Gonzalez Gives Brockport a Mental Edge
Professor helps student-athletes sharpen focus and achieve success.
SUNY Brockport women’s volleyball team was trailing late in the first set of its September matchup with Lycoming College when the fire alarm began blaring through the Tuttle North Athletic Complex. The Golden Eagles fled the building, wondering what was happening.
“Everyone was focused on the fire alarm and staying warm — not the game,” said Bri Richardson ’18, a junior on the team.
Then Stephen Gonzalez showed up. Gonzalez is an assistant professor of sport psychology in the College’s Department of Kinesiology, Sport Studies, and Physical Education. He also serves as the director of mental conditioning for the Golden Eagles.
“Gonzalez came over, pulled us together, and completely re-focused us,” Richardson said. “Then we went out and won the next two games to win the match.”
That’s the type of value that Gonzalez strives to add to the Brockport athletic program.
“We try to condition the mind for peak performance,” he said. “I want to help our student-athletes be more confident, more focused, and more in control.”
Professional and major college athletics programs are increasingly hiring mental conditioning specialists to assist athletes with life skills development, sharpen their focus, and cope with demands. But Gonzalez is still one of only approximately 800 people in the world who are certified as a consultant by the Association of Applied Sports Psychology.
It wasn’t long after Gonzalez arrived at Brockport two years ago that he bumped into Athletic Director Erick Hart in the Tuttle North hallways and volunteered his services.
“Sport psychology has become a huge topic in the NCAA,” Hart said. “We’re very fortunate to have a rising star in that field on our campus.”
Gonzalez sees a significant need for these services at the collegiate level.
“Less than 1.5 percent of high school athletes have a chance to play at college. Everyone here has been great in high school,” he said. “But then they get here, and suddenly they might not be playing so much and are feeling lost. I work with the student-athletes and their coaches to set better goals, understand their value, and improve their role clarity.”
Women’s volleyball coach Steve Pike was one of the first coaches to ask Gonzalez to work with his team.
“We’ve been teaching the physical side for so long,” Pike said, “but we know the mind has a huge impact on how we perform.”
He said Gonzalez has helped the team implement a failure relief system. The players now understand how their teammates want to be communicated with in moments of failure. Seventy percent of the team, Pike said, absolutely does not want to hear that “it’s okay.” Instead, most prefer some type of physical contact — a fist bump, a high five, or a pat on the back.
Richardson wants feedback.
“I’ll look to Coach to see what I did wrong so I can correct it,” she said. “And then I’ll talk with my setter to understand what she saw.”
Gonzalez also teaches breath control as a method of controlling emotions.
“We’re more confident and we’re more composed,” said Pike, whose team has reached the NCAA Tournament in each of the two seasons it has worked with Gonzalez. “It’s really shown in their ability to handle multiple mistakes. Before, if someone made multiple mistakes, they were done for the rest of the set. Now they can bounce back quickly.”
Hart said he’s unaware of any other NCAA Division III athletic program that has someone like Gonzalez on staff. He believes it’s a tremendous advantage — both competitively and in recruiting.
“We tell our recruits…we have great majors, nice facilities, a full-time strength and conditioning coach — and we have Gonzalez.”