SALT LAKE CITY — Riley Jensen remembers well the day several years ago when his wife called him out, kick-starting the pursuit of his dream career.
The former Utah State quarterback was selling hospital beds at the time, which provided a nice living for his young family. Before that he worked in sales for a couple of local radio stations.
Then one night, his wife Georgann Jensen confronted him about his seemingly aimless career path.
"What are you doing? I can tell by the look on your face that you're not happy," she told him. "What are we going to do? Bounce around from terrible sales job to terrible sales job the rest of your life? ... Or do you want to do what you want to do?"
Riley Jensen, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had wanted explore the field of sports psychology for 15 years. His wife's loving push was all he needed. After prayerful consideration, he was accepted in the University of Utah sports psychology program.
Seven years later, Jensen is finally doing something he's passionate about, calling it a "phenomenal" journey. The experience also strengthened his faith and allowed him to share many universal gospel principles with others.
"I had a career shift at age 40. I went back and got my degree," Jensen said. "It has been the coolest voyage that I could even anticipate being on. So many great mentors. It's been a phenomenal story, all because my wife was willing to call me out. I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing now."
Introduction to something new
The seeds of Jensen's future in sports psychology were planted among his earliest days of athletic competition.
While learning to play tennis at a young age, Jensen's father, Kirk D. Jensen, then the tennis coach at Utah State, arranged for his son to meet with fellow professor Richard Gordin, a prominent sports psychology consultant who has worked with many Olympic and professional athletes over the years. Jensen's tennis game improved after that, he said.
"You have to understand Dr. Gordin is in all the textbooks now," Jensen said. "He's amazing."
After moving to the Salt Lake City area, Jensen's second sports psychology experience came on the basketball court. Although he was Cottonwood High's starting point guard, the thought of being fouled at the end of games heightened Jensen's anxiety and made him feel sick because he struggled to hit his free throws. He didn't want to let his teammates or the fans down, Jensen said.
This time his father introduced him to Keith Henschen, a longtime consultant with the Utah Jazz. Henschen's son also attended Cottonwood, one of the state's best teams.
"By working with him, my free throw shooting went from 48 percent as a sophomore to 78 percent as a senior," Jensen said.
Jensen met with Henschen twice before his team played in the state tournament. In a tight game against West Jordan, Jensen went to the line four times in the waning moments. Each shot seemed to touch every part of the rim, but they all rolled in, he said.
"That was my introduction to (sports psychology)," Jensen said. "I've been fascinated ever since. I see it as a life calling, something I feel I was born to do."
Paving a new path
Jensen earned his master's degree in sports and exercise psychology at the University of Utah, where he was mentored by Nicole Detling and interned with Utah's football and tennis teams.
But carving out a career as a mental performance consultant is not like becoming a doctor, dentist or lawyer where you go to school, accept a degree and simply start the job.
"There have been times when my wife and I have wondered if this would work financially," Jensen said. "But it's worked out. I never thought I'd have this many clients this soon after finishing school."
While forging his new career, Jensen connected with fellow mental performance coach Justin Su'a. Once a seminary teacher and, like Jensen, a former missionary, Su'a now works with the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Browns. The two stay in touch and offer each other support, Su'a said.
Su'a started out in Pleasant Grove — "not exactly a sports mecca," he said.
"It's extremely hard. You've got to create the job. There are no handouts. You've got to step into places and be vulnerable to show people that your services are needed," said Su'a, who recently celebrated a World Series victory with the Red Sox one day and then soon saw the Browns deal with the turmoil of a midseason coaching change. "Riley's ability to step into the unknown and chase his dream, without a paved path, and create opportunities for himself has been amazing to watch."
Recently, Jensen has consulted with coaches and athletes on various teams at Weber State, building relationships and identifying needs. His methods and expertise are making a positive difference, according to Amy Crosbie, associate athletic director and senior woman administrator at WSU.
Crosbie said Jensen approached the Weber State athletic department at a time when they needed help, and "the stars aligned." In addition to helping the student-athletes develop tools for dealing with stress and anxiety, Jensen is helping them develop life skills and cope with hard things, Crosbie said.
"I just can't say enough about what a great relationship and the bonuses he's brought to our program," Crosbie said. "It's been a piece of the pie that has always been needed but for some reason it's becoming more evident."
Jensen was a junior college All-American at Snow College before going on to play quarterback at Utah State. Following his graduation in 1998, Jensen became the offensive coordinator at Snow College and served as a graduate assistant at North Carolina State. He has also worked as an assistant football coach at Cottonwood, Olympus and Alta high schools.
Jensen's experience as a former college athlete has added to his value as a mental performance coach, Crosbie said.
"He recognizes the experiences they are going through and that gives him some street cred," Crosbie said.
Tools and principles
The timing and need to share what Jensen has learned is precise considering the rising generation's problem with anxiety and depression. As a mental performance coach, Jensen sees his job as helping young athletes to put tools in their belts, like Batman does with his utility belt, he said.
"I would say 90 percent of what I work with is confidence, anxiety and focus. ... Truthfully, I feel like this is an anxiety generation," Jensen said. "They also suffer from perfectionism. If everything isn't perfect and aligned, it seems to ruin the universe. Some of my job is to just walk them back from that mental edge. It's OK, you're not perfect. Neither were your parents. ... Batman, one of my favorite superheroes, doesn't have X-ray vision. He can't fly. He doesn't have special abilities. But he has really cool tools and access to machines. I'm teaching them to put these tools in their belt and pull them out when they need them."
In supplying useful tools for mental utility belts, Jensen has shared timeless gospel principles that resonate on a universal level.
One example is keeping a gratitude journal. Jensen advises athletes to write down three things they're grateful for each day, such as the time and care that coaches, parents and teachers contribute on their behalf.
"If you do that for 30 days, not only are you happier in general, you're successful, your performance goes up and your ability to be a better teammate goes up," Jensen said. "That almost seems like a church exercise — 'Count your many blessings, name them one by one.' Science has shown it has so many benefits for a child."
Another principle comes from the Book of Mormon — "By small and simple things are great things brought to pass" (Alma 37:6). Small daily habits like getting enough sleep, getting up early, making your bed, meditation and others can make an enormous difference over time, Jensen said.
"They become impactful in people's lives, not only religiously, but in sports psychology," Jensen said. "There are so many principles that cross over. Truth is truth. When I share truth, whether it's science or religious, it makes an impact in people's lives."
Lessons from France
Jensen has drawn upon his personal experiences as a Latter-day Saint missionary to assist in his mental performance coaching. One valuable lesson Jensen learned is that you have to let go of outcomes and focus on the process to be successful.
While Jensen was serving in Marseille, France, in the mid 1990s, the average number of baptisms per missionary per year was less than one, so a missionary was fortunate to get one, Jensen said.
Jensen learned not to worry about baptisms and focused on putting in a good day's work every single day.
"There was a specific day in my mission that I consider a spiritual anchor in my life where I needed to let go of the fact that I wasn't going to have 50, 25 or even five baptism," Jensen said. "The day I was able to let go of that outcome, place my fears and doubts on the Savior's lap and say, 'help me focus on the process of what I need to do, help me focus on what's most important for you, not for me,' that changed my mission and probably changed my life."
Translated into sports psychology terms, there's a routine to finding success each day, Jensen said.
"What are you doing every day to win the morning?" Jensen said. "On the mission, you can go through the motions or you can get up and attack the morning and see the importance of it. You can use that to springboard you into the day."
A secondary lesson is to work while you wait for your opportunity, to "hustle while you wait," Jensen said.
"The phrase in sports psychology is 'champions act like champions long before they are champions,'" Jensen said.
As with service in the church, the best part of being a mental toughness and performance coach is the warm feeling of serving and helping others, Jensen said.3 comments on this story
"When you serve others, you feel good, and your life is blessed. It's this beautiful cycle that exists in the world of serving other people. And that's what I get to do — I serve people every day," Jensen said. "I help them find solutions. I talk to them, I walk them through scenarios. I do my best to help them to perform at a higher level. And I get a great deal of gratification out of it. They thank me for it, and they tell other people about it, and it comes back to me tenfold. It's really easy to see the correlations between my job and the gospel every day.
"I love truth and I like helping people find truth. It's really a cool merging of my life to be able to work with athletes from ages 9 to 42 now and utilize some of the truths I'm able to share. Man, what a cool job."