CLEMSON — The day was March 14 of 2017 and the final buzzer of Clemson’s basketball season had just sounded. Frustration was boiling over.
There are 9,000 seats in Littlejohn Coliseum, only 2,785 of them were filled at game time. Clemson had just hosted a National Invitation Tournament game after being left out of the NCAA Tournament for the sixth straight year. Coach Brad Brownell’s team appeared to have the game in hand before relinquishing a 20-point lead.
The final scoreboard served as a brutal reminder: Oakland 74, Clemson 69.
Brownell's job security was shaky, team morale was tanking, fan support was dwindling and the message was clear: something had to change.
Time to call the doctor
Four days after the NIT loss, Brownell and Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich met for 2½ hours on a Saturday. All the facts were put on the table.
The Tigers won just six of their 18 conference games. They missed out on the NCAA Tournament again. They finished 12th among 15 teams in the ACC.
Brownell needed a new game plan. He decided to make defense the top priority, to design a more-balanced offense and to hire a new assistant coach, who would end up being former College of Charleston assistant Antonio Reynolds-Dean.
Off the court, he and Radakovich spoke of ways they could improve camaraderie and communication, given that in 11 ACC games that came down to six points or fewer, the Tigers lost nine of them.
The called in Milt Lowder.
Lowder is 20-plus years older than any of Brownell’s players. He did not play college basketball and his most prestigious coaching gig came more than two decades ago as an assistant at his high school alma mater in Sumter.
But Lowder is a licensed psychologist who has worked with Clemson’s football team since 2009. Every Wednesday during football season he meets with Dabo Swinney, every Thursday morning he meets with the Tigers’ coaching staff and every Thursday afternoon he meets with the entire team (many professional teams and major college football and basketball teams have similar arrangements with sports psychologists). The CEO of Synergy Performance in Greenville, Lowder is a Clemson graduate, a man former Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd dubbed his “saving grace,” and one of Swinney’s most trusted advisors.
He has spoken with some of Brownell’s players in the past on an individual basis, but Brownell craved more of his gentle personality and thorough expertise. He wanted what Swinney had — access to Lowder and his Synergy partner Cory Shaffer on a regular basis.
“What if this guy helps fix one guy’s mentality in a free throw? What if he makes one kid make one more shot? What if he does something else to put a kid in a good place and he plays better?” Brownell wondered.
“If that means two more wins it changes the narrative of our whole program. That’s how crazy some of this is and that’s the kind of impact a guy like that can have. It may be really small — but it has ramifications that you can’t measure.”
'A little way to get better'
On a hot July day in Clemson and with the campus mostly empty, Lowder drove to Littlejohn Coliseum. He knew exactly what was about to happen on this summer afternoon. He would meet the Clemson basketball team as a group for the first time and he knew what the players were probably thinking.
“Psychologists are weird,” he said.
He was an angsty teen once. He gets it. He once believed that same stereotype.
But some 20 years ago, after he was the first on the scene when his mother survived a horrifying car accident ... after he broke his arm as a senior quarterback on his high school football team ... after he got to Clemson and was cut by the baseball team he dreamed of playing for ... after his parents’ 27-year marriage ended in divorce and after his best friend’s girlfriend died in a car accident ... After all of this in a two-year period, Lowder saw a psychologist himself at his mother’s urging.
It changed his life, inspiring him to further his education and become a licensed psychologist himself.
But he knew the group of young men he was about to meet might be on the fence.
He checked out their body language.
“They’re kind of sitting back in their seats and they’re somewhat skeptical,” Lowder said. “A couple of them are nodding off.”
But they knew why he was here: to create a competitive advantage when they start playing again. And for that reason, they give him a chance.
So he pulled out a dry-erase marker.
“How do I find a little way to get better?” he jotted down on a whiteboard that has still not been erased to this day.
Then, a series of questions:
“Where is the disconnect between the team you have and the team you want? It says in Proverbs, ‘Where there is no vision, the people will perish,’’’ he began.
“What did we learn from last year? What kind of team do you want to create? What kind of team do you want to be a part of?”
The players perked up, inspired by this stranger who would soon become a regular part of their weekly routine.
“We want a team that is selfless,” the Tigers collectively decide. “We want a team that works hard. We want a team that’s fun to be a part of. And we want to win.”
The growth mindset
This lesson Lowder gave to the Clemson basketball team is the same one he uses whenever he talks with a new group for the first time.
The Clemson football team heard it, too.
The concept is centered around what he labels a “growth mindset.” A “fixed mindset,” Lowder said, is what he wants to avoid. If a fixed mindset would be the Tigers comparing themselves to other players on the court or opposing teams in the league, a growth mindset would be them focusing on the best versions of themselves and letting go of external factors they cannot control.
The growth mindset model has three pillars, and as the upbeat Lowder continued to write on the whiteboard, it was clear his energy was contagious.
The first pillar is ‘Awareness.’
“What’s working? What’s not working?” he asked, adding that the mission is to increase confidence and decrease anxiety in an era where anxiety and depression rates on college campuses are doubling and tripling across the country.
“What are my strengths? What is your vision? What is your why?”
Part of that requires a personality assessment. And so later, he administered one.
Back in July, every member of the Clemson basketball team participated in what is called the ProScan survey. Lowder and Shaffer analyzed the results in August and gave them directly to Brownell and his coaching staff. The survey was intended to learn more about a player’s makeup: how he is best motivated, how he communicates, what causes him stress, how he leads, how he connects to others, what causes him to peel back, what de-motivates him.
The idea behind it is what Lowder teaches: the concept of awareness. What works for Player A in terms of motivation might be the opposite for Player B and Lowder wants Brownell to know the exact intricacies behind each exam with five different personalities on the court at any given moment. The test is a microcosm of how the Tigers carry themselves as a whole. It is a vital tool.
The second step of the growth mindset is ‘Action.’
Awareness cannot be effective without action behind it, just as Lowder’s own troubled teen years might not have changed had he not done something to help.
“Having the courage to do something different is what I believe creates so much frustration and undue pressure and stress and discouragement,” he says. “Knowing I need to change but not knowing how to do it, or not even knowing the process.”
Then the final step is ‘Accountability.’
"This is what I told our football team a few years ago in the first national championship game,” he said. “‘If you believe you’re the best team in the country, then just go play like it. There’s great power and freedom when you act and play and live and work according to what you believe.’
“So for our basketball team, it’s ‘What are our strengths? What are the reasons we’re going to be successful? What are the reasons you can believe? And then, now, let’s just go play like that.”
Making a difference
Clemson is winning mostly because the ACC has taken a collective dip and an older group of Tigers has been boosted by Brownell's latest new transfers, Mark Donnal and David Skara. And with Lowder’s help Clemson has won 21 games this year with two more regular-season games, an ACC Tournament and an NCAA Tournament berth still to come. The Tigers won 17 total a season ago. Before the start of this season, they were projected to finish 13th in the ACC.
They are now tied for fourth and have been ranked in the AP Top 25 since New Year's Day.
In games that have come down to six points or fewer, Clemson is 7-2 this year. In close games last season the Tigers were 4-12. Free throw percentage is up from 73.1 to 74.9 percent now that Lowder is working with players on their breathing routines at the line.
The statistical improvements aren't drastic: 3-point percentage has risen from 35.7 to 37.1 and field goal percentage has increased from 44.9 to 45.9. But the Tigers say there's more to it than the numbers on the stat sheet.
“We all have his number so I can just text him and he texts back right away. It’s a different voice to hear, to talk to,” said senior guard Gabe DeVoe, adding that Lowder is also more than happy to work with any player going through difficult personal issues. “I’d say it has helped.”
What makes Clemson different in hiring Lowder is that the Tigers have been on the cutting edge of sports psychology long before some of their ACC counterparts jumped on board. Lowder first pitched a model of mental health and performance to former athletic director Terry Don Phillips back in 2005, dabbled in that realm for a few years, then started working with Swinney’s group regularly in 2009 before joining Brownell’s group this season.
But his reach goes far beyond the basketball court or the football field as he constantly reminds players to make their dreams outshine their memories.
Asked what Lowder has meant to him over the course of their time together, Clemson senior forward Donte Grantham referenced a pair of sneakers he has. Inspired by Lowder's message, Grantham wrote on his practice shoes some of the words of wisdom Lowder shared with him before the season started. When he was in a game and found himself frustrated, Grantham could look down at his game shoes and know what they represented.
“I look down at my shoes, and I’m like, ‘I’m OK. I’m cool. I’m going to be alright,'" said Grantham, who is currently sidelined with a knee injury.
The phrases would be small: "Stay positive, get to the next play, stay in the moment type things."
But just as Brownell hoped, the impact has been huge — and the narrative around Clemson's program has changed.