Mind Over Sports

Archive for April 2013

There have been many professional athletes who were idolized by their fans for their achievements, but in many cases, those athletes, as successful as they were in their sport, did not perform anywhere near their ability.  Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams were two examples.

Because Mantle’s family had a history of the men dying at an early age, he did not believe he was going to live a long life and therefore did not take care of himself, physically or emotionally.  In fact, just before he died, he stated that he felt he had never reached his potential and that if he knew he was going to live as long as he did, he would have taken better care of himself. If he had trained as hard as some of today’s professional athletes train he would probably own almost every record in baseball.

Another example was the great Ted Williams, one of major league baseball’s all-time premier hitters and the last player to bat over .400.  But Ted Williams had a secret weapon, so to speak, that few knew about.  Her name was Lou Kaufman, who David Halberstam wrote about in his book “The Teammates.” After Ted’s three marriages were over, Halberstam wrote: “He was with a wonderful lady named Lou Kaufman, a kind and forgiving person who had moved in and out of his life over the years.  She was much admired by most of Ted’s old friends and was, by consensus among them, the woman in Ted’s life who seemed to understand him best and who could calm him down most readily when one of those instant moments of pure anger had been triggered.  She was kind and thoughtful and truly loving – and she seemed, I once thought, when we were all three together for a day back in 1988, as much parent to him as lady-friend.”  If he had not had Lou Kaufman in his life, I doubt he would have been as successful as he was in hi baseball career.

I once had a personal experience with Williams that demonstrated, very clearly, that he did not possess a great deal of self-esteem.  In 1969 and 1970 I was associated with a Kansas City marketing and advertising agency and one of the company’s clients was Sears.  In those days, Sears operated a store on the Country Club Plaza and one of the brand names they carried was Ted Williams’ Fishing Equipment.  Because of this relationship, when he wrote a book about himself, My Turn At Bat: The Story of my Life, which was published in 1969, he arranged to visit Sears stores across the country to promote his book and help sales by personally autographing copies.

When Sears scheduled Ted’s appearance at the Plaza Store it turned out to be on a Saturday morning.  Sears had requested that someone from our agency be present to help coordinate the event.  Being an avid sports fan, I volunteered my services.  On the Saturday morning of his appearance I arrived at the store around 8:30am since it was scheduled to open at 9am.  The front of the store was all glass and featured large glass doors clearly visible from the table we had set up with books for Ted’s signing.

At about 8:40am, one of baseball’s most famous super heroes arrived.  I introduced myself, we shook hands, and I explained why I was there.  He nodded appreciatively and asked in a soft voice: “Do you think anyone will come?” I assured him they would even though he had been retired for a number of years.  A few moments later, he approached me again, asking softly: “Uh, do you think anyone will show up?”  I again assured him they would and that he shouldn’t concern himself.  Between 8:40am and the time the store opened he must have asked me five times whether or not I thought people would show up for the signing.  Each time, I assured him they would.  He appeared sad and thought perhaps his fame had faded.  He appeared to me to be like a small puppy dog with its tail between its legs, sadly anticipating the worst.   He clearly demonstrated that he did not possess a great deal of self-esteem; otherwise, whether or not anyone would show up for the signing would not have been an issue for him.  But at approximately 8:58am, two minutes before the store was scheduled to open, a gentleman with a young boy in his arms appeared at the door.  Then behind him another lined up holding the hand of a youngster wearing a baseball cap. Then another. And another. All either holding the hand of a small child or carrying a child in their arms.  It was obvious they were there to meet the great Ted Williams.  By 9am there was a line of fans outside the store that stretched for two city blocks.  When Ted saw them he walked over to the table, took his seat and awaited the crowd.  When the doors opened, the throng made its way to the table.  Suddenly, his mood changed.  He became overtly more confident.  Appearing more self-assured.  And as the fathers and their children passed by the table to purchase their autographed books, Ted Williams would say in a loud, boisterous voice: “C’mon! C’mon! Let’s keep this line moving! I don’t have all day!!!”

Ever wonder how NFL executives make important decisions regarding the potential of an NFL player they are considering drafting? One way is through the use of the Wonderlic Contemporary Cognitive Ability Test. This is a test that asks such questions as “Ink sells for 12 dollars per cartridge. What will six cartridges cost?” Now I might be missing something here but it seems to me that more important questions might be “Did you come from a loving, nurturing home environment?” or “How is your eye contact?” or “Do you keep your feelings and emotions bottled-up inside yourself? In other words, a self-esteem self-evaluation test that will tell executives in advance whether or not the player they are considering drafting will be able to focus and the possibility that he will become involved in an extra-marital affair even though he is married. I’m all for cognitive ability testing but in the case of NFL players, how they feel about themselves and whether or not their lives are in harmony seems to me to be a lot more important than the cost of ink.

As an athlete or coach, when you are committed to winning, there is no such word in the English language as “hope” or “try.” Either you are committed, or you’re not. It’s somewhat like being a little pregnant. Either you are or you aren’t. So you can imagine my surprise when I read in today’s USA Today that Lakers forward Metta World Peace said “We’re going to try to win this thing this year.” Does Metta World Peace believe they can win? Is he committed to winning? From my perspective, I would say no. But fortunately for the Lakers and their fans you didn’t hear similar words coming from Coach Mike D’Antoni. His comment was: “Yeah, they (his players) are a very confident group…And now we’ve shifted the focus, and that’s OK. It’s one of those things where it’s (like) ‘OK, it’s too bad (losing Kobe), but let’s go forward and see what we can do.” Notice Coach D’Antoni didn’t use the words “try” and “hope” – and that’s a good sign for the Lakers.

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. We are going to win.” Total commitment.

So If you’re an athlete and you ever hear your coach say, “We’re going to try to win this game” – forget it – he’s not committed to winning. In fact, he doesn’t believe his team can win. And do you think his team picks that up from him? Absolutely. There’s no way he can hide it.

If I were Coach D’Antoni, I wouldn’t give Metta World Peace much playing time. I would concentrate on Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Antawn Jamison because they are the players who are most likely to step up to the plate.

Kobe Bryant suffered a torn Achilles tendon in his left leg in the fourth quarter of the Lakers’ 118-116 win over the Golden State Warriors last night, putting an end to his season no matter how far L.A. advances in the playoffs should it qualify.

I’ve always maintained there’s a myth that is constantly perpetuated in the world of sports.  I call it “The Myth of the Team,” and here’s how it works:  The more we believe we’re part of a team, the less productive we become. I want to repeat that because it’s so important. The more we believe we’re part of a team, the less productive we become. The general belief is that the opposite is true – but it’s not. You see it very clearly on a team where one player is superior to others. The players who perceive themselves as less superior allow the more talented player to take over and lead the group. In the case of a basketball team, they allow the one player to rebound, to shoot, and to, in effect, be the team. As a result, their individual performances are inhibited. To counteract this, I always encourage coaches to take each player into their office and privately tell that player what he – the coach – expects of him or her in the coming game. Twenty points, ten rebounds, and so on. This sends a message to each player that he or she is perceived as an “individual” and has goals to achieve as an individual, rather than letting someone else take over his or her function. It establishes expectations.

No athlete is irreplaceable. When Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter were both playing for the Mets, and both went on the disabled list, relative newcomer Darryl Strawberry hit a two-run homer to right field in the fourth inning against the Dodgers and robbed Dodgers’ first baseman Eddie Murray of a homer in the seventh inning when he jumped above the right field wall with his outstretched glove to make the out. And that was also the day Strawberry’s wife, Lisa, went public and filed for divorce citing irreconcilable differences. Many had felt Hernandez and Carter were the stars of the team and injuries to them would affect the outcome of future games. This was proved to be – not true.
And I predict the same will happen with the Los Angles Lakers and Kobe Bryant. Watch for other members of the team to step up their game with increased production.

Athletes who are happy and whose lives are in harmony will perform close to their skill levels on a consistent basis. Athletes who are unhappy (even angry) and whose lives are in disharmony will not perform anywhere near their skill levels. When athletes have strong religious beliefs, it enhances their feelings of self-worth (self-esteem) and therefore enhances their performance in their sport. Former Kansas University Olympic runner Jim Ryun is a good example. When he agreed to become a born again Christian he instantly became less angry and began running the mile in less than four minutes, consistently.

But even if an athlete has strong religious beliefs, if he or she is withholding (bottling up their feelings and emotions) they will not perform close to their skill levels. Withholding is a form of lying that demeans them and lowers their self-esteem creating psychological baggage that affects their ability to focus and process information. So strong religious beliefs are only part of the puzzle.

Religious beliefs can also negatively affect an athlete’s performance. I once worked with a college level softball team and one day their third baseman, who was considered one of the best in their division, suddenly began throwing wildly to first base. Her coach tried to solve the problem by putting white tape in the first baseman’s mitt providing her with a target, but that didn’t work. The coach also had her throw blindfolded and had her watch past videos of herself, but neither worked. I asked the coach if I could take the player into a room and talk with her in private and the coach agreed. When we met, I asked her about her background and she told me she was reared in a very religious Christian family home environment. And after further probing, she revealed to me that she believed she was being punished by the Lord. When I asked her why she offered this explanation: “Do you remember a few days ago when I was sliding into second base and when the catcher threw the ball it hit me and bloodied my nose? And since then, I believe I’m being punished by the Lord.” When I asked her if she had told her minister about this she said she hadn’t. So I suggested that at services the coming Sunday that she meet with her minister and tell him what she had told me. She promised to do that and when Monday came, she once again began throwing perfectly to first.

When athletes have unresolved issues hovering above them like a dark cloud (example: professional athletes who are having extra-marital affairs) this will definitely affect their performance, regardless of how religious they are. It’s also interesting to note that many of the Cuban major league baseball players, when they defect and arrive in the United States, their battling averages drop. And I’m sure most of them are practicing Catholics. The reason for this drop in performance level is they are concerned about the families they left behind. When Yeonis Cespedes fled Castro’s Cuba for an opportunity to play MLB in America, he was fortunate to have signed a four-year, $36 million contract as a free agent with the Oakland Athletics. When he left Cuba, Cespedes was able to bring with him his mother, aunt and three cousins. However, his 2-year-old son, Yeonis Jr. stayed behind with his mother, who is not married to Cespedes. As of this writing, I’m not sure if Cespedes’ son and his son’s mother have joined him. If they have, and it was after last season ended, then you should see a huge jump in his performance level this season.

For those of you who follow my column know that I’ve been advocating for years that what takes place away from the field of competition affects what takes place on the field of competition, and how important it is that an athlete be happy and have his or her life in harmony and how that positively affects performance. A good example is Tiger Woods. In an article in today’s USA Today titled “A happy Tiger is a dangerous Tiger” fellow golf pro Steve Stricker observed that “he’s so happy.” According to the article: “Stricker and other players on the PGA Tour say Woods appears more at peace off the course, which they think correlates to improved play on it. Without expanding or giving away too much, Woods says there’s a correlation between the two.” And much of that has to do with his new relationship with Olympic Skiier Lindsey Vonn. So if you’re an athlete, it’s important that you learn from Tiger’s experience. When you’re happy and your life is in harmony you’ll perform close to your skill level on a consistent basis. Tiger is going to win the Masters. Post-Masters comment: I was wrong.

The idea of excelling for a higher order originated with the legend of “win one for the Gipper.” It began in 1920 with the death of football legend George Gipp. Notre Dame’s first All-American selection who died at 25 from a strep throat infection. The Fighting Irish were 19-0-1 in his final 20 games. According to Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne, Gipp, on his deathbed, said: “Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock. But I’ll know about it, and I’ll be happy.” Eight years passed before Rockne did so, before a 1928 game against unbeaten Army at Yankee Stadium. “This is the day, and you are the team,” Rockne said. The Fighting Irish scored two second-half touchdowns to win 12-6.

Athletes benefit by excelling for a higher order. In some situations they take on a cause to help an individual or group otherwise unassociated with the team. Though the coach’s motivations may not be pure in using this technique, there is a valuable by-product because the effort builds each player’s self-esteem, and thereby improves performance. The technique can work in team sports and in individual competition. And often it involves the memory of an individual. Or it can involve the injury of a team member. Such as Louisville’s Kevin Ware.

Coach Rick Pitino is using Kevin Ware’s injury in the same way Knute Rockne used George Gipp’s memory, and that’s one of the main reasons I’m predicting the Louisville Cardinals will be successful in defeating the Michigan Wolverines.


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