Aaron Grusonik

Montana State director of student-athlete wellness Aaron Grusonik poses for a portrait photo. After working in MSU’s dean of students office, he was hired by the athletic department in 2019.

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Editor’s note: This is the third and final part of a series about the growing use of psychology in sports. Part one can be read here and part two can be read here.

When Aaron Grusonik attends a sporting event at Montana State, he occasionally may recognize what’s going through an athlete’s head. Even from afar, he can tell.

That’s because as MSU’s director of student-athlete wellness, he works with them daily, teaching mindfulness techniques to stay present and handle pressure situations.

Grusonik often teaches to match a physical action with a thought. So, for example, he may witness athletes take a deep breath and touch their ear in the middle of competition in order to center themselves. That’s when he knows what is going on.

“I feel clued in to them and what’s happening with them,” Grusonik said. “It’s exciting for me to see they’re actually putting what we’re working on outside my office.”

Afterward, Grusonik may follow up to ask what their exact thoughts were and if the strategy worked. The practices are designed to help athletes perform their best. Grusonik calls it reaching a “flow state,” and a successful effort to return can be advantageous.

“It’s kind of like that thing you’re addicted to,” Grusonik said. “You just want to be able to reproduce that on command any chance you get.”

At the forefront of Grusonik’s responsibilities is assisting Montana State athletes with mental performance and other aspects of mental health. After nearly a decade at MSU in the counseling center and dean of students office, he was hired in August 2019 to work in the athletic department.

Grusonik was on the water polo and rowing teams at Saint Mary’s College in California, coached swimming and began his professional career focused on psychology and mental health. The combination of experiences led him to the position he’s held for the past year.

“When this opportunity opened up in athletics, it was like the dream come true,” Grusonik said.

Grusonik oversees the Bobcats’ wellness team, which also includes dietician Brittney Patera, another example of someone hired in an expanding field within college athletics. He’s an extension of athletic director Leon Costello’s vision to provide a successful holistic experience, rather than just the athlete part or just the student part.

Three other Big Sky Conference members have a psychologist or mental performance coach on its athletic department staff. In recent years, as stigmas regarding mental health shift, sports psychology has gained more prominence in college sports.

“We needed somebody to help our student-athletes with just the daily stresses of the things they go through while they’re on campus,” Costello said. “It could be stresses of homework or a class or a professor, boyfriend, girlfriend, whatever that might be. And then trying to get them to perform at their highest level, Aaron has been invaluable.”

Minutes prior to competition, Grusonik has addressed teams in their locker room. He’s walked teams through visualization exercises to help them focus before taking the court.

In those moments, Grusonik often feels humbled and thinks to himself, “This is why I’m doing my job.” Then he gets to watch his work be put into action. He stresses that just like physical skills, mental skills require repeated practice.

Head coach Tricia Binford and the Bobcats’ women’s basketball team has embraced mental performance and allowed Grusonik to speak to the team before games.

“I believe in it. I believe it does matter. I believe it makes a difference,” Binford said. “I believe it is important to have a skill set on how to adapt and respond to really tough situations and respond in the right way.”

Grusonik also meets individually, sometimes creating custom meditations that he’ll record for athletes to listen to daily on their own. By getting to know who he’s working with, he can tailor the experience.

He also tries to normalize concerns associated with competition since once they are normalized, they lose their power, Grusonik said. At that point, athletes can play more free and not be trapped by thoughts like “What if?” and “I should have.”

The strategies aren’t confined to sports as Grusonik also serves as a resource for athletes to have someone to talk to regarding mental health needs.

“What we’re trying to do is help treat the whole person,” Grusonik said, “instead of just the volleyball player or the football player, the track athlete.”

MSU football head coach Jeff Choate pointed out how when he was in college, people didn’t talk about their feelings or anxieties. Those topics were taboo.

So Choate is glad the Bobcats’ athletic department has recognized mental health as an important aspect of students’ lives.

“This is just another person that our young men and young women can go to,” Choate said, “and say this is how I’m feeling about this, what are some tools you can give me to help work through this process?”

Grusonik said he’s seen “significant change” in the stigma surrounding mental health. In recent years it’s become more common for professional athletes to publicly discuss their experiences, which has led to high school and college athletes being more proactive. If pros benefit from increased focus on mental performance, younger athletes are more likely to follow.

The approach is all centered around how Montana State can help its athletes become the best competitors and people they can be. Grusonik has provided the mental piece to that puzzle.

“Couldn’t be happier with what he’s done,” Costello said.

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Paul Schwedelson can be reached at pschwedelson@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2670. Follow him on Twitter @pschweds.