Coaching the coach

Dr Michael Gervais

If you hear an Irish rugby player in the coming year using the term ’Always Compete’ or ’Fail Fast’ or admitting to spelling words backwards when they’ve felt over-anxious, you can probably put it down to a recent conversation between Joe Schmidt and a psychologist Dr Michael Gervais.

After all such strategies have worked for the skydiver Felix Baumgartner and the multiple Superbowl and Olympic champions Gervais has coached.

In Anthony Daly’s terrific new book Dalo, he reveals and recounts a meeting he had with Joe Schmidt last season. For Dublin to get better he knew he had to get better so he went to one of the best to review and improve his performance.

He showed Schmidt his folder and clipchart from the previous game. Schmidt noted Daly had 10 points down for the team talk he gave a couple of hours before the match. Too many; Schmidt guessed Ger Loughnane would hardly have used so many. All 10 were very good points but three clear messages would have been more effective from him; some of the other seven could have been delegated to others, the way Schmidt likes to leave some technical observations to other coaches and the psyching up of energy levels to Paul O’Connell.

Daly also took another key learning point from their morning meeting in the Aviva. Scribbled on his notepad he had the term ‘Smart-Edge’. It’s a phrase Ireland had used in their Six Nations championship-winning campaign to underline the right balance between discipline and destruction. You had to be aggressive but if you were giving away too many penalties, you were an “outlaw”. Daly had a couple of outlaws himself giving away too many frees. He would now be demanding they played both on the edge and smart.

So who does a Schmidt consult with to seek how he himself can get better, how does one of the best get even better? Ten days ago such a chance presented itself.

A Dr Michael Gervais was in town for a Guinness promotion campaign ahead of the autumn internationals which the drinks company sponsors. The Californian happens to be one of the leading sport psychologists in the world, with one of his leading clients happening to be the team that holds the biggest prize in all of oval-ball sports: the Vince Lombardi Trophy, the Superbowl. Schmidt and his own psychology performance consultant Enda McNulty duly met him, for if there is an elite team that appreciates the value of language and sport psychology, it is the Seattle Seahawks.

There’s a banner hanging above their practice field with two words that informs everything they do: ‘Always Compete.’ And for the Seahawks, competing isn’t something you do against anyone else. You’re competing against yourself. Or as their coaching staff often say, “Do your job better than it has ever been done before.”

If you make a mistake you park it and move on from it promptly — ‘Fail Fast’ they term it. And a big one of theirs is ‘Championship Opportunity’. Every moment in the gym and practice field in the off season is as much as a Championship Opportunity as a last-minute field goal to win the Superbowl. Win the moment by being present in the moment, right here, right now.

Gervais himself will credit most of that to one Pete Carroll. “The culture of the Seahawks begins and ends with Coach Carroll,” he says. But Carroll in turn has noted and appreciated how Gervais has complemented and enhanced that culture. Carroll himself had studied sport psychology as part of his degree but never taken a sport psychologist per se on to his staff — until he met Gervais in 2011.

Instantly they connected. In the Seahawks they speak about all their 50-plus players and 20-plus coaching staff having “One Heartbeat“, and in the case of Carroll and Gervais’ first meeting it was like they were on the one brainwave to the point of having one brain. At the end of that meeting, Carroll said to Gervais, “What do you say we build a masterpiece together?” Carroll had been thinking about this masterpiece for a long time. He had been an NFL coach twice before — and been fired twice before, first with the New York Jets in 1994, then by the New England Patriots in 1999.

He would be picked up by the University of Southern California whom he would coach to multiple conference titles and two national championships over the following decade, but all the while he was jotting down notes and ideas as to how he would work were he to land another NFL head-coaching job.

He was particularly influenced by the teachings and writings of John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach, and ultimately concluded with a vision. What if we went to the hard-nosed, dog-eat-dog NFL and set up a club that really cared about each and every individual?

“It certainly isn’t the old meat-based approach,” says Gervais. “It’s a celebration of what’s possible and based on who a person is. It’s based on old-school values which Coach Carroll understands — working hard, being tough-minded and disciplined — but on top of that gritty salty gravitas there’s also an appreciation of exploring frontiers and using the science of psychology to cultivate an environment that brings out the best in people.

“From the very first day I started there coaches would be coming up to me and saying ‘Hey, have you been part of any other NFL clubs?’ And without hesitation they would follow with ‘Because it’s different here. It’s amazing. I really get to be myself here.’”

For sure they are tested. From day one Carroll was insistent on bringing each player out of his comfort zone. At his first team meeting he asked players to stand up and pick a new seat, to take a fresh perspective for a new season. One big-money star didn’t switch seats — so a week later he was switching clubs, traded. But for those Seahawks who were willing to change, they would soon see a whole new world open up.

Players quickly learn they’re to give respect — every player concludes every media interview by thanking the journalist — and that they’ll get respect. The coaches see themselves as mentors, not just coaches; teachers, not screamers — if you’re yelling, Carroll contends, you’re not teaching. Gervais can’t recall a time he’s seen Carroll shout at a player in over three seasons involved with Seahawks.

“That is the art of coaching. The word ‘criticism’ is a loaded term. We talk about feedback. Every Monday Coach Carroll has what he calls Tell The Truth Monday. So he starts the week by telling the truth of the previous game — what went well, what we’re going to be working on and how we’re going to get better. Coaching involves being honest about what you want a person to do rather than being frustrated with what he’s not doing.

“So the art of coaching is being able to see what’s possible for a person and to coach them towards it.”

There’s a designated life skills consultant and addiction counsellor to look out for rookies and assimilate them into the league and club; Carroll noticed how so many of his old USC graduates had felt so isolated and lonely upon entering the big league; likewise staff prepare players for the day they leave the club or the league to reduce the chances of them becoming another one of those statistics of former players who went broke or depressed.

Then there’s Gervais and mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the centre of the entire Seahawks operation. As one staff coach has said, “Meditation is as important as lifting weights and being out here on the field for practice. It’s about quieting your mind and getting into certain states where everyone outside of you doesn’t matter in that moment.”

A lot of that stems from Carroll. What Gervais is and does isn’t some box-ticking, ass-covering exercise for Carroll. “Coach Carroll talks about the importance of being mindful every day,” says Gervais. “He coaches the coaches on it. That kind of psychology of optimisation is woven into the fabric and DNA of the team.”

It has also helped that Gervais has been able to roll it out and teach it so effectively. When on site up to 20 players will sit collectively as he guides them through a meditation. All the others will inevitably do it at some stage in the week, be it with other members of the backroom staff or by listening to a recording of a previous meditation Gervais has brought them through. There’s not a player in the programme who goes a day without being able to hear Gervais’ voice and feel a resultant sense of calm.

That’s where performance belongs, living itself. Being connected to this moment. It took Gervais quite awhile to figure that out. In high school he was a fine free surfer but in competition he’d mess up, get in his own way.

“I was overthinking what other people were thinking about my performance. So I wasn’t able to live in the moment. I wasn’t able to live connected in a way I was during free surfing. It’s a common experience for most athletes at some point in their careers: how much am I going to attend to this moment and how much am I attending to what other people are thinking about me at this moment?

“It sounds simple but there’s a reason why public speaking is so challenging for so many people. They’re split between wanting to connect with what they are saying and then figuring out what other people are thinking of them. That creates so much tension that it can be a really unsettling experience.”

Gervais would later come to experience the feeling of being able to surf in competition like no one is watching; to picture what he wanted to go right rather than fearing what could go wrong . By then he’d been to college, the first from his family to attend third level. To this day he’s still grateful for the three professors who took him under his wing while studying a liberal arts undergraduate degree in Loyola Marymount. One was a philosopher, another a theologian, another a psychologist. It helped that they were friends and even more so that Gervais was so open to exploring what he terms “the world of the invisible”. It’s a journey he’s been on ever since.

It’s meant coming up against the odd cul de sac, involved making the odd U-turn. His initial postgrad course was in traditional psychology but he left after two semesters.

“I didn’t want to spend my time studying the study of dysfunction, working on a premise that there’s something wrong or sick about people.” Instead he was more intrigued by the study of optimisation and switched tracks to study a masters with a heavy emphasis in sport.

At San Diego University he would encounter some of the leading sport psychologists in academia, including Dr Bruce Ogilvie and the expert in attention and concentration, Dr Robert Nideffer. And what would really complete the course was that there was also a module in Buddhist psychology. “Every class started with a meditation. I mean, how great is that? So it meant I was able to marry the approach of the west with its rigour of scientific investigation with the approach from the east.”

The journey has taken him all around the globe and even beyond it. One of his most famous clients has been Felix Baumgartner, the Austrian skydiver who two years ago flew 25 miles into the stratosphere in a helium balloon before freefalling and parachuting back to earth. In the process he broke the sound barrier reaching a speed of almost 800 miles per hour. Baumgartner’s remarkable feat and seemingly fearless mindset captured the imagination and attention of the world yet it almost didn’t happen. Only for an intervention of Gervais it probably wouldn’t have happened.

At one point in training with the Red Bull Stratos team Baumgartner found the confines of his suit and helmet stifling, terrifying, prompting surges of anxiety and hyperventilation. The call was put through to Gervais: California, we have a problem. So to identify it the first thing Gervais did was to identify with Baumgartner by putting on the suit and helmet himself.

It took a whole 15 minutes to get into it, with him needing someone else to put it on for him, but it was worth the discomfort. “The whole thing we are working is towards understanding who the other person is, so what a great way to learn more about him. Besides, to put on a suit like that, what a cool opportunity! It just happened we were about the same size!”

For the next couple of weeks he spent hours each day with Baumgartner. Eventually they figured out Baumgartner had never worked with such a large team before, up to a dozen people. He was afraid of leaving others down.

Gervais got him to come round to seeing the suit as something vital to the mission, something to cherish even. By repeatedly being exposed to something threatening, that threat would diminish, evaporate. He would get him to visualise the suit, touching it, putting it on. Ask him on a scale of one to 10, relaxed to panicked, where was his mental state? Four, reckoned Baumgartner, using some mindfulness and self-talk affirmations.

Finally Baumgartner touched the suit, then put it on. When he did become anxious, Gervais got him to think about something else other than the suit, asking him to spell words backwards.

By getting him to think about something else, he felt something else. Eventually Baumgartner was feeling no anxiety. Gervais had worked his magic again.

Gervais is well aware that so much of sport psychology and its mental skills can be distrusted and dismissed as being airy-fairy.

“Visualise.” “Relax and breathe, be in the now.” “Talk and think positively.” “Think process, not outcome.” What the sceptics don’t get is it’s tough to do all that.

“Ultimately the idea is that there’s no inner dialogue at all, positive or negative; that it’s a full connection to this moment. But when we do have negative inner dialogue, that’s where the mental skills come in and we can reframe and orient to having a positive mind. Now, ‘positive’ sounds soft. But it’s not.

“There’s steeliness to being able to stay true with conviction to a way of thinking when the environment is providing evidence that it’s dangerous or hostile or that you’re not good enough because the last bit of information offered is that you’ve failed.

“So what’s called positive mind or positive self-talk is so far away from this idea that we’re all going to hold hands and skip through lillypads together.”

At the last Olympics he had five clients win gold medals, including the beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh. Leading into the games she was in the wrong time zone: when she was with her family she was thinking about volleyball, and when she was training for volleyball she was feeling guilty she wasn’t with her husband and two kids. She wasn’t being in the now. Gervais helped her with that. Visualisation helps you with that. Again, it’s not day-dreaming; there’s a discipline to it.

“The idea behind it is that it gives a structured and purposeful way of thinking about the future. So when you’re walking down the street and all the while you’re seeing images of your upcoming performance, well that’s not a great way to be present and walk down the street. If you’re with a loved one and your mind is wandering again, that’s not a great way to live in that relationship. So if you have a way that means that when your mind begins to wander you can go, ‘Wait, I’ll do that imagery later’, it’s a way to contain and structure it rather than miss the moment of the relationship.”

We’ve become so immersed in the conversation time is almost up. So one last question. The Seahawks, another Superbowl shot perhaps? The answer might have surprised you once but not now.

“That word has not been mentioned this year,” he says. “The outcome is not part of the language. The language is about hitting hard, being smart, having great enthusiasm and effort.” Always Compete. That’s what the ongoing masterpiece sounds and looks like.


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