Mental conditioning coach Moawad gives Alabama unique prep edge

Publish date:

Hightower didn't consider himself the man for the job. "I didn't feel like I was a leader," Hightower said this week. "My knee was still messed up. I wasn't playing as well as I could. I didn't feel it was right for me to say something."

Unfortunately for the Crimson Tide, no one else did, either.

In the parlance of one of Moawad's training exercises, no Alabama player considered himself a nine. No one thought himself enough of a leader to grab the role. Moawad knew his offseason assignment: Build leaders.

Who is Moawad? He is a coach, but not in the traditional sense. As Sal Sunseri supervises the Tide's linebackers, Moawad supervises the Tide's mental fitness. Since coach Nick Saban came to Tuscaloosa in 2007, Moawad has coordinated Alabama's between-the-ears conditioning.

"Every program is going to bring in a Navy SEAL to talk to the team before the bowl game," Moawad said. "The problem with a good speaker is that it's kind of like a New Year's resolution. It's going to be gone by halftime of the Rose Bowl." Moawad believes those messages don't stick because most programs don't provide a foundation of mental training for their athletes. Alabama does.

Moawad doesn't work only for Alabama. He has a full-time job as the director of the IMG Performance Institute in Bradenton, Fla., and he also consults with Florida State's football team (coached by Saban acolyte Jimbo Fisher) and with several branches of the U.S. military. Moawad and his staffers check in often in Tuscaloosa to ensure Alabama players are as fit mentally as they are physically. They teach players how to communicate better with their coaches and teammates, how to block out distractions, how to adopt the correct attitude and how to know when to lead and when to follow. When Alabama faces LSU on Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium, Moawad will be on the sideline in case anyone needs a brief refresher. After the past 11 months, he isn't worried about the leadership void that plagued the talented 2010 team.

Throughout the year, Saban will bring in Moawad -- whom he met while coaching the Miami Dolphins -- to run players through drills that reinforce specific mental traits. The exercise that helped Hightower understand why he needed to speak up during the Auburn game involves a group of players who are tasked with planning a barbecue. Each player wears a number on his head. He can't see the number, but his teammates can. A one is the low man on the totem pole. A nine is an alpha dog. Moawad instructs the players to treat one another in accordance to the number on each person's head. When the nine speaks, everyone listens and reacts. When the twos and threes speak, they are ignored. "You start to learn status," Moawad said. "The overall goal is learning where you fit in. At different times, you need to play different roles." Said left tackle Barrett Jones: "By the end, everyone clearly knew what number they were." Hightower hadn't realized during the Auburn game that he was already a nine.

Moawad is quick to say he isn't a sports psychologist. He prefers to be known as a coach. After a brief career in pro soccer, Moawad worked as a high school teacher and coach in south Florida. Then he attended a mental conditioning workshop at IMG Academy. Shortly after, he took an internship there and never left. Moawad gets his penchant for motivation honestly. His late father, Bob, was a nationally renowned motivational speaker who focused on self esteem. The elder Moawad even contributed one of the stories to the original version of Chicken Soup for the Soul.

In 2001, Moawad was working with stars such as Serena Williams when he and his then-partner, Chad Bohling, got a call from the Jacksonville Jaguars. Coach Tom Coughlin wanted to know if the mental coaches could find a way to help tailback Fred Taylor -- known at the time as "Fragile Fred" because he was so injury-prone -- play a full season. Moawad remembers the first meeting with Coughlin, who was skeptical of the entire idea of mental conditioning. "You've got three minutes," Moawad remembered Coughlin saying.

Moawad and Bohling -- who now coordinates mental conditioning for the New York Yankees -- convinced Coughlin. Then they went to work on Taylor. They surveyed the longest-tenured veterans on the Jaguars' roster to determine what they did that Taylor did not. They discovered that all of the veterans came to work at about 6:30 a.m. Taylor showed up two hours later. They told Taylor he needed to begin showing up earlier. He asked what he needed to do during those two hours. Do what the veterans do, Moawad and Bohling told him. Taylor filled those two hours with training that helped him start 46 consecutive games between 2002 and 2004.

When Moawad began working with Alabama players in 2007, he sought to make them more coachable and better communicators. For example, some players arrive on campus unable to look coaches and teammates in the eye. Moawad has a drill to fix that.

Find a friend and try this exercise.

You: OneFriend: TwoYou: ThreeFriend: OneYou: TwoFriend: Three

Pretty easy, right? Now replace each "one" with a clap and try again.

Awfully hard to do without maintaining solid eye contact, isn't it? Now replace each "one" with a clap and each "three" with a finger snap.

It can't be done without eye contact. Work that drill enough, and the shiest person can learn to look even the sternest authority figure in the eye.

Moawad also tries to help teammates communicate better with one another. Back when Jones played guard, he sat back-to-back with center William Vlachos. Vlachos had to describe a series of complex shapes on a card in his hand. Jones, without seeing the card, had to reproduce the shapes. The pair performed well, which makes sense. They also played well alongside one another. Other communication drills include improvisational drills similar to the show Whose Line is it Anyway? In one drill, Hightower and quarterback AJ McCarron got their Wayne Brady and Ryan Stiles on while teammates watched and chuckled. "AJ is pretty hot with the ladies," Hightower said, "so he kept putting me into situations to talk about girls."

Another critical piece of Moawad's training involves attitude. He said that a player who says, "I can't practice in this heat" will need 10 positive experiences to counteract that one negative thought. Moawad said one of the early challenges with the Tide was convincing players to believe they could perform the tasks required of them. "The general operating principle at most programs is 'seeing is believing.' I'm going to have some success. Then I'm going to start to believe it," Moawad said. "Coach Saban's overall philosophy is the exact opposite. Believing is seeing. Once you believe it, you're going to see it. That's how you go from 7-6 [in 2007] to 12-2 [in 2008]."

Moawad trains players to believe by changing their internal monologue. He said an athlete says 800-1,400 words a minute to himself on a subconscious level. Those words must be positive, and they also must be the correct words that allow the player to focus on the task at hand and not some distraction in another part of his life or on some external influence like, say, 100,000 screaming fans. Moawad often uses the example of sprinter Michael Johnson, who tried to limit his internal monologue to the same four phrases during a race.

1. Keep my head down2. Pump my arms3. Explode4. Think like a bullet

Moawad has a drill to keep players focused despite external distractions. First, he has a player attempt to find a sequence of numbers in ascending order. Second, he has the player complete the same task with a partner staring silently at his work. Third, the player must complete the task while his partner screams insults at him. When the Alabama players did this drill, Jones and Hightower performed the best. So Jones and Hightower were placed together. Jones, Hightower said, is a terrible trash-talker. (Here is a YouTube clip of this drill with high school students.)

Moawad's influence isn't limited to drills. Saban also consults him on what other coaches might consider minutiae. For example, many programs drop their players at a movie theater the night before a game and give players their choice of flick. Alabama players sometimes get to watch a popular film, but sometimes they get a pick from the Saban collection. They'll all watch the same movie, and the movie is selected by Saban or Moawad to deliver a particular message. Before Alabama faced Ole Miss on Oct. 15, the Tide watched Saving Private Ryan. Saban believes it teaches a valuable lesson about leadership. "You can't hide in the back," Saban said.

Before Alabama faced Texas in the BCS title game in January 2010, Saban and Moawad chose Miracle. They wanted players to pay special attention to 1980 U.S. hockey team's final game against Finland. Herb Brooks' team had trained for months to beat the Soviet Union, but after that win, the Americans still had to beat Finland to win gold. "That team isn't remembered if they don't beat Finland," Moawad said. Saban and Moawad felt Alabama's entire 2009 offseason and season had built toward the SEC Championship showdown with Florida. They didn't want the players to believe they had accomplished their mission when they vanquished the Gators.

Moawad should learn Saturday whether he accomplished his offseason mission of helping build leaders for the Tide. Some players, such as former Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain, are born leaders. Others, such as Hightower, need help unlocking those skills. "Where I think Coach Saban is by far ahead of most people is his understanding that a lot of these things are skills that can be learned, and they're not necessarily things that we're endowed with when we're born or that we can only recruit for," Moawad said. "That's the right philosophy when you're developing athletes."

It certainly worked with Hightower. In August, Moawad asked Hightower to speak to the team. The player who didn't consider it his place to speak months earlier opened his heart to his teammates. "I love my teammates, and I'm a people person, but I'm not really one to get up and be sentimental or get emotional," Hightower said. "But that's what I did. I wanted them to understand how I felt about last year and how I feel about this year."

Thanks to Moawad, Hightower now knows he is a nine.

"He didn't tell me," Hightower said. "He taught me."