going into winter playoff games in late February and early March. Everyone was all for building off of the success we’d been having and preparing for more,” Raniero shared.
“All the athletes may have different parts of the game they may struggle with whether it be setting goals and following through with them, self-confidence or their role on a team,” Bonetto shared. “We are just trying to help the athletes become and develop into the best they can be which in turn will help make the their team better and our whole athletic program more successful.”
To further their involvement with the multiple teams themselves, a “Mental Skills Training Player(s) of the Game” award was created in the winter season. Coaches met and discussed who exhibited traits including mental toughness, positivity and sportsmanship throughout their games.
“Every coach we talked to was willing to let their kids participate and get involved,” Raniero said. “We had coaches push back practices so that their kids could go to meetings. It was great! The program is designed so that the athlete’s learning the skills can not only use them individually, but take them back to their teams and put them to use as a leader as well. It certainly helps to get your captains, your multi-sport athletes or your best players to the program, because it gets the rest of the team to follow suit. There was really no excuse for athletes not to go.”
The program recently received a $2,000 donation from Athletes Unleashed to further the program in the school. Bonetto and Raniero originally reached out to the business early in the developmental phase of the Mental Skills Training program seeking professional input and guidance. Robby Dinero, the owner of Athletes Unleashed, and Kelly Hunter also have a program called Leadership Unleashed, where they provide communication building, teamwork and leadership training.
“They reached out to us to see how our mission was coming along and said ‘Hey, We’ve got this opportunity for you guys.’ They needed about 16 volunteers to step up and provide plate changing for the National Masters Weightlifting Championships and wanted young athletes. If we could provide the volunteers, they agreed to not only donate $2,000 to our Mental Skills Training program, but also to provide us with a three-day leadership miniseries where Robby and Kelly would come out to speak to our group,” Raniero shared. “It was a no brainer really, but we needed athletes to step up.”
She thought it would be a difficult task finding students to spend four days during their spring break working eight-hour shifts voluntarily. Within three days, all of the volunteer spots were filled, plus three extra athletes.
Volunteers included athletes from football, boys hockey, boys and girls lacrosse, boys and girls basketball, girls volleyball, softball, baseball, track, girls soccer, field hockey and wrestling. The students who signed up were Josh Ball, Erin Blandin, Dan Cantafio, Maddi Chodkowski, Cam Cswaykus, Kayla Cswaykus, Grace Eagan, Kyle Haettich, Brooke Highway, Juston Johnson, Matt Knowles, Anna Mucha, Alexa Nigro, Racheal Sharf, John Speyer, Hayden Trapper, Abby Trimper, Luke Wilhelm and David Witt.
“It was impressive,” Raniero shared. “The kids saw the importance of bringing in the donation and the miniseries in order to keep training going into next year. They worked hard. They were jumping up, sprinting to the platform to make sure the plates got changed quickly and really took their jobs to heart.”
Bonetto and Raniero did not plan on having an account or money to spend on this program. Up until this donation, they spent their own money taking online leadership courses. Now with the added funds, they hope to continue their own education and receiving more information to pass on to the student athletes, but also plan on continuing a relationship with Leadership Unleashed and looking at other outside organizations to bring in speakers and coaches.
“Having a chunk of money like that can get us some solid speakers to come and educate our athletes throughout the 2018-19 seasons,” Raniero said.
They hope the program not only prepares students for collegiate athletics, if that is a path they choose to take, but that they take what they learn and apply it as they move onto new chapters in their lives.
“Whether our kids have goals to play NCAA, NJCAA or NAIA, or not, there is a huge mental aspect to life and sports that coaches in high school are pressed for time to teach, or they just don’t know enough about it in order to do so,” Raniero said. “We want to help educate our athletes and coaches how to not only perform physically on the field, but mentally. College coaches want to recruit great athletes, don’t get me wrong, but great athletes also exhibit positive body language, are leaders on and off the field, and can overcome sports anxiety and correct mistakes mentally without letting negativity or results take a toll on their performance or ability. Some athletes are stronger mentally than others, and we want to give them the ability to learn how to maximize their mental potential on the field. That way, not only can we expect physical athletic greatness out of West athletics, but we can expect our kids to be the toughest, most relentless group on the field, court, track, ice, whatever it may be, win or lose.”