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Head games — with help from a mental conditioning specialist — can help win games

TAMPA — Florida State football coach Jimbo Fisher has grown accustomed to the quizzical looks from fans as they shrink back in their seats.

"We're working with IMG to do our mental conditioning," he said during a recent stop at a booster club. "Now, you say, 'Why do we need a mental conditioning coach?' We're going to recruit talent, but 95 percent of what we've got to work on is from the neck up."

Players can't fully develop, he tells folks, until they learn that their performance is ultimately affected by how to think, how to set goals, how to see themselves positively, how to conduct themselves on and off the field. It's about understanding how to be process-oriented, not result-oriented. And Fisher insists that's a skill set that can be honed just as muscles can be sculpted.

So why wouldn't a team hire someone to help out in that area?

Say hello to Trevor Moawad, a mental conditioning specialist at the IMG Academies, the sports training facility in Bradenton, since 1999.

"You don't have to be sick to get better," said Moawad, who has worked with the Seminoles' football team, primarily the offensive skill players, for the past two years since FSU women's soccer coach Mark Krikorian introduced him to Fisher.

"With great athletes, great competitors, great CEOs, they're always looking at how they innovate and how they can get better."

To that end, Moawad will be far more involved this year with Fisher's entire team. He is part of a growing trend across the sports spectrum.

Moawad has worked with the NFL's Jaguars for eight years and Alabama's football team since Nick Saban became coach in 2007. Major League Baseball teams including the Yankees and Pirates have mental conditioning specialists, and the Rays have consulted with a sports psychologist.

"It's a bigger part of sports than you know," Moawad said.

"People just don't talk very much about it."

• • •

No sooner had Todd Alles taken over as director of football operations at Alabama soon after Saban was hired than his boss told him to get Moawad to Tuscaloosa as soon as possible.

"I was a little skeptical," Alles said.

He said he's old-school (the 62-year-old played for Woody Hayes at Ohio State). And it's not as if Moawad, 36, has a Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard next to his name.

He has a bachelor's degree in comparative politics and a master's degree in education with an emphasis in social sciences from Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he played soccer and basketball. But he grew up learning about the power of the mind.

"Every night around the dinner table," Moawad said, joking.

His father, Bob Moawad, was one of the original contributors to the wildly successful Chicken Soup for the Soul books, president of the National Association for Self-Esteem and a popular choice of CEOs of companies ranging from Starbucks to NASA to speak to employees.

"The typical knock against people who do what I do," said the younger Moawad, director of the IMG Academies' Performance Institute, "is that just telling this kid he's going to go out and perform well isn't going to make him perform well."

But that's not what mental conditioning is about. It's about helping someone recognize how the brain affects the body and what a person can do to craft a new, empowering message that might lead to a different, more desirable result.

"There's a reason why companies spend millions and millions of dollars on marketing and running commercials," Moawad said. "Advertising works. When I see something over and over again, it stimulates thoughts in my brain that can ultimately propel me to think whatever it is I see.

"But as important as an external ad campaign is, it's nowhere near as powerful as an internal ad campaign. That's where mental conditioning really comes into play."

• • •

Like other NFL draft prospects readying for interviews at the 2001 scouting combine, former Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke, who had won a national title and the Heisman Trophy, spent time with Moawad in Bradenton.

They rehearsed responses to possible questions, down to tone and body language.

"Were there some people there who rolled their eyes (at the exercise)? Yeah," said Weinke, now the director of IMG's Madden Football Academy, set to kick off next month.

"But I was so focused on becoming the best that I possibly could be that I bought into everything. And it was beneficial, because it gave me an edge, and that's what we're all trying to find. The results speak for themselves. It works."

Moawad is the first to admit there's nothing magical or mystical in what he does.

"Everything is common sense," he said. "It's all in the delivery. You have to find a way to make it relevant to your athletes."

For some, the vehicle of change is a steady stream of text messages of cue words for what a player should be doing to, say, run a fast 40-yard dash time: Head down. Drive your arms. Be a bullet.

For others, Moawad sends a card with an inspirational quote or a video of their jaw-dropping highlights — complete with music — to their smartphones so it can be experienced 24/7.

"You get individuals who may not be able to remember everything," said Mike Ryan, head athletic trainer for the Jaguars. "But they can remember words to a particular song, and that's powerful. The message really clicks in and helps that person think the right way to perform the right way. That takes great expertise.

"The work Trevor's done with us has been very impressive. He's really helped the players focus on what's important."

• • •

In Nick Saban's first year, 2007, Alabama finished 7-6. The Tide lost to Florida in the SEC title game en route to a 12-2 mark in 2008, then improved to 14-0 last season, culminating with a win against Texas in the Bowl Championship Series finale.

"I saw players in the national championship game this year producing that in 2007 I would have never thought would still be on the football team," said Alles, now the associate director of football operations at his alma mater.

"They were struggling with on-the-field performance and attitude, off-the-field performance and attitude. And they ended up doing great things. To me, that's the proof in the pudding. What Trevor did played a huge, huge role in how fast things turned around."

At the BCS title game, Moawad was on the sideline that night in Pasadena, Calif., whooping it up with the Tide.

So if you're Fisher, who is constructing a multifaceted support structure that includes a nutritionist, a speed coach and more strength and conditioning assistants to revitalize FSU, the question maybe shouldn't be why he leans more heavily on a mental conditioning specialist, but why wouldn't he?

"Our belief and desire is to help our players feel better about themselves and what they can accomplish," Fisher said. "Empowered, confident athletes are winners."

Head games — with help from a mental conditioning specialist — can help win games 05/15/10 [Last modified: Sunday, May 16, 2010 12:21am]

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