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Jr. Sun Devils taking program to next level with new Mental Performance Coach



With the Desert Youth Hockey Association Jr. Sun Devils making the major leap to Tier I this season, the organization boasts arguably one of the top staffs in the state.

Recently, that staff grew by one with the addition of James Nellis, the program’s new Mental Performance Coach.

According to Nellis, an Arizona Board of Behavioral Health-approved licensed associate counselor and lifelong hockey player and coach, his role is multifaceted.

“I’m a support person for our hockey players, their parents, and our talented group of coaches,” said Nellis, who also holds a master’s degree in Professional Counseling and is working on his Certified Mental Performance Coaching designation. “The role will start out modestly and grow with time as we determine where the needs are and how best to deliver support services.

“The goal is for our programming to improve our players’ use and understanding of mental preparation, effective goal setting, teamwork and the development of a performance mindset. A performance coach can assist in many of the crucial areas above and beyond the X’s and O’s of the game. Most youth-level coaches are not trained to recognize and support mental health issues facing young athletes today.”

Currently on staff as a primary therapist at the Meadows Intensive Outpatient Center in North Scottsdale, the nation’s premier treatment program for treating trauma, addiction, anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, and resilience training. In 2019, Nellis and his partner Jordan Miller launched New Thinking Institute where they and their team deliver online life skills coaching classes to kids aged 12-18.

“My passion is to help young people with the challenges the face in their lives, and I especially enjoy working with athletes and coaches,” Nellis said. “The conversations (to join the Jr. Sun Devils) began roughly last January. The organization was charging ahead full steam with their efforts to become a Tier I program and at first, I was really just curious to see how they were making out as I was deeply involved as a member of Arizona State University’s ACHA Division 1 coaching staff and I was really pulling for the Jr. Sun Devils as peers.

“I met with (Jr. Sun Devils hockey director) Brad McCaughey and frankly was just really inspired and impressed with the vision he had for the Jr. Sun Devils program. As time went on, we just kept talking and kept finishing each other’s sentences in regard to how to go about building an elite hockey program and culture here in the Valley. From there, really, I just began to ask him questions about areas in the organization that were working, areas where he felt he needed support, and areas he was hoping to add to in the future.”

As it turned out, McCaughey needed coaches as well as ways to support his coaches so they could be as successful as possible with their teams.

“Brad also shared a belief that I have and that is you need to make the parents feel included as best you can without blurring boundaries or making things more difficult for our players and their coaches, and that required some experience,” Nellis said. “Then COVID hit, and not much happened for a few months as everyone waited to see if we would even be playing. Eventually, we did start, and I was on the ice in July and August with (assistant hockey director) Nick Naumenko running conditioning and skills sessions for some of our older players, and really it just came together in September.

“Brad and Nick and myself had a meeting where they asked me to formally present to them what my role would be, and I did, and with everything going on in the world, the timing just seemed right, and, well, now I am the first-ever mental performance coach in the 46 years of the program.”

Growing up, Nellis was consistently playing hockey at the highest levels. He played two seasons of 16U Tier I for the Saskatoon Contacts – recognized as one of the top AAA programs in Canada – where he won honors as the leading scorer with the team. He then played the majority of his junior hockey in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, winning rookie of the year with the North Battleford North Stars in his first season.

Nellis has been consistently recognized as a leader by his coaches and peers and has been selected as either captain or assistant captain for every team he’s ever played on in his career.

“I’ve been very fortunate in my hockey career to play for and with some amazing people who taught me a lot about character and about being a leader,” Nellis said.

Nellis has lived in Scottsdale since 2015, and was a member of Grand Canyon University’s men’s ACHA coaching staff that was responsible for launching the program, and in just its second season, won coaching staff of the year in the Western Region.

“After that, I was recruited to come over from GCU and assist in rebuilding the ASU ACHA Division I program,” said Nellis. “In two seasons, we qualified for the national tournament but were shut down due to COVID-19 in March. We had a goal of winning a national championship in five seasons and we are definitely on the right path.”

Now firmly embracing his role with the Jr. Sun Devils, Nellis said he can provide support in team dynamics (among teammates, relationships between players and coaches and the ability to work together), athletic and physical performance, behavior, and academic performance.

Benefits of mental performance coaching include improving overall student wellness, reducing substance abuse and high-risk behaviors, increasing graduation rates and reducing negative impacts on grades due to mental health as students who use counseling services often are retained longer, have higher GPAs, and graduate at higher rates. If intervention is received early, students are less likely to have significant drops in performance (academic and athletic).

Proper assessment may assist getting proper academic accommodations, if needed. Another benefit of mental coaching is that it takes pressure off of administrators, coaches, and sports medicine staff to address issues they are not trained in and may be uncomfortable with.

Mental performance coaching strengthens athletic programs by improving performance, lowering the risk of injury or sickness, reducing behavioral concerns that may impact team dynamics, helping prevent or moderate significant drops in performance, and serving as an additional support for students in need.

Nellis also described the correlation between COVID and hockey, and how not being on the ice can be a strain to kids’ mental health.

“Absolutely, this affects kids, parents, coaches, all of us,” Nellis said. “Whether you’re an athlete or not, we’ve all been dealing with many of the same feelings during this worldwide pandemic – sadness, frustration, boredom, and fatigue. For most of our athletes, hockey and sports are a top priority in their lives and it leaves a huge void when that gets taken away.

“I think the message has been pretty consistent to parents, players, and our coaches so far. This is going to be a year of figuring things out and seeing how this role can evolve to best serve the entire organization. I am really excited to see how it goes and look forward to working with everyone.”

— Matt Mackinder

(Nov. 21,. 2020)


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