Mind Over Sports

Twenty years ago I predicted the quarterback of the future would be a powerful, strong running back who could throw the ball with considerable accuracy. And today, we have Cam Newton who fits the bill perfectly. Now don’t get me wrong. I think Peyton Manning will go down in history as one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. And who knows? Before he’s finished, Cam Newton could also achieve that same level. But when it comes to Super Bowl 50, I have to go with Cam. His ability to run the ball opens a new dimension in the game allowing a quarterback to pick up 8 and 9 yards at a time when the defensive linebackers drop back to cover the wide receivers. And I think, even though Denver has a fantastic defense, Cam Newton’s performance will make the difference in the game.

When San Francisco linebacker Chris Borland retired from the NFL after just one year, it was because he was concerned about long-term brain damage as a result of concussions received while playing football. After his retirement, the following appeared in ESPN The Magazine:

One day in April, the NFL asked Chris Borland to take a random drug test. The timing of this request was, in a word, bizarre, since Borland, a San Francisco 49ers linebacker, had retired a month earlier after a remarkable rookie season. He said he feared getting brain damage if he continued to play.

Borland had been amazed at the reaction to his decision, the implications of which many saw as a direct threat to the NFL. And now here was an email demanding that he pee in a cup before a league proctor within 24 hours or fail the test. “I figured if I said no, people would think I was on drugs,” he said recently. That, he believed, “would ruin my life.” As he thought about how to respond, Borland began to wonder how random this drug test really was.
What did the NFL still want with him? Nobody could have held out much hope that he’d change his mind. On Friday, March 13, when Borland retired via email, he attached a suggested press release, then reaffirmed his intentions in conversations with 49ers officials. Instead of announcing Borland’s retirement, the team sent him a bill — an unsubtle reminder that he’d have to return most of his $617,436 signing bonus if he followed through. That Monday, Borland, knowing he was forgoing at least $2.35 million, not to mention a promising career, made the announcement himself to Outside the Lines. He has since elaborated on the decision to everyone from Face the Nation to Charlie Rose to undergraduates at Wisconsin, where he was an All-American.

Borland has consistently described his retirement as a pre-emptive strike to (hopefully) preserve his mental health. “If there were no possibility of brain damage, I’d still be playing,” he says. But buried deeper in his message are ideas perhaps even more threatening to the NFL and our embattled national sport. It’s not just that Borland won’t play football anymore. He’s reluctant to even watch it, he now says, so disturbed is he by its inherent violence, the extreme measures that are required to stay on the field at the highest levels and the physical destruction (he has witnessed to people he loves and admires — especially to their brains.

I was watching the Missouri State – Oklahoma State basketball game last night and was amazed as Missouri State guard Dequon Miller dribbled the length of the floor and scored on a driving lay-up to put the Bears back in front – for good. I thought I was watching a rerun of the 1995 Missouri-UCLA game when UCLA’s Tyrus Edney did the same with 4.7 seconds left on the clock and tossed in a swooping lay-up just before the buzzer. But in this case, the Oklahoma State team still had :07.3 left to play. And that’s when I thought Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford made a wrong call. His team brought the ball down the court and shot an air ball from the perimeter as time ran out but it seems to me he should have called for the ball to be fed to their inside post man and a possible 3-foot shot from under the basket and if he missed the shot there was always the possibility he would be fouled. But we’ll never know. I’m sure Coach Ford had his reasons. I think this is an excellent example of what former Baseball Manager Casey Stengel meant when he said “Teams lose games more than they win them.” I think Oklahoma State lost that game. And could have won it.

When Dallas Cowboy Greg Hardy battered and bruised his former girlfriend, Nicole Holder, it brought to mind a little known fact that most sports pundits are unaware of. That is, how some young men like Hardy (and notice I said “some”) are reared in a cultural environment that encourages them to withhold their feelings because it’s not considered macho. It’s not considered macho to cry, for example. The result is they have been programmed since early childhood to keep everything inside themselves and it often explodes in public in the form of misdirected anger, which, as young adults, they often direct toward members of the opposite sex. When you combine this cultural characteristic with the fact that many of them, since their high school years, have lived a life of entitlement and are treated special, you are creating a potentially explosive situation. Coaches often look the other way or are always there to bail them out of a problem because of their massive amount of talent and ability. But when they come face to face with reality, it can have a devastating effect on their lives and the lives of others.

We’ve all had that image of the little old lady sitting on her front porch in a rocking chair, holding her bible, often described as being cantankerous. That is, difficult to deal with and speaks her mind. But the fact is, these are characteristics of someone with high self-esteem. They don’t keep their feelings bottled-up. They generally have strong religious beliefs. And it’s not uncommon for them to live into their 90’s.

And you often find these same characteristics in successful athletes.

And how does it all start? There is no doubt that genetics has considerable influence, but the one common denominator is that at some time in their lives, often when they were small children, they received unconditional love resulting in their having a high sense of inner-self, or self-esteem.

Very often this love came from one or both parents. But if their parents were not there for them, it was often the love of a grandparent. Sometimes even a professor or a coach. Being loved as a small child lays the foundation for a successful and happy life, because children who are loved grow up to love themselves.

And if you’re a coach recruiting an athlete, how can you tell in advance that the athlete will be successful? Just check his or her eye contact. Good eye contact means high self-esteem. Poor eye contact, low self-esteem. And those with low self-esteem are generally bottling-up their feelings and emotions, which makes them prone to mental errors during competition.

I know this may sound ridiculous, but during the fourth game of the World Series, when the Royals were behind, my cat, Apple, jumped up on the sofa and curled up next to me. I began petting her and stroking her tail and before you could say “Holy Cow!” Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy made an error on Eric Hosmer’s grounder in the eighth inning that keyed a Royals comeback and a win. Then last night, the score was tied as game five headed into extra innings. I looked around and sure enough there was Apple, again curled up next to me. And again I began petting her and stroking her tail and then all of a sudden, well, you know what happened. Christian Colon singled home the tie-breaking run in the 12th and the Royals rallied one more time to beat the Mets. And win the World Series. So I’m thinking maybe next time I visit my daughter in Kansas City I’ll take Apple with me and visit the Royals’ executive offices to find out if they’d like to hire her for next season.

There’s no way to know for sure, but it seems odd to me that someone with Yoenis Cespedes’ talent should perform so poorly in the World Series. He got caught off first base on a double play ball to end Game 4. He batted poorly, and accidentally kicked the ball twice in the outfield. Not to mention hitting himself in his kneecap with his final at bat. One has to wonder if he is having problems with his girlfriend (who is also the mother of his young son) both of whom, as far as I know, still live in Cuba. But if my Psycho Self-Imagery theory is correct, that we create what happens to us, both good and bad, based on our own feelings of self-worth, then perhaps what happened to Cespedes was no accident. But I guess we’ll never know.

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