Mind Over Sports

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 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.

The idea of excelling for a higher order originated with the legend of “win one for the Gipper.” It began in 1920 with the death of football legend George Gipp, Notre Dame’s first All-American selection who died at 25 from a strep throat infection. The Fighting Irish were 19-0-1 in his final 20 games. According to Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne, Gipp, on his deathbed, said: “Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock. But I’ll know about it, and I’ll be happy.” Eight years passed before Rockne did so, before a 1928 game against unbeaten Army at Yankee Stadium. “This is the day, and you are the team,” Rockne said. The Fighting Irish scored two second-half touchdowns to win 12-6.

Athletes benefit by excelling for a higher order. In some situations they take on a cause to help an individual or group otherwise unassociated with the team.

One of the most powerful examples is when a teammate’s loved one passes away. In the case of the Kansas City Royals, it involves the recent death of pitcher Edinson Vollquez’s father, pitcher Chris Young’s father who died of cancer September 26th, and third baseman Mike Mostakas’ mother who died of cancer August 9th. In all three situations the Royals have bonded with their teammates and supported them in their grief. And the result has been an increase in self-esteem and team chemistry for the entire team resulting in an increase in performance.

As the poet John Bright wrote: “Find yourself a cause, not a resting place. You may not do much for the cause but the cause will do much for you.”

As we all know, beliefs play an important role in determining the number of pitches a pitcher can throw before his arm tires out. But keep in mind, it’s the pitcher’s beliefs, not the pitching coach’s beliefs, that affect performance.

During the first game of the 2015 World Series, Ned Yost, manager of the Kansas City Royals, decided to put his ace relief pitcher Wade Davis on a short leash regarding pitch count by playing him only during one inning. Was this a waste of talent?

There are many examples on record where pitchers threw more than the limited number of pitches allowed today, and were no worse off for having done so. Though it’s true that there are many new pitches today that didn’t exist years ago, and some of them have been known to damage a pitcher’s arm. However, even some of today’s pitchers believe they pitch better when allowed to exceed the number of pitches normally authorized by the pitching coach, and go the entire nine innings.

Here’s an example of a Letter to the Sports Editor that appeared in The Kansas City Star, April 30, 2000. The writer wrote: “I hope Tony Muser (then manager of the KC Royals) and all of the Royals’ pitchers read about Justin Green, a pitcher for Cameron (Oklahoma) University who pitched all 17 innings in a game recently. The next day he worked an 11-hour shift at a restaurant and showed no arm problems. I think the problem in professional baseball is that the pitchers do not throw enough. A few innings in a game is all they usually throw and then they have to rest for five days. Relief pitchers do even less work, and for the Royals, most of their ERAs are awful.”

But even Green’s remarkable feat didn’t compare with a performance by two pitchers in the same game on May 1, 1920, at Braves Field, when both Boston’s Joe Oeschger and Brooklyn’s Leon Cadore pitched all 26 innings in a 1-1 tie. Two days later Oeschger was back on the mound again pitching part of another 19-inning game.

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?

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