Mind Over Sports

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Courtney Frerichs of Nixa, Missouri, placed second in the 3,000 meter stepplechase on August 11th at the IAAF World Championships in London. Fellow American Emma Coburn placed first. This is a race traditionally dominated by the Kenyans but this time it seems the Kenyans, at lease one of the Kenyans, wasn’t completely focused and made a mental error.

According to the internet: “Beatrice Chepkoech’s hope of victory in the 3,000m steeplechase evaporated midway through Friday’s final when she forgot to take the water jump. The Kenyan lost valuable time as she was forced to turn back and then jump over it. She eventually finished in fourth with the USA’s Emma Coburn taking gold.” No one knows what was going on inside Beatrice Chepkoech’s brain but it’s possible she was preoccupied by some personal issues in her life resulting in her forgetting to take the water jump and having to turn back and jump over it. She also fell down during another jump.

Beatrice was one of the favorites to receive a medal and if she did have some personal unresolved issues in her life, this is a good example of the need to clear them out before competing.

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An expectation is a special kind of belief, a belief about the future.
If a professional baseball pitcher gets in trouble in the first inning, does the manager have faith in the player’s ability to work out of the jam? The pitcher need only look over and see if anyone is warming up in the bullpen. First inning bullpen activity communicates an expectation that the pitcher will fail. Such an expression of no confidence does not promote performance at skill level. Admittedly, some pitchers might consider bullpen action as a challenge and rise to the occasion. But, in general, negative expectations promote lower performance.
If a college football player is told he is third string, the coach encourages third-string performance.
Negative expectations can create a self-fulfilling prophecy for a whole team. In the late 1980’s, an assistant coach for the Phoenix Suns described their NBA team as “a ‘dream team,’ as long as management understands that it is going to take time to develop and mature.” Such “praise” told players that they were not expected to do well that season. Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons quickly squelched such talk and the team went on to make the playoffs.
A coach who continually gets into altercations with referees, who shouts that incompetent or unfair decisions are costing the game, establishes a low expectation for players, giving them an excuse to perform at a low level and thereby lose.
If a coach expects players to do well, players can thrive even if the coach’s expectations are based on inaccurate information. Clint Hurdle noted that St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog had an “innate ability to make the 24th guy on the roster feel as good as No. 1, when you know good and well you’re not.”
Expectations are an expression of commitment. Regardless of what we say or think about goals we are committed to achieve, what we’re doing right now is what we are committed to making happen in our lives. To know what an individual athlete or an entire team is committed to, simply look at their actions. Are they practicing? Are they training? Are they overweight?
Beliefs and expectations create the climate in which individual competitors and entire teams perform. Wise coaches stay alert to attitudes affecting performance. Coaches who promote positive attitudes are not only wise in training, they are winners on the field.

How often have we heard someone say they were really “stressed out” but what they actually meant was they were feeling a lot of pressure. People survive pressure but often don’t survive stress because of the effect stress has on their immune system. When an individual is experiencing stress, his or her body gives off hormones (such as cortisol) that impair their immune system, allowing cancer cells in their bodies to multiply at a rate faster than their immune system can devour them.

But people who were reared in a loving, nurturing home environment and have a high sense of self-worth (self-esteem) seldom experience life-threatening illnesses, while those who were reared in a dysfunctional home environment and have a low sense of self-worth (self-esteem) often experience illnesses, such as cancer.

It’s not the issue that causes stress, but how we view that issue based on our feelings of self-worth. The better we feel about ourselves, the less likely we are to see our issues as being stressful.

I’m often asked what I believe to be the secret for living a longer, healthier life, and based on my experience these past 85 years here’s what I’ve found. First and foremost it helps if you are born into a family where there is a loving, nurturing home environment and as a child you receive unconditional love. But this love can come later in life from a spouse, a coach, or even a teacher. It translates into high self-esteem and the most important characteristic for someone with high self-esteem is they deal directly with their issues and do not allow them to fester and hover above them like a dark cloud. People who have low self-esteem and withhold (and by withholding I mean keeping their feelings and emotions bottled-up inside themselves) create stress for themselves and this stress results in their bodies giving off hormones that impair their immune systems. In addition, a regimen of exercise is important. In my case, I played baskeball and handball for more than thirty years, five days a week, 3 hours per day, and never used drugs nor abused alcohol. The way you treat your body when you are young will show up in your older years. That’s why exercise is so important. But even more important is high self-esteem. And a strong belief in the almighty.

It’s pretty common knowledge to baseball fans that former Red Sox all-star Wade Boggs consumed chicken at 2pm on game days throughout his 18-year career. When he was inducted into the Cooperstown Hall of Fame, he thanked his elderly father who was sitting in the front row, but shouldn’t he have also thanked Kentucky Fried Chicken?

Swedish great Bjorn Borg never shaved during the Wimbledon fortnight, which he won from 1976-80. Tennis star James Blake wore the same Nike baseball cap without washing it for three weeks in a 14-match winning streak.

In baseball, no one speaks to a pitcher who is in the midst of a no-hitter and often they won’t even mention it to a teammate.

I once began working with a NCAA Division I men’s basketball team halfway through their season. They had a dismal 3-15 record and their coach allowed me to take them into a room where they proceeded to “unload” all their issues in the privacy of a team meeting, which was followed by visualization exercises. They won 8 out of their final 10 games and the coach thought it was because he wore the same under shorts every day, without laundering them once.

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.

If a basketball player believes that watching a video of himself making three point shots will enhance his ability to make three point shots, it will. (Providing of course he has the skill level.)

A number of years ago, Missouri University’s football team was playing Oklahoma University and Oklahoma was a huge favorite since they had an All-American quarterback. With just a few minutes to go in the first half, Oklahoma was winning 21-0. But on the last play of the first half, Oklahoma’s All-American quarterback was injured and had to be carried off the field on a stretcher and was out for the rest of the game. When the second half started, Missouri seemed to have a different mindset. Even though they were still competing against the same Oklahoma defense that held them scoreless in the first half, they were able to score three times in the second half but eventually lost the game by a point, 21-20. What made the difference? Their “belief” they could win once the Oklahoma quarterback was out of the game. And the Oklahoma team more than likely believed that with their quarterback out of the game, they could lose…and they almost did.

The above was the headline that appeared in this morning’s sports page when reporting Texas Christian University’s victory over Missouri State University. Two years ago the team adopted a young boy with cancer named Micah Ahern as part of the Horned Frogs baseball team’s participation in the IMPACT program that pairs sports teams with sick children. Micah proved to be an inspiration to the team and even though in July, 2016, Micah died from cancer at the age of 7, he continues to be the team’s inspiration. I call this “excelling for a higher order” when athletes take on a cause that enhances their feelings of self-worth. And the higher their self-worth, the closer they perform to their skill levels on a consistent basis. Of course, enhanced performance by a team is only a by-product of the program. No team adopts a child to help them win games. But the fact of the matter is, it happens. Every NCAA college sports team in America should join the IMPACT program and help sick kids.

If a team is to be successful, the players and their coach must be bonded together and have excellent chemistry. But based on what I’ve observed, that doesn’t seem to be the case with the Missouri State University Men’s Basketball Coach Paul Lusk and his team. I don’t think Coach Lusk honestly knows how to handle his team’s emotions. Or how certain decisions he makes affect team morale. And the result? Good players leave the team.

According to the Springfield News-Leader: “When Missouri State officially announced the departure of juniors Chris Kendrix and Austin Ruder, it was pointed out that both have one season of eligibility remaining and have received their release from the Missouri State program. Kendrix, a 6-foot-5 guard from Willard, was named to the Missouri Valley Conference Most Improved Team as a sophomore, when he averaged nearly 28 minutes and 12.1 points per game. He was suspended for the first game of his junior year (for a violation of team rules) and when he returned, his playing time plummeted. He averaged only 13.7 minutes and 5.4 points per game.”

One could interpret this as an indication that Coach Lusk is somebody who holds a grudge against a player. If not, he would have made sure Chris was put back into the rotation. But he didn’t. Treating Chris the way he did had to impact other players on the team who where close friends of Chris. And it also could have affected how they performed for Coach Lusk. But did the News-Leader dig into the reasons Lusk wasn’t playing Kendrix and write about what was going on behind the scenes? Not at all. And the reason is if they did, and uncovered some negative things, the sports reporter who wrote the story could lose access to the athletic department and to the team coaching staff. And if he loses access, he could lose his job.

When you have a team that doesn’t like its coach, the team is faced with a dilemma. Do you sluff off and not play at your best and hope to lose the game hastening your coach’s departure? Or do you play hard and try to win, knowing every game you win only entrenches the coach’s positon with the fans and the athletic director who is responsible for his hire.


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