Mind Over Sports

Archive for March 2012

Every coach would like to know what his or her team is REALLY thinking, and that’s why I highly recommend a focus group as the first phase when working with a team, without coaches present.  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 a focus group can also be an effective tool as a first phase when working with sports teams, providing team members with an opportunity to express opinions without coaches present. 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 are assured 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 (such as a coach) for being honest. That’s why the services of an outside facilitator are so important. If there is someone in the room who can 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, especially when introduced to “guided imagery” visualization.

Let me be clear from the start. Cancer survivors often ask me, “You mean I created my own cancer?” and my answer is an emphatic: “No!” But I also point out to them that they did create the stress in their lives that impaired their immune systems, allowing cancer cells in their body to multiply at a rate faster than their immune systems could devour them. And their stress was based on how they viewed their life’s issues.

Many physicians will agree that a relationship exists between high self-esteem and wellness, and low self-esteem and illness.  Research has shown that many individuals who have been diagnosed with cancer are repressing their feelings, which not only affects their self-esteem, but also their health. Here’s how it works: When you withhold (or repress) your feelings and emotions it’s a form of lying that demeans you and lowers your self-esteem. As your self-esteem is lowered you begin to see the world around you from a negative perspective (“we see things as we are”) and create stress for yourself. As a result of the stress, your body gives off hormones, (such as cortisol) that impair your immune system. According to the “Surveillance Mechanism Theory,” which was first identified and named by Dr. Carl Simonton, we all have cancer cells in our bodies that are constantly being devoured by our immune system Pac-Man style. But when we encounter stress in our lives, our immune system becomes impaired and the cancer cells begin to multiply at a rate faster than they can be devoured. The result is: we are soon diagnosed as having cancer.

In the late 1980s I lived in Kansas City, Missouri and volunteered my services at the RA Bloch Cancer Support Center. On various Sunday mornings, with the encouragement of co-founder Richard Bloch, I would meet with newly diagnosed cancer patients in a support group environment. At the outset I would explain to them that even though they had been diagnosed with cancer that was not their primary problem. Their primary problem was that each had a suppressed (or impaired) immune system. Since research has shown the most conspicuous characteristic of cancer patients is bottled up emotions, we would have each person in the group tell his or her own story about stress in their lives. Each would interact with others in the room and, at the same time, bring their emotions to the surface. After talking about their issues (many for the first time) their repressed feelings began to disappear and they immediately felt better about themselves. Once they began talking about their issues, they experienced an increase in self-esteem resulting in an enhanced immune system. At that point they were then ready to use a “guided imagery” visualization technique where they would “see” their own healthy t-cells attacking their cancer cells. This exercise was accompanied by Patti LaBelle’s recording of “New Attitude.” At that time I had a story- board that I used in those sessions showing the t-cells coming together, mobilizing, and forming an arrow. The arrow would zoom toward a large glob that represented a cancer cell and the arrow would attack the glob, which would then deflate and dissipate.

Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to locate the storyboard. But I believe cancer patients reading this can create their own visual image of t-cells attacking cancer cells and use Patti LaBelle’s recording to accompany it. I’m sure Patti would not mind since she herself is a cancer survivor. Later, patients would listen to only the music track and the images that were embedded in their minds would recreate themselves, automatically. Also, it’s important to remember that when cancer patients enhance their own self-esteem, they automatically enhance the potency of their immune systems. One last point: What I have recommended should only be considered as a supplemental program. It should not replace any treatment prescribed by a physician or oncologist.

When I lived in Kansas City, Missouri I had a friend who was a professional football player in the NFL. He was 6’ 8” tall and was considered one of the nation’s top defensive linemen. My friend, who was not happily married, was a national celebrity who had an enthusiastic following of young fans who looked upon him as a role model.  On one of his team’s trips to New Orleans he did something he had never done before: He had a one-night stand with a young groupie. A few months after returning to Kansas City, he found out the young lady with whom he had had the affair was pregnant. She wrote him a note but did not threaten in any way to go public with what had happened. When the baby was born, my friend, feeling he should help support the child, approached his wife and told her what had happened and that he wanted to send the young girl money every month to help her and her new baby. His wife was vehement and would not allow him to help her. My friend became despondent. It played heavily on his emotions and he kept the entire episode bottled-up deep inside himself. He was not proud of what he had done and he knew that if his affair became known it would negatively affect his image and that he would be seen by his fans as a hypocrite. Which he wasn’t. But he would rather die than have his affair become public knowledge. Not long after, because of the stress, which affected his immune system, he was diagnosed as having lung cancer (even though he never smoked but had been working around heavy duty equipment and exhaust fumes) and within 18 months he was dead. I have always believed that if my friend had not been a celebrity, and just a normal mortal being like the rest of us, he would still be alive today.

Write down on a piece of paper what it is in your life that you are committed to making happen.

Now then, let’s look at your answer.  If you think you are committed to making a certain event happen in your life – and yet have done nothing about it – then you are kidding yourself. Taking action may involve risk you may not yet be prepared to take. Also, look at your commitment. When writing your answer, did you use the words “hope” or “try”? If you did, keep this in mind: When you are committed, there is no such word in the human language as “hope” or “try”. Either you are committed or you’re not committed. It’s somewhat like being a little pregnant. Either you are or you aren’t. If you ever hear a coach say, or read in the newspaper where a coach says, “We’re going to try to win this game” – forget it – that coach is not committed to winning. In fact, that coach doesn’t believe his or her team can win. And do you think the team picks up on that? Absolutely. There’s no way coaches can hide it. So, if you ever hear someone tell you that they are committed to making a certain event happen in their life, and they say “I hope such-and-such happens,” they, themselves, are not convinced it will happen. When Joe Namath was quarterback for the N.Y. Jets, he didn’t say we hope to win or we’re going to try to win the Super Bowl.  He said: “We are going to win the Super Bowl.” And they did.  Total commitment.

Beginning the 1997-98 NBA season, there was a cloud hovering above the Chicago Bulls that included:  coach Phil Jackson’s status and the dissension between the players and management. But even with an uncertainty of the future, Michael Jordan expressed total commitment to winning by saying: “When we win the championship, I think we’ll see the road we took and look back at this sixth championship and appreciate this as being the most important championship we won…just because of the cards we’ve been dealt.”  In his statement, Jordan used the word “championship” three times in one sentence and clearly stated when we win, rather than if we win. Was Jordan committed to the 1997-98 season? Absolutely. And his commitment affected the entire team in a positive way.

The prevailing wisdom in the health profession is that when a child is bipolar (demonstrating severe mood swings and depression) that it creates, in that child a low sense of inner-self (self-esteem.)
But I feel the opposite is true. From my perspective, when a child has a low sense of inner-self (self-esteem) he/she tends to have mood swings and are often depressed. I believe low self-esteem is often mis-identified as “bipolar disorder.”
So if you know of a young student athlete who is experiencing mood swings and depression, more than likely he or she was reared (or is being reared) in a dysfunctional home environment or they are withholding their feelings and emotions, which is a form of lying that demeans them and creates psychological baggage that affects their ability to focus and process information. That’s why, very often, young student athletes who are told they are bipolar because they’re not able to learn very fast and keep up with their classmates are, in fact, suffering from a case of low self-esteem, which is transferable from generation to generation just like DNA. Students who have low self-esteem generally have parents who have low self-esteem, and their parents (the grandparents) also had low self-esteem. And the best way to break this cycle is through therapy (one-on-one counseling) or, even better, group therapy where students with low self-esteem participate in support groups (approximate size should be 8-12 students) with a school counselor present, allowing them to talk about their personal issues, including what may be going on at their homes that they’ve never discussed with anyone. Once they reveal and discuss their issues with their peers they will then begin to feel better about themselves and their grade point average, their conduct in school and their performance in their sport will improve considerably.


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