Jerardi: Sports psychologist gives Penn players a shot of confidence

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Joe Dowling (left) is Penn's peak performance/mental strength trainer.

THE PENN players were seated in front of their lockers, most with their eyes closed, many with towels over their heads, leaning back into their stalls. With the countdown clock on the wall at 56:30, Joe Dowling began to speak in a soothing tone.

"Focus on the sounds around you, the soundtrack of the Palestra," Dowling said. "Explore and imagine all that awaits in just an hour."

Penn was an hour from playing Fairfield last Friday afternoon at the Palestra. Dowling was there as part of the team's final preparations.

A member of the La Salle High 1981 Catholic League basketball champions, teammate and classmate of Chip Greenberg, La Salle Class of 1982, Dowling is an Albright College graduate who got his masters in counseling psychology from Villanova.

He befriended Steve Donahue when the Penn coach was a volunteer assistant under then-Quakers coach Fran Dunphy 25 years ago. Donahue suggested to Dunphy that Dowling might be able to help the players with some positive psychology. Dowling spent some time with those early Dunphy Penn players.

When Donahue became the head coach at Cornell and then at Boston College, he would sometimes ask Dowling to speak to his teams. Dowling spent an entire weekend with the 2009-10 Cornell team that won a third consecutive Ivy League title and made the Sweet 16.

When he got the Penn job in 2015, Donahue - who believes sports psychologists will be as important and prevalent as strength and conditioning coaches in 10 years - wanted Dowling around his players on a regular basis. His title with the team is peak performance/mental strength trainer. He is around the program 20 hours per week. He travels to road games. He is also now working with the Penn women's basketball team.

"The therapy I do sometimes, I call it 'How to become smart enough to know when to stop thinking,' " Dowling said a few hours before his locker-room talk.

In that locker room, he suggested to the players that they "reconnect with the Drexel game from Wednesday," a game the Quakers won.

He spoke of "a feeling of lightness, energy flowing through you."

"Transport yourself to tipoff," he told the players. "Get that feeling of running off the floor with three (wins) in a row."

The clock read 50:30 when Dowling stopped speaking, exactly six minutes from start to finish.

"Open your eyes when ready," Dowling said.

Penn came from behind to beat Fairfield, 74-68. The Quakers open Ivy League play Saturday night at Princeton. Dowling will be on the trip and in the locker room 65 minutes before the game.

Donahue has been a believer for a long time. Living proof is Jon Jaques, essentially a forgotten member of those Cornell Ivy champions - until his senior year in 2009-10.

Jaques, a 6-7 shooter from California, had played 108 minutes and scored 33 points over his first three seasons. He was not going to get any more run his senior year - until Dowling began to work with him and injuries got him on the court during a Thanksgiving tournament at Drexel.

"Coach said this guy's just so self-critical, we've never seen anything like it," Dowling said. "He would just obsess and agonize when he would do poorly. They tried to play him early in his career. They just couldn't do it."

Dowling tries to get players in what he calls "their zone."

"The mantra I kept using is every shot is the first shot, every shot is the next shot, every shot is an opportunity," Dowling said. "And just developing that a missed shot becoming a positive trigger, what an opportunity to go play great defense, normalizing that because that's counterintuitive.

"How many basketball players in the history of the game have missed a layup, had the ball stolen from them and now they foul?

"Jon bought into that. He was walking through campus, saying every day is the first day, every class is the next class, but especially in practice, every shot's the first shot."

And when he got his chance at Drexel, Jaques played well. He got more chances and he played even better. Ryan Wittman, Louis Dale and Jeff Foote were the stars of that Sweet 16 team, but Jon Jaques was a critical player, with his 42 threes and 45.2 percent shooting from the arc. Once he got into the lineup, he never came out. Teams had to honor him, which opened the floor even more for all the skilled players Donahue had assembled.

"I used him as an example because it's a great microcosm of what high-functioning people do on and off the floor," Dowling said. "They overthink. They criticize. They're not that way with other people."

Only with themselves.

Dowling recognized the trait because that was him.

He went to Albright because he thought it would be a good fit for his basketball ability. It never worked out like he hoped, so he can relate to players who aren't getting time or having success.

"People will really magnify the negative," Dowling said. "Jaques made the shift. What allowed him to make the shift in my strong opinion is that we did the zone work, have him close his eyes, take five deep breaths and get into that place on the inside where it's clear. There's so much research now with mindfulness and meditation . . . positions people for success, helps dissolve and kind of detoxify the worry and the angst."

Dowling lived in Logan before his family moved to Ambler when he was in second grade. He was a baseball and basketball player at La Salle. He gave up baseball to play in the Sonny Hill Future League. He said he "peaked" at age 15. His counselor at Sonny Hill was Fran McCaffery, the great player at La Salle High and Penn, now the coach at Iowa, a man Dowling calls his "idol."

He found the field of psychology at Albright. The basketball was "disappointing" but he found his calling and became what he is today, a licensed professional counselor with a love of sports, especially basketball. His office is in his Manayunk home "What I do is nontraditional psychology," Dowling said. "It's present focus, then future focus. It's focused on strengths instead of problems . . . The psychology that I practice it really leant its way to sports. But this is how I would treat anyone."

Dowling uses phrases with players like "future memories of success, what will it be like when you're a sophomore and you're starting instead of why aren't I playing as a freshman."

During the Ivy season, he will meet with the team once a week as well as those pregame moments. He will also have some individual sessions. Players will sometimes call him to set up a meeting. Playing time, Dowling said, "is a hot topic."

"I have tremendous empathy with that subject," Dowling said.

And he always has that Jon Jaques story to tell and sell.


jerardd@phillynews.com

@DickJerardi

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