Who will be Chicago’s future leaders? In this series, we give voice to young people poised to lead Chicago tomorrow, as they interview current leaders in their fields of interest.
Dorian Robinson, part of the UCAN family and currently a student at College of Mount St. Vincent, interviewed Dr. Wendy Borlabi. She is psychologist who has previously worked at both the Olympic and collegiate levels in sports, is the founder of a cross-disciplinary performance consultancy, and currently serves as the performance coach for the Chicago Bulls. They discussed what performance psychology is, how one gets in to the field, and why it’s important for the future.
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Dorian Robinson: Could you please explain what a performance psychologist is?
Dr. Wendy Borlabi: Sure. When you think about any job, any career, you always have to perform. Whether it’s in sports, whether you’re in real estate, whether you are teacher, you still have to perform your best, right? So, what I do is help athletes perform better.
Anything on or off the court that affects them performing on the court, that’s what I help them with. That could be relationships, it could be anxiety prior to performing, or it could be that they are not in the game as much as they’d like. Maybe they only get to play, oh, six minutes, so they want to maximize that six minutes, and not spend a minute or two getting into the game, so that they only end up with four minutes to show their stuff.
DR: How did you get in to the field?
Dr. Borlabi: By happenstance, actually. After undergrad, I was working at a day treatment facility for depressed and borderline adults. One of my co-workers was going to a sports psych conference in New Orleans, she knew that I was an athlete, so she asked if I wanted to go along. It was a free weekend… but I didn’t actually attend a single sports psychology event.
Then, a year later or so, I started thinking “What was that sports psych thing?” I looked for schools near me with master’s degree programs, just to see where it would take me. I didn’t know it was going to take me all these kinds of places.
DR: I know that you’ve been all around the world, working for the Olympics and working with the Chicago Bulls, which is huge. So, what would you say would be the hardest part of your job?
Dr. Borlabi: The hardest part of my job now was the best part of my job with the Olympics – and that was travel. The best part of my job with the Olympics was that I traveled all over the world. That was great for eight years. But it’s the hardest part of my job now because I’ve got kids. It’s a long season and it’s 42 games away from Chicago. Lots of travel, that’s the hardest part.
You’ve also worked with the Navy Seals, and the Olympics; so, does performance coaching go beyond sports? And how would you say that affects the people that you’re working with?
Dr. Borlabi: I specifically target athletes and sports, but it can be applied to any job. The way that I like to work with athletes, it’s all about self-awareness. So, you’re not only going to be able to find things that you can do that will help you perform better – it’s also going to help you become a better person. I think that’s what it’s ultimately about.
DR: What would be the most satisfying part about working with the Bulls?
Dr. Borlabi: The first thing I would say is that this organization is family oriented. And so, for me, being a solo parent of twins, it’s really important to work for company that is very family oriented, to make sure that I get to spend time with my kids.
The other satisfaction is going to come later. I mean, I’m a part of a rebuild. I got here and then we completely took the team apart. Now we’re rebuilding, and I’ve been a part of that from the beginning. And I don’t mean satisfying because we’re going to win championships, although I think that we will – but satisfying in the fact that I was a part of helping something grow from the beginning.
DR: I’m a basketball player myself, and I know that you played sports. So, did you actually need the sports experience to become a performance psychologist?
Dr. Borlabi: I don’t think that you need it, but it definitely helps. It’s a different way to relate to the athletes. And also, it does give you credibility out there, right from the beginning.
DR: What would it take for me, as an athlete, to become someone like you, a performance psychologist?
Dr. Borlabi: You should get your Bachelor’s, but I think that you need to get two master’s degrees. You need one in kinesiology or sports psychology, and then you need another one in either clinical psychology or counseling psychology – that’s because you need to be able to have a licensure of some sort.
When a team hires you, or an individual hires you, they may want you to work on performance anxiety, which is strictly performance. But if something else comes into play, and if you don’t have that clinical psychology degree, then you’re going to have to refer them to somebody else.
It’s getting to where teams just want to hire just one person. Why hire two when you can have one? So, I would suggest that you get both of those degrees. You don’t have to have a doctorate, but you need a Master’s in sports psychology and then another master’s so you can get some kind of licensure in clinical counseling psychology.
DR: What have been some of the biggest challenges that you faced in becoming who you are today?
Dr. Borlabi: I think the biggest one was something I learned in my master’s program. My professor said to me, in my first year, that if I wanted to be an applied sports psychologist – I’m trying to get the exact words, because it was very powerful – he stated to me that I might want to rethink working with athletes.
He said that sports psychology is a lily-white field full of white men who are not going to allow an African- American woman to come in and take their jobs. That was a wake-up call. I’m so glad he said it – and this was from a white male – because I thought “Now I know what I’m up against.” And it’s been that challenge of having to prove that I actually know what I’m doing.
So that was one challenge. And the other is also just being female. I work mostly with males. And it’s not working with them, that’s not the problem. It’s “When do I go into the locker room?” when I’m traveling with the Bulls.
DR: Do you see performance psychology being impactful in the future?
Dr. Borlabi: Actually, really huge. The NFL made a mandate about a month ago that every team has to hire [a sports psychologist] by this season. So, there are a lot of teams scrambling, because they have to have some somebody. And it’s what we were talking about earlier: someone who’s got the clinical degree and the performance degree, not just a performance person. They want someone that can handle the mental health as well.
Major League Baseball is way ahead of the curve. The Cubs have five or six people that work with their minor league teams. And they’re not the only team that does that. Major league baseball is so far advanced. And the NBA is not too far behind. Now colleges and universities are getting into it as well.
One of the things that I tell athletes and is that I’m somebody that has absolutely nothing to do with your money or your playing time. I’m neutral, I don’t want anything from you, I don’t need anything from you. So, you can have someone to talk to you that’s not going to, “Yes sir” you it all the time. That’s a huge benefit – and I think it’s where we’re going with the field.
DR: Thank you for being with us today.
Dr. Borlabi: Thank you.
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