Q&A: Jim Brennan

The resident sports psychologist for Villanova’s men’s basketball team describes a typical day on the job, working alongside Coach Jay Wright.

[This interview has been expanded for the Web.]

Jim Brennan is the resident sports psychologist and human performance consultant for the Villanova University men’s basketball team—you know, the one that’s reached the NCAA Sweet 16 four times in the past six years, including a Final Four appearance in 2009. So you might say it’s a good thing that Brennan began working with the team five years ago. An expert in the art of summoning, directing and controlling emotional energy and mental focus, he’s been indispensable to the Wildcats. A Vietnam vet and a former decathlete, Brennan also works in the corporate sector and consults for the U.S. Agency for International Development. But right now, with March Madness upon us, his focus is on the Wildcats.

MLT: What’s your relationship with Villanova coach Jay Wright?
When he was the head coach at Hofstra University, my older brother, Tom, was the head coach at the University of Vermont. Both had been Villanova assistants under Rollie Massimino, so they were from the same coaching family tree. We first met in 1998 at my niece’s wedding. Eventually, I became the sports performance consultant for Villanova’s athletic department. Then, when Jay was hired as the men’s basketball coach, our paths re-converged.

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MLT: What do you bring to the court?
The total design of the program is structured to help individuals pursue excellence through a collective effort. My role is to help the athletes adapt to the program. If they do, they succeed at more than just basketball. At times, it can be a dizzying rollercoaster with dramatic highs and lows—but it’s a rollercoaster ride with real meaning. I feel very fortunate to be on it.

MLT: Is there a stigma associated with using a sports psychologist?
It’s faded significantly over the past decade. More high-profile athletes and coaches are buying into it. Whenever it’s put into the context of enhancing the athlete’s ability to perform, rather than fixing something that’s broken, it’s considered more of a luxury.

MLT: How has your role evolved?
It’s gone from focusing mostly on giving feedback to players to giving regular feedback to coach Wright. Our relationship is very similar to that of an executive and an executive coach. More specifically, I let him know what I’m seeing in terms of the team’s emotional energy, or an individual player’s level of confidence or commitment, and then link these factors to his own energy and how he’s communicating with them.

MLT: What are your expectations for the Wildcats this year?
When I look at our roster, it’s exciting to think about how much talent we have, particularly our top nine. It’s safe to say we have the winning parts. Our challenge is to create a great team. We want to peak in March. We have to make each experience a growth experience. That includes practicing successfully, communicating and collaborating successfully, winning successfully, and losing successfully. The rising tide lifts all boats—easy to say, hard to do, but so exciting to shoot for.

MLT: How involved are you with the day-to-day?
I try to attend about 60 percent of the team’s practices, beginning in mid-October, and all of the games, including road games whenever my schedule allows. The more I can immerse myself and become familiar with the individual players and coaches, their interactions, their learning styles, playing styles, motivations, frustrations, etc., the more I can give them timely advice about self-confidence, self-awareness, focus, resilience, will power, enthusiasm, etc. I feel personally invested and motivated to help them achieve. Pressure is a double-edged sword. Typically, nothing great is ever accomplished without it, but pressure also puts us out on the edge of our comfort zone, where we can experience negative stress and actually start to work against ourselves.

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MLT: How much latitude do you get?
Coach Wright has given me the freedom to be an insider—though I’m part time. He’s given me a lot of latitude to observe, inquire, learn, discuss and advise. The trust he places in me is itself very motivating and also gives me a strong sense of responsibility. I keep coming back each year because of the gratification of having a meaningful role on such a great team.

MLT: How common are services like yours?
Typically, a sports performance consultant would be hired to teach specific mental skill sets in more of a counseling setting. Sometimes, university athletic programs will utilize faculty psychology department members.

MLT: Can you describe a typical session?
I seldom meet with players one-on-one in an office setting. However, I will meet with each freshman that way before the season actually begins. During that session, I like to get a feel for who they are, let them begin to know me, and also explain my role to them. After that, the most common points of contact occur as they’re walking off the floor after practice (never during practice) or later on when we’re all eating together. More often than not, I’m trying to reinforce something positive I saw them do, or I might question them about their thought process during a specific play. Even when I’m pointing out a negative, I try to convey that I’m trying to help them undermine a weakness and build a strength.

MLT: How important are your services for today’s athletes?
The importance of these mental and emotional abilities to sports performance is undeniable. We all desire the freedom to be balanced, not unbalanced; strong, not weak; wise, not foolish; and happy, not unhappy. In terms of whether this knowledge makes us softer or more effective, I think it depends on whether we use our knowledge and intelligence to make more sophisticated excuses, or to participate in the arduous process of developing our higher potential. High achievers have a greater aversion to excuses than low achievers.

MLT: Do you wish you had someone like you when you were an athlete?
Although I grew up in the ’60s, long before the advent of sports psychology, I believe I could’ve done everything better as a young athlete if I had known then what I know now. I could’ve trained more purposefully and intensely, taken on greater pressure and suffered less stress, performed at higher levels, been a better teammate, and enjoyed the whole experience more.

MLT: Coach Wright is definitely a New Age coach, but what about the old-school mentality?
There are still some old-school coaches who believe that sports psychology is a form of coddling weak-minded athletes—or that it’s over-intellectualizing what’s basic and simple and, therefore, counterproductive in the long run. But if we consider that the mind has great potential to enhance everything we do and that these mental capacities we possess are almost always underutilized, it only makes sense to be motivated to tap into these capacities. Most highly successful coaches are masters at teaching dimensions of sports psychology, such as motivation, mental focus, self-discipline, teamwork, emotional resilience. In the case of Villanova basketball, sports psychology is ultimately the province of coach Wright. He’s the best motivator and communicator I’ve ever worked with. He models what he’s teaching, coaching and encouraging.

MLT: What have you learned about him?
He’s smart enough to know that, as the individual who exerts the greatest influence over the program, he must stay in growth mode if the program is to keep getting better. Excellent leaders know it’s impossible to see all the moving parts all the time, so they rely on a number of trusted people to give them honest feedback. The culture that coach Wright has established is that of a high-functioning extended family where big egos do not fare well. It’s clear to me that this is why we are consistently successful; this is why everyone works so hard at pursuing excellence. At Villanova, one does not have to be intentionally humble in order to sound modest.

MLT: How do you use your own life experiences?
I’m pretty confident that my own convictions—and the advice that flows from them—are not just theoretical or academic. I consider myself a work in progress. Therefore, my perceptions, opinions and methods must keep evolving from day to day and from life experience to life experience. Coach Wright and I agree wholeheartedly that if we’re asking these young men to approach their time here as a journey toward maturity, then we must keep ourselves in journey mode, as well.

MLT: At Villanova, is it NCAA title or bust? What more does it take to win a national title?
All of us at Villanova are extremely competitive. We love winning. It’s a powerful, intrinsic motivator. However, winning games is not our highest goal. I’ve never heard coach Wright define our team goals in terms of the number of wins. Of course, we commit ourselves to winning every time out, but it’s more important to pursue our potential than to simply pursue wins. If we win the national championship, that would be a peak experience for all of us. That’s what the program strives for, but that’s not why it exists.

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