A Open Letter to My Undergraduate Adviser

Ryan O'Donnell, MS, BCBA

High School Years

It’s not easy. A new city, a new lifestyle, very few things to actually relate to, etc. And on top of that, you need to figure out what you want to do for the rest of your life… no big deal right?

My first passion was basketball. The smell of the gym, the shine of the court, the sounds of the game… they immediately increase my heart rate. I recall running up and down the court on the road to state and playing pickup ball with my father. I grew up in a small town in central Nevada called Tonopah. It’s home to about 2,500 people, with a high school of roughly 150 students. There were 4 other towns that were within 45 miles of Tonopah that bused into our high school to make up that number too.

Now, the small town life was amazing. I wouldn’t trade it for anything – it provided me a number of values that shaped me to who I am today: a great work ethic, a love for the outdoors, the ability to create my own fun, and a close and supportive family structure.  It also came with downsides: no movie theater, no bookstore, no mall, no bowling alley, etc. Shoot... when it came to practicing basketball in the summer 6 of the 10 kids on the team lived in those small towns outside of Tonopah. 

My mother and father luckily hooked me up with a concrete pad in the backyard that allowed my cousin and myself to practice pretty much year-round. When it came to my senior year I was aware of the fact that it was likely that I wasn’t going to be playing after that year – so I cherished every second. Each practice I focused on learning from my coaches, especially the assistant that would help me work on the weak areas of my game down low.  I also cherished the final game on our home court where I scored a double-double, in which I clearly remember the smiles on each of my family's faces. And of course there’s the regional championship game where we lost by what I recall to be 2 points. We were the underdogs, expected to score half of what the other team was going to score.  Shoot, they said that their star player, who was averaging 45 points a game, was likely to outscore our team alone. 

Come game day we held that player to less than 10 points. The lowest of his entire season.  It didn’t stop them from beating us, but what was that all about?!  How did we keep the score that close?

I like to think that it had to do with the majority of us all growing up together and playing for years.  But after learning about behavioral science I quickly realized that there’s a bit more that goes into the success of an intricate and complex series of behaviors in something as dynamic as a 10-man basketball team (not to mention the coaches and the parents all influencing the system as well!).

University of Nevada, Reno & Psychology

After losing to the state championship I had the conversation with my mother and father about what was next.  Graduation was less than 4 months away, and I was expected to begin providing for myself.  That’s totally reasonable, but boy did it show up quickly!

Luckily my mother was watching out for my future. She helped me make sure that all of my paperwork was in order to get into the University of Nevada, Reno. I mentioned briefly the struggles that I encountered there, and I don’t think that I’m alone. I do distinctly remember having to come back and tell my mother and father that I had lost one of my best scholarships for the next semester (which I was expected to pay back to them), and that I still wasn’t sure how to handle the workload and lifestyle of the next semester.  But one thing was certain – I wasn’t going to pursue chemistry and I was interested in psychology.

Psych 101 & Adviser Hurdles

It might have just been because my professor was a part-time consultant for professional sports stars, but I found also found that the area of psychology was intriguing. The complexities of the human mind – to be explored from a scientific approach? Whoa. (I later found behavior analysis to be that framework to explore the complexities of living things).

The beginning of my second semester I scheduled a meeting with my academic adviser, whose name I honestly have forgotten, to review the possibilities of sports psychology. It went something like this... 

Adviser: “What brings you in today?”
Ryan: “I want to learn more about using psychology in sports.”
Adviser: “What?”
Ryan: “I heard that you can use psychology in sports, it sounds like a possible career.”
Adviser: “Um, I haven’t heard of that – it’s not an option. But you can help other populations out. Have you explored those?”
Ryan: “I haven’t, but I’m pretty sure my professor is a sports psychologist.”
Adviser: “That’s not a thing.”
Ryan: “Um, I think it is?”
Adviser: “No. It’s definitely not. Is that what you came to discuss with me?”
Ryan: “…”
Adviser: “I can’t help you become something you’re not going to be able to be.”
Ryan: “OK. That’s all I had, so I guess we’re finished.”

I was a bit taken back – I wasn’t making it up that my psych 101 teacher was in this profession, and the program at UNR wasn’t that large either. Was I going crazy? I wasn’t sure what to do next, so I found the adviser's department and emailed them asking for assistance and included an explanation of my interaction with the academic adviser. Now, this was well before I was equipped with the tools to writing a well-constructed email, but it wasn’t rude. However, it was… honest and blunt.

The next morning I awoke to a phone call to meet the adviser along with the dean. I arranged a time and went in expecting to receive some assistance. But what I walked into was quite the opposite – it was a 2 on 1 meeting about how I needed to not waste the adviser's time with exploring areas and that I was being too persistent with pursuing this route. 


After a few minutes, their words began to blur together like in Charlie Brown. I found myself entirely checked out of the moment and nervous for what was going to happen next. But then it hit me… I don’t need them. I could figure this out on my own. Not to mention I was paying them to help me out, and it wasn't leading to anything that I needed help with. 

Fast forward 7 years…

I’m back in Reno, NV after completing my graduate studies and helping connect my professor to the last resources needed to create a private school in Orlando, FL. Each conversation that led anywhere near basketball I would probe to see if the person had any contacts in the local area that were looking for additional help. I found a few leads, but they weren’t lining up with what I envisioned. One day about 2 years into the search some water cooler talk turned into discussion about a local basketball coach at Bishop Manogue Catholic High School. 

I reached out to a connection and it led to a phone call in which I advocated for using some of what behavioral science has shown to be effective in goal-setting and measuring behavior.  The connection insisted that I only focus on taking stats, and that no one would want anything more than that...  I respect that decision, but I was clear on I wanted to do a little more than just stats. Two weeks later I received an email from a coach in the area that wanted to meet up. I shook his hand, introduced myself, and then we both preceded to ask each other a series of questions to assess "fit." Perhaps I'll dive into that in another post, but long story shot, it worked, and it worked well. We made it to the Nevada 4A championship game this year where we lost, and it crushed everyone emotionally. It's still hard to talk about, but that's just a clear indicator that it's an area of passion and that the right people are surrounding each other. 

So where's that leave us?

Well, you never know what's going to happen and who can help you get there. However, one thing is certain - if you look for opportunities and surround yourself with people that share similar values as you, then doors open to opportunities you never knew existed. 

I'm going to share some of the strategies and tactics that I used at our upcoming Revolution Summit (video & registration link below), or you can wait a bit and learn more as I get the content out on the site, totally up to you.

As for the details of the project...well, that's going to be in another post - I'm not quite ready to put that out yet, there's a little more work to finish up with the team still. However: 


I'm not sure if this counts as a "sports psychologist," but it's damn fun, and exactly what I was looking to achieve when I knocked on your door. I'm unsure if the last 7 years was meant to be a lesson in independence and networking, but if so I think I learned a few things and I thank you for that! 


Note: The coaching staff are still together as of the publishing of this article, but their work with that particular high school is finished.