Marek Warszawski

Warszawski: Fresno State used sports psychologist to brew NCAA-level chemistry

How a sports psychologist helped unleash Fresno State men's basketball

Fresno State men's basketball players say sessions the team held with sports psychologist Joe Carr helped improve team chemistry and point them to the surge that led them to the Mountain West championship and NCAA Tournament berth.
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Fresno State men's basketball players say sessions the team held with sports psychologist Joe Carr helped improve team chemistry and point them to the surge that led them to the Mountain West championship and NCAA Tournament berth.

Better living through chemistry is more than a take off on an old advertising slogan.

For the NCAA Tournament-bound Fresno State men’s basketball team, it’s become a formula for success.

What’s the biggest difference between this 25-9 Bulldogs squad, the one experiencing March Madness for the first time in a decade and a half, and the one that went 15-17 last season?

Not talent, or coaching. Both are pretty much the same. It’s togetherness and unity. It’s the camaraderie, relationships and the way everyone’s personality fits to form a cohesive collective.

It’s that elusive, intangible quality called chemistry.

“We didn’t have great chemistry last year, and as a coach that’s something to have to evaluate and be truthful about,” Fresno State coach Rodney Terry said before his 14th-seeded Bulldogs flew to Denver for Thursday’s Midwest Regional first-round game against No. 3 Utah.

“The question becomes, ‘Next year, what can we do?’ Who’s out there that can help our team and change our program?’ 

Talent is not enough. Talent alone will get you beat and get you fired if you’re not doing anything to manage it.

Dr. Joe Carr, sports psychologist

The person Terry found was Joe Carr, a renowned sports psychologist who has worked with a few dozen college basketball teams and NBA superstars such as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.

Bulldogs coaches and players credit the sessions with Carr, along with the team’s summer trip to Italy and improved senior leadership from Marvelle Harris, Julien Lewis and Cezar Guerrero, as the three biggest reasons why the Bulldogs are getting along so well.

“I’d say you could break those down into thirds and say all three of them had an impact on how we did,” assistant coach Byron Jones said. “Italy was huge, Dr. Carr was huge and the seniors were huge.”

Added junior forward Paul Watson: “Our chemistry is at another level right now.”

Step 1 was the team’s 10-day trip to Italy in August with an itinerary that included exploring the Colosseum and Forum of ancient Rome and a guided tour of the Vatican and Sistine Chapel. The Bulldogs also played three exhibition games and were afforded 10 extra days of practice.

More than just seeing the sights, the trip made them get used to the sight of one another.

“That was our first time getting to know everybody, especially the new guys who hadn’t been here,” first-year player Cullen Russo said. “It brought us closer because we didn’t have a lot of time to ourselves. We were always with the team, always doing something together.”

Two weeks after returning home, the Bulldogs were back together again on Labor Day weekend for their initial appointment with the sports psychologist. The retreat lasted 35 hours, including individual sessions that went as long as 10.

“We had to learn how to sit in a room together for a very long time,” Russo said.

There’s so much more positive energy. That was one of the things Dr. Carr told us, that there needed to be much more positive instead of negative. No pouting.

Fresno State sophomore center Terrell Carter

Following the initial session, Carr made two return trips to Fresno midseason for what he calls “chemistry resets.”

“Chemistry is a process,” Carr said by phone from Delaware. “You don’t just come in for a checkup, get an injection and it’s done. You have to follow through with a lot of things.”

Carr uses the acronym RARE to encapsulate his system for understanding and improving team chemistry. The letters stand for: relationship development, accepting challenges, recovering from mistakes and executing coaches’ directions.

The acronym RARE stands for: relationship development, accepting challenges, recovering from mistakes and executing coaches’ directions.

The first part, relationships, involves a lot of talking and listening. Getting people to open up about themselves, even if it means bringing up painful personal experiences. It also involves airing grievances. Among the Bulldogs, there were a few players, newcomers, jealous of Harris and all the touches he gets on offense.

That was something that needed to be addressed.

“Marvelle understood when guys weren’t vibing with him,” Jones said. “He didn’t go against the grain and say, ‘Naw, that’s not true.’ He hit it head on. He was the one that addressed it more so than even us as coaches.”

Carr’s system also fosters an environment where players learn how to accept criticism from coaches and teammates as constructive and not deleterious. To illustrate his point, the psychologist uses the example of wearing a waterproof coat before heading out into the rain.

“When I say, ‘Coat up,’ it means to put on your raincoat and let everything roll off,” Carr said.

Likewise, coaches were taught how to dish out criticism without offending.

“You’ve got to spray a little sugar before the sauce,” Terry said with a laugh.

What’s happened is the guys treasure the minutes they get instead of complaining about the minutes they don’t.

Fresno State associate head coach Jerry Wainwright

The timing of Carr’s final session couldn’t have been more fortuitous. The day was Feb. 5, two days following a disastrous loss to last-place San Jose State (that ended with Harris slamming a chair into a bathroom wall) and the day before a home game against UNLV.

Since that much-needed “reset,” Fresno State has won 11 of 12 despite missing one or more key players for a stretch of those games.

One of those players was Watson, who lost his starting job because of injury and is now coming off the bench. Watson wasn’t much of a factor in several of those wins but never pouted about his reduced role.

Then when the Bulldogs really needed him in the Mountain West Conference tournament final against San Diego State, Watson came through with eight points and five rebounds.

“I told myself it’s not about me, it’s about the guys, and I can’t let what I’m going through affect what we needed to get done,” he said. “So I tried to stay as positive as possible.”

Now that’s someone who absorbed his chemistry lessons.

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