Performance Psychologist ~ Dr. Jarrod Spencer

By J.F. Pirro

Performance psychologist Dr. Jarrod Spencer takes pride in working behind the scenes for his clients. But in his corner office along Larry Holmes Drive in Easton, that overlooks the confluence of the Lehigh and Delaware rivers, frankly, he’s perched above a remarkable scene.

Through floor-to-ceiling windows above the falls, from his vantage point, he can both enjoy the riverscape, which feeds his water analogies, and beyond the bridges and above the far tree line, he can also see the steeple of Saints Philip and James Catholic Church in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, where he was raised.

Spencer’s pinnacle visual is Freud’s Iceberg Model of the Mind, which he uses to teach about the preconscious mind beneath the water line. It’s there where we keep things we put on the back burner, or things we hope to deal with later—things that prevent progress.

“These can flood us with stressors,” Spencer says.

“Leaders take on stress, and they can be flooded, but they need to keep the good stuff flowing, which depends on how they do with the river of stressors.”

With an office with a view, and a consistent approach in a three-fold focus—the mind, body and spirit, mostly of business leaders, sports personalities and collegiate teams—he admits to a little bias to water views.

At Phillipsburg High School, Spencer wrestled and played football, then graduated from Lafayette College where he played football. He earned a master’s degree from West Chester University

and a doctor of psychology degree from Argosy

University in Chicago. At Lafayette, he created a major now known as neuroscience—a focus on the interaction between mind and body. Add the two, and it equals performance.

“I’m fascinated by human potential and how the body can perform at such high levels once we tap into the mind,” he says.

While he’s the one who now hands out motivational books to clients, it was a book Eyvind Boyesen, a former Lehigh University wrestler who informally mentored Spencer in high school after they met at a wrestling clinic, gave him that changed his life. The book, Way of the Peaceful Warrior, became the 2006 movie, “Peaceful Warrior.” “Today,

I want to do for others what was done for me,” he says.

As a young Catholic, Spencer became keenly

aware that when he attended church, then competed—he performed better. “If you feel closer to God, you feel better and you perform better,” he says.

“I quickly attributed my performance to God. If I had a big game, I’d say, ‘Let’s go to church.’” Today, Spencer mentors the wrestling programs at Lehigh, Maryland and Johns Hopkins. He speaks to all athletes at DeSales. (There are pro athletes, too, but he can’t share names.) Other than coaching business leaders nationwide by

phone, which makes up 50 percent of his schedule, Lafayette is his biggest singular client. Athletics and business are incredibly similar in the personalities and stressors they attract and create.

“I like to keep guys sharp who keep others sharp,” Spencer says. “It can have a great ripple effect. It’s also why I’m moving toward more TV, radio, video (there are some 200 You Tube videos of him speaking) and books (he’s promising Mind of the Athlete “soon,” but admits it’s in his preconscious mind). I can’t serve everyone,

but if I work with leaders, they can serve others.”

On Tuesdays, he does an ESPN radio show in the Valley with Dr. Jim Brennan, one of two officemates with separate practices. Spencer, 36, has also been taping 60-second spots for Christian radio station WBYN 1075 AM that blend scripture and psychology. On Oct. 12, he will be Pat

I’m fascinated by human potential and how the body can
perform at such high levels once we tap into the mind

Huber’s special guest on the Christian TV station WBPH (RCN’s Channel 60). For a year, he did a show—“What the Heck Were They Thinking?”—with former heavyweight boxer Larry Holmes on Service Electric. He meets weekly for

Bible study at Whitehall-native and pro football TV analyst Matt Millen’s home.

“They’re good men with good faith,” Spencer says. “Athletes reach a certain level beyond body and mind, but it’s private and personal. But after a day is done, their faith is their source of strength.”

In 75 percent of his work, Spencer is able to tap into the deeper spiritual element. There’s a need, he says. As such, he has a separate website and ministry, “With All Your Mind,” for this third component to his practice.

Where 90 percent of psychiatry focuses on the negative, Spencer zeroes in on the 10 percent that’s positive.

“Clear mind, better performance” is one of his mantras. “What I do (for clients) is help them keep the mind clear,” he says. “I do not know how to play volleyball, drive a sports car or hit a 90 m.p.h. fastball.”

There are traps in sports and performance psychology. “If all we focused on was winning and success, and preached that it’s all that matters, we could create a real sadness,” Spencer says. “The ultimate wake-up call is if the day after the ultimate (sports) success, you still felt empty. There’s a hole there to fill (with spirituality). It’s a connection that goes deeper than even your mind.”

Today’s a typical day in Spencer’s schedule. On the way from his office to Lafayette, where he speaks 50 to 60 times a year, we cross paths with Angel Kichline, Larry Holmes’ business manager. Spencer spoke to orientation leaders at the college earlier in the week. They’re the same ones we hear singing from the dorm rooms as we park. “They’re fired up,” he says. “I love a college campus. There’s so much energy.” It’s move-in day, and we’re parking in a grassy knoll. We’re off to meet Terri Dadio Campbell, the women’s volleyball coach and her team, at the Kirby Hall of Civil Rights. In the boardroom, Spencer sits at the head of a long oval, conference table. As

the players enter, they all know him. He wants to “unpack” what they’ve gleaned from their summer reading, Failing Forward by James C. Maxwell, so they take notes on their definitions of failure, and then success. “Success can be uncomfortable and unfamiliar,” he advises.

He urges the team, which typically finishes mid-pack in the Patriot League, to begin and end matches by playing “in the here and now.” They need to “take out the junk, the trash, so when we’re playing volleyball, everything else (in the pre-conscious mind) is drowned out.”

Then, individuals share “here and now” moments from the previous season. Fiorella Bellini, a sophomore who is a neuroscience major like Spencer was, pipes up: “When we played Lehigh, we took what they were saying and fed off of it. We turned it into a positive and ended up winning.”

Slowly, the team agrees to practice and play in the moment, to play to win rather than playing not to lose, to get over itself and not to cling to each other’s mistakes at the end of a game. He has each player write and address an inspirational letter to herself, which can be read later, if necessary. One, Lexy Russo, a sophomore, adds a P.S. to her’s: “Stop eating Häagen-Dazs ice cream,” she reads out loud.

Just talking helps, says senior Kayly Elmer.Last year, the team’s focus was “brain dumping.” Before matches, they’d write down anything external to volleyball. ”Or,

if I felt they were distracted, I’d tell them, ‘Go dump, then come back,’” their coach says. She then reflects on a “less than stimulating” pre-season practice. After it, she coaxed them to “fail forward.” She said, “Let’s get better”—and they did. “We really have created a lingo here,” Spencer says.

“‘Fail forward’ might not mean anything to any other team, but to us, it could be our mantra. You say it, and then remember this session and these feelings.”

J.F. Pirro has been published in more than 75 magazines and dozens of daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. He’s written about social trends, religion, historic preservation, 18th century America, canine curiosities and sports and recreation.

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