For 20 years, sports psychologist Dr. Jerry Lynch has tried to change the relationship between athletes and their sports. One of his greatest success stories is the Maryland women's lacrosse team.
That's not because the No. 1 Terrapins have won five straight national championships and are going for a sixth this weekend. It's because they have changed their approach to the game.
Despite a remarkable 115-5 record since the start of the 1995 championship season, the Terps never talk about beating other teams. They concentrate on their own game and talk only about playing "Maryland lacrosse.""Some people think we're just being cocky when we say that," said senior goalie Alex Kahoe, "but it's not being cocky, it's knowing what we're able to do."
Lynch, through a combination of Western psychology and Eastern philosophy that he calls "TaoSport," turns the perspective of the athlete inward. It shifts the focus from the cultural obsession with winning to a genuine love for sport.
Lynch has embraced the Chinese philosophy of Tao, or "the way." His approach to sports follows the basic Tao principle of going with the flow of nature.
Rather than concentrate too much on their opponent, he encourages the players just to try to be the best they can be.
"For 99 percent of the teams Maryland will play," said Lynch, "their approach is that the field is a battlefield against your opponents and you try to find ways to defeat these people.
"Why concentrate so much on the opposition? Why not put all that energy into how high can I raise my bar? If I raise my bar, that puts you in a position to figure out how to reach that level yourself."
Even with all the success the Terps have had, they don't worry about impressing others and winning more championships. They strive only to live up to their own individual and collective potential."You can make the best of each situation and it's up to you," said junior attacker Jen Adams. "Expectations shouldn't come into it."
Lynch, the founder of the Tao Center for Human Performance in Santa Cruz, California, employs a variety of mental strategies, including affirmations and visualization, to enhance an athlete's physical strengths.
Today, he will be at the College of New Jersey, helping the Terps prepare for their NCAA National Collegiate Tournament semifinal game with No. 5 Loyola.
Maryland coach Cindy Timchal brought Lynch to meet with her team five years ago after reading one of his books. Having written her Master's thesis on sports psychology, Timchal said, she wanted to see if he could help an already good team become even better.
Adams, the 1999 National Player of the Year, has become one of Lynch's most devoted students."I thought it was a little crazy at first, I have to admit," said Adams, "but it's something you grow to believe and it really has become our team's philosophy. Each person on the team respects it. It's something that's not just spoon-fed to us. We actually do believe it and we take a lot from what he says and what he's trying to teach us."
Kahoe, a red-shirt her freshman year, was among the first Terrapins to meet Lynch. She knew he was on to something from his earliest sessions with the team.
In one session, Kahoe said, Lynch put a bench in the middle of the room and told each player to walk across it. After they all had, he asked them if they would walk across that bench if it ran between the tops of two skyscrapers."No way," they answered."Why not?" Lynch asked. "It's the same motion.""For us," said Kahoe, "playing Loyola in the NCAA Tournament is walking across the twin towers. A regular game is the bench on the floor. In overtime or in sudden-death situations, I always go back to that story. You're just doing the same thing you do in every game.""At some practices," said senior Christie Jenkins, "instead of running us into the ground, the coaches would have us sit and picture ourselves running down the field in perfect form and it does work. It prepares you by visualizing situations and when you're in them, you feel like you've been there before."
Lynch, a marathoner, works with professional and amateur athletes on all levels. His collegiate track record over the past 10 years speaks for itself - 20 teams in NCAA final fours with 11 champions.
The TaoSport philosophy, outlined in Lynch's book Thinking Body, Dancing Mind, co-authored with Chungliang Al Huang, combats negative influences on athletic performance including fear, fatigue, egocentricity and perfectionism.
He champions an atmosphere in which athletes are free to fail, because failure teaches valuable lessons about how to succeed.
At Maryland, Timchal and her assistant coaches have fostered such an atmosphere. Lynch said that freedom creates a feeling of confidence and community that contributes as much to a winning program as well-conditioned, highly-skilled athletes and top-notch coaching.
"Every year, Maryland has gone forward," said Lynch. "This year's team could actually beat last year's team. If you look at the stats, you'll see that's true.
"This doesn't mean it will go on forever, but what will go on forever is that we will have teams at Maryland that will commit to putting it all out on the field for each other. They will always try to demonstrate where they're at. If that is short of national championship caliber then that's where they're at, that's the best they can be."