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.


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