For someone who has worked with highly-touted collegiate and professional athletes from every sport imaginable, Jerry Lynch may be the most inconspicuous figure at UC Santa Cruz. His eminence and name recognition in the realm of sports psychology earn him instant recognition in locker rooms and playing fields across the country, but on campus he is an unimposing figure. Lynch doesn’t let his stature get in the way of his day-to-day dealings with young athletes. He responds to phone calls and e-mail inquiries with an unbiased promptness, whether they’re from a young basketball player in Ann Arbor, Michigan asking for advice or from his friend Phil Jackson, the longtime coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Many people are surprised to hear that UCSC has a sports psychologist in the first place, especially considering the athletic department’s limited budget. In fact, Lynch has been working closely with men’s tennis coach Bob Hansen and his athletes for the past 21 years, proving instrumental in their seven NCAA Division III championships. He has also assisted the women’s tennis team, as well as both the men’s and women’s soccer teams, and he says that he will advise any team on campus headed by a coach who “has a vision beyond just winning.”
In his 35-year career, Lynch has worked with 35 national championship teams and written 10 books, the most popular of which is “The Way of the Champion.”
What has Lynch done to propel so many teams to such great heights? Ironically, the success of his teams and athletes stems from refusing to make winning a priority. Instead he applies a mix of Eastern thought — Buddhism, Zen, Taoism — with Western psychology into the philosophy that failure is a necessary part of sports and life, especially for champions.
City on a Hill Press: What made you decide to go into the field of sports psychology, and when did you embark on this as a full-time career?
Jerry Lynch: I’ve always been a gym rat and always loved sports and known a lot about it, and it seemed natural for me to combine my avocation with my vocation…but when I first got into it [in 1975], it was very simplified sports psychology. I would go in and teach athletes and teens mental strategies so they could win, but over time I began to see the really deep connection between the value of sports as a microcosmic classroom for life.
CHP: Please speak to your experiences with UCSC men’s head tennis coach Bob Hansen and his players over the past two decades.
JL: Bob Hansen and I have become close kinship friends. It’s been a wonderful experience… He’s a gem, and his record shows it. There’s a lot of love in his coaching, and I reinforce that, because it’s the key to good coaching. I’m not talking about romantic love — I’m talking about respect and compassion and all those wonderful qualities that enable people to really want to work hard for you. His kids will do anything for him, because he treats them like human beings, and his success is because of a lot of those things.
CHP: What is your approach for working with athletes?
JL: My approach combines Eastern thought — Buddhism, Taoism, Zen — with Western psychology, and when I put them together you have a mish-mash of unbelievable kinds of thinking to help people deal with problems. We don’t even talk about beating an opponent or winning a national championship. We talk about what are you going to do to deal with your fear, how will you be more compassionate … We practice meditation so we can quiet our chattering mind and use that to an advantage so we go on the courts and are at a level of playing our best. If we do that, we’ll probably win, but if we don’t, we’ll feel that we played our best.
CHP: What are some of the most common reasons that athletes come to you for assistance, and how do you solve their problems?
JL: People will come to me for many reasons. Ostensibly, the reason usually is “I’m good, but I choke or I fail and I don’t like to fail and I’m in a slump”: the obvious external manifestations of failure. [But] when an athlete is in a slump, it’s not a physical crisis — it’s a spiritual crisis. I’m telling them we have to look at failure as something different from what you’ve been looking at it as. I’m saying failure is wonderful — it’s our teacher. Don’t run away from it, and you’ll become better. In Chinese [they] say soft is strong. Water is so soft, yet it wears away rock and lights cities.
CHP: What is the philosophy behind “The Way of the Champion”? In other words, what is the “way of the champion?”
JL: A champion is not someone who wins the medal, but anyone whose main goal is to do the very best they can today to be the very best they can be so that they can position themselves for personal or collective victory. All people who get crowned national champions were champions before they got crowned.
CHP: Who are some well-known collegiate and professional athletes that you’ve worked with personally?
JL: [Professional golfer] Vijay Singh was a client of mine just recently. I’ve also worked with Steve Kerr, the former Phoenix Suns general manager and former Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Danny Ferry, [as well as Philadelphia 76er] Elton Brand on a collegiate level. And I haven’t worked with Kobe [Bryant], but he read my books because [Los Angeles Lakers head coach] Phil Jackson and I are friends, and he asked me to send a book to Kobe.
CHP: Phil Jackson is also very much influenced by spirituality, isn’t he?
JL: Phil’s parents were both missionaries and he was born and raised near the Dakota Indian tribe, and hanging up in his office he’s got all these replicas of Native American culture. The other thing he’s done is he’s created a room where the practice facility is in El Segundo that’s called the Warrior Room, and what they do is the athletes go in and meditate before a game or practice… We have an interesting relationship. We don’t meet and have a beer, because our lives are very busy, so we communicate by e-mail, and that seems to work, because he requests my books and I get to see how they work with those athletes.
CHP: What do you like about working at UC Santa Cruz?
JL: The thing I’ve most enjoyed is that it’s pure. It’s sport for the sake of sport, not sport for the sake of money. You go into Duke and [North] Carolina and these big programs, and it’s all about winning… Up here at UCSC, we want to win, but it’s not all about winning. It’s about developing fine young men and women.
CHP: What is the one indispensable piece of advice that you would give to an athlete at any level of competition?
JL: An athlete, to stay on track, to be focused and to compete at a high level, needs to continue to know why they love what they’re doing. If they stay in touch with that, they’ll be able to do what they need to do in order to get what they want. I want people to follow what they love.
For more information about Lynch, visit his website at wayofchampions.com.