Friday, April 1, 2011
By: Art Stapleton New Jersey Record
Virginia Commonwealth head coach Shaka Smart says some of the credit for his team’s success in the NCAA tournament should go to a mental toughness coach.
As one of the nation’s preeminent mental toughness coaches, the 39-year-old from England has played a significant role in building the Big Dance’s biggest bracket buster.
Of those still in the hunt for a national championship, no one will bring more of a psychological edge to the Reliant Stadium court than Virginia Commonwealth as it prepares for tonight’s national semifinal against Butler.
Part of that priceless quality comes from the personality of Shaka Smart, whose coaching profile has increased incredibly with VCU going from the First Four to the Final Four.
Before the 11th-seeded Rams set out to prove countless critics wrong, leaving contenders from multiple power conferences in their wake, they gathered on campus for a Wood tutorial on what it takes to — among other things — perform with poise under pressure.
Smart and his players listened to everything Wood had to say, yet the sports psychologist paid to deliver a message was the one who came away impressed. “At the level of which Shaka and his players believed in themselves, you would have thought we were dealing with a major program that had a pedigree of six national championships,” Wood said. “They were extremely confident, and if you can back that confidence up with things you can actually do in a clutch situation to help develop poise, you’ve got something really special. “I don’t get to see that with every team I work with. This team, I saw it from the start.”
Believing is the essential part of winning, of course, and VCU believes it will hoist the NCAA championship trophy, even if most observers had the CAA runner-up failing to escape the tournament’s first round against Southern California.
Smart and the Rams relished being on the big stage for their open practice Friday.
Their confidence remains, and considering the stakes and the odds that were stacked against them, the swagger with which they continue to perform is quite remarkable.
“He’s definitely the best at getting people to understand what it is that they need to do to approach the game and also how to respond to any type of adversity,” Smart said of Wood. “He set up a good framework for us in terms of handling mental toughness situations, which can make a big difference in pretty much every aspect of the game.”
Wood was there for the Rutgers women four years ago, when C. Vivian Stringer called on him to speak to her Scarlet Knights during a rough stretch in the regular season.
On the heels of a 30-point loss to Connecticut that season, Stringer brought Wood — whom she saw give a presentation at the Final Four the previous year — in for a workshop.
Rutgers responded by winning eight in a row, including the Big East title and a run to the 2007 national championship game before losing to Tennessee. “I see so many similarities in terms of confidence between what Vivian and Rutgers had and what Shaka and VCU possess now,” Wood said. Smart, 33, seems appreciative of this enormous opportunity, as do his players.
With the way VCU carries itself, though, you would think this were a summer pickup game, not a chance at making tournament history, which could go a long way toward shaping the sport for the future.
Up until now, Smart has made all the right moves.
The balance he has struck between physical preparation and psychological motivation is something to behold.
Like his story of burning the entire month of February – actually, the entire page in a desk calendar – to symbolically prove to his players it was time to move on.
Smart and Wood planned on getting together Friday night for a powwow between coaches that would be part pep talk and part preparation for what looms as the most pivotal 40 minutes for a mid-major program knocking on the door of athletic immortality.
“The enemy at the Final Four is not the next opponent. The enemy is the Final Four for a Final Four team,” Wood said, “and it’s all about dealing and handling the weight of the expectations, for the athletes to be physically present and emotionally neutral. “The smartest thing as a coach is finding a way to manipulate those expectations and get confidence levels and expectation levels to match. The team that is able to do that best in the Final Four will most likely leave here with the championship.”
From the moment VCU was granted an invitation on Selection Sunday, Smart and his players have gone after every game as if it was theirs to win. With that mentality, the Rams have not lost yet.
“We think if we keep attacking people and not playing on our heels, we’re going to be great,” senior point guard Joey Rodriguez said. “We don’t even bring up the idea of possibly going home … we’re thinking we are going to be here until Monday night and that’s all we’re thinking. We don’t look at ourselves as Cinderellas.
“We believe we belong.”
VCU never has wavered from that belief, which is why America’s biggest party crasher is two victories away from ending the season atop the college basketball world.