Dr. Kevin Elko, sports psychologist to the stars – and even to Nick Saban – has his own “process.”
Elko was in town Thursday as the featured speaker at the inaugural Southeast Gas Leadership Summit at the Dothan Country Club.
He used plenty of anecdotes referencing Saban – probably his most famous client – and many others in the sports world as he centered his talk around how to achieve greatness in life.
Elko talked about ideas and strategies that would help us all improve performance in every walk of life – as leaders, employees, friends, citizens, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers and, yes, football players.
Alabama fans no doubt recognized several of these Sabanisms – “See a little, see a lot,” “Be where your feet are;” “So what, now what?” and “Would you rather ask for blessings or be a blessing to somebody else?”
Those aren’t just football concepts. Elko’s message encourages us to change the way we talk, to understand our identity, to be good to ourselves, to enjoy our lives and to connect with each other and develop relationships.
“Happy is a choice, not a feeling,” Elko told a crowd that included several area mayors and Alabama lieutenant governor Will Ainsworth.
Elko was a young coach who was fascinated about performance and what made kids tick before he got out of that business and started his own. His first major client was the University of Miami when Butch Davis revived that program in the mid to late 1990s.
Tommy Moffit, the strength coach at Miami, left to join Saban when he took the LSU job in 2000. Moffitt told Saban about Elko’s work and the head coach asked Elko to help turn around the Tigers.
It started a long working relationship that remains intact today.
“I didn’t go with him to the Dolphins, but when he came to Alabama he called me and wanted me to do the same thing,” Elko said. “We develop a message for the team and he and I sit down and develop it.
“He speaks it – or I speak it and he keeps on repeating it. I read this phrase that we’ll plant something in our subconscious mind and we keep nourishing it and it grows and we live a good life. That’s what he does. He keeps on nourishing it.”
He and Saban talk “at least once or twice a week,” Elko said. “At the beginning of the week and usually Thursday or Friday. I send a recording to the whole team, it goes in their phones once a week. It has been fun.”
Elko has worked with many professional and college teams – the Cubs and Pirates in MLB, the Panthers and Steelers in the NFL and North Carolina State and Florida State football, just to name a few.
But you can tell he values his relationship with Saban and Alabama. The one ring he wore – a gaudy bobble that looked bigger than a ping-pong ball – was Alabama’s SEC championship ring the Crimson Tide earned last December.
I asked him what sets the coach apart.
“How he teaches,” Elko replied. “He teaches culture more than anybody I’ve ever known. That’s why I fit in. He just does a real good job of teaching the culture. The phrase is ‘structure drives function.’ He just keeps on, over and over, programming the mental image of the team in their head.”
Alabama’s run to the summit of college football and its ability to stay there has been remarkable. The “staying there” part is challenging. It’s the subject of several recent conversations between the coach and the psychologist.
“One of the messages this year is ‘Go prove it,’” Elko said. “You have to reassert the desire to prove it again, to keep proving it over and over and over. You can get to a point where, ‘What do you have to prove?’ You have to keep planting that in them.”
Both men recognize that it’s not human nature to stay driven.
“That’s one of the things we talked about recently,” Elko said. “Really, your mind doesn’t want you to win or even be happy. It wants you to be comfortable. It’s human nature to be comfortable.
“That’s the stuff we’ve been talking about lately. It wants you to be comfortable, it wants you to relax. You have to almost rewire your brain. That’s what we’ve been into recently.”
Human nature isn’t on the schedule, but it may be Alabama’s toughest opponent.