Tony Robbins shines a light on sports psychology and athletes listen – USA TODAY
NEWARK — At the home of the New Jersey Devils, the crowd is on its feet, jumping and cheering, whooping with delight. The Jumbotron is blasting out the action. Cheerleaders are dancing. It feels like Game 7 is about to start.
But the Prudential Center is not hosting a sporting event. The main attraction on a Thursday at lunchtime is not an athlete, even though he is built like one.
He is Tony Robbins, venerable life coach and strategist, whose lessons on using the power of the mind and positive thought have earned him an army of disciples and turned his business into a multimillion-dollar operation.
Robbins’ followers include salespeople, real estate agents and business leaders. But for more than 30 years, his roster has also featured many of the sports world’s most successful athletes and coaches.
Tony Robbins believes there are certain traits that all elite athletes have in common.
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Pat Riley. Andre Agassi. Michael Jordan. Wayne Gretzky. Chuck Liddell. Serena Williams. Tom Brady. And now Golden State Warriors owner Peter Guber, coach Steve Kerr and star forward Draymond Green.
Robbins’ contributions to the Warriors, Riley’s Miami Heat and Rick Carlisle’s Dallas Mavericks have earned him more than testimonials. The man with a wildly popular Netflix documentary (I Am Not Your Guru), a multitude of behavioral strategy products and 3 million Twitter followers is also the owner of three NBA championship rings.
“When I started producing results in the sports environment, it was not only fun and fulfilling, but it is also relatively easy to demonstrate the results,” Robbins says in a thousand-word-a-minute booming voice. “And when you get results you have a whole community that’s interested. Showing results in sports has helped me reach more business people. It’s helped me reach the general population.”
On this day, he is reaching thousands of people who have paid four-figure ticket fees to attend his four-day seminar Unleash The Power Within. During the first night, as midnight approaches, his flock strides outside and fearlessly crosses a fiery coal pit. Young and old, they scream unabashed with triumph upon its completion, then skip back inside the arena, emboldened.
Robbins is all about changing behavior, building mental memory. Sometimes improvement clicks instantly; sometimes it takes repetition.
“I turned (Agassi) around, and he won every weekend, four weekends in a row,” Robbins says of one of his early successes with an athlete from the 1990s. “Agassi gave me unbelievable credit for his return back to No. 1, maybe too much credit, maybe not. When I started doing that, it actually reached people that thought I was just some weirdo.”
Indeed sports has played a critical role in transforming Robbins from “the infomercial guy” to a high-energy inspirational life coach who appeals to the mainstream.
“He picked out five things that were holding me back,” Liddell says via telephone while in Peru. “He made it like two friends talking, but he knows how to control the conversation and he has that charisma behind him that makes you want to try what he suggests.”
Robbins has also worked with Princess Diana, Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton and Mother Teresa. He’s now 57, and once he reaches the arena it is all intensity and high-octane encouragement.
On stage, Robbins bangs two wooden sticks together to get the audience pumped up, so pumped that it is a mix of a rock concert and a championship game. It’ll continue that way for much of the next four days.
Robbins’ voice is gravelly as he talks while in a limo from Manhattan back to Newark for Day Two. He’s arriving later in the day because doctors have advised him to rest his weary vocal cords after his frenetic opening-night performance.
His seminars share another similarity to a sporting event in that Robbins tries to replicate the energy he loves in those games.
“I love the unity behind a sports team. I love the challenge. I love everything about sports,” he says.
Like so many youngsters, teenage Robbins had dreams of a baseball scholarship and a big-league career, which were halted abruptly when he got kicked off his high school team because his hair was too long.
So Robbins tried to become a sportscaster and sportswriter, penning articles for local outlets at 14, then persuading legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell to meet with him and pass on wisdom.
“Back then I thought, ‘If I really don’t have the talent, I am going to wake the hell up and figure out how to still be involved,’” he says.
He had business cards printed proclaiming himself as a sportswriter, despite having little experience, and attacked his new calling, taking buses to cover high school games and filing stories by telephone. He tracked down big names, getting interviews with Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes and baseball Hall of Famers Tommy Lasorda and Leo Durocher.
His plentiful confidence eventually led him to the self-help sphere, but Robbins was determined to maintain a connection with sports. He eventually saw his chance as the psychological aspects of sports science evolved.
“These athletes are the best in the world,” Robbins says. “They have the skill sets. Once they’re in a slump, what is it? It’s not a skill-set problem, it’s a psychology problem.”
The principles Robbins employs with athletes are not so different from what he might use with the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, some of whom pay him more than $1 million a year for guidance. He encourages prioritization and perspective, helping individuals understand how much of their satisfaction comes from recognition and how much from other intangibles, such as personal happiness and relationships. Such things can ease pressure on a performer.
Some of the experiences with athletes, Robbins says, are among his most rewarding, or at least his most memorable. Like chats with Jordan and Brady. Or the time when Mike Tyson quoted the Bible and Ralph Waldo Emerson, then said that if he could push a button and blow up the planet, he’d do it.
Getting high-profile athletes or celebrities to answer their phone or respond to messages is one of the frustrations of being a reporter. When you have Robbins and his team making the introduction, however, the wheels turn quicker.
It’s a weekend afternoon when Riley calls in from the French Riviera, full of the joys of a well-earned break and ready to talk. Speaking to a journalist would typically be the last thing he’d have on the agenda while on vacation with wife Chris, but when he learned that his friend Robbins was to be the subject of discussion he made swift contact.
From the start of his time as Los Angeles Lakers coach during the 1980s, Riley plowed through books on self-help, leadership and communication. Yet it was Robbins’ message, years later, that stuck with him the most.
“He has these deep thoughts on how to instill confidence, and that is something that was vital to me,” Riley says. “In sports, coaching it is so huge. You can have all this great physical ability and talent at your disposal, but if you can’t get your words across and get others to buy into what you are doing it is worthless.”
Riley and Robbins forged a close friendship, and after the Heat won the 2006 NBA title, Riley and Chris attended a Robbins workshop in Fiji, describing it as “very profound.”
“There is just a deep reservoir of knowledge within him about how and why people do what they do,” Riley added. “I don’t call him a motivational speaker, I call him a life-changer, and I think he can help anyone. But in the kind of team sports setting I am used to, that kind of ability to maximize your mental power is only going to get more important.”
At first, Liddell, the Ultimate Fighting Championship legend, knew Robbins from his role in the 2001 film Shallow Hal, in which Robbins plays himself and helps Jack Black’s initially oafish title character appreciate inner beauty. When Liddell’s advisers arranged a meeting with Robbins in 2007, he was highly skeptical.
“It was all about finding what I wanted from my life and my career,” he says. “Once we established that, we got into what I was prepared to do to achieve it. Those things have stayed with me ever since. Even now I think back and remind myself I need a kick in the ass.”
Since their initial meeting Liddell and Robbins have remained in contact, and the retired mixed martial artist has attended an Unleash the Power Within event.
So, too, has Carlisle, who chatted with USA TODAY Sports by text during some Summer League downtime. Carlisle was introduced to Robbins’ methods by a friend, billionaire investor Paul Tudor Jones, in 2010. Less than a year later, the Mavs upset LeBron James’ Heat to win the franchise’s first and only championship.
“Tony is a strategist who helps people learn who they are and why they function the way they do,” Carlisle wrote. “Then, most importantly, he teaches the steps necessary for lasting change. He has positively impacted every facet of my life.”
Carlisle has attended Robbins’ seminar and even completed the fire walk, yelling with delight afterward.
Kevin Durant’s mother, Wanda, is in the crowd at Newark in a section reserved for Robbins’ personal guests, close to Natasha Sen Fizdale, wife of Memphis Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale.
“It is the ultimate coaching environment,” Carlisle says of his trip to a Robbins event. “High energy, purposeful and non-stop.”
Robbins has no way of knowing what his batting average is in terms of the people he has helped, but his longevity suggests it is in healthy shape. He knows there is always an element of skepticism aimed at his line of work, and he doesn’t try to fight it.
The fact that his events have grown from conference rooms to ballrooms to small theaters and now sports arenas indicates that enough people like what they’re getting.
“It is not about working miracles or doing the impossible,” Riley says. “But if someone is looking for a push and a way to better themselves, then it might just need a little tweak in the right direction. He has a knack of finding what tweaking is needed or helping you find it.”
It is a strange feeling to have a personal audience with Robbins, to sit in his limo so soon after seeing thousands hang on each word and hope to be picked for an “intervention” – a part of the event where Robbins works individually with an attendee.
The limo ride takes an hour from midtown to Newark, and it is quite a trip because Robbins is quite the personality, coach to coaches who win championships, source of inspiration to those who inspire us with their athletic deeds.
Tony Robbins might not be your guru, and he’s not a magician. He’s a man who believes that the human mind is the mightiest piece of technology there has ever been, capable of being harnessed to provide fulfillment and focus.
And, in sports, victory.
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