Pioneering sports psychologist Dr. Richard Coop dead at 81

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Richard “Dick” Howell Coop, one of the first sports psychologists to work with PGA Tour pros and who helped some of the biggest names in the sport, died on Dec. 29 after a battle with Parkinson’s Disease. He was 81.

“Dr. C,” as he was affectionately called, served as a professor of educational psychology at the University of North Carolina School of Education for 30 years until retiring in 1999. He was the author of several golf books, the first of which was titled The New Golf Mind in 1978 with Gary Wiren, and he went on to write numerous articles and books on the mental aspects of golf, including Mind Over Golf with Bill Fields in 1993.

“Dr. Coop helped me relax and let my swing take over,” Stewart wrote in the foreword to the latter book. “He encouraged me to develop a consistent pre-shot routine and use it whether it’s my first swing on Thursday morning or the last one on Sunday afternoon, when the pressure of competition is at its greatest.”

Stewart won his first major, the 1989 PGA Championship, the year after he started working with Coop, who also helped the likes of Ben Crenshaw, Larry Mize and Scott Simpson reach their potential.

His clients included NASCAR drivers and athletes in various other sports. In a 2013 Golf Digest story, Coop detailed how he assisted a pair of Boston Red Sox catchers who couldn’t throw the ball back to the pitcher. “They were both thinking how silly they would look if they made a bad throw. As long as they were in the bullpen, where it didn’t matter, one of the catchers could throw it harder than the pitchers,” said Coop. It took two months for the tool he gave them to take hold. “When they caught the ball, they had to look down and then raise their eyes and as soon as they saw ‘Red Sox’ on the jersey, they had to let it go. By defining the time of the release, it took away the decision-making.”

Starting at a young age watching his father coach basketball, football, and baseball, Coop learned how athletes respond to pressure situations. Overcoming polio as a child, Coop became an athlete himself, and learned from his own reactions to tense game situations.

Born in 1940 in Campbellsville, Kentucky, Coop graduated from Western Kentucky University with a degree in biology and psychology. In 1968 he received his Ed.D in educational psychology from Indiana University in Bloomington.

His obituary on the UNC School of Education web site noted that “he was known for having a quick and sharp sense of humor that quickly put athletes at ease, respected for his knowledge, and loved for his ability to take complex ideas and present them in ways that changed peoples’ lives.”

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