Mental performance coach helps Sewickley Academy athletes train their brains

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Sunday, June 5, 2022 | 11:01 AM


Donato Fanelle’s goal as mental performance coach at Sewickley Academy essentially is to work himself out of a job.

“I want you to hone your mental skills to the point to where you no longer need the help,” Fanelle said. “The good thing about working at a high school is there will always be a senior class graduating and a new freshman class incoming. Hopefully that gives me some job security at SA.

“And I say this with complete humility: I probably have the coolest job on the planet. I get to talk with athletes about sports all day and not only do I get to help them become better athletes, I get to build relationships and watch them become better people. I’ve been able to work with some tremendous athletes and top-notch organizations, and I really enjoy the variety of teams and athletes I work with outside of SA.

“But I cannot express enough how much I love working at Sewickley Academy. It truly is a privilege, and I am so incredibly grateful for the opportunity. The athletic department values the right things. The coaches work hard to establish strong team cultures, and they never sacrifice integrity. And with some big plans the academy has for the future, it’s a really exciting time to be working here.”

Fanelle, 31, is employed by KPEX Consulting and has worked with student-athletes at SA for three years.

“I help the student-athletes develop and improve their mental toughness through mental skills training,” Fanelle said. “By mental skills, we mean things like confidence, focus, composure, motivation, goal setting, visualization, routines, self-talk, leadership and communication. These skills can be trained just like any other skill. Similar to how a strength and conditioning coach helps athletes to train their bodies, I help athletes to train their minds.”

Sewickley Academy’s athletic program has utilized a mental performance coach for 17 years.

“I have witnessed first-hand how effective it is,” athletic director and coach Win Palmer said. “It is run under the direction of (KPEX Consulting CEO) Dr. Aimee Kimball, who helped the Penguins earn their last two Stanley Cups and was in China helping the U.S. Olympic team. Donato works for her and is contracted to work with our athletes, teams and coaches. I don’t know of any other high school in Western Pennsylvania that has such an arrangement.”

Fanelle said he is in the “relationship” and “life lessons” business.

“Building relationships is undoubtedly what I enjoy most about my job,” he said. “I take a lot of pride in my work because I know I have an opportunity and a responsibility to have a positive impact on a kid’s life. It’s a responsibility I take seriously and an opportunity that I find very exciting.

“Sports teaches so many valuable life lessons, and my work can help kids connect the dots and see how they can apply these lessons to all areas of their lives. It is awesome to see the growth of these student-athletes. It’s a privilege to see what great people they are becoming and I cannot wait to see all the amazing things they will do in the next chapters of their lives.”

Fanelle earned a master’s degree in Sport & Performance Psychology from the University of Denver and his bachelor’s degree from Rutgers, where he also played for the men’s ice hockey team.

He is a Level 4 USA Hockey CEP and has coached local youth and high school teams. He worked as a hockey operations volunteer for the Denver college hockey team, doing pre-scout video analysis.

Fanelle also worked in the University of Denver’s Center for Performance Excellence, where he consulted with athletes from a wide range of sports and skill levels. He has worked with adaptive athletes and has facilitated mental skills workshops for coaches, leadership councils and high-risk occupations.

“I was never the most talented player,” Fanelle said. “In college, I was in and out of the lineup as a freshman, rode the bench as a sophomore and played a minimal role as a fourth-line grinder as an upperclassman. I was constantly trying to find any way to contribute and earn a bigger role, so I took a lot of pride in excelling at the intangibles.

“I was going to be the hardest worker on the ice, always willing to do whatever the coaches asked of me and gladly make sacrifices for the team and my teammates. But it was tough. I loved the game, but I felt the game never loved me back. My playing career was nothing but a bunch of heartbreaks, disappointments and frustrations.”

Following his college days, Fanelle went from playing hockey to mentoring hockey.

“About a year after my playing career was over, I got my first opportunity to coach,” he said. “Through coaching, I quickly began to see the game from a different perspective than I ever did as a player and soon realized that what held me back most throughout my career was my own mental game. It wasn’t that I lacked talent; I lacked confidence. I really struggled to keep my emotions in check on the ice and would easily lose my composure. I was so outcome-focused and always worrying about things that were out of my control instead of focusing on the process and the things that I can control. I would constantly overthink everything, dwell on mistakes and put way too much pressure on myself.

“This realization of the importance of the mental side sparked an interest in sport psychology.”

Have there been any intriguing success stories at SA that you can discuss?

“That’s a really tough question to answer,” Fanelle said. “First of all, any success these student-athletes enjoy is not because of me. Their success is a result of their work ethic, commitment and dedication. Second, what is the metric we’re using to determine success? Are we measuring success by trophies, awards, accolades and/or scholarships? If that’s how we’re measuring success, then anyone can just look up the stats online and tell me who has been a success.

“Now don’t get me wrong, I am a highly competitive person. I love to win, and I hate to lose. I always want to see these student-athletes succeed. Helping them become better athletes and achieve their goals is very important to me. But what’s more important is to help them become better people that are well prepared for life after high school.

“The metrics I would use to determine their success are more subjective, and it really has very little to do with their actual performance. I would say the student-athlete that bounces back from a bad game and has a great practice the following day is a success. The student-athlete that takes accountability after making a mistake and shows humility after winning a big game is a success. Student-athletes that approach their academics with the same intensity they approach their sport with are a success.”

Fanelle believes his job is to hone student-athletes’ mental skills to the point to where they no longer need his help.

“My training philosophy is based on four core aspects,” he said. “An individualized approach, building relationships, a scientific/humanistic approach and process-focused skill building.

“But at the end of the day, high school athletics is about the kids, and the student-athletes here at SA are truly special. It’s such a joy to work with them, and I hope to continue working here for a while.”

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