Rick McGuire's sports psychology program makes its mark on MU athletics department

Monday, March 21, 2011 | 7:59 p.m. CDT; updated 10:08 p.m. CDT, Monday, March 21, 2011
Rick McGuire, MU's sports psychology director, speaks with first-year graduate student Alicia Hatcher on Monday in his office at the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex. McGuire started the MU sports psychology program in 2010, and he intends for it be a model program for other schools around the nation.

COLUMBIA — These papers, this ragged pile of handouts, have been through a lot. They’ve seen the crowded insides of gym bags and buses and heard emotional pep talks in locker rooms. They've felt the nervous grip of sweaty hands. 

From the moment T.J. Moe picked up the papers last fall, they transformed into something more important. They’re motivation. They’re instructions. They’re a sign that something has changed in the Missouri athletics department.

In 2009, Moe struggled with his confidence on the field. Moe had doubts about making the transition from quarterback to wide receiver. Should I be here? Do I deserve this? Moe suspected these questions would remain, nagging at his consciousness, for the rest of his football career.

Last fall, something changed. When Moe arrived in Columbia for preseason practices, the Tigers’ training program featured a new element: sports psychology. Soon, players were given handouts, instructions. Coaches taught them about the power of thinking positively, about how to rid their minds of distractions. Focus became more than a vague term. For Moe and his teammates, it became real, another skill like catching a pass or blocking an opponent.

And those papers — they were the key. Moe knows that. He brought the handouts along on the team’s trip to St. Louis for its first game Sept. 4 against Illinois. Some of his teammates had trashed the sheets, and others had misplaced them. Not Moe. He pored over them before the game. He was nervous for his first start. He knew that re-reading the tips on how to focus and think positively could only help.

That day, Moe caught 13 passes for 101 yards in the team’s victory.

The handouts and mental exercises didn’t make that performance. But they helped. Just like the hours in the weight room, the countless drills, the hours of scrimmage, they helped. And for Moe, they might have been the difference between good and great.

“This program totally changed the way I thought,” Moe said. “When it comes down to pressure situations, like San Diego State, when I needed to make the catch — even Iowa — it worked there, too, but they took it (the win) from us.”

The sheets Moe now stores in his desk are just one part of a larger vision, a cutting-edge sports psychology program at MU. That vision belongs to Rick McGuire, who in the past year has transitioned from the school’s track coach to the head of its new sports psychology program. McGuire, with his Ph.D. in sports psychology from the University of Virginia and years of experience teaching the science at Missouri, isn’t a solution. He isn’t a recipe for success. He’s just another ingredient, and he prefers to remain close to a secret.

It takes some effort to find him, the man behind the PowerPoints.

Walk into the athletic complex. Turn left, then right. A few more turns, and you swear you just walked past that office. If you’re lucky — if you don’t get too lost — you will eventually find McGuire. It’s like he’s hidden, holed away in his windowless office. He doesn’t mind.

McGuire is comfortable there, among his books and diplomas. He leans back in his chair, bounces it up and down a bit, stretching his arms behind his head as he talks. This is his turf, the domain of the athletics department’s new director of sports psychology. It’s almost like a dream come true.

Framed certificates, each documenting a society membership or a degree received, cover the wall behind McGuire’s desk. There’s almost no need for art. And the bookshelf almost looks like it’s in pain. It’s stuffed, jammed with what looks like everything that’s ever been written about McGuire’s field.

The books come in every color and shape, and most have the words “sports psychology” in their titles. A few stand out, though. One is thinner than the rest, taller, with pastel lettering. It’s written by a famous author, but not one you’d expect. Next to all the textbooks and academic research, Dr. Seuss’ "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" has a place on McGuire’s shelf.

McGuire's office wouldn't seem like the place for pastel illustrations and made-up creatures. He speaks in concrete facts, not in sing-song poems. And though the book might at first seem out of place, it fits perfectly within McGuire's message. Because the book is, more than anything, a positive thought. Both Seuss and McGuire deal with imagination, with stretching the mind and realizing possibilities. And just as they do in Dr. Seuss’ book, success and forward motion lie at the core of McGuire’s message. He has an unwavering belief that athletes can and will succeed.

McGuire, who was Missouri’s head track coach for 27 years, retired after the 2010 season. But long before he officially announced his plan to step down, forces were at work within the athletics department to keep McGuire around in a very different role.

It wasn’t a radical idea. McGuire had been counseling athletes — both his own and those on other teams — for years. Done on an as-needed basis, it was far from streamlined. Bryan Maggard, the senior associate athletics director for student services, recognized the department’s official efforts in sports psychology were lacking. Besides McGuire’s unofficial help, the department paid a licensed psychologist to come in and discuss topics like alcohol and drug tests with the athletes. That was all.

“Bottom line, it was one of those things where you could say you were doing something, but how effective it was, no one could tell,” Maggard said.

So the conversation with McGuire began. Maggard and athletics director Mike Alden first started asking him questions about implementing a sports psychology program, but they were missing the obvious. McGuire could be more than a sounding board for the program. He could be the program. Maggard knew the resource he had in McGuire, he said, and the school couldn’t afford to lose him.

McGuire quickly realized his vision of sports psychology could improve and expand upon what Maggard and Alden wanted. He could finally think beyond the day-to-day demands of coaching, to something that for so long had seemed unattainable. He had been too busy. His focus had been elsewhere. He hadn’t really ever let himself dream about a full-time sports psychology program. But last year, he finally began to.

McGuire quickly agreed to lead the program. He took the kernel of a concept that Maggard presented and turned it into his own signature program. He focuses, above all, on getting athletes to focus and "think right," which he believes is the key to their success. Although that sounds logical, maybe not even unique, what makes McGuire's message different is how he delivers it. Instead of dealing directly with athletes, McGuire counsels coaches, trainers, tutors, doctors — everyone who already influences athletes' lives. He doesn't want to interfere.

From the moment McGuire stepped into his new role, his message spread throughout the athletics department. He came in with established credibility, and most coaches were at least somewhat familiar with his tactics and messages. More importantly, coaches respected him as more than a sports psychologist. They respected him as a coach.

“He’s been there,” Maggard said. “And that’s probably the difference between this and the typical sports psychologist hired by an athletic department. … They can’t relate to the head football coach about the intensity, the pressures put on you to perform.”

McGuire’s message is more than just words. In a way, McGuire is the message. It’s all in his head, in the way he bangs his desk excitedly as he discusses his methods, in the exclamation points that pepper his writing. He’s excited about it, but he’s also guarded. What he’s doing is too important to be compromised.

“It’s a physical game,” McGuire said. “It’s not a mental game, it’s a physical game. It’s got a mental component because everything in life has a mental component.”

The mental component concerns McGuire, but he’s aware of the multifaceted nature of athletes’ training. Just as they have to spend hours in the weight room and go to practice, they also have to put in the time with McGuire’s program. Sports psychology is not an easy solution. It takes work.

“If I had a magic trick and it was fool-proof, everybody would want it,” McGuire said. “And if it were a magic trick, it would be pretty easy and specific to get it to them. Well, it isn’t that."

In McGuire's opinion, any negative thought hurts performance, and if an athlete replaces a negative thought with a positive one, it can have an immediate effect. McGuire argues that if “wrong” thoughts — worry, doubt, fear, anxiety, anger — hurt performance, then logically, “right” thoughts help them. McGuire teaches athletes to make that switch — not just once, but over and over. Repetition and practice — some of the same things that help athletes stay physically fit — are key.

“Not everything goes right, and rarely does it go perfectly,” Missouri gymnastics coach Rob Drass said. “You’re always going to be dealing with something coming up, and if you can mentally deal with whatever’s going to pop up, handle it with ease, then the likelihood of you performing well is going to increase.”

Although many coaches have gone to McGuire for help and advice in the past, McGuire worked this year to integrate his program into more teams' training regimens. The biggest obstacle, he said, is showing coaches that what he’s doing poses no threat to their relationships with their athletes. McGuire said what he’s teaching really is not his message — it’s each coach’s message. He doesn’t want to be the guy in front of the team, wrestling coach Brian Smith said. McGuire insists that the coach is unquestionably the best spokesman.

“I was a coach for 41 years, and I never once had a desire to have anyone between me and my athletes,” McGuire said.

In a way, McGuire is coaching the coaches, and he capitalizes upon the level of trust that many coaches have toward him. It’s each coach’s job to determine where McGuire’s message fits within his or her program, and McGuire knows that he plays only a small part in each coach’s plan.

“He (McGuire) would always say to me that he has a completely different style of coaching than I do, and he understands that,” Smith said. “He understands there’s a coaching side and the sports psychology side, and there are times for both.”

McGuire also quickly realized that in order to make his message meaningful he’d have to provide some overarching theme. For a man who seems attached to specifics, to tailoring solutions, this could have been difficult. But McGuire is, above all, practical, and he’s developed a streamlined, functional message he can deliver to all coaches.

“It isn’t that one size fits all, but I asked myself whether there was something that every sport has in common,” McGuire said.

As a former coach, it didn’t take McGuire long to answer that question. It was simple. All coaches have a common desire for their athletes to show up on game day focused on delivering their very best performances.

“Whatever sport, focus is the common denominator,” McGuire said. “We all have different tasks that define our game, but at the end of the day, we all have to think. That skill is the same, but it may get applied a little differently.”

McGuire’s emphasis on focus took something coaches already embraced and transformed it from a cliché into a process. In the past, the concrete actions behind that focus were disorganized and vague. McGuire took something familiar to coaches and solidified it and defined it, making his message much easier for coaches to process.

One coach in particular was drawn to McGuire’s message. When football coach Gary Pinkel heard last year what McGuire had in mind, it seemed like the perfect fit for his program. From the first time the two spoke, they realized their visions were aligned. Pinkel was frustrated that his players weren't focused. McGuire had a solution.

“What I wanted to share fit perfectly with what he wanted to be teaching his players,” McGuire said. “He hadn’t heard it conceptualized quite like this, and he saw that this is just like all the other skills he teaches.”

McGuire didn’t officially retire from coaching until the end of July, and Pinkel needed help before then. McGuire knew that if he told Pinkel no, he would be setting himself back. He wanted to start at the starting line, or even with a small lead, he said, and by somehow finding time to work with the football team, McGuire did just that.

“In any industry such as this, when your football program jumps on board, everyone else seems to, too,” Maggard said.

It was McGuire’s first-hand knowledge of how athletics programs function and are funded that pushed him to get involved with football. From there, he began talking with Pinkel and formulated a concept that the team calls “whistle to snap.” McGuire told Pinkel that players need to take the seconds between each play to forget what just happened and move on. It’s a matter of focusing and refocusing, over and over.

“Whether it’s a good play or bad play, you move onto the next play,” Pinkel said.

This message wove its way seamlessly into Pinkel’s vision. Throughout the season, he emphasized that the team wasn’t looking backward or dwelling on a big win or a bad loss. It was looking forward, focusing and refocusing on whatever it would face next. And, according to Pinkel, it worked.

“It was thrilling,” McGuire said. “We knew we were doing a good thing. Early on, we knew we were on a good thing, and we were all glad we were doing it.”

The thrill of what happened with football, the extra boost that sports psychology added, is something McGuire hopes can occur with every other team at Missouri. Each team has its obstacles and upsides, though. Some coaches, like Smith and volleyball coach Wayne Kreklow, have backgrounds in psychology. Others, not as much. Individual sports bring different challenges than team ones, and every sport has its own nuances. Gymnasts deal with fear. Wrestlers with weight cutting. There’s only so much you can generalize, so McGuire and his assistants must adapt their message to each team.

McGuire is at the top of a somewhat complicated chain. It’s a system that strives to touch athletes in every sphere of their lives. Everyone in the athletics department who’s involved with athletes — sports medicine, the training staff, the academic support staff, even the people in the dining room — should have a common message.

McGuire, in a way, is a thread. His vision snakes through the department, through training sessions and study hours, through rehab and daily practices. Each is connected by the ideas and experiences that are woven together into McGuire’s vision, and McGuire hopes to integrate that thread further, until it’s barely distinguishable as a separate part of an athlete’s preparation. He doesn’t want to stand out. He doesn’t want to take credit.

“At the end of the day, done correctly, the piece we put in here just becomes part of the homogenized whole, and shouldn’t then on the other end be identified as the piece that made a difference,” McGuire said.

But why else would he be doing what he’s doing? McGuire wants to make a difference. But to him, it’s not a story. It’s just a part of training that’s been overlooked, and really, it’s not him. When players get stronger, strength and conditioning coach Pat Ivey doesn’t get all the credit. When a running back suddenly learns to find holes in other teams’ defenses, running backs coach Brian Jones doesn’t get the most congratulations. It’s the athletes who ultimately choose to accept his message, to stretch their minds and embrace it. They should be applauded. But McGuire deserves some credit, too.

“You know, though, it is somewhat about him, because he’s teaching everyone how to do it,” Drass said. “In the end, it’s all about the athletes, but he’s leading all of this.”

McGuire isn’t the story. He’s just a part, a new chapter in the evolution of the athletics department. From that windowless office, McGuire’s message makes its way out — past the two computers filled with files and notes, past the stacks of papers and that overloaded bookshelf.

And that one book, "Oh the Places You'll Go!" It almost humanizes McGuire, brings him down to the level that his words seem to elevate him above. But his message isn't one of complex schemes and confusing words. Like Seuss' message, it's easy, and you can boil it down to just a single statement. With the proper thinking, you can succeed.

McGuire is teaching athletes how to believe in themselves, to focus on success. He's teaching them forward motion, showing them the places — more realistic than the multicolored mountains in Seuss' book, but still just as exciting — to which they can push their minds and bodies. And luckily for those athletes, McGuire isn't going anywhere.

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