Iowa Football

With an Iowa sports psychologist's help, Hawkeyes figure out what gets them unfocused

Carmen Tebbe Priebe credits Iowa's attitude for an open door on mental wellness

Iowa Hawkeyes quarterback Nate Stanley (4) talks to the offense during the fourth quarter of a game against Penn State at Kinnick Stadium earlier this season. (USA TODAY Sports)
Iowa Hawkeyes quarterback Nate Stanley (4) talks to the offense during the fourth quarter of a game against Penn State at Kinnick Stadium earlier this season. (USA TODAY Sports)
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IOWA CITY — For Tristan Wirfs, it was hands and being mean.

“They say I have to get a mean streak going and all of this,” Wirfs said. “I was talking to Carmen about that the past two months, like all through spring ball. That’s what we would talk about. That’s what the coaches wanted and stuff.

“I’ve never really been a mean person.”

For Nate Stanley, it was narrowing focus.

“I started to go see our sports psychologist and talking with her to optimize performance,” Stanley said. “It’s more than a shrink or something that you might think a psychologist is about. You can really learn to optimize performance, narrow focus and other things that get you into the right mindset.

“She’s really great at helping you figure those things out and, you know, along the way if you’re dealing with something or if something comes up, you can talk about anything. It’s not just football.”

Carmen Tebbe Priebe is the Carmen and the “she” from above.

Tebbe Priebe has a Ph.D. in counseling psychology (sport psychology emphasis) and is one of two psychologists who work with UI athletics (Aubrette Kinne is the other). Tebbe Priebe’s name has come up a lot with Iowa football this season. Kicker Keith Duncan and punter/holder Colten Rastetter have cited the help Tebbe Priebe has given them during their careers.

No, it’s not the fact that the No. 17 Hawkeyes (8-3, 5-3 Big Ten) had a rough go against Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin and now face a road trip to Nebraska (5-6, 3-5), which likely is going to come with weather stuff.

There’s a No. 1 goal.

“Our coaches do a great job of normalizing and destigmatizing in terms of getting help for all areas of their lives,” Tebbe Priebe said. “Our No. 1 priority is any mental health needs.”

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Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz is 64. He played linebacker at UConn from 1974-76. Ferentz has the kind of profile that would make you think he’d be reluctant to get into the mental wellness side of the game. And it’s certainly there.

Ferentz said he started paying attention to sports psychology in the 1990s, when then-Cleveland general manager Mark Shapiro had a sports psychologist working with the Indians around 1995.

Ferentz filed a printed article away in what seems like a pretty important place.

“I’ve got a Bible folder I keep in my desk there,” Ferentz said. “It’s just got some good articles in it.”

That folder sounds like it might be some sort of manual for Ferentz, so it’s not a subject he takes lightly.

“(Shapiro’s sports psychologist) was a guy who worked with guys going through slumps and pitchers that couldn’t throw strikes or throw where they wanted to,” Ferentz said. “That’s really the first time I kind of started reading about it a little bit. You talk to Zach Johnson (Cedar Rapids golfer and, hey now, Masters and British Open champion), as you might imagine, he’s got a guy he works with pretty closely. And it really pertains to any sport. It really pertains to anything that you do.

“But I think the benefit is just somebody that can help make things that are a little cloudy for you clearer, give you some focal points.

“ ... The world has changed a great deal. I think more and more people in athletics are taking advantage of that for sure.”

Tebbe Priebe meets with the incoming freshmen each season for three to four weeks after they get on campus. There also are workshops before the opportunity comes for sessions. It’s up to the players to reach out to her.

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As far as performance goes, Tebbe Priebe works with the player to find out what the performance challenges are and then create routine, triggers and touch points.

“Every athlete has a different mental skills plan that works best for them,” she said. “It takes a lot of practicing and them telling me what’s working and what areas they want to work on. And just like anything, we keep developing it and revising it, so they can find a plan that works for them.”

For Wirfs, it was more finishing blocks than it was being mean. But here’s a really good illustration on how Tebbe Priebe’s work deals with technical performance matters.

During the 2018 season, Ferentz was all over Wirfs for where his hands were in his pass blocking set. They were always too low, Ferentz said. He is the boss when it comes to this sort of thing.

“I have that in my head all the time,” Wirfs said. “With Carmen, our mental skills lady, she always asks me, too, because she’s out at practice. She’s always asked me about my hands, too. Now, I’m hearing it from coach Ferentz, I’m talking about it when I meet with Carmen. I hate the word hands now, you know? I’ve heard it so much. Those little things. You work on those. I’m still trying to get better.”

Wirfs was an Outland Trophy semifinalist this year, so something stuck.

“She helps you learn what gets you unfocused and where you perform optimally,” Stanley said. “A lot of people perform when they’re really jacked up or amped up. As a quarterback, I’m on the lower end. If I get too amped up, that’s when I make mistakes.

“She helped me figure out what the optimal level was for me. She’s taught me to notice when I get too hot or too cold and what I need to do to get back to where I need to be.”

It certainly helps that Tebbe Priebe has been there and done that. She was a volleyball player at a Division II school. She worked nine years at Oklahoma before coming to Iowa City. She described the sports psychology program at OU as “robust.”

It’s been moving that way in Iowa City, too.

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There’s a waitlist for UI Counseling Services, and Tebbe Priebe said that is typical for college campuses. UI athletics has two dedicated sports psychologists to get student-athletes in sooner.

“There’s quite the demand and that’s normal across every college campus and every athletics department, too,” she said. “Our industry has really grown the past few years in terms of destigmatizing and normalizing the services.”

The whole idea is the door is open for whatever Iowa football players need.

“It starts at the top. They’ve created a culture where it’s comfortable for players to come in,” she said. “And that’s the first step.”

Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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