- Gary Wise, ESPN Poker
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At the highest levels of competition, talent alone won't pave the way to victory. Great competitors, accustomed to easy dominance in the early stages of their careers, will inevitably be exposed later on in their development to others with similar skill sets. At that point, more than the bestowed ability to play the game is needed to succeed.
Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal confronted that truth before he shocked the pundits with his convincing, nationally televised victory over Gegard Mousasi on April 17. Well-known for his garish octagon entrances and abundant confidence, Lawal embarked on the contest with just six matches on his mixed martial arts résumé. He left with a the championship belt after his victory over Mousasi, the golden boy of Strikeforce's light heavyweight division, thanks in large part to a mental approach to life and career instilled by mindset coach Sam Chauhan.
Lawal and Chauhan struck up a relationship in February, two months prior to the Mousasi fight.
"I was kind of skeptical," Lawal admitted of their first meeting. "I meet people all the time who claim to have the answers. Sam and I talked and he was different. He knew about sport and had a lot of knowledge and was a really intelligent guy. Each time we met, the conversations got longer and longer. Pretty much, he just helped me with my mindset. We focused on mentality going into competition, training and everyday mindset, reinforcement techniques that gave me a good sense of being. I told him I was thankful for my family and friends and that 'today was going to be my day'. I reinforced that and knew I was going to win, and you saw a different me in the third through fifth rounds. I think 'today is my day' was on my mind all day on the day of the fight."
Lawal barely made it to those later rounds. A combination of early adrenaline and a first-round flurry of action left Lawal burnt out a quarter of the way through the 25-minute fight. He credits Chauhan's training with helping him to re-focus and maintain himself for the duration.
"I was kind of overconfident," Lawal said. "Sam got me thinking about worst-case scenarios to center me. That second round was a real bad scenario and I remembered those exercises. I could have been in a lot of trouble right there, but Sam's training helped me out. You can trick your body and brain to believe something that's not true. I was tired and thanks to Sam, I pushed through."
The "tricks" Chauhan used involved neuro-linguistic programming, the creation of neural pathways in which the brain will associate a sensation with an emotional state. Touch your knee while thinking of a serene moment in your life and repeat the process a thousand times and the brain will begin associating such touches with serenity. It's just one of the techniques Chauhan uses to assist his clients in maintaining a positive, centered outlook.
"Technically, I use techniques like hypnosis and neural linguistic programming to break the pattern of one's individual thoughts," said Chauhan. "As an example, I have people wear rubber bands so that a snap of those bands can get them away from their negative thoughts. I'll have them do something as simple as hold their breath, which will eventually cause every thought to disappear except 'I have to breathe'. I'll have my guys write five things they're grateful for in the morning to get in a positive frame of mind. It's all about breaking the patterns of negativity."
Chauhan's connection to Lawal's win might be seen as a fluke or coincidence if not for his growing body of work. David Williams, a poker professional best known for finishing second in the 2004 World Series of Poker main event, hadn't scored a major win in more than two years when he started working with Chauhan around the same time as Lawal did. Less than a week after King Mo's victory, Williams won the World Poker Tour World Championship, taking home winnings in excess of $1.5 million.
"I'm one of the cynics, but I don't feel that way with Sam," said Williams. "The results show he's doing something right. There's a lot to be said for positive thinking. It's not that positive thinking makes things happen, but it keeps your focus where it needs to be instead of on the negative. All that negative energy is wasted. Really, it's just about keeping your mind where it needs to be: focusing."
Williams is just the latest in a line of Chauhan's poker successes. Antonio Esfandiari managed a 24th-place finish at the WSOP main event, his biggest tournament cash since 2004. Josh Arieh's had a similar six-year dip until his December 2009 runner-up finish in the WPT's Five Diamond Poker Classic. 2006 WSOP runner-up Paul Wasicka got his first major tournament win in more than two years. Former WPT Player of the Year Gavin Smith, coming off a rough 2009, already has four final table finishes in 2010. Even 11-time bracelet winner Phil Hellmuth has benefited from Chauhan's help, with two WPT final table finishes in the past three months. Each of these players had shown the capacity to thrive in the past, each had fallen on hard times in their careers and each rediscovered success within four months of initiating their respective relationships with Chauhan.
These men all agree that -- in addition to their business partnership -- Chauhan has become a trusted friend. They credit his work with providing them an emotional stability they hadn't experienced before, the kind that can be of tremendous benefit amidst the roller-coaster ride that is tournament poker. Each gives Chauhan partial credit for the turnarounds in their careers. His track record has become extensive enough to give doubters pause.
"People have a right to say what they want to say," said Chauhan of the cynics. "You have to realize though that in life, if you look at someone who's really successful in sports -- Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods -- they all have coaches. They all have mindset coaches. Why do they need them? They're the greatest players in the world! It's because our brain is corrupted to justify the things we do. To recognize one's fallibilities, one often needs to hear it from outside personal experience.
"To mentally get pushed, you have to see things you don't see, feel things you don't feel," he continued. "When you look at someone being cynical, you realize it's because they haven't made the difference in their own life and refuse to believe differences can be made. They've been conditioned to not believe. You take a cynical person and start getting results, they see things happening, improving. Next time around, they won't be so cynical because they've had a different experience. People aren't bad for not believing, but things change."
His "students" agree that Chauhan has had a dramatic impact on not only their games, but their lives.
"I tell the non-believers not to hire him," said Arieh. "If you don't believe, that's fine. There are always going to be disbelievers, and if they hired him, he might not be able to help them. He helped me and that's what I know. If I go on without him, I've still grown from working with him. I've gotten more out of the relationship than I expected."
"I don't think a Starbucks coffee is worth $4," said Smith in regards to Chauhan's fees. "What a service or product is worth is completely up to the consumer. I think most people who have worked with Sam have had a lot of success professionally. I mean, what is that worth? It's hard to put a price on. He teaches you to recognize what you have and be thankful and sort through things a lot better. I don't know what everyone pays, but I'm totally satisfied with what I'm getting for what I pay.
"Actually, a friend was on the job with me and he was lamenting about a lot of things that I felt Sam's stuff directly related to," Smith added. "I showed him some of the stuff Sam has done with me and we've had some success. Overall I think it'd done him some good."
It's that passing on of Chauhan's efforts that makes the coach most proud.
"My ultimate goal is to keep doing what I'm doing," he said. "If I can have a piece in helping someone improve their life, business or career, make a difference in a positive way, I want to do that. I want to help them help themselves. I want to help more people. I hope I can touch one person who can in turn touch many more people. I want people to know that when I come into their lives, that's going to be a good thing."
Through Lawal, Williams and the rest, Chauhan's message is spreading. Now that he's made his mark in MMA, he seems poised to take on some of that game's biggest names. If he can work with Hellmuth, who's to say that the Anderson Silvas of the world couldn't use a little positive reinforcement in their lives? Professionally or personally, it seems like it couldn't hurt.
"I'll be with him until my career is over with," said Lawal. "He's just brought a great energy into my life. The more positive energy you have in your life, the better it is. I've never seen him frown. He's the happiest person I know."
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com.
8hChris Broussard and Marc Stein