Mind Over Sports

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.

I was watching John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” show on HBO and one of the subjects he covered was the fact that NCAA basketball coaches are making millions of dollars and some of the athletes they coach are going to bed each night hungry. Mark Emmert, President of the NCAA, was quoted saying: “They (the athletes) are not employees, they’re students.” A number of years ago when the NCAA was first formed, they would not allow for workman’s compensation (because they are college students) and that’s when the phrase “student athletes” first became part of the NCAA vocabulary. And because they do not receive workman’s compensation if they get hurt while playing, they have nowhere to turn for medical treatment and medical expenses. But what really seemed preposterous was when they showed Clemson’s head football coach, Dabo Swinney, saying: “Professionalizing college athletics? That’s when they lose me. I’ll go do something else because there’s enough entitlement in this world as it is.” Swinney, by the way, makes $3 million a year. I wonder where he would go to do something else? I’ve been an advocate of paying college basketball players for a number of years now and who better to help pay them than the National Basketball Association? After all, college sports provides a free farm club for every professional basketball team in the NBA. So it only seems right that they should participate in the payments.


Let’s assume you’re a shooting guard and play for a Division I Men’s Basketball Team. Just before one of your games you’ve experienced a problem in your personal life and haven’t told anyone about it. You’ve “stuffed it” inside yourself, thus affecting your ability to focus. In that particular game you go 1 for 10, which means you missed nine shots. Those nine shots represented a potential 18 points (even more if any were three pointers) not to mention that the opposing team may have gotten the rebounds and taken the ball down the court and hit five of them. That represents another 10 points. If you combine them they represent a 28 point differential. Pretty hard to overcome in a typical game. It’s like giving your opponent a 28 point advantage. And that’s from just one player. That’s why I advocate coaches create team support groups, allowing their players to talk about their personal feelings and issues with their teammates instead of “bottling” them up. And very often a player’s issues could be the result of a problem with the coach, which is why team meetings without coaches present often produce a positive change in the won-lost column. Remember, withholding (keeping your issues and emotions bottled up inside yourself) is a form of lying that demeans you and lowers your self-esteem, creating psychological baggage that affects your ability to focus and process information.

It’s a new world out there when it comes to enhancing performance among NFL rookies who participate in the NFL combine. They’ve been checked and analyzed for everything from GPS tracking devices, heart monitors, sleep patches, journals to monitor nutrition, soreness and anxiety levels, medical histories, psychological profiles, functional movement patterns, biomechanical assessments and Krossover’s sIQ tests to record a player’s reaction time. So let’s assume that a player passes all the tests with flying colors but later, team coaches and team owners realize there’s one thing they’ve been unable to pre-test for: the likelihood that a player will get into an argument with his girlfriend the night before a game (and doesn’t tell anyone) and subsequently drops three passes that hit him right in the numbers. That’s why team support group sessions are so important to the success of a team. Support group sessions allow players to get things off their chests and share their personal problems with their teammates in the privacy of a controlled environment.

Here’s a great example of how, when athletes are happy and their lives are in harmony, an unseen power seems to take over and propels them to a championship. Such was the case today watching James Hahn win the PGA Northern Trust Open in a playoff. Hahn drained a 25-footer on the final hole for a birdie. After things settled down, he was interviewed and first thing he mentioned was how happy he was that he and his wife were expecting a new baby girl in three weeks. In the LPGA, it’s not unusual to see a professional golfer take a break, have a baby, then return to the tour and immediately start winning. This is in line with the Psycho Self-Imagery theory that says when you’re happy and your life is in harmony you create positive events in your life, on and off the field of competition.

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Mind Over Sports
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