Mind Over Sports

A few years ago, before chewing tobacco was banned in college baseball, I had the opportunity to walk inside a Division I college baseball team’s dugout and couldn’t (at first) understand why the floor of the dugout was so sticky. Then it hit me: Spit from chewing tobacco. But there’s a reason chewing tobacco should be banned in MLB that’s much more important than sticky dugout floors: Cancer. There’s no question that chewing tobacco damages healthy cells in the body and causes them to become cancerous. Normally, the immune system would be standing by to gobble them up Pac-Man style. But when a ball player experiences stress in is life (and make no mistake about it, playing major league baseball is a stressful business, especially when you’re making millions of dollars) the body gives off hormones such as Cortisol that impair the immune system and the cancer cells begin to multiply at a rate faster than they can be devoured. Just ask Tony Gwinn, Sr. Unfortunately, you can’t ask him because he passed away June 16, 2014 of salivary gland cancer. And before he died he attributed his habit of chewing tobacco to his being diagnosed with cancer.

When former Duke standout Bobby Hurley was recently hired as Arizona State’s new head basketball coach, his dad made the following comment: “The thing he probably learned from Mike Krzyzewski more than anything else is the daily communication with the college athlete…They’re comfortable coming in (to his office) when they have a problem. They can keep the air clear all the time so there are no individual problems.”

When athletes “keep the air clear” and don’t bottle-up their problems they’ll perform close to their skill levels on a consistent basis. But if they do bottle-up their problems it’s a form of lying that not only affects how they feel about themselves but also their ability to focus. That’s why open communication between players and coaches is so essential if a team is to be successful.

One last point about Coach Hurley. His Sun Devils should be competing for the national title within a three or four year period. Because of his relationship with Coach K he’ll probably be on the receiving end of a direct pipeline with Coach K sending him his overflow of championship caliber athletes for whom he doesn’t have scholarships.

If my theory is correct, that athletes perform close to their skill levels when they are happy and have powerful positive beliefs, then Adam Scott should win the 2015 Masters. He’s newly married and became a father in February; he has a new caddie; and he’s going back to a broomstick putter which he used when winning in 2013   All of this, of course, is predicated on the assumption that he has the talent to win, which he does since he’s won the Masters before. How will Tiger do? It depends on whether or not he’s straightened out his problems with his ex-wife. I should point out that the assumption he’s having problems with his ex-wife is strictly an assumption on my part. But one good sign is that Tiger’s significant other, Lindsey Vonn, won the World Cup Downhill title last month so that’s an indication she and Tiger are getting along well. Because if Tiger is having problems with his ex, it would more than likely affect their relationship and show up in her performance. POST MASTERS COMMENT: Sorry, I goofed.  There must be something going on in Adam’s personal life that I’m unaware of…

Coach Calipari understands the value of making sure his team members know he cares about them and their personal lives as well as their lives as athletes on his team. It began with his pre-season Pro Camp where he invited all the NBA GM’s and Scouts to visit his team working out before the season started. His purpose was to make sure his team players got the necessary exposure to the NBA people so that it would increase the possibility that, after they finish playing at the University of Kentucky, they would have a running start at becoming instant millionaires. He also hired Bob Rotella, one of this country’s top sport psychologists to help him. (Rotella is one of those sport psychologists who is reportedly violating his academic oath by helping athletes with their personal problems, something he’s not allowed to do since that’s the domain of the clinical psychologist and if found out, could lose his license.) But lingering in Coach Calipari’s past is when he was fired as head coach of the New Jersey Nets after having brought motivational speaker Tony Robbins into a team meeting to have team members break two-by-four boards with their bare hands. It didn’t work.

I first met Ryan Howard, first baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies, when he was playing here in Springfield, Missouri for the Missouri State University Bears. He impressed me as being a very nice young man. I recall I asked him what he did if he had any kind of personal problem in his life and he said, “I talk to my dad.” Ryan said he and his dad had always been close. That’s why I was surprised to read in the media last November, 2014 that he was experiencing family and financial problems (that included his dad) for the past two years, which, in my mind, explains why his game had slipped during that time. But he must have smoothed things over with his family, including his dad, because he’s having a nice spring training, having hit three home runs. Just another example of: what takes place away from the baseball diamond affects what takes place on the baseball diamond. Go Ryan!

Allie Alvstad, one of the Missouri State University Bears softball players here in Springfield, was recently diagnosed with leukemia and tonight she is being honored by a “Rally for Allie” at the Missouri State University Men’s baseball game. The softball team will be in attendance to sell orange wristbands and t-shirts, while the baseball Bears will wear orange sweatbands and shoelaces to support the “cause.”

I may be wrong but I believe a hundred years from now the health industry will be saying I was right when I point out that this is exactly the opposite of what everyone should be doing if they really want to help Allie. What they’re saying is “poor Allie, we feel sorry for her because there’s a good possibility she might die” (a negative expectation) but what they should be saying is “Hey Allie! No big Deal! Forget about the cancer! Your problem is that you have an impaired immune system allowing the cancer cells in your body to reproduce faster than they can be devoured. That’s why we’re going to focus on your immune system. When you get your immune system fixed the leukemia will disappear.”

And what causes the immune system to become impaired? STRESS!! So if she joins a support group (which should be supplemental to what her doctor prescribes) and talks about what is causing her stress with others in the group, that’s the first step toward getting well. But having a pity party for her is exactly the opposite of what everyone should be doing. It only empowers the illness and re-enforces the negative belief everyone has about the illness. If I had my way, the word “cancer” would be eradicated from the English language.

I’ve been watching the NCAA post-season basketball tournament and noticed that one of the announcers, when commenting on the fact that one of the teams had lost their last three games, said: “They just got rusty.” He said this because he really didn’t know why they had lost their last three games. In fact, this lack of knowledge is really quite common throughout the sports industry. Here’s what I’ve found over the years: There are Primary and Secondary levels of distraction for athletes that will negatively affect their ability to focus. The Primary level is essentially when an athlete gets over-excited and needs to calm his or her nerves. This problem can often be taken care of during the game and we are able to see change in the athlete during the game. These are athletes who can be helped by a sport psychologist. Meditation is often a valuable tool. But there is also the Secondary level that includes, for example, problems with a girlfriend (or boyfriend), financial problems or family problems. These are problems that, once the game gets underway, cannot be addressed and probably won’t ever be addressed until the athlete is made aware that addressing these three types of problems will enhance his or her performance. These are athletes with problems who cannot be helped by a sport psychologist because they are considered clinical in nature and can only be addressed by a clinical psychologist, or someone with clinical experience. When teams become support groups one of their main functions is to have team members interact with each other and address the Secondary level of problems and issues. And when they do, the issues/problems begin to disappear…like magic.

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Mind Over Sports
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