Head Games


Illustra­tion by
Maria Jackson

illustration of an athlete's brain

To nonbelievers David Terao's approach may have appeared overly Zen, and deficiently testosterone-charged.

"In my head, I visualized that the crowd was literally giving off some sort of aura, and I drew in that energy," he says.

Terao, CAS/BA '16, is recounting the moments prior to the biggest wrestling match of his life, a quarterfinal tussle before thousands of screaming fans in Madison Square Garden at last year's NCAA Championships. On the rare occasions he'd previously competed in such a high pressure environment, he'd understandably been nervous. But this time, he closed his eyes and channeled the teachings of his coach, Brian Levenson.

Wait, who?

Levenson is a mental performance coach—a sort of positivity guru who molds athletes' minds so that they can envision, then achieve, success. AU wrestling coach Teague Moore tapped him to work with his student-athletes years ago, and the results have been tangible. Connor Schram became a believer. Terao pinned the Stanford star in that quarterfinal in New York to earn All-American status.

"We hear the cliché all the time that sports is 90 percent mental," Moore says. "At the Division I level, pretty much every program is doing the same technical things—training in the weight room, practicing, watching film. The mental side is another piece of the puzzle. I'm a caveman. I don't necessary have the abilities to teach these guys about how to handle those situations."

Levenson does. He's worked with professional basketball and soccer players and hundreds of big-time collegiate athletes, shaping their psyches with the same vigor that they sculpt their bodies.

"My work is about getting people to maximize their ability to perform under pressure," says Levenson, who now holds weekly office hours during which any AU student-athlete can utilize his services.

Through breathing exercises, visualization training (like the kind Terao employed), and dialogue, Levenson aims to improve athletes' confidence, focus, and motivation. He believes that thoughts and thinking are different—the former can't be controlled, the latter can. When negative thoughts emerge—and they always will—he teaches his athletes to acknowledge them and shift their thinking. Forget positive and negative thoughts, he preaches. Simply focus on useful ones.

Among Levenson's other core philosophies is the idea that an athlete's mindset for preparation and performance should be different.

"When we are preparing, our job is to be humble, and ask questions and learn and grow," he says. "When we're performing, our job is to believe in ourselves and execute."

Casey Aguilar-Gervase is a sophomore on the lacrosse team whose young career has been plagued by injuries. She's already undergone two ACL surgeries and recently began working with Levenson.

"From the first time we met and talked about ways I can improve my performance, I noticed a huge change in my confidence on the field," she says. "That first weekend we had a tournament, and I definitely think that was the moment I realized how much what Brian and I had discussed was helping me. I played like myself again."

Think about that for a minute.