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August 19, 2019

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UNLV psychology professor focuses on putting athletes in right frame of mind

UNLV vs. Utah State Football

Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV head coach Bobby Hauck and Utah State head coach Matt Wells talk at midfield before their game Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013 at Sam Boyd Stadium.



The first thing you’ll notice about Brad Donohue’s office when you walk in is it’s decked out in Rebels gear.

There are team photos adorning the walls and UNLV logos emblazoned everywhere — even on the tablecloth in the conference room.

It’s clear: Donohue bleeds scarlet and gray.

The UNLV psychology professor has a soft spot for student-athletes, who face unique challenges. They must juggle class and practice, homework and workouts, exams and games.

During the season, student-athletes are under incredible pressure to perform, both on and off the field. Sometimes, the stress gets to be too much. To cope, some resort to risky behaviors, such as binge drinking.

To help UNLV’s student-athletes perform at their best in all aspects of their college life, Donohue, 48, has created a special program: The Optimum Performance Program in Sports, or TOPPS.

This National Institutes of Health grant-funded program combines traditional counseling with sports psychology to help student-athletes deal with the unique hurdles they face.

The Sun recently sat down with Donohue, TOPPS director, to talk about his innovative program. This interview has been edited and condensed.

What are the challenges facing student-athletes?

Student-athletes face stress on a greater level than the average student. They have to juggle school and athletics, so time management is a huge issue. They need to do well in athletics and academics because many of them have scholarships. That can become very stressful. A bad performance on the field can affect performance in the classroom, and vice versa. Athletes need to have a customized intervention plan.

How does TOPPS try to help student-athletes?

Traditionally, sports psychologists focused just on sports performance while traditional psychologists worked on relationships and other issues, such as alcohol or drug abuse. Our program combined those things. We want to enhance performance both on and off the field to give athletes that extra edge.

We started the program with 12 student-athletes in spring 2012. While traditional family counseling is individual-based, our approach is to bring in family members, coaches, friends — anyone supporting the athlete. During the 12- to 16-week program, we work on specific goals and how the athlete can accomplish them. And then we turn to their family and coaches and ask them how they can help them reach those goals. We also work with students on financial and career planning, media preparation and social skills.

What kinds of issues do you see in your office?

Some athletes have trouble performing on the field. We try to figure out what motivational statements they respond to, words like, “You can do this,” or, “I’m going to kick their butt.” These “hype-sessions” can help get them in the right mindset to excel on the field.

The majority of students in college engage in alcohol intoxication, but athletes have a higher rate of binge drinking. Most students drink when it's a birthday, spring break or celebrating the end of finals. But for athletes, every weekend match is a potential for drinking, whether it's to celebrate a win or forget a tough loss.

How do you get student-athletes to seek your help?

Often, student-athletes don’t want to come in the door because they might be recognized. It’s difficult to maintain anonymity on campus if you’re a student-athlete. That’s why we have workshops for teams and coaches, so they could be coming in for a lot of reasons. We don’t want anyone to know why someone’s walking in here.

We have to address the stigma facing mental health. To make it more inviting for athletes, we try to re-create an environment that’s more familiar to them. Our therapists are called performance coaches, our sessions are called meetings, and instead of calling it a mental health clinic, we call it performance programming. That’s what we do, we try to enhance performance in sports and in life.

Does this program work?

When I was in my early 20s, I was ranked fifth in the country for amateur boxers. I used to box with the national team at the Olympic training center. I had more than 130 fights, and I’ve had a lot of losses. Those losses influence you. How you recover and treat losses and victories is important. Getting concerned about if you’re going to win or lose, what other people are thinking about your performance and the competition — those things distract you from getting to your optimum performance. Seeing a sports psychologist helped me out. It made a difference for me by getting me into the proper mindset to excel.

Our athletes see the benefit. Our meetings have been rated high. We’ve been able to retain students; with two of our athletes, we got them motivated to stay in school. Within three years, we hope to have more than 150 students through our program. We’re also trying to work with high school athletes in the future. About half of all discipline issues in the Clark County School District involve athletes.

What are your thoughts about Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman’s interview at the end of Sunday night's NFC championship game against the San Francisco 49ers?

I didn’t see the game and I don’t know the history between them, but it seems (Sherman) got a little emotional talking about (49ers receiver Michael Crabtree). I didn’t think he was saying those things to be nasty; I think he was actually joking about it. It sounds like it’s something he does to get himself hyped up for the Super Bowl. Other people thought he could have been more humble. The literature shows pretty clearly that if you’re trying to prepare yourself mentally for a big game, you’re supposed to focus on your own actions, not on other people. When you take the focus off yourself and you focus on other people and the competition, you can start to lose your edge. You need to think about what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it.

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