Illini football lifted up by motivational speaker

It started in 1996, when current Illinois head coach Ron Zook was a special teams coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Zook was preparing for his first NFL draft as a member of one of the league’s most storied franchises, but there was one more step in the process that the Pittsburgh staff deemed absolutely necessary: Dr. Kevin Elko.

“The Steelers never used to draft a guy unless he talked with them,” Zook said. “They wanted to know the kind of person they were getting and all that kind of stuff.”

It was then that Zook formed a relationship with Elko, a motivational speaker who holds an advanced degree in sports psychology. Since then, Elko has worked with a host of both college and professional football teams, including NCAA champions LSU and Miami, as well as the NFL’s Saints and Cowboys.

Elko began working with the Illini during the 2008 season, just before Illinois beat Michigan for the first time since 1999. Since then, Elko has given the team weekly messages, usually by phone. This season, Illinois is one of only three Elko clients, joining current No. 2 Alabama and reigning Super Bowl champion Green Bay.

“I talk to them really about focus and how to have a vision or a picture in their head,” Elko said. “And then how you have a crystal-clear process on getting to that vision. Then you get rid of all mental clutter and you get out of your head everything that’s not either that vision or that process. It’s not real complicated, but that’s basically it.”

Elko said he uses many different tactics to help the players stay focused on their goal, including self-talk, in which he teaches players a word or phrase that they can say to themselves to help them refocus on the task at hand when they get distracted. Another Elko technique was the “arms up” motion that the team used extensively last season after a bad play or unlucky break.

“You’d see them raise their hands together, and it’s the same thing the Packers did,” Elko said. “What it really meant was keep your spirit lifted no matter what. And you’d see them sometimes grab each others’ arms and lift them. What it meant was lift other people’s spirit.”

The phrase Elko said he has used most this season is “keep the main thing the main thing,” something Zook has also repeated often. But perhaps one of the biggest advantages is that each player is able to take away something different from Elko’s messages.

“He has a different message each week, he has a different story for us, and some guys can relate one week and another week another guy can relate,” senior Jeff Allen said. “That’s how it is. Everyone gets a different message.”

For many Illinois players, hearing from a motivational speaker isn’t something they’ve ever experienced, but it is something they enjoy.

“It’s something that’s new to me, but it’s definitely something that’s cool to have,” Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said.

And while Elko’s messages often pertain to on-field performance, Zook said he appreciates what he does for the players off the field just as much.

“He’s come in and talked to them not only about football, but about life,” Zook said. “Being a better person, being a more productive person, and being more productive in everything that they do. … I think that they have a pretty strong relationship with him, feel a good bond with him. Once again, his deal is not just about winning, it’s about winning in life, and he’s done a nice job with them.”

The Illinois players aren’t the only ones who benefit from the relationship, though.

“It’s one of my favorite, if not my favorite place to work,” Elko said. “I love the students, I love the program at the University of Illinois. I love Nathan (Scheelhaase). It’s one of the most enjoyable places to come. It’s a special place, and watching them build is neat. There’s no place I’d rather be than there.”