In today’s day and age of sports, the preparation starts long before game time and extends well beyond the final whistle. Mental skills, psychology and mindset training are more important than ever and are critical to on-field success.
For performance psychiatrists and elite mindset coaches such as Dr. Larry Widman, the goal is to focus on that mental aspect and get the most out of today’s athletes. It’s something he’s trying to accomplish with the volleyball program at UNO.
“The mental game is the great separator at this level,” Widman said. “By the time you get to this level, everybody is talented. They (athletes) will all acknowledge when I ask the question how much of your sport is physical and how much is mental. But when I ask them how much time they spend working on their mental game, that’s their first kind of aha moment.
“They recognize the mental game is huge and I always compare it to what happens at the biggest moments. It’s 13-all in set five and you’re at the service line. How much of that serve is mental? And that’s why I spend time with them. When you’re under pressure in the biggest moments can you get your mind and body in sync to put yourself in the best position to be successful.”
Widman, who got his start working at an Air Force base in Minot, North Dakota, actually graduated from medical school and got started as a psychiatrist. His primary duty in Minot was to work with those suffering from stress and anxiety following the 9/11 attacks. However, he couldn’t use any medication. It’s there that he started to hone his mental skills and psychological teaching.
As for the shift to sports, it came while working at Bryan Medical Center in Lincoln. Widman was asked to help a Nebraska athlete who was struggling with a mental health crisis, and his work did not go unnoticed. Widman was asked to become a consultant at Nebraska shortly thereafter and has been working with the university, mainly the volleyball program, since 2007.
It’s a drastic change from being in charge of B-52 bombers and working with those who control underground missiles.
“I love working with college athletes, especially considering what they face today,” Widman said. “If you want to get to what I call an elite mindset, you have to take care of your mental health first. I believe high performing perfectionists, females even more so, are at more for depression and anxiety and other health conditions. So if you don’t take care of your mental health, it’s very difficult to actually develop a high performance mindset in any endeavor in sports or life.”
As someone who has been around the collegiate level for several years now, Widman said the key is that teams stick to their values and take ownership of what they want to be. It sounds cliche, but it’s up to them to buy-in. The wins and losses will take care of themselves.
“You have to have enough talent,” he said. “That being said though, all of the champion teams I’ve been around—five national titles, several state championships—the teams that have won it all have never been the most talented teams in that school’s history. It’s always the teams that have enough talent but more so have what I call ultimate trust.
“It’s a mantra I believe in and try to get every team I work with to. It requires building deeper relationships with each other, the willingness to be vulnerable with each other, and to do this off the court so it’ll help on the court. The two things that I know have truly separated the best from the rest are the teams that truly embrace their role and learn how to come together as a team and my goal is to have every team in a position to max out when it matters the most.”
A self-described “volleyball-centric” teacher, Widman estimates 80% of the teams he works with across the country are volleyball. He’s worked with both Nebraska and Creighton, along with multiple high school programs around the state.
As for how he got started with the Mavericks, it goes back to a series of connections he’s made along the way. Widman met Omaha head coach Matt Buttermore at Nebraska before he took the UNO job. He also knew Maggie McKew, who he worked with while she was playing at Creighton and Kelly O’Connor, who was a graduate assistant at Nebraska. He’s now in his second year working with the Mavericks.
“I just kind of knew all of the parts and there were all of these connections to UNO,” Widman said. “I initially reached out to Maggie and asked, ‘what are you guys doing for mindset training now that you’re there and do you have anybody who’s already helping?’ I told them it was something I’d be very interested in doing for you guys and when Coach Buttermore reached out we sat down as a staff and started outlining a plan.”
So far, that staff has been a joy to work with. Widman gives Buttermore and his staff a ton of credit for how much they’ve bought-in and how much they’ve challenged themselves. He said the non-conference schedule is also a direct reflection of the coaching staff.
It’s no small ask going into the Bob Devaney Sports Center, especially for a matchup against the No. 4 Huskers. Not only did Buttermore’s group go into Lincoln and put up a fight, but the Mavericks also took Nebraska and Arizona State both to the brink and defeated Georgia for the fourth win over a power five opponent in Omaha’s program history.
It’d be easy to be overshadowed by the two top-20 programs in this state, Nebraska and Creighton, but that’s not the case with this Omaha group.
“Sometimes you could feel like an afterthought,” Widman said. “This UNO team is trying to be themselves, stay in their own lane and work on their own problems, and be the best version of themselves. For that reason, I’m very proud of this team, I’m very grateful I get to work with them and the sky’s the limit for this team.”