Powering the T: Joe Whitney

Oct. 12, 2011


Dr. Joe Whitney, UT's Director of Mental Training, cites two misconceptions when it comes to sport psychology:

  • Something's mentally wrong: "This is about performance. This is about learning to use your mind in a way that it's going to work for you rather than against you. It's not about anything outside performance. It's what you do in training; it's how you compete."
  • Just for those struggling: "About half the athletes I work with already are good competitors, good performers. They're really looking for sport psychology as a way of training their mind to go even further as an athlete, to take their mental game to another level."

Motivation drives Dr. Joe Whitney toward perfection.

One of his roles as UT's Director of Mental Training is helping Tennessee's more than 500 student-athletes learn to motivate themselves in competitive athletic environments. Yet Whitney often is pleasantly surprised when he ends up being the one inspired by youthful exuberance.

"Working with motivated people who want to excel at what they do is my favorite part," Whitney said. "Even in the midst of their struggles, striving for excellence still takes precedence over everything. That's just cool."

Whitney serves UT's 20 varsity sports as a performance-based aide to the student-athlete. The former collegiate and high school coach makes friends quickly, and his job is to be there for all comers.

"Really, whoever needs me in a given moment of time," Whitney said. "That can be a whole team, it can be just a coach working with his or her team, it can be an individual athlete who's trying to work through something they are struggling with. Or one who really has no mental or emotional obstacles but simply wants to take their game to another level.

"I'm there for all of them, and in any one day I could see any one of those types of individuals."

Whitney also is not above making house calls. He traveled with volleyball for its midweek showdown at Kentucky, and Friday he's accompanying men's golf to its tournament in nearby Jonesborough.

Early Coaching Career
Whitney was born in Arkansas, made a stopover in Louisiana and grew up in Maine. He graduated from Springfield College in Massachusetts, studying coaching and physical education, which was logical because his dorm room sat right across the street from the old location of the Basketball Hall of Fame.

After graduation, Whitney moved to New York City and began a 13-year career coaching primarily football and basketball. His mainly worked at high schools, but Whitney also spent two seasons with the basketball program at Division III SUNY Maritime in the Bronx.

Whitney returned to school in 1995 at the University of Virginia, earning his graduate degree in sport psychology. He came to UT for his doctorate and soon began working as a consultant with the Vols and Lady Vols. He was hired on a full time basis in 2000.

"Sport psychology is gaining wider acceptance in that there are a lot of people practicing and working with athletes in different ways," Whitney said. "What's unusual about Tennessee is having someone full time. There are probably fewer than a dozen schools in the country doing that.

"If an athlete or coach needs me, it can be handled pretty much within 24 hours."

Those needs vary by sport. Sometimes Whitney visits more with entire teams, and other times it's on an individual basis.

"Every sport has its own psychology, whether it's a team sport or an individual sport like track or golf," he said. "The craft of sport psychology is about determining which skills and/or strategies make sense for a particular athlete in a given moment of time.

"The interesting thing about individual sports at the college level is that, while it's you versus your opponent, the energy you get from the team very much affects your performance."

Unique to College Sports
Whitney uses tennis as an example of an individual sport played as a team.

"Tennis in every other part of the world is me versus my opponent. In college tennis, it's us versus them. That puts a whole new dynamic into the play itself but also in how the athletes relate to it. And I think that's what is neat about college sports."

Whitney makes the rounds through UT's practice facilities and game sites often enough that he quickly becomes a familiar face to newcomers. Some already know him from their recruiting visits.

"Being here full time and being involved with all our teams, the athletes get to know me and get comfortable with me," he said. "When they have something they want to talk about, it's pretty easy for them to come and find the office.

"One way or another, they become familiar with what we do and the service we provide."

That service to UT student-athletes, aided by graduate assistants Susannah Knust and Anders Holmberg, is no different than and can be just as valuable as the training received via strength and conditioning, rehabilitation or nutritional classes.

"This isn't about anything magical," Whitney said. "It's not hocus-pocus. It's about training your mind through repetition, just like you do on the field or in the weight room. The strategies and skills we talk about are good when we talk here in the office, but nothing becomes great until the athlete takes it and commits to it, trains it in practice, trains it in preparation for competition, trains it sometimes in their dorm if we're talking about imagery or visualization, those kinds of things."

The Chair
One of Whitney's tools for placing student-athletes in a virtual game environment while in the media training center is a white egg-shaped chair, which looks like something straight from "2001: A Space Odyssey." Whitney says the surround-sound system can be filled with anything from crowd noise to any type of music.

"The nature of the system is that it simulates the environment you will be competing in, whether it is Thompson-Boling Arena or running through the T at Neyland Stadium," he said. "We also use music to create the emotional state the athlete is going to perform in, the same way a movie director would use music. If movie directors want to scare you, they play scary music; if they want to inspire you, they play the `Rocky' theme.

"It's different. The chair catches their eye when they come into my office. It's also for athletes who just need to relax for a few minutes. We put them into a 15-minute relaxation protocol that allows them to completely recharge themselves."

And like professional athletes who return to the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center for off-season workouts, Whitney also sees former student-athletes from time to time when they need to reassess and recharge their mental routines.

"We're blessed with talented athletes who in many cases are able to have careers beyond the college level, and a lot of them will come back and check in," Whitney said. "Just like with the current student-athletes, we're here for them when they need us."

Whitney says the goal of mental training is trying to get what's inside an athlete's mind to be stronger than what is on the outside.

"You have the situation you're involved in, you have your opponent, you have expectations - both internal and external - you have your own emotions," he said. "All these things occur outside the mind. If we can get the athlete to work and train their mind so it's stronger than all those things, then they become a no-limit competitor and they can do anything they want in sport and beyond."



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