Mind Over Sports

Archive for September 2012

Without the right chemistry, teams are destined to fail, no matter how talented its athletes. Everyone’s personal lives must be in harmony. And constant internal bickering will absolutely affect team chemistry

Not long ago I came across an article on the Internet, which was taken from a book called “Onward Christian Athletes” written by Tom Krattenmaker. The article was titled: “Going Long For Jesus” and was essentially about how pro football and basketball teams are hiring “Team Chaplains” who are Evangelicals, 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.

The article made me aware of how much the introduction of religion has permeated professional sports; how it could also be a divisive influence on a team and can actually create problems that affect team chemistry and team bonding. I’m sure it’s helpful for those players who have strong Christian beliefs, such as Tim Tebow, 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 endorse religious practices, but only outside the stadium. I would think that 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. But even a religious coach, if he’s worth his salt, would realize the potential disruptive influence extreme religious behavior in the locker room can have on team chemistry. And on the won/lost column.

In the world of marketing, before a company will put a product on the market, they find out what their consumers are thinking and then shape their entire marketing program around that information. And athletic teams are no different. Before a season starts, coaches need to have feedback and know what their players are thinking. But very often, the players won’t be honest with their coaches because they fear the consequences of their honesty. That’s why an independent group facilitator is so important. And why team meetings are so important. A single player can have a devastating effect on the performance of an entire team if he or she is withholding; that is, keeping his or her feelings bottled up. This withholding process creates baggage that affects focus and performance. For example, a three-point shooter in basketball who normally hits 50% of his or her 3-point shots but in a particular game hits only 20%. And every shot missed represents a potential four or six point differential: the shot missed combined with a shot made by the opposing team. And it is only later that the coach finds out the player was having a problem with a “significant other.” Or a financial problem. Or a family problem. Successful coaches understand the importance of ongoing team feedback throughout an entire season in order to help athletes with their personal problems.

This is an adaptation of a quote by the Zen master Suzuki. And it could well explain why, in Major League Baseball today, those teams with the biggest payrolls are not necessarily those who are winning. Regardless of what you are paying someone, if they are leading self-destructive personal lives, they will not perform anywhere near their skill levels on a consistent basis. Teams who do not have an internal system in place to help athletes identify and resolve personal problems, are destined to lose. Many General Managers view this approach as “sissy stuff” and believe that if you pay an athlete enough money, he will perform. Nothing could be further from the truth. Athletes are human beings. They have problems and issue just like us other mortal beings, and how they handle their problems will determine how successful they will be, not only in competition, but in their personal lives as well. That’s why I advocate frequent team meetings, creating a support group environment among team members. As athletes participate in these sessions they will being to feel better about themselves and the level of their performance will increase.

When one of the NFL’s top wide receivers drops a pass in a single game it could be written off as just a mental error. But when he drops two, a little light goes off. And when he drops three, you figure there’s gotta be a reason. Some of the media pundits are saying that “his off-season celebrity has affected his performance” and there could be some truth to that. But more than likely there was something that took place in Cruz’s personal life the night before the game that affected his focus. Something he bottled-up and didn’t tell anyone about. Perhaps it had something to do with his infant daughter Kennedy or his long-time girlfriend, Elaina Watley.  Whatever the reason, it’s another example of how what takes place away from the football field affects what takes place on the football field. If in Cruz’s next game against Tampa Bay he reverts back to his old reliable self, we’ll know that he resolved whatever mental issue or issues he had that may have been hovering above him like a dark cloud.

When the Ohio Bobcats beat Penn State 24-14 this past Saturday, television pundits were making excuses for the Nittany Lions saying it was because of the “distractions.” And, of course, they are right. But it happens in almost every game when any football team, basketball team or baseball team loses. Very often you’ll find one or more players who dropped passes, caused turnovers, missed three point shots they usually make or go 0-5 at the plate. In almost all instances the same pundits give credit to and lavish praise on the winning team, focusing on how well they played, never even mentioning there could be “distractions” taking place among players on the losing teams. Distractions such as: Problems with a girlfriend, financial problems, problems with a coach. They can all negatively affect performance. That’s why I believe sports teams, if they want to be successful, should conduct team meetings every week (without coaches present) allowing players to vent issues they may be carrying around. And when this venting takes place, it not only enhances feelings of self-worth of individual players (and thereby enhancing their performance) but also helps to bond the team. Sports psychologists are not allowed to conduct these types of meetings since they would be entering the domain of the clinical psychologist and could lose their license. That’s why I advocate all sport psychologists be required to not only have a PhD but also a Masters degree in counseling.


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