Martin Gipson: A True Sportsman

Psychologist Stayed Positive, Even When Cancer Was the Opponent

On April 23, 2005, the late Martin Gipson will be inducted into the University of the Pacific Athletic Hall of Fame. He was a unanimous induction despite having never suited up for a competition.

“Martin was one of the worst physical athletes I have ever known,” said Terry Liskevych, coach of the University of the Pacific and later the US national women’s volleyball teams. “Yet he was instrumental in helping hundreds of athletes and coaches achieve beyond what they thought possible.”

Gipson’s influence came as a sport psychologist, and working beside Liskevych, the two guided the US team to three top-10 Olympic finishes, including a bronze medal in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992. Under their auspices, Pacific’s team became a top-five National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I program.

After coming to Pacific in 1967, Gipson oversaw a number of master’s theses in performance management, and since many of his students received stipends to be assistant coaches, many of the theses were concerned with improving the performance of collegiate athletes.

“[Gipson] became fascinated with competitive athletics as a venue for understanding models of learning and motivation,” said one such student-athlete, Bruce Parsons, University of Utah. “We spent many hours together discussing psychology, applied science, learning theorists, and theories of motivation.”

Though his work with Liskevych cemented his position as a sport psychologist, Ken Beauchamp thinks a more appropriate description of Gipson is a “psychologist interested in performance management.”

“He approached working with athletes as just another arena for improving human performance,” said Beauchamp, University of the Pacific. “What he was doing was applied behavior analysis in the sports arena – observing patterns and suggesting performance changes, exploring issues and procedures of self-control.”

Whether or not Gipson was a sport psychologist, he published as one. Gipson’s chapter “Science of Coaching Volleyball,” in Carl McGowan’s Human Kinetics (1994), illustrated four techniques players could practice to achieve a proper mental state. Players are instructed to visually rehearse skills that will be needed during a match, to verbally rehearse paying attention to cues relevant to those skills, to say positive things to themselves as they perform, and to extend their physical efforts to the very limits. “Players with consistent ways of preparing for a match generally perform more consistently,” Gipson wrote.

The Pacific volleyball team’s current coach, Jayne McHugh, who played on both the Pacific and national teams aided by Gipson, said mental preparation is very important in collegiate sports. “Students are pulled in so many directions – from their professors, roommates, sorority sisters, weight and training coaches,” McHugh said. “[Student athletes] need to make sure you could use the same routine wherever you are – whether you are in Beijing or New York. You can’t rely on something you need from one particular place.”

Though he rarely traveled with the team, Gipson’s influence was evident all over the court. “He used empirical data from practices and games” to measure the psychological needs of each player, Liskevych said. Off the court, “he was there to build you up,” said McHugh. “He was so passionate about wanting to help people.”

Gipson was a frank and direct critic, but belying every stark statement was a positive spirit – he recommended in “Science of Coaching Volleyball” that coaches offer four praises for every criticism – that made him as revered as he was effective.

“[Gipson] remained to the end a very critical person, but he put a human face on his criticism and always made the person or the product better for his careful scrutiny, his insight, and his direct but gentle persuasion,” said APS Fellow Terry Maple, Georgia Institute of Technology. Maple, another student-athlete to study under Gipson, remained close with his mentor until Gipson died of cancer in 1998. “He lived life to the fullest, and he fought cancer with the keen power of his mind and his spirit.”

Observer Vol.17, No.12 December, 2004

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