Mind Over Sports

Archive for April 2013

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.

Mike Rice, former Rutgers University basketball coach was fired from his job this past week shortly after a video was made public showing him berating players during practice, throwing basketballs at them, kicking them and taunting them with vulgar language including homophobic slurs.
I’m not a therapist, but it’s not unusual for a coach to have personal problems at home and, without realizing he was doing it, taking it out on his players. They call this “misdirected anger” and many of us have been responsible for similar behavior in our personal lives. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not making excuses for Coach Rice’s performance because what he did was 100% wrong. But there’s a lesson to be learned, and this is, if we don’t confront an issue head-on and resolve it, or begin the process of resolving it, it will only fester and show up in unexpected ways, such as how we interact with other people in our lives.

Rice’s behavior has conjured up memories of Bobby Knight when Knight was fired as head basketball coach at Indiana University in 2000, shortly after a tape appeared to show him putting his hands on a player’s neck. But here’s the thing about Coach Knight. He genuinely cared about his players as human beings first and then as athletic performers, and when players sense that their coach genuinely cares about them and loves them, they’ll not only play their hearts out for him but they’ll also allow him to do almost anything to them, including putting his hands on their necks. And how did they know he genuinely cared about them? Most sports fans know that Knight had one of the highest team graduation rates in the country. But few knew that if a player had used up his four years of eligibility and still had not graduated, Knight paid the fifth year out of his own pocket. How’s that for sending a clear message to your players that you care about them.

Strikeouts! When players, such as the Houston Astros, strike out 43 times in their first three games and set a major league record, you can be sure there’s something going on behind the scenes with the team and team chemistry. When players have issues they haven’t confronted, and they bottle them up inside themselves, it affects their focus and they are more susceptible to not only striking out but also making errors during games. No one knows for sure what the problem might be, (or even if there is a problem) but it seems odd to me that this is happening during the tenure of the Astros first season manager, Bo Porter. Perhaps Porter has introduced some team rules that the players don’t like but are hesitant to talk about? If I were the GM of the Astros, I’d have a players only team meeting and allow them to clear the air regarding any grievances they might have, either with Porter or with each other.

When Louisville’s Kevin Ware broke his leg in the game against Duke, and kept telling his teammates “Just win the game, just win the game,” it was much like when Knute Rockne told his players to “win one for the Gipper” or Babe Ruth telling a young man in a hospital bed that he was going to hit two home runs for him. I call this “Excelling for a Higher Order” – and Louisville’s win over Duke was an excellent example.


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