Pressures from today's social media world has NDSU athletics looking to the future
FARGO—For the first time this season, North Dakota State lost a football game last weekend, to a rival no less in South Dakota State. In head coach Chris Klieman's playing days in the late 1980s, the fallout for players would probably have been a few buddies on his dorm floor talking about it. It's a new age, now.
Thanks, or no thanks, to social media, it's conceivable the Bison players of today face numerous comments, reactions—and most striking—pressures. Senior defensive tackle Grant Morgan, if he wanted to, could have turned on his phone Sunday morning and saw negative reaction on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or email.
He chose to do something else.
"I think one of the biggest things is to just take a break this week," Morgan said. "The more you read, the more things that pop into your head, the more worried you're going to be about your play. When you're reading about it constantly, it tends to wear on you mentally so I think if guys can step away from that, it will help their mentality."
That mentality is something Klieman is concerned about on a weekly basis, not just after losses.
"You always do, just because the nature of the beast as far as the amount of games we've won and the few games we've lost," said Klieman. NDSU is 91-8 since 2011.
That beast is being addressed in a variety of ways across the country. The University of Southern California, for instance, has three sports psychologists on staff to help athletes cope with anything from pressure to depression. NDSU doesn't have the budget of a USC, of course, but it's on its radar to hire some sort of similar position.
NDSU athletic director Matt Larsen says it's just tougher to go to college for anybody and it's the future of college athletics to have somebody full-time on staff to deal with the mental side of sports. It works, said Lani Lawrence, one of the three sports psychologists at USC.
"When I played, I didn't have Instagram or Facebook, I didn't worry about people texting me, I didn't worry about strangers contacting me, I didn't worry about opponents contacting me," Lawrence said. "Now these kids are bombarded with so much information. A lot of athletes feel like they're in a fishbowl."
That could be magnified, she said, when the football team is the biggest game in town, like it is with NDSU in Fargo. There are no professional franchises and the nearest Power 5 conference team is 240 miles away at the University of Minnesota.
Bison football is the pro franchise around here.
"One of the things we try and teach our athletes is coping skills," Lawrence said. "Figure out a game plan when you feel overwhelmed, so it doesn't lead to burnout."
She said her psychology staff gets to know the athletes from Day 1. They all know her and they all have her business card. Both Larsen and Lawrence agree a big potential issue is college can be the first time a junior high or high school superstar is subjected to failure on the field.
"And a lot of times they're coming in without the skills to deal with it," Larsen said.
Lawrence said at times it's the first time an athlete has had to reach out for help, which isn't always easy for them to do.
"I think guys can really struggle admitting they need some support and help," she said. "We're fortunate here in we have coaches who buy into sports psychology. We have athletic trainers and advisers who when they see a guy struggling say if you want to talk to an expert call Dr. Lani."
Perhaps the closest "Dr. Lani" NDSU has is Ben Newman, a mental training performance coach based out of St. Louis, who NDSU periodically brings in to help players with the motivational side of the game. Newman has worked with Super Bowl and NCAA championship teams among many other top-level clients.
He said athletes sometimes need help navigating their way through the noise of the Internet or other social media obstacles. On Twitter, for instance, search "Bison lose" earlier this week and one of the first images to pop up is a dummy wearing an NDSU shirt hanging from a noose.
"When an athlete has somewhere they can go to discuss their challenges, it makes all the difference in the world," Newman said. "One of the first rules of sports psychology is for an athlete to perform at their highest level, they cannot solely rely on natural talent and ability. They have to understand the mental toughness side of what it takes to achieve peak performance."
Larsen said the Bison coaches do a good job of being accessible when the game or practice is over.
But they can't also be everywhere 24 hours a day.
"As much as we say our coaches are counselors and coaches, I think down the road it would be nice to have somebody from a professional standpoint who is schooled in that type of stuff," Larsen said.