Football: Mental Performance Consultant Jen Schumacher teaches student-athletes, coaches about mental skills
November 2, 2022
A former collegiate swimmer, Jen Schumacher felt a boost of confidence when she first swam across the 21-mile Catalina Channel — a goal she had since she was a young girl.
The swim took everything she had, including the mental performance skills she spent time honing. In her head, however, Schumacher told herself that she only accomplished the trek because of nice conditions and luck.
The following year, Schumacher returned to the Catalina Channel and recorded an even speedier time. Dominating that second trek, in combination with managing two other marathon swims that season, “unlocked awesome doors,” she said.
“Doing that helped show me (that), ‘No, this is something that I’ve worked on, that I’ve earned,’” Schumacher said. “I can produce consistent performances if I keep working the mental game and taking care of physical stuff.’”
That swim proved to be a defining moment of Schumacher’s athletic career. Now, as a mental performance consultant for Northwestern, Schumacher brings her experience embracing mental performance skills in athletics and her education in sports psychology to the table. Hired in June 2022, Schumacher has quickly become an integral part of the Wildcats’ sideline as she works to sharpen their mental game.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald said Schumacher has done a great job connecting with NU players and teaching the team the fundamentals of mental performance.
“Everybody wants to learn to make themselves better and more complete as a person, beyond just being complete as a player,” Fitzgerald said. “She’s worked hard building those relationships where we can build trust. We’re just getting started down this road.”
Schumacher’s interest in the mental game began as a young swimmer, long before she arrived at NU. Growing up, Schumacher delivered strong performances at swim practices, but couldn’t translate that to competition. These struggles made her curious about the mental aspect of sports, she said.
Schumacher went on to swim at the University of California, Irvine, but suffered what she thought was a career-ending injury and transferred. At California State University, Fullerton, she discovered the field of sports psychology.
As she learned more, Schumacher became fascinated with how much contributes to athletic performance beyond physical training. While athletes often emphasize physical wellbeing, she said they devote less time to the mental game.
When Schumacher realized she could still have a swim career, she turned to open-water swimming. Her experiences in the water proved to be her own “personal laboratory” for what she learned in her sports psychology studies, testing out techniques on herself before using them on other athletes.
She quickly found success with tactics meant to build confidence and calm nerves. Embracing these skills made Schumacher’s second swimming career even more successful than her first.
After graduating with her master’s degree in sports psychology in 2011, Schumacher went into private practice in addition to working with several college teams around southern California. A mentor connected her with an opportunity at the U.S. Military Academy, where she served as assistant director of the Performance Psychology Program.
Her role at West Point focused on building confidence among cadets, particularly after their rigorous, six-week summer training. Schumacher said the dynamics of the talented pool of cadets weren’t too different from what she’s seen at NU.
“You take the best of the best, and put them all together in one small community, and it’s difficult,” Schumacher said. “We see a similar thing with Northwestern student athletes. These are some of the best scholar athletes in the country, then, all of a sudden, they’re amongst the best.”
After more than six years at West Point, Schumacher made the move to Evanston to work with the Wildcats. The opportunity to embed in a sports organization, working with everyone from coaches to players, especially interested her. Schumacher attends practices, games, lifts and meetings, offering mental skills advice to anyone who seeks it.
When working with individual players, she said she most often addresses worries about perfectionism and overthinking. She works to instill players with a growth mindset, helping them determine what they can learn from adversity.
On the sidelines, Schumacher said she tends to take a hands-off approach, only approaching players if she has a preexisting relationship with them and notices them struggling. Some players might be nervous if they see their mental skills coach approach them during games, she said.
Prior to the Duke matchup in September, junior quarterback Ryan Hilinski said Schumacher’s work greatly improved his play.
He told The Daily that Schumacher understands that football is a “crazy sport” and respects players’ boundaries. During NU’s first game against Nebraska, Hilinski said he warned Schumacher to watch out for linemen who might run into her.
“She was like, ‘Why are you worried about me during the game?’” Hilinski said. “I was like, ‘It actually makes the moment less big than it is.’ It helps me.”
Fitzgerald said he’s looking forward to Schumacher’s future on staff. The program is only just beginning its journey with mental performance, but he said Schumacher has done a “terrific job” already.
Schumacher said she’s enjoyed the relationships she has built since June. The Wildcats’ losing record may seem challenging, she said, but it has provided learning opportunities.
“It’s a high-performance organization,” Schumacher said. “I can’t wait until our record matches that. It will undoubtedly (happen) if we keep doing the right things. Those results will come.”
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