DU Alumna Plays Essential Role for New York Giants as First Director of Wellness and Clinical Services
In just a few weeks, you can find clinical psychologist Lani Lawrence (PsyD ’12) on the sidelines alongside NFL coaches and staff at the league’s Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
As the New York Giants’ first director of wellness and clinical services, she’ll meet with and interview prospects and potential draft picks — just one piece of her multifaceted role.
Whether it’s creating programming for the newest rookie class, supporting third- and fourth-year players who may be in the last year of their contracts, or zeroing in on ways to boost regular season performance while managing stressors, every day is a little different.
The Giants, like other NFL teams, have used sport psychologists in consultant roles but not as full-time employees. But Lawrence is changing the Giants' and others' perspective on the importance of integrating mental performance with physical performance.
Back in 2022, she received a shout-out from the Giants’ head coach Brian Daboll during a postgame interview about her ability to teach players how to simultaneously process failure while continuing to play during a game, according to a New York Post article.
Lawrence’s path to the NFL was not always clear; however, the faculty, staff and fellow students she met at the University of Denver while completing her doctorate in clinical psychology in the Graduate School of Professional Psychology (GSPP) opened many doors to help get her there.
“[The program is] a really rich experience where the faculty, the programming and the practicum experiences put you in a really competitive position to get either an internship or job afterward,” she says. “DU provided all of the opportunities I needed to be successful in ways that I don't think other universities could have.”
Lawrence was one of the first students to combine a doctorate in clinical psychology with sport and performance psychology training.
“Since there wasn’t an existing model for this, Lani had to figure a lot of it out on her own, and the many students that have since followed this path have benefited from her skill, persistence and willingness to share and mentor,” says Mark Aoyagi, GSPP’s co-director of sport and performance psychology.
One memorable experience Lawrence had with her cohort and Aoyagi was the chance to present at an international conference in Morocco on a topic of her choosing – “Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation in Sport.”
“[The program’s faculty] really encouraged us to pursue our passions and to be vocal about the things that were important to us,” she adds.
Because Lawrence was also encouraged to participate in professional committees and associations, it only took a few years after graduating from DU for her to become a member of the Executive Board of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.
More than a decade since she graduated, Lawrence still leans on and appreciates the support from her “supporting cast” at DU.
“I benefited from having great mentors who guided me, but also classmates who encouraged me. Those relationships continued well past Denver,” Lawrence says.
“Graduate school can be competitive; however, the more you view your classmates as allies instead of competitors, the more support and collaboration you’ll receive once you enter your early career. People remember how you treated them,” she adds.
She also routinely jumps at the chance to support current GSPP students in whatever way she can — and did so as recently as last week, Aoyagi says.
“These types of situations happen often in our program, where alumni volunteer their time to give back and make connections with current students, and these connections lead to further connections, job leads and, not uncommonly, jobs,” he says.
Before joining the Giants, Lawrence was a clinical and sport psychologist at the University of Southern California, and an adjunct professor.
She earned her master’s degree in counseling psychology and sport psychology at Boston University and her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Northeastern University, where she also played Division I basketball.
It was at Northeastern where she was first exposed to the role psychology could play in athletics. The university’s new head coach, brought in during Lawrence’s senior season, hired a sport psychologist to attend practices and games.
While many of the younger players leaned on the sport psychologist heavily, she also found herself utilizing the support.
“I struggled with anxiety for a bit, and he taught me how deep breathing would help me relax and how creating a mantra would help direct my focus and mindset before the game,” Lawrence says.
Now, as she begins her fourth year with the Giants, Lawrence sees the conversations and actions related to mental health in professional sports trending in the right direction — in no small part due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
During that time, many student athletes experienced isolation, frustration and depression due to their seasons being canceled. As a result, universities across the country integrated sport psychologists into their respective athletic departments.
Now that trend, along with the many players who have been exposed to those resources, is reaching the NFL and other professional leagues.
“Now what we're seeing in the NFL is that we have a group of rookies coming in who are very well versed in understanding how mental health impacts their performance, impacts their livelihood. They're very open and talking about their struggles and wanting support and seeing that as a strength,” Lawrence says.
She sees this as “definitely going in a direction of growth” and anticipates seeing more full-time professionals like her in the league, as well as more focus on mental health and performance in graduate training programs.