How Josh Lifrak M.S. '05 helped the Cubs win the World Series

One year on Ithaca College’s campus was all the time Josh Lifrak, M.S. ’05, needed to acquire the skills that helped the Chicago Cubs break a 108-year-old curse.

Lifrak, who graduated with a master’s degree in exercise and sport sciences, joined the Cubs in August 2014 and is now the director of the team’s mental skills program. He oversees several individuals who use research-backed tools to get the most out of players mentally, in large part by keeping them calm and focused on what it takes to succeed in any given moment.

The type of training Lifrak offers was especially critical this past season as the Cubs found themselves in the World Series for the first time since 1945, trying to bring home the organization’s first championship since 1908.

“I can’t quantify the impact the mental skills training had, but considering the team was playing in an extra-inning game seven, even one percent might have made a difference between winning and losing,” he said. “Our players were so focused on winning; it was amazing.”

Lifrak’s journey to the Cubs was anything but straightforward. A former rower at the University of Rhode Island, he was 30 years old when he decided to quit waiting tables and go back to school—not exactly a typical student profile.

“Ithaca College took a chance on me,” he admitted. “But they also believed in me, and that meant a lot.”

When Lifrak started the one-year master’s program on South Hill, one of his mentors was Greg Shelley, associate professor of sport psychology. It was Shelley who encouraged him to create his own internship with a team on campus. Lifrak chose the men’s and women’s tennis teams, where he was greeted with open arms.

“Head coach Bill Austin realized the impact mental training could have on his squad and encouraged me to work with his athletes,” Lifrak said.

So he put knowledge into practice, teaching those student–athletes the mental skills that could help them be successful.

“We worked a lot on visualization,” he said. “If a player was struggling with their serve, I’d tell them to relax, visualize tossing the ball in the air, and striking the ball with their racquet.”

On the Ithaca tennis courts, Lifrak began using a phrase that he’d later use with some of the best baseball players in the world: “I tell them, ‘Inhale blue and exhale red,’” he said. “Coaches constantly tell players to breathe, but that’s not always helpful. This provides them a visual cue to help them focus when breathing. I’ve taken that with me from Ithaca to Chicago.”

After graduating from IC, Lifrak worked at IMG Academy, a boarding school and sport training facility, before deciding to make the jump to baseball. He interviewed with the Cleveland Indians who decided he wasn’t the right fit for their organization. However, the Indians did contact the Cubs to let them know about Lifrak. In a twist of irony, the Indians would be the Cubs’ opponent in the World Series.

“The Cubs are a hands-on, forward-thinking organization,” Lifrak said. “In a lot of ways, they’re just like Ithaca College was when I was there—and I suspect that’s why our philosophies meshed so well.”

He’s now part of a World Series–winning organization whose victory parade was deemed by Fox Sports as one of the 10 largest gatherings in human history, but Lifrak still hasn’t forgotten his time at Ithaca. “I’m so grateful to the college and the professors I worked with for encouraging me and helping me get to where I am.”

The Cubs—and their millions of fans—likely feel the same way.