Mind Over Sports

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Kristan Berset is Sports Anchor with CBS affiliate WUSA-9 in Washington, D.C. and just announced she is experiencing a second bout with cancer. Based on some of the most current research available, there appears to be a high correlation between stress and cancer. And it’s possible (only possible) that she’s experiencing a considerable amount of stress being married to Comcast SportsNet reporter Brent Harris and is stepmother to his two daughters.  If this is true, here’s a bit of advice for you, Kristan.  Don’t try to be their mother but rather just be their friend, someone they can bring their issues to without being judgemental. The result will be a stress-free relationship with them and your husband.  With that said, here’s some backgorund information:

We all have in our bodies one of the most advanced and sophisticated medical systems known to mankind: The Immune System.

But research has found it can be impaired by stress and many believe there’s a high correlation between cancer and stress. Where does stress come from? It’s a result of how we view our life’s issues, which emanates from how we feel about ourselves. If we have a low sense of inner-self (self-esteem) we are likely to view our issues differently than someone with a high sense of inner-self. We are likely to be more negative.

Research has also shown that many individuals who have been diagnosed with cancer are repressing their feelings, which affects their self-esteem and their immune systems. Here’s how it works: When you withhold (repress) your feelings and emotions it’s a form of lying that demeans you and lowers your self-esteem. As your self-esteem is lowered you begin to see your world around you from a negative perspective (“we see things as we are”) and create stress for yourself. As a result of the stress, your body gives off hormones such as cortisol (known as “the stress hormone”) that impair your immune system.

According to the “Surveillance Mechanism Theory” developed by Dr. Carl Simonton, we all have cancer cells in our bodies. Many believe these cancer cells are a result of environmental hazards such as overhead power lines, electric blankets, cell phones, exhaust fumes, and cigarette smoking, just to name a few. The damaged cells are constantly being devoured by our immune system Pac-Man style. But as mentioned before, when we encounter stress in our lives, our immune system becomes impaired and the cancer cells begin to multiply at a rate faster than they can be devoured.  The result is: we are soon diagnosed as having cancer.

Many physicians will agree that a relationship exists between high self-esteem and wellness, and low self-esteem and illness. I’ve found that when cancer patients enhance their own feelings of self-worth, they automatically enhance the potency of their immune systems.

In the late 1980s I lived in Kansas City, Missouri and volunteered my services at a local Cancer Support Center. On various Sunday mornings, with the encouragement of the Center’s co-founder, I would meet with newly diagnosed cancer patients in a support group environment. At the outset I would explain to them that even though they had been diagnosed with cancer that was not their primary problem. Their primary problem was that each had an impaired immune system. Since research has shown the most conspicuous characteristic of cancer patients is bottled up emotions, I would have each person in the group stand and tell his or her own story about stress in their lives. Each would interact with others in the room and, at the same time, bring their emotions to the surface. After talking about their issues (many for the first time) their repressed feelings began to disappear and they immediately felt better about themselves, experiencing an increase in self-esteem.

At that point they were then ready to use a “guided imagery” technique where they would visualize their own healthy t-cells attacking their cancer cells. This exercise was accompanied by Patti LaBelle’s recording of “New Attitude.” They would close their eyes and “see” their t-cells forming an arrow and penetrating the cancer cells, watching them dissipate.

Later, group participants would listen to the music and the images that were embedded in their minds would recreate themselves, automatically. This part of the program could be compared to the “placebo effect” as it applies to health.

One last point: What I have recommended should only be considered as a supplemental program. It should not replace any treatment prescribed by a physician or oncologist.

Coaches often try to force their belief systems onto athletes. Such an approach just doesn’t work. The athlete’s belief system controls performance, not the coach’s. If a relief pitcher believes he needs 12 minutes to warm up before putting him into a game, the manager should allow him his twelve minutes. Some beliefs concern physical activities. There are coaches who insist male athletes avoid sexual relations in the twenty-four hours before a game, believing such activity somehow depletes a player. In contrast, some players feel that such activity relaxes them and enhances their athletic ability the next day. Conceivably sex can promote or retard performance. If an athlete believes it’s beneficial, it will be. But if a player has to lie to a coach about such intimate personal activity, their dishonesty will have a negative effect at game time.

We hear a lot about how certain speakers are able to motivate members of their audience or that a particular coach is a great motivator, but the fact of the matter is, no one can motivate another person. Inspire, yes. But not motivate. Motivation must come from within and over the years I’ve found the higher an individual’s feelings of self-worth (self-esteem) the more motivated they become…automatically.

If I were speaking to a group of people in a room and my job was to motivate them, the first thing I would do would be to organize them into support groups so they could talk about personal issues they may be keeping bottled inside themselves. I call this withholding and withholding is a form of lying that demeans them and lowers their self-esteem, creating psychological baggage that negatively affects their ability to focus and process information. As they talk about their issues and release them, they’ll start to feel better about themselves and their missions in life. The most successful coaches are those who provide an internal mechanism for players to talk abut their issues with their teammates. Everything that takes place in that room is kept in complete confidence and no one will be benched or kicked off the team for sharing. And once they share their issues with their teammates, the result will be improved team chemistry and improved performance.

This same premise applies to school children who witness horrific problems at home but tell no one about them. They come to school and attend class, even though they’re not focused on schoolwork, and before long, they are making poor grades and often drop out of school. That’s why I’m an advocate of support groups in our school systems. And how can you tell if a student is withholding? Eye contact. People who withhold have poor eye contact and will break eye contact when discussing an issue they have not resolved in their personal lives.

If you want to know how you’re showing up in the world, all you have to do is look around you. If you see those around you as kind, pleasant and nurturing, they are only reflecting the signals you’re sending out. If you see them as hateful and mean-spirited, then you can be sure those are the signals you’re sending out.

I’m reminded of the story of two young Jewish couples who moved to a new town and met with the local rabbi. When the first couple asked the rabbi, “What are the people like here in this town?” – the rabbi responded: “First, tell me what the people were like in the town you just moved from.” And the first young couple told the rabbi that the people in their former town were very kind, very helpful, and were good neighbors. And the rabbi responded: “Well, I think you’ll find the people here in this town about the same.” And then the second couple asked the rabbi what the same question: “What are the people like in this town?” and the rabbi again responded, “First, tell me what the people were like in the town you just moved from.” And the second couple told the rabbi that the people in their former town were mean and vindictive, always looking for an argument and not good neighbors at all. And the rabbi responded: “Well, I believe you’ll find the people here in this town about the same.”

We are often quick to blame others for our own shortcomings, and we often see ourselves as victims. I once received a letter from the mother of a college-level volleyball player and the mother told me what a difficult time her daughter was having with her teammates. It seems they were treating her daughter badly and the mother asked if I would meet with the coach and explain the situation and then meet with the team to straighten out the problem. I explained to the mother, in as gentle terms as I could, that more than likely the problem wasn’t with the team but rather with her daughter. Her daughter should be looking at her own behavior rather than blaming her teammates.

There’s an old Hebrew saying that “Liars believe everyone around them are lying.” So the lesson to be learned is that if we feel good about ourselves and our lives are in harmony, then we will see the world around us differently than if we don’t feel good about ourselves and our lives are in disharmony.

If you’re an athlete and see your teammates as pleasant and nurturing, they are reflecting the signals you’re sending out. Another player on the same team may see the same set of teammates as being hateful and mean-spirited, because those are the signals he or she is sending out. So if you’re a coach, and notice a player is not getting along with teammates, it’s important to step in and help solve the problem by having your team become a support group. Many times you will find that the person who is negative is having problems in his or her personal life, and a support group environment will allow him or her to interact with other team members in a positive way. The result will be better team chemistry and cohesiveness.

When working with a team or an individual, I emphasize they must not withhold. My experience has been that sharing personal and team-related experiences in a controlled group environment often results in a “connectedness” among team players. The bonding that takes place surfaces to the outside world as “good team chemistry.”

In his book, Sacred Hoops, Chicago Bulls’ coach Phil Jackson relates what happened in a team meeting immediately following a 1993 playoff game when Scottie Pippin refused to enter the game, with 1.8 seconds remaining. After Coach Jackson made a few remarks, team member Bill Cartwright took over.
“Look, Scottie,” he said, staring at Pippin, “That was bulls**t. After all we’ve been through on this team. This is our chance to do it on our own without Michael (Jordan), and you blow it with your selfishness. I’ve never been so disappointed in my whole life.”

Coach Jackson goes on to say: When he finished, tears were streaming down his (Cartwright’s) cheeks. The room was silent. Bill is a proud, stoic man who commands the highest respect because of his ability to endure punishment and not back down. None of us had ever seen him show the slightest hint of vulnerability. In fact, his wife, Sheri, later told June (my wife) that in fifteen years of marriage, she had never seen Bill cry. For him to break down like that in front of his teammates was significant, and Pippin knew that as well as anyone . . . Visibly shaken by Bill’s words, Scottie apologized to his teammates, explaining the frustration he felt during the final minutes. Then some of the other players said what they felt.

Later, teammate B.J. Armstrong said he thought the whole thing brought them closer together “because we weren’t going to let one incident, no matter how big or small, break down what we had worked so hard to build.” Athletes with high self-esteem — such as Bill Cartwright — usually do not withhold. They deal with issues head-on and bring them to completion.

Nonetheless, if an issue is related to their coach, they sometimes hold back and do not reveal their feelings. How often I’ve heard: “It won’t do any good to tell the coach how I feel. He won’t change.” Maybe not. But the point of talking about an issue is not to change another person. The point is for athletes to let go of issues distracting them from performance. Resolving issues helps athletes get on with their work, regardless of whether anyone else changes. When this idea is made clear during a workshop, players immediately begin to interact with their teammates and coaches, bringing issues to completion. Many athletes harm their performance by withholding their feelings. When athletes release their feelings they begin to perform with greater proficiency. Only after this “unloading process” do visualization techniques become effective.

An appropriate metaphor explaining this concept might involve an airplane, flying from destination A to destination B. Most people believe an airplane flies in a direct line. Not true. Airplanes fly in corridors and, when the pilot gets too close to one side of the corridor, the control tower tells him (or her) to make an adjustment. And should the plane get too close to the other side of the corridor, the control tower tells the pilot, again, to make an adjustment. So the plane flies within the corridor and the control tower gives the pilot “feedback.”

Now, we often don’t give feedback because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. And, of course, you have to be careful. I’m referring here to “feedback” – not being “critical.” There is no feedback when you don’t care. But when you experience someone who is having a personal problem – perhaps a teammate – give him (or her) feedback and let him (or her) know you care. This will also allow him (or her) to open up and release to you, sharing his (or her) problems with you. The result? Team bonding and good team chemistry.

Coach Calipari understands the value of making sure his team members know he cares about them and their personal lives as well as their lives as athletes on his team. It began with his pre-season Pro Camp where he invited all the NBA GM’s and Scouts to visit his team working out before the season started. His purpose was to make sure his team players got the necessary exposure to the NBA people so that it would increase the possibility that, after they finish playing at the University of Kentucky, they would have a running start at becoming instant millionaires. He also hired Bob Rotella, one of this country’s top sport psychologists to help him. (Rotella is one of those sport psychologists who is reportedly violating his academic oath by helping athletes with their personal problems, something he’s not allowed to do since that’s the domain of the clinical psychologist and if found out, could lose his license.) But lingering in Coach Calipari’s past is when he was fired as head coach of the New Jersey Nets after having brought motivational speaker Tony Robbins into a team meeting to have team members break two-by-four boards with their bare hands. It didn’t work.


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