The Mental Game


Dr. Mark Carbonara

Hello Frog Jump community! I am very excited to be jumping into “The Pond” to share some of my expertise with players, coaches, alumni, and prospective Division III men’s volleyball recruits (and really anyone else who visits Frog Jump). This series will discuss challenges student-athlete men often experience off the court, how leadership programming and mentorship can increase a team’s ability to succeed, and how coaches and athletic departments can help student-athletes thrive both on their campuses and within their sport.

My role here on the Frog Jump team is to discuss the mental side of the game and how players’ lives outside of the gym can heavily impact their success on the court. Many coaches who I have known, and even worked with, hold the standard of “drop everything outside of volleyball at the locker room door and focus solely on the game”. While this is a great idea in theory, it is rarely able to be truly implemented by players, especially within the ever-developing minds of traditionally aged college men. Things such as relationships, grades/schoolwork, family problems, and interpersonal issues within the team are always on players’ minds when they are playing volleyball, whether they realize it or not. 

Who Am I?

Let’s start with who I am and why I have any business talking about this stuff. Well, I have been working alongside collegiate athletic teams for over a decade, within numerous sports, and have developed team leadership programs, captains’ models, and held thousands of one-on-one personal development mentoring sessions with college students. I received my master’s degree from Western Illinois University in College Student Personnel, which is a degree that focuses on the developing minds of college-going individuals. My degree at WIU was a mix of theory, practice, counseling/mentoring skills, as well as leadership programming and facilitation. My research and practice focus since my graduate school days has been specifically on development of men in college.

Over the past twelve years, I have served on numerous national committees and associations studying and researching college men’s development and began to find my niche in studying college student-athlete men. More recently, I completed my doctoral degree in Higher Education Administration from Northern Illinois University with a research focus specifically on identity development of student-athlete men at Division III institutions. Almost all prior research completed on student-athlete men in college was done through a lens of Division I programs, which we know are very different compared to the supports and experiences felt within Division III programs. My research and consulting work strives to bring the experiences of Division III student-athlete men to the surface of scholarly research, but also get this information out to players who are currently in college and on the court. 

For the past eight years, I have been working with men’s volleyball programs serving as a team mentor and leadership development coordinator to help players individually grow to become their best selves (think of it like a life coach for college guys), as well as develop team leaders to handle issues properly, hold their team to a high standard, and learn marketable skills to become better professionals after their college years are over. I have gone on the road with teams, traveled to multiple national tournaments, and given far too many locker room pep talks as well as “hold your head high” talks after a tough loss. I have found Division III men’s volleyball players at every school I have met with to be driven players, academically minded individuals, but also starving for individualized support and development. My goal is to share some of what I have learned over the years with this community in hopes to allow all players to be seen and heard within their own programs. 

Where It All Started

My passion for working with Division III men’s programs started when I realized that so many small-to-mid-sized institutions, often Division III, share a common experience with student-athlete men. Published research, as well as my own study and experiences, show that student-athlete men on Division III campuses are often viewed as “cool kids” by their peers (due to how we are conditioned to believe athletes are higher on the social ladder), but these students also unknowingly become “culture creators” for their individual campuses. They tend to set and control the social scene on campus and are often well-known by their peers, faculty members, and staff personnel. Young men, in general, receive very little guidance throughout their lives on how to handle themselves within their personal lives, but student-athletes often feel as though they live within a fishbowl where all their actions are seen, critiqued, and reported back to their coaches or athletic departments. When I first started meeting with student-athlete men in one-on-one meetings, the majority of guys started disclosing the immense pressure they feel on a daily basis to perform well on and off the court, to have their “stuff” together at all times, and to be a role model for others on the team and those who follow their sport. When asked what supports they receive to overcome these pressures, not a single player I spoke with in my first few years gave me a clear answer. 

What I came to realize from their stories and experiences was that almost of these guys felt like they were the only one dealing with their specific issue, they didn’t feel like their coaching staff would understand (or care, in some cases), and they didn’t feel comfortable using campus resources such as a counseling center. This is when I began collaborating with coaches and athletic departments to work alongside teams to help develop individual players, build up team leadership and captains, and create open communication amongst players and coaches for these young men to speak their needs as a team.

What I’ve Learned 

I spent the last two years researching Division III student-athlete men for my doctoral research and I discovered a lot of interesting outcomes that I have shared with many coaches and players I know and almost all have agreed to their accuracy. The series that I will be writing over the next year will cover each of these topics more in depth, but here is an introduction into some of what I found out:

  • Student-Athlete men directly tie how they learned to be a man and what they believe a man is/should be to things they learned from coaches growing up and in college. This was both positive and negative in experience, but I found that self-worth and self-esteem issues both on and off the court often stemmed from comments made by coaches throughout players’ lives.
  • There were multiple additional pressures that were felt by most/all the student-athlete men within the study. These include:
    • The need to perform well in the class and be seen as “smart”
    • The pressure to start playing a sport at an early age in life
    • The burden to always be perceived as a “good guy” by peers, faculty, and staff
    • The demand to look or act a certain way as a student-athlete man
    • The stress to represent the team in everything you do
    • The increased presence of substances and romantic/intimate relationships that distract from being truly successful in college

  • The participants in my study had a very different definition of what it means to “be a man” as a student-athlete than what is mostly commonly portrayed in media. Most/all the student-athlete men in my study felt that being a student-athlete man meant:
    • Accepting others and striving to be a good person
    • Focusing on school and being academically strong
    • Becoming your authentic self regardless of what other people think of you
    • Talking more openly about struggles and mental health in college

These three overarching themes, and their sub-themes, are opposite of the dominant narrative that is known in research and media about student-athlete men in college. What this shows is that Division III men are a unique group, a different breed, of student-athletes that vary greatly from their Division I counterparts. Once Division III student-athlete men work to overcome their inner barriers, learn to talk about these things as a team, and create systems to support all members of their teams, that is when they can truly start focusing all their effort “on the game” and win against more highly ranked teams who don’t fully know themselves. 

Moving Forward

 If you made it this far, you likely want to know more about this work and how it directly impacts teams and their success. Throughout my work consulting and mentoring Division III men’s programs, I have used this information to transform individual players to their true potential (alongside coaches doing the necessary technical work on the court), I have taught coaches and captains how to lead authentically and developmentally in order to create a powerhouse team, and I have aided in building programs that work together to be the best men they can be, both on and off the court. All teams have a desire to win games, but not all individual players have the mental strength to help their team succeed… or at least not yet!