The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maryland women’s basketball finds edge inside the lines starts between the ears

(By Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Put aside pick-and-rolls and fast breaks for a minute, and let the top-seeded Maryland women’s team take you inside their heads.

Let them tell you about their trigger words and their best selves. About the outside pressures they face and the internal focus they need. About dealing with their fears and increasing their mental performance. About making sure they don’t get trapped in downward spirals, and about focusing on process rather than outcome.

If it sounds a bit more clinical than your typical whiteboard diagram, it should. For the past two seasons, the Terps have worked regularly with Stu Singer, a Massachusetts-based “performance enhancement coach” whose job is to help keep players’ minds in the right place.

Singer comes to College Park once a month for team sessions, which players refer to as “Group Stu.” He’s available for voluntary phone or Skype sessions; some players speak to him once a week for up to 40 minutes at a time during basketball season. He traveled with Maryland to the Big Ten tournament earlier this month, and is meeting the Terps in Spokane before their round-of-16 matchup with Duke.

Singer stays with coaches during their scouting and prep sessions, goes to practices and shootarounds, and sits down with any players who want to talk. And he will help them not with their shooting stroke or their defensive stance, but with their confidence, their anxieties and their ideal visions of themselves.

“It’s made a huge difference,” said junior center Malina Howard, who speaks weekly with Singer. “It was hard to open up at first, because it’s someone you don’t know at all. But he’s very personable. He makes you feel really comfortable, so it was an easy transition for me talking to him. I feel very comfortable talking to him, all the time, about anything.”

Indeed, Singer talks to players about their schoolwork, their relationships with teammates and coaches, and their athletic expectations. He said the skills he works on with players are no different than their basketball fundamentals; they require practice and effort.

“With all the social media and all that stuff, there’s so much that can get in your head during the season,” said sophomore point guard Lexie Brown, who credits Singer with her improved poise this year. “He keeps us focused, and he keeps us really united.”

Singer, whose sessions with individual players are kept confidential, asks the Terps to describe what they look and feel like when they’re at their best — these traits are their trigger words. He gets game film so he can discuss key moments with players, but he’s focused on body language and emotional control rather than the team’s offense. This season, for example, he spoke with Brown about how she looked leaving the floor during a poor performance against Penn State; she said the conversation helped her get back on track.

“I was in a terrible place mentally  … and they got it all on camera,” she said. “Stuff like that, he’ll call me out on. Last year I would get so down on myself so fast, get frustrated and kind of shut myself down, close myself off to everybody. And this season, I haven’t done that as much, and he’s noticed it. He always tells me how proud of me he is, how much I’ve grown as a person. I do give a lot of that credit to Stu.”

Singer, who has a Master’s degree in counseling and is working toward a PhD in sports psychology, has worked with other women’s basketball teams, including the Connecticut Sun and Washington Mystics of the WNBA. Mike Thibault, formerly of the Sun and now with the Mystics, spoke highly of Singer in a conversation with Maryland Coach Brenda Frese. She already knew of Singer — his brother trained former Terps star Alyssa Thomas — and Frese had been looking for someone who could help her players deal with outside pressures, with adapting to college and learning what it’s like when you’re no longer a team’s only star. So she brought him on last season, not knowing how it would work.

“One of the things we’ve always prided ourselves on is being kind of cutting-edge, being out ahead,” Frese said this week. “We want to continue to give [players] all the tools and resources to be successful: if it’s ice baths, if it’s correctives and recovery, being in the best shape, their nutrition. He’s just another layer to help them separate themselves on the court.”

That’s why Singer is headed to Spokane — “it’s heightened anxiety, so we think it’s important for him to be around,” Frese said — and why Brown already is planning to chat with Singer about the buzz surrounding this weekend.

Singer told Frese his addition would work only if the entire coaching staff was committed to the idea, and that it likely would take two full years before the arrangement felt comfortable. But Frese, Singer and Maryland’s players said the process went much faster than that.

“The whole staff was all-in. They were phenomenal. They just said go for it,” Singer said. The players, he said, “were great from the start. If the first couple players that I worked with said you know what, this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about, I think it would have tanked quickly. Players are very, very savvy; they’re only going to do it as long as they think it’s going to help them.”

At least according to the Terrapins, it’s working. In their first season working with Singer, the Terps went to the Final Four. This season they’re 32-2 and riding a 26-game winning streak. Two more wins, and they’ll return to the Final Four.

“It’s obviously helped us,” senior Laurin Mincy said. “We got to a Final Four last year, and we’re going to a sweet 16 now. So I say keep it going.”