Last summer, high school basketball coach David Retton knew he needed a new way to motivate his men's varsity team, which had finished a difficult season with a losing record.
Rattled by the loss of two starting players to injuries, his players had let bad passes and other mistakes on the court jam them up mentally, and they didn't seem to be having fun. So Retton, a coach at Fairmont Senior High School in Fairmont, W.Va., sought the help of sport psychology graduate students Dan Leidl and Joe Frontiera from nearby West Virginia University who had recently launched a consulting partnership.
Frontiera and Leidl watched practices, talked to assistant coaches, had "hours and hours" of telephone conversations with Retton and held group sessions with the players. They helped the players focus on things they could control-such as their effort and attitudes-and worked with them on blocking out distractions, such as glancing up to see if their parents were in the bleachers.
The team finished the season with an 11-14 record and made it to the state's quarterfinals-a feat Retton didn't anticipate, given the season's rocky start.
"We owe a lot of how we were able to finish to the training tools they gave us," Retton says.
Meanwhile, Leidl and Frontiera are getting their own training: valuable experience in developing and marketing their skills. And, although some of their work is pro bono, they earn revenue for their school. Since launching their venture, the two students have worked with four college and high school lacrosse and basketball teams, and presented their model at workshops at six national coaching conferences.
"It's huge to be able to get this type of experience while we're still in graduate school, and that's really a credit to our professors," says Frontiera.
Looking for opportunity
Both students draw on their passion for sports and coaching, past experiences with exemplary coaches, and others who struggled to motivate their teams. Frontiera rowed crew during college at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif. Leidl coached men and women's high school and collegiate lacrosse teams, played briefly in the National Lacrosse League and serves as an assistant coach for the Ireland National Lacrosse Team, based in Dublin, Ireland.
They came up with the idea for the consulting model last year. At the time, they held assistantships with West Virginia University's (WVU) International Center for Performance Excellence (ICPE), a nonprofit affiliated with the School of Physical Education. In return for marketing work for the ICPE's book-publishing subsidiary, which prints sport psychology and sport management educational materials, the program waived Leidl and Frontiera's tuition and even paid them a stipend.
The center's director, Andrew Ostrow, PhD, had been interested in starting a consulting arm within ICPE, to address the growing demand for performance enhancement consulting among businesses and sports teams.
"That's our goal, to try to reach out to the community to share our services, and hopefully, generate some revenue for the center," Ostrow says.
Leidl and Frontiera developed a plan for marketing their services to teams and businesses, and got approval from Ostrow and the sport and exercise psychology program. To build interest from potential clients, the two submitted articles describing their services for the membership magazines and newsletters published by national coaching associations. To meet coaches and build contacts, they also traveled to meetings sponsored by groups such as the National Soccer Coaches Association of America and offered workshops on leadership and motivating players.
Leidl and Frontiera's work is supervised by WVU sport and exercise psychology professors. One of them, Sam Zizzi, EdD, says his supervision takes a case-management approach: He talks to Leidl and Frontiera about each client, helps them determine a focus for helping them and discusses the "lessons learned" from each job.
The experience Leidl and Frontiera are gaining with their consulting work will prove valuable as they launch their careers, Zizzi says.
"What our recent graduates have found is that it's difficult to start as a full-time consultant, but this helps [Leidl and Frontiera] build connections and lay the groundwork," he says.
A 'top down' approach
While many sport psychology consultants favor working with individual players, Leidl and Frontiera tailor their consulting to the entire team's needs, working primarily with the coach and assistant coaches to develop a vision, a plan for getting there and a climate fostering success.
"If we can empower a leader to build that confidence and stick with it, that's going to trickle down to employees, or players and only positive things spiral out of that, like strength, confidence and unity," Leidl says.
In his experience, one-third of a team's players will "buy in" to their message, another third will "stay on the fence" and the remaining third will reject the message, Frontiera says.
Leidl says he knows that coaching can be a lonely job-your players look to you for inspiration, your assistantswant to learn coaching skills and move up, and your fellow head coaches are your competitors. Just having someone to talk to about the daily challenges of motivating players and a coaching staff can help a coach, Leidl says.
"Sometimes, having that perspective from the outside looking in is going to help them," he says.
Almost a year into the effort, Leidl reports that interest in their consulting work seems to be "growing almost every day" from potential clients. In the coming year, they'll be developing a mentoring program for a federal agency based in W.Va., Frontiera says.
Once they've cultivated enough clients, they hope to move away from their marketing role with ICPE, and bring more students into providing services.
"Once our work brings in enough revenue, we'll be dedicated to consulting," he says .
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