Straight from print: Getting athletes’ heads in the game

AU mental performance coach Brian Levenson works to assist athletes and educate the public about his field

Straight from print: Getting athletes’ heads in the game

This article originally appeared in The Eagle special edition on Oct. 21. 

When AU’s mental health performance coach Brian Levenson graduated from Syracuse University, he was initially unsure of what career path to choose. Levenson began meeting with family and friends who had found success in their fields, to listen to the stories about their professions. One of the family friends Levenson met with was Julie Elion, a mental coach and the director of the Center for Athletic Performance Enhancement (CAPE) in Washington, D.C. Elion founded CAPE based on her principles that the insights gained about an athlete’s family, character, relationships and sport can be used to develop a more resilient athlete and fulfilled person.

“Julie and I had lunch and she told me about what she did and how she did it,” Levenson said. “I just found our conversation to be fascinating and interesting and it seemed like something I could be passionate about.”

Under the mentorship of Elion, Levenson pursued his Master’s in Sports Psychology from John F. Kennedy University, completing his thesis on NBA home court advantage. Levenson worked with high school athletes, amateur tennis players and incarcerated youth through internship programs at JFK, where he developed a plan to begin entrepreneurial work in the sports psychology field after graduation.

Levenson’s career has seen him work with athletes of all skillsets and backgrounds, including work with AU’s wrestling head coach, Teague Moore, and the AU wrestling team beginning in 2011. Moore felt that Levenson’s individual work with wrestlers improved their focus and mindset, which translated to their performance on the mat.

Levenson’s service to the University has increased this year, as he is now a mental performance coach available as a resource to all AU student-athletes. Levenson has office hours when students can schedule meetings to discuss skills and areas they wish to develop. Athletic Director Dr. Billy Walker said the AU athletic department starting talking about extending Levenson’s role at AU during this past spring.

“Coach Moore talked to some other coaches and let them know what he [Levenson] was able to do with some of his wrestlers,” Walker said. “We felt there were enough other coaches that felt it could help their program that it was worthwhile [to] bring him on [as a resource to all student-athletes].”

The mental aspect of sports performance has seen an increase in attention nationwide in recent years. Professional sports teams like the Seattle Seahawks and Dallas Mavericks as well as many golfers work closely with sports psychologists and some universities, like AU, the University of Michigan and Oklahoma University, are moving to offer psychologists for their student-athletes.

“I think the stigma of psychology in general or mental coaching has lowered because people are as competitive as they’ve always been and are just recognizing this [psychology] is a piece to their performance,” Levenson said.

Levenson began his sports psychology work with children ranging from 10 to 18-years-old. He found it was difficult to resonate with the children when he used traditional open-ended psychological approaches, such as asking teens what they wanted to talk about and what skills they wanted to improve. Levenson instead developed his own approach, called CORE mental training, which focuses on teaching skills and training athletes while getting to know them personally.

Through personal relationships, Levenson and clients identify skills to emphasize during one-on-one sessions. In addition to the CORE mental training, Levenson holds workshops with groups, primarily discussing how athletes can ‘win the moment’ by empowering and encouraging them to seize opportunities and maximize situations. Levenson’s third program, Prepare to Perform, combines the CORE mental training and Win the Moment concept.

“Prepare to Perform is really what I’m doing with AU athletics,” Levenson said. “It’s some one on one work, where I’m teaching mental skills, and then it’s also some workshops where we’re talking about winning the moment.”

Levenson said there are often misunderstandings and a lack of clarity when it comes to field of psychology. The field can be broken down into two distinct categories: mental health and mental performance. Mental health involves clinical work while mental performance, Levenson’s work, focuses on developing a certain mentality, creating opportunity to succeed and maximizing athletic potential. Levenson said the mentality of athletes is one of the most important elements to success for his work.

“I do my best work when people are open-minded and want to get better,” Levenson said. “If [athletes] are open-minded and have a desire to get better, it doesn’t really matter what level they’re at, I think we’re going to do good work together.”

Levenson has found that college athletes in particular exhibit more open-mindedness and willingness to improve. The independence of college students allows them to foster their own mentality, approach and world views.

“The population specifically at AU is a great fit for the work that I do because you combine open-mindedness with competitiveness with the idea of doing things the right way,” Levenson said. “My practice very much aligns with those concepts.”

Developing the right mentality, however, does not automatically translate into the performance aspect of sports, Levenson said. While mentality is an important aspect that can impact performance, it is not the sole determinant of a superior athlete in a similar way that being strong does not guarantee athletic success.

The services of strength coaches, nutritionists, team coaches and mental performance coaches like himself work together to try and create the best opportunity to be successful. Walker said AU has combined several off-field services inside the athletic department, and that the department will evaluate the mental performance program based on coaches’ feedback before considering adding additional staff.

“We want to have all sports performance under one area of the department,” Walker said. “It’s not just strength and conditioning, but it's also Brian Levenson with mental performance as well as nutrition.”

While psychology and mental performance specifically are being integrated into athletic departments across the nation, Levenson said the message is still being spread, and field has growing to do. Some coaches Levenson meets are uncertain about the benefits of his field and are hesitant to work with him. At the moment, however, Levenson is continuing on the journey to help athletes develop mental skills and maximize their ability to succeed.

“I’m very fortunate to figure out what I wanted to do and am in an industry that challenges me all the time and introduces me to all kinds of interesting people,” Levenson said.

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