Mind Over Sports

In the world of business, a focus group is a form of qualitative research in which a group of people are asked about their perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes towards a product, service, concept, advertisement, idea, or packaging. Questions are asked in an interactive group setting where participants are free to talk with other group members. The first focus groups were created by psychologist and marketing expert Ernest Dichter.

But focus groups can also be an effective tool as a first phase when working with sports teams, providing team members with an opportunity to express opinions. The second phase is when the team transitions into becoming a support group and teammates begin to share their personal issues and problems with each other. But it’s important to remember that these groups are successful only after participants know that their comments and observations will be kept in strict confidence and will not leave the room. Also, they are only successful as long as there is no authority figure in attendance, someone who can bench them or cut them from the team for being honest. That’s why the services of an outside facilitator are so important. If there is someone in the room who they believe might punish them for being honest, it diminishes and completely eliminates honest interaction among teammates. But when support groups are effective, teammates will begin to feel better about themselves resulting in their enhanced performance.

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The Kansas City Chiefs’ phenom quarterback Patrick Mahomes has been dating his high school sweetheart, Brittany Matthews, for seven years, at the time of this writing. And I know this might sound strange, but much of his success can be attributed to his relationship with her since it’s a known fact that when male athletes have a significant other in their lives, and their lives are happy and in harmony, they perform at a higher level than they might otherwise. But if that relationship goes sour, then you can look for the male athlete’s performance level to drop considerably.

So with this background in mind, let’s look into a crystal ball and try to predict what might be ahead for them in their lives. And I hope this doesn’t happen, but it does very often happen in the lives of so many famous male athletes.

Let’s assume that Patrick and Brittany decide to tie the knot and get married. At first, it will have a powerful positive affect on Patrick’s game. Then, let’s assume they decide to have a family and suddenly they find themselves the parents of two small children, a boy and a girl, and everything is wonderful until…the “mommy-daddy syndrome” sets in and creates a problem in the marriage. What is the “mommy-daddy syndrome?” It’s when a married couple has small children and suddenly one day she begins to see her husband as her “daddy” and he begins to see his wife as his “mommy” – and as everyone knows, you don’t have wickedly sexual activities with your mommy or daddy, and suddenly the relationship begins to lose its luster. And before long, the male is looking outside the marriage for a young sexy partner with whom he can have sex without feeling as if he’s having sex with his mother. And soon after, the marriage ends in divorce.

As I stated before, I hope this doesn’t happen with Patrick and Brittany, but it’s very often the situation and is one of the primary reasons there are so many divorces in the country.

I’m just watching the St. Louis Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game on television and it is definitely booooring. And I’m a big fan of St. Louis AND Pittsburgh. No wonder young people today are losing interest in major league baseball and turning to other sports such as basketball and football. The folks who run MLB need to do something to stimulate interest. Especially something that will generate interest among young viewers. Part of the problem is the announcers, who seem obligated to fill air time with baseball trivia and mind-dumbing statistics. I grew up listening to Harry Carey broadcasting Cardinal games, especially when I was in college and Harry knew how to excite a radio audience and keep them interested. One idea I’ve had to create more excitement for young audiences is to make a live baseball game similar to a computer game with live participation by young people in the stands who match wits with the managers on their Iphones. I’ve run it by a couple of teams and they don’t seem to get it. Too bad. It could become a great stimulant to audience interest and attendance. Maybe I’m just ahead of my time and twenty years from now they’ll be doing it. But for now. Nada.

A number of years ago I received a letter from an upset mother who wanted me to meet with her daughter’s high school soccer team. It seems her daughter didn’t get along with her teammates and her mother wanted me to straighten out the situation by meeting with her teammates and getting them to change. After evaluating the situation, it was obvious that it was the daughter who needed changing. And I recommended her daughter meet with a professional therapist. She had what I would identify as low self-esteem and was seeing everything and everyone around her from a negative perspective. That’s when I applied a phrase I had once read that “We see things as we are. Not as they are, but as we are.” Athletes who feel bad about themselves generally will interact negatively with their teammates and have a disrupting influence on team chemistry. When I pointed this out to her mother as gently as possible, she didn’t agree. I never heard from her again.

What reminded me of this episode was the other day when I was lying on my back in a lounge chair in my backyard enjoying the sun and clouds above. As the clouds passed slowly overhead I saw, in them, a duck’s head with its mouth slightly open, a huge white whale, a fox with a big smile on its face, a man running straight up to the sky away from earth, and an opossum sniffing something floating by the end of its nose. It was much like taking a Rorschach Test, the famous test created by Swiss Psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach. Had he been present he probably would have told me that he was happy I didn’t see a knife with blood dripping from it or a dead corpse floating with a sheet over it or other ghastly images. And then it dawned on me: I was seeing my own thoughts in those clouds. And I said to myself: “God, that Rorschach was one smart guy.”

But was he? Or did he steal the idea from someone else? Like Rabbi Shmuel ben Nachmani in the Talmud. Rabbi Nachmani was born in Babylonia and lived during the last years of the third century. It was the good rabbi who came up with the observation that “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

If you’re a coach, and you have a player who is negative in his (or her) thinking, then you can help that player by providing him (or her) with a forum to unload any thoughts and feelings he (or she) may be having that are affecting his (or her) relationship with teammates. In other words, create a support group environment so that your team can share their problems and issues with each other in confidence. The result will be strong team bonding and enhanced team chemistry.

Frank Robinson’s passing reminded me of a time back in 1988 when he was in Kansas City and manager of Baltimore. His team was 0-20 and about to play the Royals. As a sport psychology consultant I called him and asked for a meeting. He agreed and when I walked into the room at Royals stadium where he was flanked by two of his assistant coaches, I explained my program to him and everything went well until I mentioned a part of the program where players were to hug each other and when I made that statement he held up his hand and said “Hold it. This meeting is over.” “Why?” I asked. And he replied “There’s no way in hell you’re gonna get Major League Baseball players to hug each other.” On my way home I thought about what I should have said: “Hey, what about Tommy Lasorda? He hugged everybody.” 😊 Soon after they won their first game of the season.

Successful coaches care about their athletes as human beings first, and then as athletic performers. This includes helping them with their personal issues and problems and having an open-door policy.

Successful coaches know that athletes do not perform well if they fear the wrath of their coach.

Successful coaches know that when they get angry they give away their power. They do not yell and get in the faces of their athletes.

Successful coaches are aware that their behavior in their own personal lives affects how they interact with their teams.

Successful coaches know that what takes place away from the field of competition affects what takes place on the field of competition.

Successful coaches encourage their athletes not to “withhold” their feelings and emotions since withholding is a form of lying that demeans them and lowers their self-esteem; as a result of withholding, athletes will take fewer risks in interpersonal relationships and create psychological baggage for themselves that affects their ability to focus and process information.

Successful coaches hold weekly team meetings and encourage, when necessary, that their athletes sometimes participate in “players only” meetings so they will feel free to discuss team related problems and issues in a support group environment, issues they may not feel comfortable discussing with their coach present.

Successful coaches know they cannot motivate their players but can create a support group environment allowing their players to discuss their personal issues and problems; and as they discuss their personal issues and problems, they will then feel better about themselves and will automatically become more motivated.

Successful coaches are constantly aware of their players’ eye contact since they know that poor eye contact is an indication that players are withholding and have unresolved issues in their personal lives.

Successful coaches encourage their players to use visualization techniques, including the use of video tape sequences accompanied by a music track with meaningful lyrics.

Successful coaches encourage their players to “excel for a higher order” by helping others less fortunate than themselves, thereby enhancing their own feelings of self-worth and their performance.

Successful coaches are those who are able to tap into their athletes’ belief systems, realizing that the athlete’s beliefs affect performance, not the coaches.

Successful coaches do not micromanage their teams during competition and allow their athletes to use their God-given talents.

An increasing number of college baseball teams are delving into Analytcis when coaches want to know about “a pitcher’s velocity or spin of the ball out of his hand or a hitter’s exit velocity and launch angle off the bat.” It all sounds very good but what Analytics doesn’t do is look into an athlete’s personal life to find out if he (or she) is experiencing personal problems such as an anger issue or a bad relationship with his girlfriend (or boyfriend) or internal problems with a coach or a teammate. That’s why I believe it’s important that teams are transformed into support groups where they can get things off their chests which helps them feel better about themselves and increases their feelings of self-worth. Over the years I’ve found that when athletes are happy and their lives are in harmony they perform close to their skill levels on a consistent basis.

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