Mind Over Sports

Archive for June 2015

Hey LeBron! You are a great athlete and a great basketball player. Probably one of the greatest basketball players of all time.  But I think you’re trying to do too much. Just think what the score in game five might have been if, when you were driving toward the basket with two or three guys hanging all over you, you suddenly flipped the ball out to the perimeter and one of the your three-point shooters took an easy three-point shot.  I hope when the team returns to Cleveland and plays game six that you’ll begin to allow your teammates to get more involved in the game. You have some great teammates. Some great 3-point shooters and it’s a shame not to let them use their talent.  And if you do that then, in my opinion, you will not only win Game Six but will more than likely win the NBA Championship as well.

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In sports, there is such a thing as a self-limiting belief. But beliefs can also work in a positive way, like placebos in medicine, authorizing athletes to achieve what they are already capable of achieving. The classic example is Roger Bannister, the first human to break the four-minute mile. As soon as he broke that mental barrier to human capability, other runners began doing it. The fact that no one had run a mile faster than four minutes had become a self-limiting belief that no one could do so. After Bannister proved such a feat was possible, many other runners accomplished it. Their beliefs, not their bodies, had held them back.

In his book The Silent Pulse, George Leonard refers to the process as “positive physical transformation” — dealing with the power of, what he calls “intentionality.” This is often identified as the “placebo effect” — an effect that is derived not from the potion but from the process, which is one of authorization. Roger Bannister was capable of breaking the 4-minute mile, as were many others, and when Bannister finally broke it, that was an “authorization” for others to do the same. This is the “power of intentionality.” The following is a quote from George Leonard’s book: “Now that the mile is run in less than 3 minutes and 50 seconds and weight lifters can clear and jerk more than 560 pounds, these feats are not called supernatural. But if you had told a sports expert of the year 1878 that such performances were humanly possible, he would have thought you quite mad. In recent years, as a matter of fact, a fifty-year-old man has bested the time of the 1908 Olympic marathon champion. Now it’s true that some of this fantastic improvement can be attributed to technology, better selection, training methods, nutrition, and vitamins. But the same kind of technology has been applied to racehorses — with no such improvement in performance.”

A baseball player planning to join the Mets AAA team told me that he expected to hit .300 in the farm club. I asked him: If he could hit three out of ten pitches, why couldn’t he hit four out of ten? Who was stopping him from hitting .400? He looked at me thoughtfully and replied, “Nobody.” He realized how his expectations had been limited to conventional beliefs.

What athletes believe to be true is true for them, regardless of how it plays out in the real world. If a basketball player believes that watching a video of himself or herself making free throw after free throw after free throw will improve his or her accuracy at the free throw line, it will. Providing, of course, that he or she has the skill level.

Once when the University of Missouri football team was playing the University of Oklahoma, the Tigers were trailing by 21 points at half-time. But during the third quarter Oklahoma’s All-American quarterback sustained a game-ending injury and had to be carried off the field. His injury energized the MU offense which proceeded to score three touchdowns, only to lose the game by a single point. The Tigers’ offensive unit hadn’t changed, but their belief they could win did.

A particular belief can limit or enhance performance. A professional golfer may have played a particular course many times, yet feel a need to play the course one more time the day before a tournament. If the need is satisfied, it will aid the player’s performance.

A major league baseball manager may believe that his team will face a greater disadvantage from a wet infield than the opposing team will. His players will know that. The manager thereby establishes a self-fulfilling prophecy that excuses low performance. And to excuse low performance is to promote it.

Some athletes believe a particular number on their jersey is important to success. If they have the number, they have extra confidence that enhances performance. If the team manager assigns a different number, the player loses confidence and that loss is reflected in performance. A wise coach takes advantage of his or her athletes’ beliefs, no matter how crazy they may seem to be, in order to build a team’s strength.

The athlete’s belief system controls performance, not the coach’s. If athletes believe that being sexually active the night before a big game will make them more relaxed and that they will therefore perform better, they will – regardless of what their coach believes. Coaches often try to force their own belief systems on their athletes and it just doesn’t work. The best coaches, the most successful ones, are those who instinctively tap into the belief systems of their players and use those beliefs to the team’s advantage.

In matters of health, what a patient believes about the potency of a particular medicine or treatment is almost as important as the medicine or treatment itself.

This ritual is as old as the game of baseball itself, but that doesn’t make it right. Making a big issue over a particular call may help the manager to feel better about himself because he was able to let off steam, but it can have a negative effect on team performance because it provides team members with a justification for losing. (“The umpire screwed us.”) Smart managers control their tempers and keep their feelings and emotions to themselves during a game.

When Mark McGwire was playing for Tony LaRussa, he later admitted he was taking steroids for “health reasons” as well as PEDs and Human Growth Hormones. When he finally came forward and told the truth, everyone, including LaRussa, was happy for him and appreciated his honesty. And I’m sure LaRussa had absolutely no knowledge of McGwire’s use of drugs. But did McGwire’s performance at the plate help Tony LaRussa win baseball games? Absolutely. In fact, his home run hitting ability won many a game for the St. Louis Cardinals. Now don’t get me wrong. I believe Tony LaRussa will go down as one of the great baseball managers of all time. But it doesn’t seem fair that LaRussa was inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame and McGwire, even to this day, has been shut out. One would think that since LaRussa benefited from McGwire’s performance at the plate that LaRussa would not be allowed into the Hall. But he was. And my point is: Either allow LaRussa AND McGwire into the Hall of Fame or don’t allow either of them in. It doesn’t seem fair.


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