Newly appointed head coach of the Duquesne men’s basketball team, Keith Dambrot, is looking to bring the philosophies and culture he developed at Akron to the Dukes. To do so, Coach Dambrot is enlisting the services of revered sports psychologist, Dr. Joe Carr, just as he did throughout his career with the Zips.
The name “Dr. Joe Carr” may not resonate with the casual fan, but the man is well recognized and renowned within the basketball community. He has worked with an extensive list of players at the professional level, including superstars like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. Along with Oscar Robertson, Dr. Carr also developed the NBA’s rookie orientation program. And at the collegiate level, he has helped struggling teams achieve consistent success (Akron, for example), while helping esteemed programs win national championships (Connecticut, 2013/2014 season). His approach towards teaching teams to overcome their self-imposed limitations is tried and true, and he will soon introduce this approach—based around the acronym R.A.R.E.—to the Duquesne Dukes.
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“R.A.R.E. is going to be our mantra, and that’s going to set the tone for culture,” said Dr. Carr. “R stands for Relationships; you know, establishing like a brotherhood, kind of a close-knit family. A stands for Accepting Challenges; getting people to handle tough things, tough times and experiences, and being able to do it at a high level. The next R stands for Recovery from Mistakes; having people that bounce back quicker and don’t dwell on stuff. And E stands for Executing Coach’s Direction, so that everybody is having like a blind trust in what coach is telling you.
When recruits come in, and we’re trying to put together direction, we want everybody to feel that the reason that we are putting people through whatever they’re being put through—whether that’s coaching, whether it’s X’s and O’s, or whether it’s classwork—we want them to think that they’re going to be R.A.R.E. And R.A.R.E. will be separating them from everyone else who they play against in the conference.”
While visiting Pittsburgh earlier this month, Dr. Carr and Coach Dambrot discussed their approach towards changing the infrastructure, or culture, of Duquesne’s program. The two men collaborated over the strategy needed to develop a winning culture, using R.A.R.E. as a basis for their plans.
“The first thing is culture. Values. What do we value? What do we stand for? What’s our identity? And the R.A.R.E. paves the way for that. Now, you can take a player who maybe didn’t have an identity, who didn’t have any direction, and then you put in front of him R.A.R.E. and you tell him what that means. And then you tell him, ‘These are the duties and responsibilities that you’re going to have in order to be R.A.R.E.’ I think that’s really special. Whoever you bring into the program—whether a tall, whether a big, whether a small—they’re going to have this kind of expectation. They gotta do something special. We’re not going to accept mediocrity.”
To better understand the impact R.A.R.E. can have on a team, Dr. Carr cited a specific instance from his time assisting Marquette that epitomizes the way a player and a team function under this mentality.
“Marquette, I remember I was working with them [when they] went to the Elite 8,” Dr. Carr recalled. “We had a center who had one eye. In today’s world, having a guy with one eye, you look at that as a disability, because maybe this guy can’t compete with maybe the top-echelon players. But when you have an identity, and you have a mission, and you have a purpose, you can have a handicap—but you’re going to feel part of something. You’re going to elevate your energy. You’re going to elevate your mindset. You’re going to elevate your thinking, so that you can please your coaches, and you can please your teammates.
“That’s one of the things we want to do [at Duquesne]: really create a mindset, a value set, and a culture that the kids can wrap their arms around. Kids coming in from junior college, kids coming in from high school, they know exactly that this is something special, and that they’re playing for something much bigger than themselves. That’s what we’re trying to do, and this is the first step.”
Duquesne finished the 2016/2017 season with a 10-22 record. The team, featuring a relatively young lineup, squandered multiple leads throughout the season in perceivably winnable games. With Dr. Carr’s guidance, the team will work to improve their collective resolve, preparing themselves to close out such games in the future.
“I don’t want to bash previous coaches—what they didn’t do, or what they should have done—but losing can be a habit,” Dr. Carr asserted. “Losing can be a mindset, as well. Hopefully the concept of R.A.R.E. and all the underpinning that go along with it creates an antithetical force that pushes the losing mindset out.”
While an improvement upon the Dukes’ record is certainly possible next season, the whole-scale transformation Dr. Carr is planning will take time, and the effects will not be blatantly visible on day one.
“We know that this is going to be a process,” said Carr. “This is not instant coffee or Alka Seltzer, [where] you just drop an idea in and all the sudden it’s going to ‘plop plop fizz fizz, oh what a relief it is.’ It’s not going to work that way. But it is going to be a process where we know exactly what we want to do, we know the milestones we want to achieve, we know the energy level we must have, and we know the kind of kids we’ve got to have.
We can’t have knuckleheads. Knuckleheads won’t work in this environment. We’ve got to have kids who are really committed and dedicated to be givers. And I know ‘givers’ sounds like such a platitude—a trite word—but I mean that’s the essence of building a chemistry. If you can have guys who want to give, and not take, man that just really makes life a lot easier … and helps coaching to be fun, because everybody is trying to say, ‘What can I do to extend myself?’ And that’s what we’re trying to do here: create a community of giving.”
The process of becoming R.A.R.E. typically begins with a weekend that will forever change the lives of the players involved. Dr. Carr is known for initiating a team’s cultural transformation with an intensive weekend of teambuilding exercises. These weekends often feature over 30-hours of emotionally demanding sessions that require vulnerability and humility from college-aged males. Tears almost always ensue. And according to Dr. Carr, the Duquesne basketball team should prepare for a weekend like this in their future.
“Absolutely!” Dr. Carr emphatically replied when asked if he will be conducting such a weekend at Duquesne. “That’s going to happen, and we may do that this summer after coach has a chance to put his group together and finalize all the scholarships. We will definitely then start what I call the ‘formation stage,’ which is getting everybody together and kind of do a cleansing, if you will—and a redirection in the process of becoming R.A.R.E. That will be a very tough and arduous task, and if we have kids who are holdovers from last year’s program into this year, they’re going to find this very challenging. But at the same time, they’re going to say, ‘Gee, there’s hope. We can probably make something happen.’ They’re going to really value the collective. They’re going to see this fit that we’re trying to create here, [and that] it’s going to be pretty tight.”
The initial weekend will be challenging for all who participate, including Dr. Carr. In order to set a team on the path to becoming R.A.R.E., he must confront the obstacles that surface when asking a group of individuals to demonstrate vulnerability for the first time. Thanks to his years of experience in the field of sports psychology, he is well acquainted with the common hurdles one must overcome when reaching through to collegiate basketball players.
“The biggest hurdle is that a lot of these kids come from families where they have not seen serious connection: i.e., a divorce home, a home where there’s a lot of cheating, a situation where there was abuse, parents who had to work out of necessity and they’re not at home a lot … The lack of attachment that these kids come from, it’s a hurdle that a coach has to overcome. Now, you have to teach this kid—who has not been connected—that he’s got to learn how to be attached; he has to be attached to coach, he has to be attached to teammates, and he’s got to do that on a consistent basis. That’s kind of a relearning. And now that we’re trying to win a championship, that connectivity has got to be as close as anything he’s ever had in [his] life. That’s going to be a huge hurdle. A huge hurdle.
“The next thing is the sacrifice. What do I have to give up in order to make me better? To make the program better? These kids, they come from an entitled generation. The A.A.U. programs and A.A.U. circuits, everybody’s catering to them. They get to have it their way. Well, that’s going to be a hurdle to say, ‘Ok, you’re going to have to sacrifice your stubbornness. You’re going to have to sacrifice your time. You’re going to have to sacrifice your scoring.’ That’s going to be a huge hurdle.
“Last but not least is the social life. Because of the noise we’re going to make, all of the sudden they’re going to be really popular. They’re going to have to develop what I call some ‘refusal skills.’ They’re going to learn a complete sentence: ‘No, I can’t go out.’ Or, ‘No, this is not the right person to be with.’ You’re going to start picking and choosing your people.”
Dr. Carr added, “Those are three big hurdles that we’re going to have to deal with quite early, because if we don’t deal with those things, those kids now can become chemistry killers as opposed to chemistry builders.”
After the initial weekend of intensive chemistry-building, Dr. Carr remains in touch with the team, providing counseling as needed. In some cases, such as with Coach Dambrot’s teams, his services will be retained year-after-year to ensure the preservation of the R.A.R.E. culture once it is attained. But the preservation of R.A.R.E. should not fall entirely upon Dr. Carr’s shoulders. As a teacher, he strives to transfer the skills needed to be R.A.R.E. onto the team, so that the mindset will be taught and proliferated throughout the program by players already acquainted with its principles.
“I can’t say the freshmen will always learn from the seniors,” he said. “We would hope that. But sometimes you get freshmen coming in who are well beyond their years. In the case where we are now, where we are kind of in a transition program, I don’t know who’s going to be leaders, who’s going to be followers. But the whole idea, as time goes on, as the years pass, we would hope that our tradition has a pass-the-torch kind of thing, because I think the best teams really are those teams where the guys take ownership and they do the leading. But I don’t think that that’s going to happen right away. We’re going to have to launch that through our structured program activities, and specific definition of roles, and so forth. Once we do that for one full year, the next class coming in, those guys who have gone through it can reach back, and have an expectation, and have the credibility to challenge someone else and say, ‘Hey, this is our way. This is the Duquesne way.’”
Through every step of Duquesne’s transformation, Dr. Carr will stress the importance of placing the team over the self. However, he will not limit his interactions to team-based sessions. Dr. Carr will spend time working with players on an individual basis as well, in order to better equip them for serving their team.
“We’ll start out working with the team to see what guys are ten-toes in, and what guys are three-toes in. Once we find out where that is, if guys have individual needs—if they family stuff, if they’ve self-esteem stuff, if they’ve got assertiveness stuff, if they’ve got problems with being called out—we’ll make those assessments. And based upon how those things fold out, I will do individual performance plans for the players as well, and customize it for that particular player.
“Some guys, they like to shoot. They define their whole basketball game on a missed or made shot. So when the shots are not falling, then they have a tendency to do something called ‘catastrophizing’ … They become this other person. I have to train these people who have those kind of problems how to play through that stuff—not to think so much. How to create a blank-backboard kind of mentality, so that when mistakes do occur, they’re not dwelling on it … It’s just depending on how we evaluate things, because you can’t really tell what people will need until they’re stressed. What I mean [by] stressed: when there’s people in the stands, when the coach is really coming at them hard, when they’re being challenged by their teammates, when they’re playing against a big-name opponent. Those are stressors. Usually, people who have issues, those things become flammable—they get exacerbated when they’re under stress.”
The goal of Dr. Carr’s team-based and individual sessions is to promote a R.A.R.E. culture, which will ultimately build team chemistry. There are many aspects to the modern game of basketball, and chemistry is one that often gets overlooked. Typically, physical talent takes precedent over all other aspects of the game. Many believe that the teams with the best athletes stand the best chance at winning. Technical ability is also valued, with sharpshooters and savvy dribblers always presenting considerable upside. Of course, coaches appreciate players with the mental ability to grasp a playbook, and demonstrate basketball acumen in any given moment of the game. However, there is also chemistry, and this intangible aspect of the game is often disregarded. To Dr. Carr, ignoring the importance of chemistry can be a grave mistake for even the most talented of teams.
“Most coaches in today’s world, they could care less about [chemistry],” he said. “And I mean this, because I travel a lot. Most coaches are just concerned about the assembling of talent. You know: this guy is rated #30; this guy is rated #15. I call it ‘bluebook recruiting.’ When coaches are concerned with that, they’re not necessarily recruiting people that fit their style of basketball, fit their style for the locker room, or fit their style of identity—whether it’s defensive or offensive identity. They’re just putting talent together … We’ve seen a lot of schools over the years—big name schools—who repeatedly win conference championships, but they just can’t take the step when it comes to the NCAA tournament time to go further, because of these chemistry issues.
“Chemistry is a really big deal. I think the coaches that pay attention to helping their players become elite teammates, as well as elite players, those are the coaches that usually separate themselves perennially in terms of advancing far in The Dance and winning the games. I’ve been with a lot of teams where they didn’t have the best players, but what we did once we decided our identity is going to be in a certain direction, you can put us against [a top-tier program] … Once you know what you have to do, you’re not worried about who you’re playing, you’re worried about what you have to do.
“You have to assemble a certain kind of talent, a certain kind of individual, that will say, ‘You know what Coach, if this is what you want me to do, then I’ll do it.’ I call them ‘Yes Men.’ Chemistry is a very important thing, and it’s hard to find kids these days who will say, ‘Yes, sir,’ and do it … Most times you have to chop down walls and peel back layers to get them to become ‘Yes Guys.’ But once that does happen, you can really talk about chemistry and how chemistry, an intangible thing, can really make a difference in terms of whether you win or lose.”
Dr. Carr will seek to build chemistry within a fractured Duquesne program, where the firing of Jim Ferry and the subsequent transfers of marquee contributors have left the status of the team’s harmony tenuous at best. To do so, he will pair with a coach with whom he has worked for many years, Keith Dambrot.
Coach Dambrot first sought Dr. Carr’s services in 2004, Dambrot’s first season as Akron’s head coach. The two were introduced by Ben Braun, the head coach at Eastern Michigan when Dambrot served as an assistant coach for the Eagles. Braun, while the head coach at the University of California, Berkeley, acquainted himself with the work of Dr. Carr when he brought the sports psychologist in to counsel the Golden Bears. Coach Braun believed that Carr’s assistance would benefit Dambrot as a first-year head coach, and arranged for the two to meet. Thirteen seasons later, the two have developed a close relationship predicated on much more than winning basketball games.
“We’ve formed a close bond,” Dr. Carr shared. “We philosophically have the same idea in terms of how we should treat student athletes, and how we should counsel and guide them. And as a result of our similarities and how we see people, and how we’re going to manage people, it makes it easy for us to communicate. That relationship is pretty tight—pretty close. I think as a result of that, we’ve been able to win a lot of games … Not that our relationship is based on winning, but as a result of him coaching and him relying on me to coach him, and at the same time develop a team in such a way, that we have these strong connections. I think our relationship has really stood the test of time.”
Coach Dambrot was hired by Duquesne less than a month ago, and fans are still trying to figure out just what type of coach is leading their program. Dr. Carr, having known Coach Dambrot for many years, happily divulged the kind of coach, and the kind of person, he believes Keith Dambrot brings to Duquesne.
“First of all, he’s a very complex person in the sense that he doesn’t just think about basketball,” said Carr. “Basketball is a vehicle. What the fans are getting, they’re getting a guy who is a teacher. His mother was a psychologist, and I think that’s the side he kind of identifies most [with]. They’re getting a teacher, and they’re also getting a guy who’s a community person. He really believes in giving back; he’s very big hearted. He’s going to require that his players have some form of involvement with the community. Whether it’s with the homeless people, whether it’s with the Boys and Girls Club, he’s going to demand that the school and the program become good citizens.
“They’re also getting a guy who is a very competitive individual, and I mean competitive in that he sees Duquesne as a place where championships can be won, [and] not because that’s just a platitude … But he looks at the demographics of the area, he looks at the sophistication of the metropolitan area, and he looks at the topography. When we were together, he said, ‘Man, this is a place that could really be a destination for young kids who are interested in getting a good education and playing basketball.’
“I think the other thing they’re getting, they’re getting a coach who’s really connected to the school because of his dad. His dad played there. This kind of gives him like a special intimacy with the university. So I think that level of investment is going to really bode well when it comes time to roll out the basketball, because he sees this as a way of furthering his dad’s legacy … He doesn’t see this as pressure; he sees this as an opportunity. I think that’s what the fans are getting. They really are in for a treat, because of the enthusiasm and the passion that he’s getting from having this opportunity. ”
Dr. Carr didn’t stop there.
“He’s a really underrated guy,” he added. “He’s a guy that’s very accessible. A lot of coaches these days, because of the salaries they make and the publicity they receive, they extricate themselves. They see themselves up on a hill looking down. [Coach Dambrot] is a regular guy. He’s very approachable. He’s a very common sense guy, and fans are going to like that aspect of it … He sees this as part of building a championship. The more relations he builds with the community, he thinks the more people will identify with the program. And then out of that identification are going to come some kids who are going to say, ‘You know what, I want to go and play for Duquesne.”
Most newly-appointed head coaches bring a sense of optimism to their new school. After making 20-win seasons a habit at Akron, Keith Dambrot has Duquesne fans envisioning similar results at their university. And with Dr. Joe Carr’s guidance, it is becoming seemingly possible that the Duquesne Dukes may soon become a very R.A.R.E. team.