Mind Over Sports

When it was announced last night, just prior to the start of the Chicago Cubs – Pittsburgh Pirates game, that Pedro Alvarez would not be starting at first base and was being replaced by utility player Sean Rodriguez, I was amazed. It’s true that Alvarez is much more prone to making errors but it seems to me the team needed his fire power at the plate. Here’s a guy (Alvarez) whose 27 home runs led the team but whose 23 errors made him a defensive liability. Now I’m a big Clint Hurdle fan but I believe it’s possible that not starting Alvarez might have had a more important negative effect on team attitude. After all, here was one of their buddies who they played with throughout the entire season and when it came to the most important game of the year, their manager chose not to start him. But did they speak up and tell Clint how they felt. I doubt it. Because if they did, Clint would have viewed their behavior as infringing on his managerial ability to make decisions. And yet it was (in my opinion) this very “withholding” that affected their ability to focus on hitting the ball. This was especially true of Andrew McCutchen during the entire season. He must have been withholding something all season long or how else would you explain a .350 hitter batting just .300?

According to the Internet: “Mental toughness is a controversial term, in that many people use the term liberally to refer to any set of positive attributes that helps a person to cope with difficult situations. Coaches and sport commentators freely use the term mental toughness to describe the mental state of athletes who persevere through difficult sport circumstances to succeed.

Dr. Jim Loehr of the Human Performance Institute defined mental toughness as ‘the ability to consistently perform towards the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances.’”

My research over the past 28 years has shown that individuals who are often identified as someone with mental toughness are the same individuals who come from a loving, nurturing home environment or had someone in their lives who loved them unconditionally. People with a high sense of self-worth are the same people who practice endurance and persistency in their personal lives. And these two characteristics are found in individuals with high self-esteem.

When Jamaal Charles fumbled twice last night during the Chiefs-Broncos game, it was as much the coaching staff’s fault (and the front office’s fault) as it was Jamaal’s.

Here’s why: Jamaal is a professional athlete but even professional athletes are human beings first, and then athletic performers. They have problems just like the rest of us mortals. And I’m not talking about deep-seated psychological problems. I’m referring to problems they might be having with their wives, or girlfriends, or financial problems, problems with a coach, or problems with a teammate. If they keep their problems bottled up, if they withhold them and don’t tell anyone about what’s bothering them, it will negatively affect their game during competition. They will not be focused and are more susceptible to fumbles, dropped passes, and missed tackles.

Former NFL coach Joe Gibbs realized this late in his career when he was negotiating an athlete’s contract and figured out the athlete, even though he was making millions of dollars a year, was having financial problems. Former NFL running back Eddie George, when Tiger Woods’ issues became public, stated: “Ninety percent of all NFL athletes are having extra-marital affairs.” If true, why doesn’t the coaching staff and front office do something about it?

Much has been written about the importance of the turnover/takeaway ratio in the NFL. Few however are able explain the reasons turnovers happen.

Some say it’s because the opposing team has focused their defensive efforts on the practice of ripping the ball out of the runner’s hands, or other reasons.

While there may be some truth to these theories, my experience working with athletes and players has made it clear that when athletes are carrying around unresolved issues in their lives, they are more prone to making mistakes. When they are withholding their feelings, when they have misdirected anger at their teammates or coaches, or when they’ve had an argument with their wives or girlfriends (or both) they are prone to fumbling the ball, or dropping a pass that hits them in the numbers, or jumping off sides, or, if the player is a quarterback, throwing multiple interceptions in a game.

The reason is simple: They are not focused.

And it all starts with the coaches and assistant coaches (and the front office) and how they interact with their players, how they listen to their players issues and personal problems, and the type of feedback program they have created internally that allows players to air their grievances (both personal and team related) without being punished.

It’s no coincidence that the NFL teams with the best turnover/takeaway ratio are successful, while those with the worst are not.

Psychokinesis (PK) is an umbrella term for an ability that involves manipulating matter with the mind. Like the completion of two “Hail Mary” passes during two NCAA football games resulting in winning both games.

According to USA Today: “The 11th pass of his (Mangum’s) college career was a game-winning Hail Mary as time expired to shock Nebraska…Trailing by a field goal with less than a minute left against Boise State, Magnum opted against a safe play – the 8-plus yards needed to convert a fourth-down try – and went for it all, again finding (Mitchell) Juergens for the winning TD.”

Two games, two miracles? Not quite. You see, Mangum has something special going for him. The 24-year old freshman previously opted to spend two years for his mission in Antofogasta, Chile, a port city near the country’s northern tip, helping indigent people of that country to improve their lives.
“I see the lessons it taught me every day,” Mangum said. “It carries over to football. Having to work hard, having to do hard things, having to be independent.”

What Mangum didn’t say is that he is happy, that his life is in harmony, and how working with those Chileans enhanced his own feelings of self-worth, which subsequently enhanced his ability to manipulate matter with his mind.

Very often when colleges and professional teams are looking for a new head coach they look for someone who is strong-willed, who is a take-charge type of guy and will instill the fear of G-d in his players. The Marine drill sergeant type who isn’t afraid to “kick a few butts” and will let the team know in no uncertain terms that it’s “my way or the highway.” This is the type of person a team should hire, right? Wrong!

The best head coaches are those coaches who have been through some type of adversity or tragedy in their personal lives that makes them have great empathy for their players. And that’s one of the most important characteristics a coach can have. When his players know he cares about them as human beings first and then as athletic performers, they’ll play their hearts out for him. And this is something a coach can’t fake. Either he has it, or he doesn’t. Here are three examples of coaches who have it:

Andy Reid, head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. In 2012, his oldest son Garrett, died of a heroin overdose.

Cuonzo Martin, men’s basketball coach at the University of California, is a cancer survivor, having been diagnosed in 1997 while playing professional basketball in an Italian League in Europe.

Clint Hurdle, manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team, is a former alcoholic and has a daughter who has been diagnosed with Prader-Willi Syndrome.

All three of these coaches have been highly successful and the primary reason is because they have great empathy for their players. They don’t want their players to fear them. But rather, they want their players to know they love them.

I was once watching a television interview with Bob Dylan and the announcer asked him what plans he had for the future. Dylan replied that he couldn’t share that information with him and his audience because if he did, it wouldn’t happen. Dylan was way ahead of his time and instinctively knew what would (or wouldn’t) happen if he shared his goals and intentions.

It’s not uncommon for athletes and coaches (and others) to set goals for themselves, but an article written by Derek Sivers (sivers.org) has pointed out the importance of not revealing those goals/intentions to others since it could have the opposite effect of what you may have intended. Here’s a brief summary of what Derek wrote:

Shouldn’t you announce your goals, so friends can support you? Isn’t it good networking to tell people about your upcoming goals? Doesn’t the “law of attraction” mean you should state your intention, and visualize the goal as already yours?

Not at all. Tests done since 1933 show that people who talk about their intentions (goals) are less likely to make them happen. Announcing your intentions (goals) to others satisfies your self-identity just enough that you’re less motivated to do the hard work needed. In 1933, W. Mahler found that if a person announced the solution to a problem, and was acknowledged by others, it was now in the brain as a “social reality”, even if the solution hadn’t actually been achieved.

NYU psychology professor Peter Gollwitzer has been studying this since his 1982 book “Symbolic Self-Completion” and recently published results of new tests in a research article, “When Intentions Go Public: Does Social Reality Widen the Intention-Behavior Gap?”  Four different tests of 63 people found that those who kept their intentions (goals) private were more likely to achieve them than those who made them public and were acknowledged by others.

Once you’ve told people of your intentions (goals), it gives you a “premature sense of completeness.” You have “identity symbols” in your brain that make your self-image. Since both actions and talk create symbols in your brain, talking satisfies the brain enough that it “neglects the pursuit of further symbols.”

It may seem unnatural to keep your intentions (goals) private, but try it. You’ll be amazed at the results.

USA TODAY columnist Nancy Armour wrote a great column in today’s USA TODAY about Pittsburgh Steelers Linebacker James Harrison giving back his sons’ “Participation Trophies” because they hadn’t earned them, something Ms. Armour was in complete agreement with. As am I. After reading the column it reminded me of something I had written in my new book, “Psycho Self-Imagery” about how the Self-Improvement Movement in this country was heading in the wrong direction. Here’s what I wrote:

“The self-improvement movement in America is heading in the wrong direction, exploiting needs of people who want a quick fix. One of the founders of the positive thinking movement built an entire industry based on a false premise: You can affect behavior in people through positive affirmations; that is, by standing in front of a mirror and telling yourself how wonderful you are. Or by rewarding school children with gold stars for mediocre work; or by engaging in positive self-talk to turn your life around. Best-selling books speak to us of The Personality Ethic, Unlimited Power, Personal Power, Cognitive Behavior & Success Triangles.

Self-proclaimed experts tell us how to reach peak performance, how to master the art of selling, how to deliver superior customer service, how to tap into the power of focused thinking and how to be a great communicator. But none of these approaches takes into consideration the self-image, or self-esteem, of their audiences. Individuals take action and respond to situations based on how they feel about themselves – and this is something they seldom address.

People have grown wealthy in this country by posing as motivational speakers, but I don’t believe you can motivate anyone. Inspire, yes. But not motivate. Motivation must come from within, and the higher an individual’s self-image, the greater his or her motivation.

It has often been said that certain coaches are great motivators. What really is meant is that these coaches create an environment for their athletes to build their own self-images and then motivate themselves.”

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Mind Over Sports
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