Smarter Coaching:

Saana Koljonen

High Performance Behavior Coach /  Denver, CO

08.24.2021
Dave Mason

Saana Koljonen knows that success in sport begins and ends inside an athlete’s head.

The child of athletic parents, Saana grew up in a small town in Finland, running track and cross country, competing in gymnastics, and ultimately deciding at age 13 that she loved volleyball more than any other sport. That love and the encouragement of a few teammates here and there helped her overcome self-doubt—never quite feeling “good enough”—and she progressed to the point where she found herself playing in the First Division of Europe’s professional league, spending five years in Germany and France and co-captaining Finland’s national team. When an injury followed by a severe bacterial infection resulted in multiple surgeries and total rest for more than five months, she made the difficult decision to move on from the sport that had taken her so far.

Today, Saana is a high performance behavior coach working with athletes, coaches, teams, and programs to help them discover their own unique strengths and authenticities. We recently caught up with her to talk about the mental aspects of competitive athletics. 

How did you make the transition to high performance behavioral coaching?   Reluctantly, maybe! After emerging from my injury, surgeries, and months-long recovery, I was almost thirty, and the writing was on the wall. It was time for me to move away from playing pro volleyball, and that was incredibly challenging mentally and emotionally. I needed to get as far away from my competitive environment as possible, so I contacted a friend—a former teammate from Denver—and ended up moving to the United States and coaching university volleyball. 

I’d always been interested in human behavior—I’d gotten my Masters in Social Sciences of Sports while I was still playing pro—and while I was recovering from my injury I’d reconnected with the CEO of a company called ExtendedDisc who had been involved in capacity assessment with the Finnish national team when I was a player. I worked with them exploring the science of psychology for a while, and the idea of sports and science pushed me further toward what I’m doing now.

Tell us a little about your coaching focus.   As a player, I knew my physical skills were there because I trained incredibly hard to develop those aspects. I ate right. Slept right. Worked out right. But I always knew something was missing. And that something was the mental and emotional side of performance. I think there’s this idea in sports, in coaching, that it’s an athlete’s body that performs, that the athlete is simply taught the skills, builds the physical strengths to do them at a high level, and the coaching job is done. But the body cannot do what the mind does not allow it to do.

If someone can’t skate, we teach them the mechanics of skating. If they can’t skate fast enough, we teach them how to build the strength they need to execute the skating mechanics at peak levels. It seems that most coaches assume the mental side of an athlete will just somehow be there, and if someone struggles with pressure or self-doubt or some other mental aspect, they tend to be discarded instead of trained to build the skills and strengths they need to overcome those challenges. I focus on that.

I typically work with athletes age 14 and up. That’s about the age when kids have decided they want to do their sport, they’ve developed the self-awareness and maturity to begin to understand the consequences of their own actions, and more and more they begin comparing themselves to others. When you’re coaching late-development sports like volleyball or ice hockey, where a pretty solid 14 year old can transition physically, mentally, and emotionally to become an outstanding 18 or 19 year old, it’s not enough to deliver just skills and strength coaching. Those athletes absolutely need the kind of positive mental coaching that will help them reach their goals. 

Are you seeing more acceptance of the mental aspect of coaching?   At the high levels, for example USA Volleyball, the mental aspects are heavily emphasized, but it’s still a missing ingredient at the youth level. Most coaches are volunteers, former players most likely, and they can attend a few clinics and download drills from the internet and run a practice. But properly coaching the mental side of athletics is much more complex, and coaches are not being taught nearly enough of this.

There are many challenges in coaching at the youth level. One thing I hear over and over from coaches is that “kids are so different from when we were young.” Surprise! So why isn’t coaching different? Kids use technology? Coach them with technology, like PowerPlayer. Kids want to know why they are being asked to do something? Explain it to them. I’m seeing more and more coaches making the transition, matching their teaching methods to the young people they are trying to teach, so I’m optimistic. And more and more parents are reaching out to people like me, so I think the recognition that this stuff matters is definitely growing. 

What are some of the most prevalent mental challenges you see in young athletes?   One of the biggest challenges is perfectionism. When kids from a young age are taught that failing means too much, they’re conditioned to believe that their mistakes have huge meaning. A mistake can become so big in their minds that they actually associate themselves with the failure. They actually become the failure. Where does that pressure come from? From parents? From coaches? From society? Maybe all of the above? Wherever it comes from it holds athletes back.

For a coach, getting in a kid’s head—reminding them over and over of the consequences of failure by threatening to bench them, or calling them out in front of teammates—is achieving the opposite of what a coach should be trying to achieve. We’ve all heard the term “in the zone” or “in the flow state.” Every competitive athlete has experienced those moments where things just go right, where the ball or puck does exactly what we want it to do, where we can do whatever we want to do. That “zone” or “state” is freedom from thought. No worries about messing up. No fear of retribution or embarrassment. It feels like magic, but it’s actually trust. The athlete trusts themself to let go, to just do the things they’ve trained to do. Removing pressure enhances performance. There are some who say “pressure is part of sports, so deal with it.” Yes, pressure is part of competing, but as a coach, do you want to multiply it? Or help eliminate it?

Are there any thoughts you’d like to leave with the youth coaches out there?   It’s important to see each athlete for who and what they are, to find and accentuate the positives about them as an individual, and to reinforce that you, as an adult, understand that they are learning to be themselves while they are learning to play volleyball or hockey or whatever, and that you recognize that it’s all a long, long process. 

And, of course, feedback and communication from coach to player and parent should be continuous. It’s critical. Because that’s how we all know we’re working toward the same thing!  

To learn more about Saana, visit www.saanakoljonen.com