AKRON For the past decade, the Akron Zips have been the most consistent program in Mid-American Conference men’s basketball.
Talent, coaching and hard work have all been part of that formula for success, but so has a little help from the doctor.
Dr. Joseph Carr, that is. Carr is a noted sports psychologist who has worked with the likes of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, the Connecticut Huskies, Auburn Tigers, Texas A&M Aggies and dozens of other teams during his three-plus decades working in the field.
Carr’s connection to Akron stems from UA head coach Keith Dambrot’s time coaching at St. Vincent-St. Mary.
“We did it when I was at St. V, so I’ve known him about 20 years … so I’ve used him (almost) every year for probably 18 out of 20 years,” Dambrot said. “He’s the best in the world at what he does and whenever you have the opportunity to work with the best in the world, you have to do that.”
What Carr does, according to Dambrot, is connect with players and challenge them on their weaknesses, striving to equip them with the psychological framework they need to succeed not only on the court, but in life once their playing career is over.
“They’re all skeptical because the one thing Dr. Carr does is he attacks the areas you don’t want to talk about, so he attacks weaknesses … he tells you your breath stinks … most people don’t like to hear what they’re not very good at or what they have to work on,” Dambrot said. “The thing he does a really job of is he builds relationships and even though he’s only here three or four times a year, he stays in touch with those guys on a consistent basis, so I think it’s been a real benefit to our program.”
Carr, who spends much of the basketball season criss-crossing the country working with college basketball teams, traces his efforts as a sports psychologist back to 1984, when he worked with NBA players Bobby Dandridge and Oscar Robertson to develop a rookie transition program to help players coming out of college adapt to life in the pros. That program, Carr said, served as a model for similar programs in other professional sports and served to orient players to the demands of their now job when it came to dealing with money, relationships and other life issues.
“It’s about how do these new players fit within this team and how do they get better,” Carr said of the approach he’s developed to helping teams and players. “I tried to carve how, how do I help them achieve what they want to in the game of basketball and in life, and really develop that chemistry management for a team.”
In his work with Akron, Carr has reinforced the idea of the R.A.R.E. mentality, an acronym that means, “Relationships, accepting challenges, recovering from mistakes and executing coaches’ corrections.”
That underlying idea has taken on different forms during Carr’s time working with the Zips. At times, Carr has challenged Akron players with the idea of being able to take a punch, absorb another punch and rally back to deliver a knockout blow. In that spirit, two seasons ago Akron coaches divided each half of a game into a series of five four-minute rounds (media timeouts occur in college at the 16, 12, 8 and 4-minute marks of halves) and used color-coded cards hung behind the bench to denote whether the team had won or lost each “round.”
Dambrot liked the analogy because of the similarities between boxing and basketball in terms of what it takes to bounce back from setbacks. Another idea is working like a fist, with the five players on the court representing the five fingers on a hand that’s balled up into a fist. Then there’s a “kill,” which is getting three defensive stops in a row. Ultimately, it’s “all of these little things that affect the end result of the game,” Damrbot noted.
Senior forward Kwan Cheatham, who earned his undergraduate degree in three years and is playing for Akron this season as a graduate student, credited Carr with helping him on and off the court.
“It’s helped me a lot with the mental aspect of my game, just telling him the truths of what’s been going on since I’ve been here the past three years and he’s been helping me with my mental capacity and letting me forget the last play if I messed up and moving on to the next play,” Cheatham said. “I’m not really a social person, so when I have to do something in class, like group projects, me just being prepared and being able to cooperate with other people, it helps me a lot not to think about, ‘I have to do all the work outside of that,’ so he just helped me with my mental side on and off the court.”
It’s the off-court aspect of Carr’s work that Dambrot sees the most value in when it comes to the overall mission of college basketball. As a white man in his 50s, he realized that he wasn’t equipped to address all of the issues his players might face and beyond the racial divide, there were other mental and sociological issues that Carr could tackle with players.
“There’s a lot to it … first, you’ve got alcohol, drugs, promiscuity, gambling, personal issues, depression, mental illness, poor family lives, and then you have team-building aspects,” Dambrot said.” I knew I wasn’t equipped to handle the mental health issues, so I tried to get somebody who was the best in the world at handling those things and also had played college basketball and was African-American, so he relates well to the student-athletes and was going to hold our guys accountable. There’s no question … our players are microcosm of society and they have the same problems that society has … most of our players are not well off, they’re lower- or middle-income people that might not have had two parents, so it’s our obligation to give them every opportunity to be successful once they leave here and Dr. Carr is one of the reasons most of our guys are successful.”
Not every player immediately embraces Carr’s ideas - in fact, according to Dambrot, most dismiss them at first. Cheatham admitted that at first he thought it “was B.S., just crap,” but once he heard Carr’s resume and who he’d worked with, he was willing to listen. For Carr, the conversations he has with players encourage him because he sees young men, often African-American, who see his success and want to achieve similar success in their own lives and careers.
“It's gratifying to know that when these kids are talking to me, our conversations are much more in-depth than basketball … they look at me, an African-American with a PhD and they want to know how did you do this,” Carr said. “I’m glad that it helps them see what the possibilities are and they want to know how much do you make, how did you get where you are … and I try to give them transferrable skills they can use once they’re done playing as employees, as husbands and as fathers.”
Carr’s most recent visit to Akron came in early November as the Zips readied for the new season. The college basketball season spans four-plus months for a team and it can become a grind at times, but it’s a grind the Zips have learned how to handle thanks in part to their lessons from the doctor.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB