BABE #282: DR. WENDY BORLABI - High Performance Coach, Chicago Bulls
In addition to being the High Performance Coach for the Chicago Bulls, Dr. Wendy Borlabi is the founder of Borlabi Psychology, Founder/CEO of Wisdom Knot, and a solo parent of twins. As High Performance Coach, she works ensure the Bulls players and coaches remain just as fit mentally as they are physically. She also founded Wisdom Knot to educate inner city kids on the various career paths they can take in sports outside of being an athlete. Her balancing act between numerous hustles and raising her twins is impressive to say the least, and we’re rooting her on as she continues to make waves and set the standard in the male-dominated sports world.
Hometown: Accra, Ghana
Current city: Chicago, Illinois
Alma mater: B.S., Psychology; M.S., Kinesiology - Concentration in Sports Psychology; Doctorate in Clinical Psychology - Concentration: Sport Psychology and Exercise Psychology
Very first job: Babysitting
Hustle: High Performance Coach, Chicago Bulls; Founder, Borlabi Psychology; CEO/Founder, Wisdom Knot
How do you spend your free time?
I’m a solo parent of twins (a boy and a girl) who are six years old. That is how I spend my time.
Go-to coffee order or adult beverage?
I’m not a big coffee drinker, but I love Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. Not the grapefruit kind—the less grapefruit-y kind.
What would you eat for your very last meal?
Some kind of seafood (like crab legs or lobster).
If you could have coffee with anyone in the world, who would it be?
I’m going to come back to Serena Williams. I think that would be who I would want to have coffee with.
Tell us about your hustle.
Like I said, I’m a solo-parent of twins, so my nanny works about 35 hours a week; if I travel, she stays with them, but the rest of the time is me. My daytime job is the performance coach or sports psychologist for the Chicago Bulls. I have no day that looks the same; it just depends on whether we’re traveling, or home or if there’s a game. I try to carve out about an hour or two in my day, usually an hour or less, to work on trying to move forward my nonprofit, [an organization called] Wisdom Knot that educates inner city kids on careers and athletics. I also have a consulting business, and I have an intern—well, now she’s a colleague, because she’s done with school and has finished her license, so she does most of the work for me. We do work for a baseball team (UIC Baseball) and then all the individual clients, she does. I want to move more into doing presentations and workshops for teams or businesses, along the lines of women in business and women in sports—self-awareness and empowering women. I teach sometimes online. I try to say no, because my life is quite busy, but there is a friend of mine at National University. When she asks I always say yes.
How and when did you decide to pursue a career in sports psychology?
I found out about sports psychology after I graduated from college. I had my bachelor’s degree in psychology. One of my coworkers was going to a sports psychology conference in New Orleans, and she didn’t want to go by herself and knew our job would pay for it, so she asked me to go with her. I did— because it was a free weekend in New Orleans. I had a great time. I actually didn’t even attend any sports-psych anything, I just had a great weekend in New Orleans. But then I started thinking about what the sports-psych thing about a year later, and looking into it. I was living in Atlanta at the time and found out that Georgia Southern had a program, so I thought, This could actually be something I like. I wasn’t really thinking “career,” I just thought [I would] get my master’s degree in it. When I got in there I thought: Oh, people get paid for this? I can watch sports and get paid for this? OK, where do I sign up? I realized I needed to get my doctorate to be more clinical so I could be more marketable. It’s a male dominated field, so I thought if I was going to do this, I was going to have to have a “Dr.” in front of my name, because otherwise I wasn’t going to be able to have both [motherhood and a job], and I would have to choose at some point. I did not want that to happen. I figured there would be a time it would come down to “mom” or job. I’m so glad I did this, and just kind of went forward from there. It started really by chance that someone said “sports psychology,” because I knew nothing about it prior to.
What is a high-performance coach?
My primary goal is to work with the players and the coaches, to help them become, as I say, “mentally tough.” We all have to perform really well at our jobs, no matter what they are, and when you’re having a bad day, you’re sick or someone has passed away—in regular jobs you can take time off, but in professional sports, you still have to work. Even when they’re having a bad day or they’re sick, they still have to play and they’re being judged by millions of people. We’re being judged by two or three—they’re being judged by millions, so helping them put all that away and still do their jobs [is my job].
What’s one common thread between the players you work with?
Whether they know it or not, insecurity is something that comes in there. They may not express it as that, or they may not call it that, but it’s something I see. In what they’re saying, I think there is a piece of that in there. I see it a little bit in all of them—some of them a lot more, but I think across the board there is a little bit of insecurity or vulnerability.
How have your past professional and academic experiences prepared you for the work you do today?
The best thing I learned was from a professor during my master’s program. When I stated I wanted to do applied sports psychology, he told me this was a “lily-white field of white males who are not going to let a black woman come in and take their job.” That was in 2002. That was the best thing I heard, because it gave me that piece of, “This is what I’m fighting against,” and, “This is what’s going to happen,” and, “This is what I’m going to have to push for.” I think if I wouldn’t have had that, I would have gone in naively thinking I’m going to get this because I’m doing a great job. Knowing this was going to be something I would have to fight against was not something I was going to learn in school—that came from someone who was in the field and only saw people who looked like him, all the time. Something I did learn in school (actually, from the same professor), was about organization and time. He came to class every day with a notebook he never opened, yet he could lecture for hours on whatever the topic was, and was never late. He talked about the fact that if you present yourself this way, people take you more seriously. Being able to see him do this for two years, day in and day out, stuck in my head. I thought: This is someone that is prepared every day. You need to be prepared every day.
How has being a woman affected your professional experience?
As a woman, I’ve had more people think I’m in this job because I want to find a husband—that I don’t know about sports. Literally, just yesterday, I was with the Bulls and sitting in the hallway of the hotel. Players are walking by, and there’s a conference going on, and this white male comes up to me and says, “Oh, are you one of the players’ mothers?” That took a whole lot of self-control, because I thought: Granted, I’m the only woman, but you see me in the Bulls shirt like everybody else in a Bulls shirt, but because I’m a black woman and most of the men here are black, you assume I’m a mother. Not that I’m actually a professional. I informed him, no. I don’t even care about titles, but I definitely said “doctor” when I introduced myself because, no, you are going to get all of it because you think I’m a mother. Not that it’s bad, but he just assumed that was my role here, that I couldn’t actually be a professional. The players are actually really great. They’ve had to think about what they’re going to say when I’m around, which I think is not a bad thing. I think it’s a good thing that I kind of temper some of that language you hear. I’ve had situations where I’ve had to figure out a way to do my job. I’ve been stopped a couple of times with my twins, because they think I’m not an employee. They think I’m the mother of one of the players, so they won’t allow me to go into the locker room—but that’s my job. So, that’s come into play several times. But I work with a really great organization that wants more women in basketball operations. They want to see that grow, so they have been really supportive. I know that’s something I want to do with my interns—always have a female, right or wrong. There’s just not a lot of us, so I want to make sure we actually learn how to do this job correctly so we can continue. I think that’s really important. Being African-American is a positive, because there’s not a lot of us. I think the number is 68 percent or 71 percent of professional athletes are African-American, so to think there’s no one there [for them] to look to, to have conversations with about what they feel, what they’re going through, those same experiences. It’s still definitely a struggle, more than what I want to deal with.
What’s the gender ratio like in your industry? Do you see it evolving?
In the NBA, there’s only three or four of us [women] who are full-time. In a meeting we had, there were four women in a room of about 30 men. So, not real high.
What’s your biggest strength in your role? What’s the skill you most need to improve?
My biggest strength, I would say, is my voice. I’m not afraid to say what I think or how I feel. I definitely have to sometimes stop and figure out how to express it in a way that everybody can hear. But I’m not afraid to share that opinion. I’ve always been that way. I don’t like the word weakness, so my biggest “growth edge” is my lack of patience for what I call “yeah but-ers.” If you come to me and you’re like, “I hate my job…” and I give you ways to improve it and you say, “Yeah, but,” it drives me crazy. I have a rule I adopted early on in my career, that you can come and bitch about anything you want, but before you leave my office or my presence, we’re going to have a solution. We’re moving toward something, or otherwise don’t come.
Career and/or life advice for other babes?
Three things come into my head: One, to embrace who you are. All of you, not just the positive but also the negative. Figure out who you are, all of those pieces, because even those pieces you don’t consider positive, there may be somewhere in there you can use that to your benefit. I would also say that when you’re looking at achieving something, look at it in pieces; don’t look at it as a whole. You can get bogged down in the big picture, but if you take it step-by-step, next thing you know, you’ve accomplished something. The last thing I would say is two-folded: self-awareness (always try to learn more about yourself), and whatever it is you learn, take it to the next level. I’ve run across a lot of women who thought they didn’t want to have a family, but then they get into their careers and they think, I actually want to be a mom. But then they don’t do anything about it. But, you can. You can have your career and still be a mom. Don’t stop when you figure it out. Use it, that piece of self-awareness.
In partnership with: Generation W
Generation W is an ever-growing, enthusiastic community and national nonprofit that embraces the guiding tenets of education, inspiration, connection and the power of women’s leadership. Join the BWH team at the next signature Generation W event at Jacksonville’s University of North Florida on Friday April 3, 2020!