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Mentally tough: Dale counsels athletes' psyches

Blindfolded obstacle courses, battles of tug-of-war and white-water rafting getaways don't seem like typical practice activities for Division I athletic teams, let alone programs at an elite school like Duke. But under the tutelage of sports psychologist Greg Dale, trust and team-building exercises have become an integral part of many Duke teams' season preparation.

Dale, who is also an associate professor, has worked with all but four of Duke's varsity teams during his five years here.

"I view myself as a resource," he said, noting that he has not worked with the men's basketball, men's tennis, football or wrestling teams. "Just like we have a nutritionist, just like we have academic advisors, just like we have strength and conditioning people to work with athletes-I help them with developing their mental toughness."

Dale's most recent work has come aiding the men's and women's soccer teams in training for their fall campaigns. Before the school year started, Dale, who got his Ph.D. in sports psychology at the University of Tennessee, accompanied the women's soccer team on a mountain retreat in Asheville, N.C. There he organized bonding activities and took time to explain to the team how they could apply those lessons on the field.

Dale's help has been a blessing, said fifth-year head coach Robbie Church, who started working at Duke at the same time as Dale. Church said his first few teams had some problems gelling and that Dale was essential in eventually bringing his players closer together.

"He helped us pull together off the field and play with better chemistry on the field," Church said. "He's an important part of our program and an experienced voice that can step in and help us overcome problems."

The relationship between teams and Dale varies. Some teams see him as often as once a week, others far less frequently. Once a coach requests his services, Dale meets the team and does a "needs assessment" to see how he can help it succeed.

"I always start off any conversation with a team by asking what percentage of your sports do you give to the mental part of it as opposed to the physical part," Dale said. "I've never had anyone say it's not at least 50 percent mental. My next question is, 'If it's 50 percent mental, what percentage of your time and training do you devote to developing your mental toughness skills?'"

Although Dale does not expect teams to spend nearly as much time training mentally as physically, he does stress the importance of incorporating psychological preparation alongside game activities.

Beyond his full-team meetings, Dale is also available to Duke athletes in need of private sports-related counseling. Even though he teaches physical education courses in sports psychology and sports ethics during the year, approximately three quarters of his time is devoted to his meetings with teams and especially individual athletes.

"Dr. Dale is so popular with the Duke teams that it's even tough to get him sometimes," said men's lacrosse head coach Mike Pressler.

Pressler added that he has been convinced by other coaches to use Dale more in the team setting. In the past Pressler mainly utilized Dale's services by sending individual players to him.

Katie Chrest, who won the Tewaaraton Trophy for female lacrosse player of the year last season, has relied on Dale's counseling to enhance her performance.

"I used to get really frustrated and self destructive in practice to the point where I couldn't play well anymore," Chrest said. "[Dale] helped me take the focus off myself and onto my unit and the team. And I had my best year last year. He's done so much for me as a player."

Individual help for athletes is especially important at a school like Duke, where the academic demands are so stringent, Dale said.

"My job is to help people relax, let go of the distractions and just go out and be an athlete and not think so much," Dale said. "A lot of kids will carry their academic situation over into practice and we talk a lot about how to let those things go."

Beyond his counseling of Duke athletes, Dale also writes books, narrates DVDs and works with professional athletes. He has written books on team-building activities and coaching strategies. His professional athletic relationships include NFL players from the Indianapolis Colts and San Diego Chargers, USA Track and Field athletes and countless others.

"I feel like I have the best job in America," he said. "I get to work with bright students, I get to work with very committed and highly talented athletes and coaches who are committed to trying to do what they do at the highest level. It's rewarding, it's also challenging and it's something new every single day."

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