Gary Bennett is changing what it means to be a student-athlete for the Hokies.
“We’re trying to break down that mentality that athletes aren’t allowed to show weakness,” said Bennett, Virginia Tech’s sports psychologist.
No team or athlete is required to meet with Bennett, but the Division of Student Affairs and Athletic Department work together to ensure new and current athletes know the resources that are available to them.
“Gary and his staff do a great job of reaching out to our athletes as a way to get better, not just as an athlete, but as a person,” said Virginia Tech swimming and diving head coach Ned Skinner.
Before fall semester starts, Bennett gives a presentation at athlete orientation and some coaches ask him to come talk to their teams individually. Women’s soccer head coach Charles Adair said his athletes are introduced to Bennett and begin participating in team building activities before they even take a class.
Skinner said that his team also works closely with Bennett during the season, but the insight he gives the swimmers goes beyond the pool. “Gary has helped our student-athletes realize and reach their full potentials,” Skinner said. “By instilling confidence and reassurance to the student-athletes, he helps to promote their success.”
Virginia Tech is one of only 20 schools in the country with a full-time in-house sports psychologist. Bennett offers individual and team counseling, performance enhancement and team building exercises, and leadership programs. “I think it really says something about the administration’s commitment to athletes’ well-being,” Bennett said.
Adair said he highlights the resources Bennett and his staff provide to visiting recruits.
“It separates us from other ACC schools,” Adair said. “It goes to show how much value Virginia Tech shows in the athlete’s experience – it’s not just winning and losing.”
Bennett has been at Virginia Tech since 1995, where he began as a psychologist in Cook Counseling Center and then transitioned to the Athletic Department in 2001, splitting time between the two. In 2007, Bennett became full-time in the athletic department.
Adair said Bennett is extremely committed to all the teams and especially helps out women’s soccer in the spring. Every Friday, Bennett and the team meet for classroom sessions instead of practice or strength training. “The hope is that it transfers to the field as well as to overall personal development,” Adair said.
Bennett said at Cook he saw clients once a week, maybe twice, but in the athletic department he sees athletes everyday. Bennett goes to practices, lifts, and most home events. “I could talk with students at Cook and tell them what I think they should do, but I couldn’t observe them,” Bennett said. “Being around the athletes makes them more comfortable with coming to see me if they need to. I can observe athletes first-hand during practice,” Bennett said.
Bennett said at practices he observes team dynamics and sometimes says a few words but his main goal is just to be seen. He said building a relationship is important to make the athletes feel welcome. Bennett has accompanied the women’s soccer team on many different trips and frequents their games and practices.
“The kids are definitely more open because of the relationship that has been created between Bennett and the athletes,” Adair said.
Bennett has not only helped athletes overcome daily obstacles but has helped to strengthen the relationship between coach and athlete. “Gary has helped our staff establish a better connection with our athletes,” Skinner said. “This has made us stronger as a staff and a team.”
Adair says he agrees that having Bennett around has allowed him to focus on his job as a coach while making sure his athletes are using all the resources available to them. “It helps make our jobs as easier and develop a certain culture at Virginia Tech,” Adair said. “Bennett helps to bring up topics and situations that would be difficult to bring up as a coach.”
Besides working with teams, the main service Bennett provides to student-athletes is individual counseling. He sees 50 to 60 athletes a week during the school year. Bennett said of the athletes he sees during individual counseling sessions, one-third suffer from distress, one-third suffer from performance related issues, and one-third suffer from more severe clinical problems.
“The teams do well but for me it’s about the bigger picture,” Bennett said. “We learn a lot of good lessons from sports that help us become better people and that’s the part I try to highlight in my counseling sessions.”
Adair and Skinner both said the university provides student-athletes with resources through Bennett and the Sports Psychology Office that help them work through any issues relating to family, social life, academics, sports, and more.
“We believe in developing our athletes into well rounded individuals that will go on to contribute to the betterment of society,” Skinner said. “Gary helps them up the level of their competition as well as their level of self-worth.”
Written by Logan Hooks of Spartanburg, S.C., a senior majoring in communication in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.
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