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Moawad sharpens mental edge in sports, life

Trevor Moawad working with players at FSUBRADENTON, Fla. — Many of the best young athletes on the planet make their way each year onto the sprawling campus of IMG Academy. They train under the tutelage of some of the top instructors in the world of tennis, golf, football, baseball, basketball and lacrosse to gain a critical competitive edge.

But the pulse here isn't measured only in power, speed and physical prowess.

In fact, it has as much to do with mental training and discipline — learning to set goals and fulfill them — than all the activity flowing on the multitude of fields, courts and workout facilities.

The heartbeat at IMG Academy can be found down a shaded walkway, past a weight room filled with students sweating through intense regimens — and inside the doors of the renowned Performance Institute.

This is the office of Trevor Moawad, the driving force in IMG's quest to shape athletes both physically and mentally — and a leading authority in the burgeoning field of sports psychology.

In some respects, he is carrying on the mission of his late father, Bob Moawad, widely regarded as a pioneer of national motivational speakers and self-esteem experts along with such notable positive psychology figures as Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, co-authors of the mega-best-selling Chicken Soup for Soul book franchise. His dad counted among his corporate clients such heavyweights as NASA, Starbucks, Boeing and AT&T, and counseled people "how to get out of their own way."

The longtime Washington state native regarded himself as an "edu-tainer" and often wove down-to-earth talk and humor in his presentations. An example hangs on a large, framed photograph on a wall by his son's desk with one of his many sayings:

"You can't leave footprints in the sands of time when you're sitting on your butt. And who wants to leave butt-prints in the sands of time?"

"I had a great relationship with my dad, and I know I'm a natural extension of him in many ways," Moawad said on a recent morning.

At the same time, he is charting his own course, having helped develop and nurture IMG's mental conditioning endeavors for the past decade.

Moawad joined IMG in 1999 as an intern in the department and, after a stint as a teacher at North Broward Preparatory School in Boca Raton, returned in 2000 as a mental conditioning coach. And he's been with IMG ever since, becoming associate director of the program in 2003, the director in 2005 with a staff of seven, and then head of the Performance Institute in 2007.

In that capacity, he oversees a unit of 50-plus employees and all support services for IMG and IMG Academy — helping athletes achieve their full potential in the realm of strength, conditioning, orthopedics, sports medicine, communication, nutrition, leadership and mental toughness.

As part of his broad spectrum of duties, Moawad and his staff teach IMG's athletes to deal with the psychological rigors of their respective sports. He takes the mental conditioning message to programs around the nation to work with coaches who recognize the importance and benefits of Moawad's work — head coach Nick Saban and the University of Alabama football team, Jimbo Fisher and his Florida State Seminoles, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the U.S. Soccer Federation and many more (see accompanying list).

Others, in turn, are coming to IMG to integrate mental training into their approach to the game. Case in point: The National Football League Players Association has moved its annual rookie symposium from Washington, D.C. to the IMG campus today and Wednesday, coinciding with an unofficial "mini-camp" for the Tampa Bay Bucs conducted by former FSU and Carolina Panthers quarterback Chris Weinke, head of the IMG Academy football program.

"Hosting the NFL Rookie Symposium is a great opportunity for us, because we're going to have the chance to educate a league where 60 percent of the players play three years or less," Moawad said. "That's valuable to me, because that tells me these guys have the aptitude to get there, but they don't have the habits to stay there.

"This place is all about developing habits. Whether we 're going to send that athlete to Johns Hopkins or Ohio State, we need to get more out of that athlete than they even know is possible."

• • •

For the most part, Moawad delegates the actual training of IMG's students to his staff, while he and a handful of others work with college programs, athletic organizations and corporations. His goal is to spread the word on the importance of character education, a concept that includes mental conditioning, life skills and communication — reinforcing IMG's brand in the process.

"We're having a lot of discussions with the military, with the NCAA, colleges, the NFLPA all on just developing the total person — mentally, physically, nutritionally," he explained. "I like being the spokesman for that, taking our methodology and integrating with other organizations and federations. I still do some of the mental coaching with teams and coaches, but I think I have a better chance of growing what we have by being out in the field speaking to the need for training athletes more comprehensively than just their speed and their strength."

Moawad developed his mental training methods at IMG with Chad Bohling, now director of optimal performance for the New York Yankees. At the core, the mental aspect is not complicated, but it is essential for athletes trying to get and maintain a competitive edge.

"Without question, Chad and I had a clean slate to do whatever we wanted to do when we started out," he said. "What we had to do was figure out how to take unique information that might be considered as only for people who have problems, like Mike Tyson. And we had to make it exciting, relevant and habit-forming for how we think, how we set goals, how we meet those short-term goals, how we continue to set them once we've reached them — and common-sense concepts you apply in everyday life. For example, if you walk in the grocery store without a list, you buy a bunch of things you don't need, and you later realize you've forgotten half the things you do need."

Moawad contends most people live their lives the same way.

"We may lack direction and at the end of the day, we haven't done the things we meant to," he said. "The mental aspect to training is really that simple. It requires setting goals and priorities and reminding ourselves of them. When you watch Serena Williams in a changeover, she's going to go a little card that says, 'You can do it. Believe in yourself. Accelerate the racket head.' "

The process of athletes talking to themselves with positive messages, and learning to integrate those messages subconsciously, is an important step in improved performance.

"They realize there's probably a correlation between, 'How I feel and how I'm performing and what I'm saying,' " he said. "One of the biggest problems I've seen with athletes today is their performance is really centered around their environment. If they've got a supportive environment, supportive coaches and supportive family members, they can perform. And if they're in a difficult environment where those circumstances fluctuate, they struggle. That's what we're trying to guard against."

To reinforce his positive psychological message, Moawad brings in proven performers from all spectrums of the sports world to share their insights with athletes looking to improve their game. One such figure is Olympic sprint champion Michael Johnson, a four-time gold medalist considered the greatest long sprinter ever in track and field.

"Michael's been a very good friend of mine and is somebody I've learned a lot from, in terms of how everything works together from the physical, mental, and nutritional aspects," Moawad said. "He's a guy our football agents used to send down to spend time working on the speed component with our athletes as they were getting ready for the NFL Combine. Chad and I would ask Michael if he would come talk to the guys about how he mentally got prepared. It was great to get somebody who was No. 1 in the world for 10 years to come share his insights. And we really worked well together with Michael, helping him prepare for the next phase of his life."

Moawad continues to tap Johnson for his thoughts to help others improve.

"If I have questions about coaches or elite athletes I'm dealing with, I can ask him, and he can give me a great frame of reference, because of how he dealt with pressure," Moawad remarked. "I might say to him, 'Serena Williams is coming in, give me your perspective.' Or 'I'm working with Florida State football, what do you think? Or 'I have a great young soccer player named Freddy Adu, what's your take?' Michael is a great advisor."

In addition, he incorporates successful professionals with ties to IMG to help educate young athletes on handling pressures and challenges, such as LPGA star Paula Creamer or recently retired elite NBA referee and crew chief Bob Delaney.

Delaney would train at IMG and whenever he got injured during his career, would rehab there. That's how he met Moawad 10 years ago.

"I am not only a friend, but I'm also a client of his," Delaney said. "Trevor improved my focus through mental conditioning. He helped me through so many situations."

Delaney recalled how Moawad utilized game situations on video as part of the process.

"Trevor told me to look at calls where I nailed it and felt good about it, and watch those calls over and over prior to going on the court. He said, 'You live in a negative environment. Coaches, players and fans are always telling you you're wrong.' So by watching the calls I felt good about, that was my positive reinforcement — and I was able to share that technique with others in the officiating community."

Delaney did so for several years as head of IMG's Officiating Academy, working with officials from the NBA, NFL and collegiate ranks. He later teamed with Moawad and IMG communications/media training expert Steve Shenbaum in staging seminars entitled "Performance Rules."And he still fondly recalls his friendship with Bob Moawad, a regular at Seattle SuperSonics games starting in 1987.

"There are many disciples of Bob Moawad who are out spreading the word, and through Trevor's position here, the numbers just keep growing," Delaney said.

"It's in his blood," said 49ers quarterback Alex Smith. "That's why he's such a good (mental) conditioning coach. The guy knows everything about personality. He knows about attitude and positive thinking. The guy is so positive and so dedicated. That's the biggest thing. You can tell he loves what he does, which makes him so good at it."

Former youth soccer phenom Freddy Adu struggled when he arrived on the world stage, but he does a better job managing the intense expectations heaped on him working with Moawad.

"Trevor has a sense of empathy and knowledge that separates him from others in this area," Adu said. "He takes unique or complex information and presents it in a way that directly relates to you.”

Adds Weinke: "He's one of those guys who's able to multi-task and think ahead of the curve in terms of what not only individuals but teams and organizations are looking for. And I think he's a key for helping them find an edge — not only in performing on the field but off the field."

• • •

Moawad knows about sports from a performance perspective as well. He played soccer and basketball at Occidental College in Los Angeles, earning All-SCIAC honors in 1994 and 1995. He played professional soccer briefly after graduating but an injury ended his hopes of a career. That put him on another track, education. He took a job in the Los Angeles Unified School District teaching with inner-city students, an experience he credits with vastly increasing his knowledge of performance principles.

"I had 43 kids in class with 35 desks, and it gave me a totally different perspective than the private high school environment I'd grown up in or at Occidental," he said. "It was extremely important for my evolution, because I had to learn quickly about attention to detail, learning styles and changing my teaching pedagogy, using activities and video to keep their attention."

He held the job in 1996 and 1997, when a soccer pal was traded to the Major Soccer League team in Miami, the Fusion. Moawad visited the friend and decided he'd like to re-locate in Florida. Soon after, he was hired at North Broward Prep in Boca Raton, where he taught social sciences along with a sports psychology class and coached club and high school soccer and golf.

That paved the way to attending a coaching clinic at what was then called the Bollettieri Sports Academy, prior to its affiliation with IMG.

"Once I came up here, I immediately thought, 'This is where I need to be,' " he said. "I liked the concept of teaching, but I didn't like teaching social sciences. I wanted to be more in the sports environment. It was one of the few places that was actually teaching sports psychology proactively. And I recognized we would really turn this into something cool."

Moawad returned in the summer of 1999 as an intern and, after a week on the job, was offered a fulltime position at the Academy. Unfortunately, he had already signed a contract to return for a fourth year at North Broward Prep.

"I called my dad and he really challenged me on it — he said, 'You already signed a contract for that teaching position, you really have to go back and honor it," Moawad recalled. "So even though this was my dream job, I had to pass it up and went back to finish my commitment."

During the school year, he also worked twice a week at the nearby Chris Evert Tennis Academy, owned by IMG. And in the summer of 2000, IMG again made him a job offer. He gladly accepted the position of mental conditioning coach — and was on his way as a leader in the field.

Throughout the journey, he has cherished the life lessons from his father:

"I'll never forget there was a situation when I was doing some work with the Dolphins and I had a question, and I called him and said, 'Hey, Dad, what do you think about this?' He said, 'You don't need my opinion. You know what to do.' And I thought, 'He's right. I do know what to do.' I had a great relationship with my dad."

The last eight years of his life were difficult to say the least. Bob Moawad battled a relentless and painful form of cancer of the blood plasma, multiple myeloma. But he underwent treatments and remained active on the motivational circuit until the end.

After contracting Legionnaire's Disease on a flight back from an event, due to his impaired immune system, the elder Moawad took a sudden turn for the worse and was given only days to live. The family mobilized and had some 20 people whose lives had been touched by Bob Moawad telephone him at the hospital — notables such as Saban, Delaney and Washington Governor Booth Gardner among them.

"He had been influential in my life, and it was a true honor to be asked to call him," Delaney said.

Meanwhile, Moawad raced from an event at the University of Michigan back home to Washington to be with his mother and older brother and at his father's bedside. There were two options, give him sedatives that would likely lead to death within 10 hours, or put him on life support with a two-percent chance his condition might stabilize.

"My dad said, 'Shoot, I haven't spent a lot of time in Vegas, but I'll take 2 percent over the 10 hours,' " Moawad remembered.

Last rights were delivered and his father faded into unconsciousness, with doctors planning to give him two days to respond or remove life support.

"The next day I got a call — it was from my dad's cell phone," Moawad said. "And it was my dad on the end!"

Bob Moawad lived another four months, in fact, conquering the negative prognosis with a positive outlook. One of his final appearances was in a wheelchair at a University of Washington basketball game, where people gathered around him to talk and express their affection and admiration.

Trevor Moawad holds that memory — and a fundamental message of his father — close.

"Ultimately, 25 percent of you is genetic and 75 percent is going to be the choices you make and the habits you form. I listen to my dad's audio tapes. I go on eBay and order some of his old tapes and book series. Not sure why, but I just like having them. I look very fondly on my father. And I know he's with me."

And with many others as well, thanks to the mission that his son carries on today in the heart of IMG Academy.

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