Mind Over Sports

Archive for September 2006

D032754175.jpgWashington Redskins Head Coach Joe Gibbs made a wise choice when he decided to hand off the play calling to his new offensive coordinator, Al Saunders. Saunders ran the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense from 2001-2005 and according to USA Today: “Over the last four years, no team scored more points than the Chiefs.”

One of the reasons for Saunders’ success is that he believes in tapping into his players’ belief systems. Saunders’ system of coaching is based on not asking players to do things on the field they don’t believe they’re capable of doing. For example (and this is strictly from my perspective, not Al’s), if a wide receiver believes he can catch the ball better over his right shoulder, then plays he’s involved in should call for passes to him to be over his right shoulder. If a player believes he plays best at a certain weight, he should be allowed to play at that weight.

What we believe to be true is true for us, regardless of what others think or how it plays out in the real world. When Marcus Allen was with the Kansas City Chiefs, he believed that the more times he carried the ball during a game, the better he performed. But then head coach Marty Schottenheimer believed otherwise and used him in short and third down situations. Marty has changed some from his days with the Chiefs. At that time, his philosophy was: It’s my way or the highway. I think he’s finally figured out what Al Saunders knows instinctively.

annabensonA sports columnist for USA Today recently wrote about The New York Mets and why they are in first place, but focused on the wrong issue: their pitchers. It isn’t the pitchers that should be receiving attention, but rather Anna Benson, wife of pitcher Kris Benson. Last year, when the former stripper went public about the Mets players having affairs, they were forced to clean up their act and get their lives working again. When they stopped “withholding” and turned honest, their lives began to be in harmony and that’s when their performance became enhanced. Unfortunately, the Mets traded husband Kris to Baltimore since they considered Anna a troublemaker. But before they did, they should have awarded Anna the MVW trophy (Most Valuable Wife). She did the Mets front office a great favor.

I recently came across an article on the Internet called “Going Long For Jesus” that was written by Tom Krattenmaker. It is essentially about how pro football and basketball teams are hiring “Team Chaplains” who are Evangelicals and who are bringing to the locker rooms a potentially divisive brand of conservative Christianity, and how these Evangelicals often drive a wedge between players of a team…those who embrace the Christian right and those who are more moderate in their beliefs. In the forefront of this movement, of course, is the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) with headquarters in the Kansas City area.

The article really made me aware of how much the introduction of religion has permeated professional sports (especially right wing evangelical) and how it could also be a divisive influence on a team and can actually create new problems that could (and probably do) affect team chemistry and team bonding. I’m sure it’s helpful for those players who have strong Christian beliefs, but that extreme behavior can also turn off other players who have a more moderate approach to religion. Seems to me the answer is for team owners and coaches to whole heartedly endorse religious practices, but only outside the stadium…I would think that the owners and coaches would want a separation of “church and sport” and not allow any religious practices of any kind within the premises of a stadium where the team is housed, especially since that stadium (not only in pro sports but college as well) is generally financed by public money…this, to me, is very similar to the issue of keeping religion out of our schools…Even a religious coach, if he’s worth his salt, would realize the potential disruptive influence extreme religious behavior (in the locker room, for example) can have on team chemistry.

A story in USA Today not long ago pointed out that when Cuban baseball players defect from their homeland and come to America, their performance levels drop. One of the reasons (in fact, it could be THE reason) is that many of them leave their families behind and are constantly concerned about their safety.

A good example is Amaury Marti, recently signed by the St. Louis Cardinals and now playing for one of their farm clubs, The Springfield (Missouri) Cardinals. According to the Springfield News-Leader, Marti “refuses to talk about his defection from Cuba where he left his parents, brother and a son behind. The former member of the Cuban National team says he left for the chance to play baseball in the United States and, hopefully, in the majors.”

It will be interesting to see how he does in the U.S. Unless he receives counseling regarding his situation, and doesn’t just keep the issue bottled-up inside himself, it’s doubtful that he will perform in America at the same level he did while on the Cuban National team.

yelling_coachSome parents have told me that they’re concerned about how a coach’s behavior might damage their child’s psyche, but based on my experience, it will have little or no effect if that child is coming from a loving, nurturing home environment. But if that child isn’t getting love and nurturing at home, and has a low sense of self-worth, the coach’s actions will more than likely re-enforce negative beliefs the child already has about himself or herself.

No coach should yell and scream and get in an athlete’s face. Coaches who do often say they were only trying to make a man out of a boy, or a woman out of a girl, and that they were doing it for the child’s own welfare. But the fact is, Coaches who follow this type of behavior generally have some issue (or issues) in their own personal lives that they’ve allowed to go unresolved, and their yelling and screaming in most instances has nothing to do with the child or the sport they are coaching but is actually a form of misdirected anger that can be traced to the issue (or issues) they are harboring. And if a coach can’t correct that behavior, which sometimes requires professional counseling, he (or she) should be replaced.

Kellen Winslow, who is an NFL Hall of Famer and former wide receiver for University of Missouri and San Diego Chargers, told me in an interview that during his sophomore year in college he had an assistant coach who yelled at him, attempting to improve his performance. This didn’t sit well with Kellen. But rather than confront the coach he bottled up his anger, not realizing the damage he was doing to his own feelings of self-worth. He stopped going to class and almost flunked out of school. But then he learned the importance of speaking up when team trainer Fred Wopple called a private meeting between Kellen and the assistant coach. The air was cleared, the assistant coach apologized, and Kellen went on to become a superstar.

And he also spoke up when the media was attacking his son, Kellen Winslow, Jr., for having violated his NFL contract by riding a motorcycle. Kellen learned long ago the importance of not keeping his feelings bottled-up, and the devastating effect that can have on an athlete, or even a former athlete.

51135720EZ_D020059011As a rule, I enjoy USA Today’s sports columnist Jon Saraceno’s writing, but last July 24th it could have been much more on target when writing about New York Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez’s hitting and fielding problems. He should have focused on A-Rod’s personal life rather than quoting Lou Piniella saying: “I told him to relax, have some fun and not blame himself.” A-Rod already has demonstrated that he’s the type of person who keeps his feelings bottled-up. For example, in the 2005 playoffs last year when he batted a miserable .133 and the Yankees lost, only later did we find out (when his mother went public) that an uncle of his had passed away and that particular uncle was like a father figure to him. What should have been done at that time was to bring A-Rod into a team meeting and allow him to interact with his fellow teammates regarding what he was feeling. Once he released those feelings, he would have felt much better and his batting average would have been considerably higher…and who knows, the Yankees may have made it into the World Series. I would bet my ex-wife’s house that A-Rod is again keeping his feelings bottled up and it’s showing up in his performance. In professional sports today, there’s a prevailing belief that if you pay an athlete enough money, he or she will perform. But athletes are also human beings with feelings, and when they withhold those feelings it’s a form of lying that demeans them and lowers their self-esteem, creating psychological baggage that affects their ability to focus and process information.

The more we believe we’re part of a team, the less productive we become. I realize this runs counter to conventional wisdom, but it’s true. We hear about star players, the ones expected to perform miracles, the ones a team depends on. A team with a star player is bound to lose if other players sense their contribution is less important. They don’t put out 100 percent. They let the basketball star rebound and shoot, instead of chancing an aggressive mistake that may turn over the ball. With two out, they wait for the slugger to come to bat, and don’t risk trying for a stolen base, lest they fail and be accused of losing the game before the slugger could save it. The result is a team with one or two givers (the stars) and a lot of takers, persons who sit back and take advantage of the star performance instead of putting out 100 percent themselves.

A case in point: June 4, 2006, it was announced that St. Louis Cardinals star Albert Pujols would be out indefinitely with a strained muscle and was placed on the 15-day disabled list. Jim Edmonds, who himself was about to be placed on the disabled list, was assigned to take over Pujols’ spot at first base. According to Associated Press writer R. B. Fallstrom:

Edmonds, who had been limited to one pinch-hit at bat in the last seven games by an abdominal injury, went 3-fo-3 with an RBI double in the fifth and a run-scoring single in the sixth, and walked and scored in the first after entering the game in a 3-for-29 slump.

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