Greg Liberto isn’t a psychologist – but as a sports performance coach, he’s still able to put the Buffalo Bills and Sabres players on a metaphorical couch to try to sum up their playoff droughts.
“Once you have a professional team that believes in itself, even if they don’t have a much talent as other teams, that belief can take you further,” Liberto said as the Buffalo Sabres wrapped up a sixth season without the playoffs. Team owners Terry and Kim Pegula on Thursday also fired the coach, Dan Bylsma, and general manager, Tim Murray.
When doubt creeps in, so does complacency and negative self-talk, Liberto said. A downward spiral often follows.
"Ninety-five percent of what we do throughout the day is based on our emotions,” he said. “Understanding your emotional state going in to every practice, every event, is the first thing I have my athletes identify so if they feel overwhelmed or unmotivated, or stressed or anxious or fearful, or have self-doubt, now they know where they are from the emotional perspective and that helps them identify their strategy to bring out the best for that specific day.”
Liberto, who lives in the Parkside neighborhood of Buffalo, is a Rochester Institute of Technology graduate who left Eastman Kodak after a year in the mid-1990s to pursue a career in corporate training. A year ago, he launched his own sports performance business, Greg Liberto Focus (greglibertofocus.com).
His approach works like this: high school, college and pro athletes sit down with him – either in person or on Skype – and try to boil down their aspirations into a few words, and then a primary question. It’s about more than sports. It’s about living a more deliberate life.
A new, mindful approach toward success – instilled with discipline and daily, weekly and long-term goals – follows.
Those who have enlisted his counsel include:
– Christian Chapman, a Victor High School golf team standout who won the Section V golf championship 10 days after he started work with Liberto last year, and the state championship two months later.
– The Victor High School girls softball team, which spent $2,500 for his services before the start of its spring season so each teammate could find her primary question. The team is so far undefeated, and beat rival Fairport the first week of the season.
– Mike Tomczak, a St. Francis of Athol Springs High School junior who looks to make noise in Western New York golf circles this spring – and has raised his school grade point average from 88 to 93 since he started working with Liberto late last year. He won his first PGA Junior League tournament this month.
“We’ve always tried to concentrate on being physically talented and now we’re trying to include being mentally talented,” said Shelly Collins, a Victor High School physical education teacher and coach of the suburban Rochester school’s girls softball team.
“Our culture for our program has always been trying to help develop strong, independent females,” Collins said. "That translates onto the softball field but we want that in every area of their life. This is kind of like the next step up of concentrating on that, so the concept is, ‘How do we become better people, not just better softball players?’ And then, by becoming better people, we’re better teammates, we have a better work ethic and that makes us a better softball team.”
Liberto found success in corporate training after he turned to Toastmasters to overcome a crippling fear of public speaking – one that helped lay the foundation of his performance coaching.
Q. After the long playoff droughts the Sabres and Bills – and Buffalo sports fans – have endured, what can the new hockey coach and Bills coach Sean McDermott do to move the teams toward the playoffs next year?
It really does come back to discipline and communication. These are the shortcomings with both of these teams. With the Sabres, quickly I could sense the lack of unity and lack of chemistry because what they were doing was asking the wrong questions, such as: “What’s wrong with us?” “How come we can't put together a consecutive win streak?” “How come we can’t take what we’re practicing and apply it into games?” … It’s about asking better questions. It’s about really taking the onus on themselves to be more disciplined.
With the Bills, there was a huge lack of discipline. There has been for many seasons. You could see it in the penalties they took, the mindset of the team, the approach they took.
Q. So more discipline at the coaching level is going to help?
Huge start. Huge.
Q. What kind of a player should the Bills consider taking with the 10th overall pick in the draft next week?
With draft choices, you want to look at the type of people that are going to bring chemistry to this team, and a winning culture, because that’s what’s been lacking since the early 1990s – that culture of winning, that culture of success, that culture of discipline, of certainty. They need somebody who’s going to ignite this team and bring a sense of a winning culture and mindset – because it’s just not there. Flat out, it’s just not there. The mindset is not there, the preparation is not there. The work ethic is not there. The communication is not there. There’s so many missing pieces.
If they can find somebody who can help bring that winning culture, bring that winning mindset, to me, that’s everything. You need a leader at the quarterback position. The person who typifies the type of player I identified for the Bills is Mitch Trubisky from North Carolina.
Q. Any thoughts on the Sabres draft?
You need somebody who’s going to come in and have an immediate impact with this team. There is some talent on the Sabres. There’s a lot of teams that have more talent. But they need someone who’s going to come in and really create a spark. The person who typifies the type of player I identified for the Sabres is Owen Tippett, one of the top prospects coming out of the Ontario Hockey League, who played for the Mississauga Steelheads this past season.
These guys need to start believing in themselves. I could see it and hear it when they had a three-, four-game winning streak. They had that confidence, that short-lived belief, that they could play against some of the top teams but then they would go into a losing streak and it would quickly fade.
Q. You say Toastmasters helped build your philosophy. What did it teach you?
Everything. Structure. Facing your fear. Knowing you’re in a safe environment was very helpful. When I went to my first meeting, I remember looking around the room thinking, “Who’s the best speaker here?” I thought Toastmasters was made up of all these professional speakers and what I realized was that public speaking was a learned skill. I figured that if other people could learn, I could as well. … It was a life-changing experience. I started doing personal development, communication, focus and strategy training sessions.
Q. Can you talk about the process of identifying your primary question? What happens when you do?
What we do with the primary question is talk about everything that’s going on in your life. We talk about your sport, what might be happening if you’re in school, or your career, your personal life, your marriage, relationships. It’s a very open-ended conversation. Then we do the same thing in talking about your future: Where do you want to be? What do you want to achieve? Describe the person you want to become. Then we narrow it down to one word and put together a three- to five-word action plan that bridges the gap from today to tomorrow. That action plan becomes the core of your primary question. We all have a question that we’re asking ourselves at a subconscious level. Most of it is negative-based. For an athlete, it might be, “Why can’t I perform in a certain situation?” “What’s wrong with me?” “How come I can’t get to the next level?”
Always focusing on where you’re not is asking the wrong question. When you identify a better question – and I that’s what I focus on – you identify exactly what you need to do make yourself your best today. Seeing it, and saying it out loud several times throughout the day, it becomes part of your DNA. You can focus on it specifically. As a result, you have more clarity and more motivation. You also have an understanding of what it will take to do better.
Q. How does someone become a sports performance coach?
When I had the training company, I developed a lot of programs around communication and neuro-linguistic programing. I was realizing that my golf game was getting better because I was thinking better, based on all this research I was doing. ... Now I have a system. Focus on communication and getting more discipline in and out of their sport. Discipline is the number one skill that I teach.
Q. Talk about the Victor High School girls softball team.
I love this stuff, high school kids being able to take control of their thoughts and emotions at such a young age. The top player talks about positive thinking. For them to understand that it’s about communication and it’s all about team is important. They’re more focused, less distracted, so they’re going to be better athletes and better individuals.
Q. Do you think pro athletes would consider buying in to the focus method? How might that translate compared to the high school and college levels?
Absolutely. They’re going to become more disciplined individuals ... and see the positive results in all aspects of their life, (and) it immediately translates to your sport.
Here is a quick example of how asking a better question will have an immediate, positive impact. Start asking questions that begin with, "Why is it so easy..."? For instance, "Why is it so easy to be laser-focused and perform my absolute best today?" Or, "Why is it so easy to smile and have fun today?"
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon