Jim Brennan describes himself as a fly on the wall, listening carefully and watching closely at meetings and on the sidelines.
Although he does not hold the highest role for the Villanova University’s men’s basketball team, he has one of the most influential.
Brennan, a Lehigh business professor, has spent 11 seasons with the Villanova basketball team as a sports performance consultant. While it is rare for many programs to have a psychologist on staff, Jay Wright, the head coach for Villanova men’s basketball, considers him an important member of the team.
Brennan described performance psychology as teaching players to use their minds when under pressure to promote optimal performance. A typical day for Brennan is to act as an observer of the team. He attends meetings, practices, team meals and games, if his schedule permits.
Mostly, his job is to advise Wright, whether that be watching a specific player and analyzing his strengths and needs, or listening to a halftime speech and telling Wright what he should change to better communicate with the players.
“Over the past seasons, (Brennan) has been a valuable asset to our players, assistant coaches and especially to me, for his ability to observe, assess and teach the dimensions of emotional intelligence and positive psychology that are indispensable to team and individual performance,” said Wright, according to Brennan’s official website. “I have come to rely on his judgment, knowledge and discretion and I have learned to place a great deal of weight on his feedback.”
However, Brennan said he is not sure he is always right in his advice to Wright.
He operates based on his feelings, but they have the potential to be incorrect, he said.
“I don’t know when I’m wrong,” Brennan said. “This is my feeling, and this is my mind-stream, and I’ll share it with you, but just know that I don’t know if I’m right.”
Regardless, he said even if he knows he doesn’t have the right answer all the time, he believes he’s helping the team.
“When you have a job that is valued, and it is playing on your own strengths, you love doing it,” Brennan said. “For me, I love helping.”
One teaching instance that sticks out in Brennan’s mind was during a game against University of Cincinnati.
Dante Cunningham, current NBA player and former Villanova basketball player, was being guarded by an opponent. Cunningham went for a pass out of his reach and ended up getting hit and pushed out of bounds. The opposing player aggressively stood over him after the play, eliciting a huge reaction from the crowd.
Brennan said the man sitting next to him at the game said there would be a fight. Brennan disagreed.
Brennan said Cunningham was helped up by his teammates and did not even look toward the Cincinnati player. But instead, he kept his composure and made two free throws, never saying a word about it.
Brennan made a lesson out of this situation, even if it was small. He commended Cunningham for controlling his anger and not making the moment about himself.
“He knows it is not about him,” Brennan said about Cunningham. “It is about the name on the front (of his jersey).”
Brennan took it a step further by telling Wright about the incident, who hadn’t noticed it. Brennan later said Wright found the clip and showed it to the team, saying it emphasizes what the team emulates.
Brennan believes moments like these are key for players to grow.
“It was a seemingly little thing that meant a lot,” he said. “It is little things like that that I can pick up on and reinforce.”
Not many other programs in the country have someone on staff to fill a role similar to Brennan’s, for either philosophical or financial reasons. Brennan said it reflects highly on Wright to want that in a team.
Likewise, Wright included a spiritual component to further improve the team. Another key member for the coaching staff is Chaplain Rob Hagan, who plays off of Brennan’s role.
“I try to help them bring their spirituality to whatever they are doing — in this case basketball — helping them make sure their spirit is involved with the team,” Hagan said.
Brennan plans on staying with the team as long as Wright will be there. However, he said the job is time consuming and he looks forward to having more time to spend with his wife and grandchildren.