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Bill Straub has seen it all, and Dr. Larry Widman has tried it all, and when Nebraska’s head bowling coach connects with a Husker sports psychiatrist, the result is a fourth NCAA national bowling championship and the first that can be traced to what both call orchestrated fun. Yes, a young Nebraska team with only one senior defeated Vanderbilt last Saturday night on national television. Kristina Mickelson is that steady senior from Bellevue, Neb., and Liz Kuhlkin is her super sophomore teammate from Schenectady, N.Y. In Straub’s mind, Kuhlkin is the nation’s best female collegiate bowler, statistically, mentally and by any other measure you might want to throw into the conversation.
But make no mistake. This Nebraska team – with four freshmen, three sophomores, two juniors and one senior – beat Vandy more emotionally than competitively. “We feel like we’re the most fundamentally sound team in the country, but no matter how good you are, you have to take emotional control at the most important time, and Larry certainly helped us do that,” Straub said of Widman, who was a state champion junior bowler at Omaha Westside High School before moving on to Washington University in St. Louis and then the University of Nebraska Medical Center. From there, he branched out from his psychiatric training to become a sports psychiatrist.
When the Huskers won the 16-team Mid-Winter Invitational in Jonesboro, Ark., last January, Widman congratulated Straub in the lobby of the North Stadium. Nebraska’s head coach said thanks, but he needed major help. The daily grind was wearing on his young team, and he needed some ideas on how to keep them emotionally inspired at the same time he was teaching them how to improve.
The Youngest, Most Lighthearted Tournament Team
“Bottom line and in black-and-white, Larry had a big impact on this team,” Straub said. “He talked to the kids about breathing and how to stay calm, and he took it from a perspective that the more lighthearted you are, the farther you are from distress. I think it paid off measurably. We were probably the youngest team in the NCAA Tournament, but we were also the most lighthearted, and that wasn’t just my observation.”
The NCAA Tournament director told Straub he had never seen a Nebraska team so loose and lighthearted. A national television audience saw the same thing. The Huskers were as poised as collegiate athletes can be when the bright lights come on and the ESPN cameras bring live action into American homes and business establishments.
“Our performance,” Straub said, “was in direct correlation to the way Larry helped us prepare for the biggest pressure points.”
When the pressure surfaced, Nebraska’s fun meter went from the 7 Widman originally worked with to an 8, 9 and borderline10. “The goal all along was orchestrated fun, and I have to say, it worked. It really worked,” Straub said. “The whole team benefited, but we had two girls, in particular, whose performance really reflected the lightheartedness we were able to build up by strategy and design.”
Sophomore Ruiz, Junior Ling Major Benefactors of Fun
One major benefactor was Andrea Ruiz, a sophomore from Bogota, Colombia. “That girl is mature beyond her years,” Straub said. “I don’t mean that she’s the glue that keeps things together. I’m talking about her ability to be lighthearted. She connected to that strategy immediately, and she had all the vibes that helped everyone else. She’s competed internationally, and she came here to get better. It’s been a win for us and a win for her.”
The second major benefactor from orchestrated fun is Yan Ling, a junior from Auckland, Singapore. “She’s the girl that may have done the best and became our most reliable bowler on national television,” Straub said. “She’s like a middle infielder who’s not going to hit home runs and get a lot of RBI, but she’s steady, and she performed way, way, way beyond anything she’s ever done for us in the past. I think she may have benefited most from the orchestrated fun. She really turned the corner on the way she’s handled pressure.”
Ling’s performance was not coincidental. “I have a long history of being too nervous in tournaments, even when I was in high school in Singapore,” she said. “Dr. Widman was the first one who really helped me to calm down, and it was more than just deep breathing. When the television lights came on and it got really bright, all my training helped me stay loose and comfortable. I was able to have fun before we came on the air, while we were competing and afterwards. The whole experience was so fun for me.”
She Loves Her Team Role: Come in and Save the Day
It was fun because Ling has learned how to handle her hopes and tackle her fears. “I have always thought of myself as someone who can come in and turn things around,” she said. “I’ve done it so many times. I just have that confidence that when Coach Straub needs me, I have to perform. He’s always telling me that I’m the hero who can come in and save the day. That’s his analogy, and I have fun with it. I usually go in when we get into a slump, and I try to pull us out of that slump. It was so much fun. I watched the replay on ESPN, and we were definitely the team having the most fun while we were bowling, in between shots and when TV would break for a commercial.”
For Widman, orchestrated fun was the result of interviewing Nebraska’s bowlers and coaches separately and then finding ways to remove the barriers that would prevent the Huskers from winning the national championship. Both groups wanted a young team to be more cohesive and have more fun. “They wanted to take their fun meter from the 7 they were experiencing to that 8 and 9 level,” Widman said. “They all agreed on what they needed to do and how they wanted to do it. They wanted to deal with anxiety, stay together as a team, remain calm under fire and make fun a strategy.”
Widman knew he was dealing with a special group of elite bowlers the first time he met with them. “I studied their record and their ability to handle adversity and come from behind in a big tournament,” he said. “I just needed them to believe in their greatness. That’s my job – to help them understand why they’re already great and then eliminate the barriers and maximize their confidence. When they believe it, they can achieve it.”
Widman: Fun is a Simple Choice and a Simple Strategy
Just like happiness is a choice, “fun is also a choice,” Widman said. “The more we talked about it, the more this team realized that it could make a conscious decision to control the amount of fun they can have. It was a simple choice and a simple strategy. They knew they all played a role in bringing the troops up to an 8 or a 9 on the fun meter.”
Straub was willing to do his part. He wore a rather outrageous red-and-white short-sleeved shirt to match the confidence his team had wearing designed shirts. “I think this whole lighthearted approach took some pressure off Liz, who’s our anchor in the No. 5 spot,” Straub said. “It helped her not to feel like the weight of the world was on her shoulders.”
Widman believes Straub’s experience and influence was dramatically showcased in that national championship game. “Without superior coaching and superior athletes, my role would be inconsequential,” he said. “I thank Coach from the bottom of my heart for recruiting such talented-athletes to work with.”
Biggest Question: What Will Huskers Do for an Encore?
I asked Straub what I wanted to ask while watching the Huskers have a world of fun on national television: Is the shirt you picked out for the ESPN cameras designed to lighten the load for the team? “We do practice harder than any team in the country,” he said. “Sometimes, it can get like boot camp because I’m ridiculously strong on fundamentals.”
He is also, perhaps, ridiculously bullish on strategy to ease the drudgery. “Periodically, I have to act a little funny just to show the girls that it’s not all business,” Straub said. “It’s stronger than funny. It’s nutty just to be comical. I want them to wonder ‘What’s up with Coach?’ It takes their mind off the pressure. There can be a lighter side to all this. So, yes, I did decide to be a little goofy myself.”
It not only matched Straub’s personality, but worked like a fingertip-controlled bowling ball hooking its way into five consecutive strikes from five different bowlers in Nebraska’s last two matches of a national championship season. Straub, assistant coach Paul Klempa and every Husker bowler left Canton, Mich., with a 10 on the fun meter planted in their minds, plus an important question we all want to ask: What will the Nebraska women’s bowling team do in 2014 for an encore?
Whatever it is, this much is certain. Dr. Larry Widman will be ready and able to assist. “I feel very blessed to work with a very talented group of coaches and student-athletes,” he said. “It’s a privilege to have been asked to play a role in helping a team reach such a lofty goal, and I look forward to helping them in any way necessary, so they can win it again next year.”
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