Mind Over Sports

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The following appeared in the November 15, 2006 issue of USA Today: “DT Albert Haynesworth said he learned through counseling that he should quit bottling up his emotions until they explode, a problem that landed him the NFL’s longest suspension for an on-field act. His remorse and willingness to seek help since kicking Dallas Center Andre Gurode in the face with his cleats is why he will practice today. But the Titans are requiring Haynesworth to continue that anger-management counseling. ‘I just want to keep doing it,’ Haynesworth said. ‘Honestly, it’s helping. I can actually talk about stuff. My wife likes it, too. I actually open up and talk about problems I have.’ Haynesworth worked out Monday, the first day he was eligible to return form his five-game suspension.” Is it possible the Titans realized the value of not bottling up emotions and have since had their entire team involved in the process? Withholding (bottling up feelings and emotions) is a form of lying that demeans an athlete and negatively affects his or her self-esteem. By not withholding, athletes enhance their self-esteem, thereby enhancing performance.

In the 1986 U.S. Open Golf Tournament, rumors floated about Tom Watson’s personal life. After an opening round of 72, he called a press conference and announced he was not an alcoholic, he was not divorcing his wife, and he was not firing his brother-in-law as his agent. He cleared the issues from his head and focused on golf. The next day he shot an outstanding 65 and finished runner-up in the tournament.

I used to play a lot of handball and one day I was entered in a tournament in Overland Park, Kansas, where I used to live. Just before I left home, my wife and I got into a little tiff. I didn’t think much of it at the time but after I had suited up and was about to step onto the handball court, something didn’t feel right. So I decided to call my wife and when she answered the phone I apologized for some of the things I had said and she apologized to me also and we decided to take care of the matter when I returned home later. I told her I loved her and she told me she loved me and how much she appreciated my calling her. I hung up the phone, stepped onto the court, and played some of the best handball I had ever played. And I’m convinced that had I not made that phone call, I would have played some of the worst.

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.

West Virginia’s running back Rushel Shell missed most of the second half of the Missouri game last Saturday due to leg cramps. In a past interview with Dr. Tommy Burnett, he told me that in the medical profession it was pretty common knowledge that the consumption of alcohol interferes with the transportation of oxygen to the body’s muscle cells and is not being delivered to the ligaments and tendons. When the muscle fibers are deprived of oxygen, the athlete is more prone to injuries such as muscle cramping. This is also common knowledge among personal trainers who work on college and professional athletes but it’s a fact often hidden from public view since there is a close association of the marketing of alcoholic beverages and sports, especially professional sports. So when you read where an athlete, such as Rushel Shell, is experiencing muscle and ligament problems, there’s a high probability that particular athlete is also consuming a substantial amount of alcohol in his (or her) personal life.

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.

In 1948, Robert Merton published a paper in which he stated: “The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true. The specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the beginning.”

In other words, a prophecy (or strongly held belief) declared as truth when it is actually false may sufficiently influence people, either through fear or logical confusion, so that their reactions ultimately fulfill the once-false belief.
Example: When a woman falsely believes her marriage will fail, her fears of such failure actually cause the marriage to fail.

Example: When athletes falsely fear they will not perform up to their capabilities in an upcoming game, their fear of such failure actually causes them to fail.
But I believe the opposite is also true. That is, when a coach praises an athlete and tells him or her how successful they are expected to be in their next game (even creates goals for them) and, assuming the athlete possesses the skill level to achieve those goals, there is a high probability the athlete will be successful.  But in order to do so, the athlete must not be withholding feelings and emotions, or have unresolved issues in his or her personal life.

If a parent constantly praises a child and reminds that child of what high goals he or she is capable of achieving, then there is a great probability he or she will achieve high goals, assuming the child possesses the skill levels to achieve the goals and is not withholding feelings and emotions, or has unresolved issues in his or her personal life.

If a child is being reared in a loving, nurturing home environment and has a high sense of inner-self (self-esteem), and a teacher belittles that child and creates a negative expectation, it will be like water off a ducks back because of how that child feels about himself or herself. But if the child comes from a dysfunctional home environment and has a low sense of inner-self (self-esteem) and a teacher belittles the child, the teacher’s actions will re-enforce the negative beliefs the child may already possess about himself or herself.

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.

We’ve all had that image of the little old lady sitting on her front porch in a rocking chair, holding her bible, often described as being cantankerous. That is, difficult to deal with and speaks her mind. But the fact is, these are characteristics of someone with high self-esteem. They don’t keep their feelings bottled-up. They generally have strong religious beliefs. And it’s not uncommon for them to live into their 90’s.

And you often find these same characteristics in successful athletes.

And how does it all start? There is no doubt that genetics has considerable influence, but the one common denominator is that at some time in their lives, often when they were small children, they received unconditional love resulting in their having a high sense of inner-self, or self-esteem.

Very often this love came from one or both parents. But if their parents were not there for them, it was often the love of a grandparent. Sometimes even a professor or a coach. Being loved as a small child lays the foundation for a successful and happy life, because children who are loved grow up to love themselves.

And if you’re a coach recruiting an athlete, how can you tell in advance that the athlete will be successful? Just check his or her eye contact. Good eye contact means high self-esteem. Poor eye contact, low self-esteem. And those with low self-esteem are generally bottling-up their feelings and emotions, which makes them prone to mental errors during competition.


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