Ann Arborite Dan Saferstein
by Eve Silberman
Dan Saferstein knows how important sports are to a lot of Ann Arbor kids--and to their families. "In this city, parents have high expectations," he says. "College [athletic] scholarships become kind of a carrot they chase ... It seems like a status thing or a trophy."
A former U-M tennis player himself, Saferstein appreciates the way sports can help young people stand out in the crowd and feel better about themselves. But as a psychologist who specializes in helping student athletes, their families, and the occasional worried coach, he also sees the downside of too much parental pressure. "A lot of kids come because fear [of not being the best] is interfering with their love for the game."
When family pressure is in the picture, Saferstein usually meets first with the child, then with the parents, and, finally, everyone together. Things can get sticky, he says, but "my job is to help them gain perspective." Even the "worst sports parents, they love their kids," he explains. "They just want them to do better."
He stresses that there's nothing wrong with parents being competitive--as long as they can learn to focus that drive on something besides their child.
"A kid has his own destiny," he says. "You can get all the best trainers--it's not necessarily going to produce the best champion."
At fifty-four, Saferstein is fit and vigorous. His forehead is broad, his smile wide, and his relaxed attitude is reflected in the serene demeanor of his office. Eastern art is poised on shelves and stands. Soft leather chairs are grouped around a coffee table.
As welcoming as Saferstein makes his office, his young clients don't linger. "Often it's two or three times, they shake hands, feel they're satisfied with what they got, and so do I," he says. A frequent issue is how to stay calm at tense times, when they're up at bat or trying to sink a basket, and their minds are racing "a hundred miles an hour." He works
with them on breathing and relaxation exercises and shutting out distracting thoughts.
Saferstein doesn't follow them onto the playing field, but sometimes he gets close. "He was kind of a fly on the wall in the locker room," recalls former U-M soccer coach Steve Burns. After a listless 2007-2008 season, Burns brought Saferstein in during the following year. The coach believes Saferstein helped players "open up" about their feelings, and improved team morale--and performance.
That included the coach. "One piece of advice I really liked from Dr. Dan: he talked about my body language on the sidelines," Burns recalls. Saferstein told him not to cover his throat with his hands while he watched the team play, explaining that it projected nervousness.
Saferstein (who also maintains a traditional practice) recently published a short book, Your Coaching Legacy, whose chapters have brisk, practical titles such as "Think of Yourself as a Teacher," "Learn from Losses," and "Know When to Call Time-Out." It follows Win or Lose, for sports parents, and Strength In You, for student athletes. A mother of a sometimes-anxious young swimmer says she finds Strength in You so helpful that "I keep it by my bed at night."
Saferstein got more personal in Love for the Living, a combined memoir/advice book published in 2000. The tragic death of his younger sister, Rebecca, in a motorcycle crash prompted him to revisit the dynamics of his own life, from his parents' troubled marriage (they eventually divorced) to deciding, with his wife, Lisa Carn, to have a third child, partly in response to Rebecca's death at age twenty-eight. While the writing provided emotional release, Saferstein--who describes himself as "competitive," like the athletes he advises--was disappointed with the tepid sales. Although his agent had secured a "six-figure" advance and held out hopes for a best seller, the publishing house, in the mysterious ways of publishing houses, sat on the book for two years then released it with zero fanfare.
Moving from Cincinnati to the Detroit suburbs when he was thirteen, Saferstein recalls that he was always the poorest kid in his crowd. Though he played both football and tennis competitively, by seventeen he realized he was not going to be a star in either. At that point, he says, "My dream of being a great athlete was replaced by my dream of being a writer."
He majored in creative writing at U-M and was excited when a famous visiting writer, Sir Angus Wilson, praised a novella he wrote. But the novella went nowhere, and after graduation he worked for four years in residential homes for troubled teens in Ann Arbor.
Interested in psychology because of the guidance he'd received from wise coaches as a high school player, Saferstein eventually moved to San Diego, California, where he earned his PhD from the former California School of Professional Psychology (now Alliant International University). Returning to Ann Arbor, he worked for a clinic before deciding he wanted to go it alone; he found his first clients by cold-calling churches and schools. Later, when his two sons and daughter all played sports in the Ann Arbor schools (the youngest, Josh Carn-Saferstein, is a senior at Skyline), he got a lot of word-of-mouth business through their friends and coaches.
Josh recently quit playing travel soccer to concentrate on a start-up selling sports-team-themed sunglasses. Consistent with the counsel he gives parents, Saferstein didn't urge him otherwise. "It's his call," he says.
His confidence in that advice was reinforced recently while out walking the family dog, Maggie, a friendly Lab/mutt. They ran into the father of a former patient, whom Saferstein had seen when he was an ambitious--and anxious--high school tennis player.
"You did my son a favor when you told him he's not going to be a professional," the dad told Saferstein. Freed from the pressure of unrealistic hopes, his son told him afterwards, "I can go out and enjoy tennis!"
[Originally published in September, 2013.]