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Dr. Arman Taghizadeh stood in front of Syracuse’s men’s lacrosse team last December. The players had arrived on campus early, huddled around him — who players referred to as Dr. T — with notepads on their desks. For a couple hours, they took notes, asking Dr. T questions about how to enhance their play through mental training.
Head coach Gary Gait was responsible for Dr. T’s arrival. Fourteen years earlier, when he took over Syracuse’s women’s lacrosse program, Gait did the same thing. He brought in sports psychologists to speak with players about the mental demands of the sport, and through Gait’s leadership, Orange transformed a middle-of-the-pack Big East team to an undefeated one in just one season.
“When you ask someone what makes a bigger difference when you’re becoming a better player, it’s the mental side of the game,” Gait said. “We’ve certainly brought that to the men’s side and are continuing to develop that.”
Since taking over the men’s program last season, Gait has continued emphasizing several coaching tactics that he used as the women’s head coach, including the use of a psychologist. On the women’s side, he helped lead SU to eight Final Four appearances and three NCAA Championship games. He aims to do the same in his first year coaching the men’s team, seeking the national title he won three times as a player, even after the Orange have struggled to a 4-5 record.
Gait first learned about meditation from a youth coach in 1979. The coach convinced kids like the 12-year-old Gait and his twin brother Paul to visualize and meditate, Gait said.
“In the past you see how it’s weird if someone’s into that stuff,” Gait said. “Now that stuff is expected if you want to be elite.”
That followed Gait in his own athletic journey as he went from having the most consecutive second places in the under-21 Canadian national championship into one of the best lacrosse players of all-time.
“It’s something I’ve done from the beginning,” Gait said about meditation and visualization. “I bought it in, and it truly taught me how to be elite and stay elite.”
After an assistant coaching stint at Maryland, Gait accepted the head position with Syracuse’s women’s program. He showed players like Katie Rowan Thomson and Kayla Treanor its importance.
Meditation has become a daily occurrence for the team this season, Tucker Dordevic said. On gameday, after the team finishes its initial shootaround, Gait has them turn off the music 24 minutes before the game, with “BREATHE” written in all caps on the whiteboard.
“It’s an opportunity for our players to clear their head and visualize the performance,” Gait said of the pregame routine. “It’s just part of the mental side of the game and being focused on being prepared.”
Since that first meeting with Dr. T, the men’s team has set aside five or six minutes during practice for visualization, Dordevic said. It’s something Gait did with the women’s program, too.
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Gait also worked closely with his players on the field, frequently picking up a stick to show players specific moves. Halle Majorana, a former Syracuse player, said most players were unable to recreate some of Gait’s moves, but he also spent individual time with them to help perfect their moves.
“I’m big into visual learning, if I see someone do a move I want to practice that,” Majorana said. “I was always watching Gary.”
In practices this year, Gait always leans on a stick as he watches practice from the sidelines. During a short water break last week, Dordevic said Gait picked up the stick and showed him, Jerry Staats and Lucas Quinn certain moves. Gait, though, said he’s gone onto the field less since joining the men’s program. “I shoot a lot different than a lot of our players so it’s pretty distracting for our goalies,” Gait joked.
Gait perfected his unique shooting style during his Canadian box lacrosse career. And while he might show certain players specific moves, he doesn’t change their mechanics, former SU player Nicole Levy said.
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Dordevic said Gait’s “free flowing” mindset with his players has benefited the attack, leading to goals like Dordevic’s behind-the-back, between-the-legs shot against Duke. This coaching style allows him to trust players in bigger moments, Treanor added.
Gait still uses offensive sets and strategies similar to the ones he used on the women’s team. Syracuse has increased its number of screens this season, something Levy said Gait introduced to the women’s game.
The pick-and-roll has been increasingly vital for SU’s men’s team, creating lanes for Dordevic or Brendan Curry to get open chances. Against Stony Brook, a double team came at Dordevic. Griffin Cook, who has been the usual screener, set a pick for Syracuse’s leading goal scorer, again putting him in isolation. While Cook was thrown to the ground setting the pick, Dordevic got enough space for a sidearm shot, shooting low between Anthony Palma’s legs for his sixth goal of the game.
“Last few years, we haven’t used picks as much,” Dordevic said. “He’s definitely brought that into the sport, and it’s helped a lot.”
With recent injuries to Cook and Quinn, the Orange have lost some of their dominance using the strategy. But Gait isn’t foreign to losing key players. After losing Emily Hawryschuk and Meaghan Tyrrell last season, Gait found replacements in Emma Ward and Emma Tyrrell, who finished with a combined 85 goals. Now, Gait’s “next player-up” mentality will be necessary with the men’s program, which is coming off a 22-6 loss to Notre Dame.
“We’re beat up right now, and we have to do the best that we can with what we have right now,” Gait said after the loss to the Fighting Irish. “The weekend before we showed that we can do it. And now we have to show that we can do it again.”
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