Our third Surge Spotlight highlights Bianca Latham, the Surge’s first-ever mental performance coach. Read below for Bianca’s wise insights on transitioning out of sport, strengthening team culture, and mental health.
(The following interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity).
You played 6 seasons with the Surge and won 2 national championships before retiring in 2018. What is your current role with the Surge?
I am the mental performance coach, and I help the athletes strengthen their mental fitness to perform at a high level. I make sure their mindset is in the right space when it comes to confidence and resilience, and just give them different sports psychology tools and techniques. Additionally, I act as a first responder if they’re experiencing a mental health crisis.
How was the transition out of playing basketball for you?
It has been going really well for me. I know a lot of athletes struggle with that, but I will say sports psychology really helped me because I just applied the same tools that I would teach athletes to myself. Sports psychology is a new passion and routine for me. There’s a Japanese proverb called ikigai, and it says that you need to find something you can make money at, something you’re good at, something that you’re passionate about and something that the world needs. For me, that’s sports psychology, and so it was an easy transition out of sport. I had also been playing basketball since I was eight. Now, I’m able to go to people’s graduations and weddings. I don’t want to say I was missing out on life because I loved every second of playing basketball, but this is a new journey, especially now that I’m married and have a child.
Were there different struggles you had as an athlete that were more about your mental space than your physical skills?
I definitely experienced some roadblocks as an athlete. One of them was fear of failure, especially near the end of my career, when my talent and ability started to decrease. I had nowhere to go. We had a strength and conditioning coach and a physical rehabilitation coach. But, there was no coach to make sure you have the tools and resources to overcome roadblocks. I want to be part of the solution and make sure that I’m able to provide those resources for athletes.
Yes, the tools you are teaching are so powerful for athletes, and we are beyond lucky to have you. How has your first year as the mental performance coach been going?
Again, I was playing a little bit from a place of fear instead of a place of joy, so being able to help the players play from a place of joy has been so gratifying. A lot of the players have been applying what I’ve been teaching and you can see the difference in their mindset.
What are the different commitments you have for the Surge?
I meet with the full team on Mondays for our weekly #MentalFitnessMonday. It’s not a quote on quote requirement, but I usually get all 10 players, or at least 8, because on a given day, someone might have a scheduling conflict. I do work with them individually too, because I can’t necessarily dive in deep with each person in the timeframe that I have with the full team. Outside of the Surge, my full time job is with Game Changer Athletes and my part time job is G.O.A.T Mentality.
What do full team sessions look like compared to individual sessions?
With the team, I do more engaging exercises. For example, the last workshop that I did was on self talk, and I started it with a debate. Who’s the better player: LeBron or Kobe? It got really heated and people were passionate and then I flipped it and said, “what strategies were you guys using in this debate to make your point? How do you apply this to your negative self-talk? Are these negative thoughts that you have? Are you debating those in the same manner?”. For them, it’s kind of like an awareness moment of “oh, no, I’m not, but here’s how I can apply it”. Individually, when I’m working with them, it’s more about specific situations that are recurring and how we can overcome it.
It’s great that you bring big-time athletes into your workshops. One of my favorite players is Steph Curry. I love how much joy he brings to the court. As someone who really struggled with that fear of failure you’ve talked about, Steph has been a great model.
He uses a lot of sports psychology. I use him in a lot of my workshops too. He uses a lot of mindfulness and manages his arousal level during games. Before game one, they asked him, “what are you focusing on this game?” and he said, “I’m just focused on being present. There’s no pressure for me to perform. I just want to be present”. Whether he’s taking breaths to lower his heart rate before free throws or on the side of a play, he uses a lot of mental skills that I recognize. I’m a Bron fan, but go Steph. I appreciate Steph.
Are there any mental development coaches that you look up to in the way you would look up to Kobe or LeBron?
Dr. Ken Ravizza and Dr. Wendy Borlabi (Dr. B). Dr. B works with the Chicago Bulls. I love her. Justin Su’a is phenomenal. Those are just my top three, but if you’re looking to increase your mental performance there are many more out there who provide free info on YouTube or Instagram.
I’ll definitely check out their work. One of George Mumford’s quotes is “there’s no differentiating who you are on the court and who you are in life”. What do you think about that?
He’s very accurate. If you have negative self-talk on the court, you typically experience it off the court too. Mental performance coaching is a holistic approach. To fix something on the court you have to apply it off the court too. You are changing the whole person and helping them evolve.
What are some of the most common struggles you’ve seen in athletes?
I’ve seen athletes struggling with confidence, anxiety or a heightened level of arousal, and playing from a place of stress instead of a place of joy. I really work with athletes on being present. They’re thinking too far ahead in the future about what hasn’t happened or they’re reliving the past. When they are in the moment, they’re not being fearful of what hasn’t come yet and they’re not reliving something that occurred in the past.
What are some of the tools you help put in your athletes toolbox?
The big ones are mindfulness meditation, visualization, and grounding or a quick body scan. Mindfulness meditation is one that a lot of people use, whether they are in sports or not. One team development principle I like is “the hand”. I tell teams that in order to make a fist, you need all five fingers. Each finger represents something. The pinky is representative of the fact that from the janitor to the manager to the person who doesn’t get off the bench, everyone is important. The ring finger represents commitment. The middle finger represents respect. The pointer finger is direction. Everybody’s got to be focused and going towards the same goal. Finally, the thumb is encouragement. Everybody needs to be encouraging those when we fall. You need all 5 of those fingers and attributes to make a punch.
I love what the pinky represents. At any given moment, anybody on the team can be the most important player on the court and you need to make sure that everyone believes that and knows that, so when the moment comes, a given player feels fully confident and capable in their ability to execute.
Yep. I love that.
You can track physical results like points, efficiency, plus/minus, and so on, but how do you track mental fitness and growth?
There are a bunch of assessment tools that sports psychologists can use. For example, I use the performance profile. The team comes up with the mental aspects that they believe are essential for them to play at a high level, and then they measure themselves on the aspects on a scale of 1-10. At the end of the season, we’ll go back and see where they rate themselves on the same aspects. I’ll ask, “where are you at now? What did you work on what was successful? What wasn’t successful? How much effort did you put into it?”.
You do work in leadership development as well. When you are first sitting down with a leader, what does your conversation look like?
When it comes to mental performance or mindset, one of the first things I work on clients with is self-awareness. It’s really important for you to be self-aware – what are your strengths? What are your areas of improvement? How does this transition into your leadership skills? How does this transition into the way you would like to lead? The first meeting is about helping increase self-awareness. Self-awareness is the first step. Then, I allow the client to guide where we go from there.
What is your message to young athletes about mental fitness?
Mental fitness or mental performance is something that you’re going to use in your everyday life, with everything that you do. It’s important that you seek mental fitness tools and resources if they aren’t available to you. Ask your school or your university about how you can have access to them, or go online. There are a lot of Instagram and TikTok accounts out there that provide quality, free information. You can also contact your local sports psychologist or mental performance consultant. If you’re trying to get to the next level, it’s not about what you’re able to do physically. It’s what you’re able to navigate and overcome mentally. Don’t be afraid of the stigma. Mental health is physical health. Be comfortable in yourself so that you can acknowledge when you need assistance and seek it out.
That’s a fantastic message. Let’s close this off with a game of favorites. I’m going to list an item and you just tell me your favorite.
Ice cream flavor? Butter pecan
Quote? Nevertheless she persisted
Place in the world? Belize
Part of your job? Working with athletes. Every time I have a session, whether it’s a workshop or an individual meeting, I come back home and it’s almost like I get a rush of energy from it. Healing or grounding technique? A body scan is my go to. When I’m stressed, I’ll start grinding my teeth and once I realize I’m doing that I’ll be intentional about relaxing.
Women’s basketball player? My girl is Sheryl Swoopes. I grew up watching 22. That’s my girl. Paige Bueckers is one of my favorite young players right now too.
Social media platform? Instagram
Things about St. Louis? I love the restaurants here. In South City,I experience a different restaurant every month that has its own little quirk, its own little theme, and its own really good vibe. Fun fact: Grand Blvd is the second most culturally diverse street in the country in terms of food.
Things about the St. Louis Surge? My favorite thing is that the mission is bigger than basketball and that we recruit players that have good character. They are just good citizens, and people that contribute back to society in a positive way.
While her work may be behind the scenes, Bianca is one of the greatest additions to the Surge this year. She has turned one of her struggles into one of her greatest gifts and we are all better because of the peace and love with which she guides us. We are thankful that Bianca continues to call the Surge home. Stay tuned into the Surge Spotlight Series to hear more stories about the incredible women driving Surge Nation forward!