Mind Over Sports

I’m just watching the St. Louis Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game on television and it is definitely booooring. And I’m a big fan of St. Louis AND Pittsburgh. No wonder young people today are losing interest in major league baseball and turning to other sports such as basketball and football. The folks who run MLB need to do something to stimulate interest. Especially something that will generate interest among young viewers. Part of the problem is the announcers, who seem obligated to fill air time with baseball trivia and mind-dumbing statistics. I grew up listening to Harry Carey broadcasting Cardinal games, especially when I was in college and Harry knew how to excite a radio audience and keep them interested. One idea I’ve had to create more excitement for young audiences is to make a live baseball game similar to a computer game with live participation by young people in the stands who match wits with the managers on their Iphones. I’ve run it by a couple of teams and they don’t seem to get it. Too bad. It could become a great stimulant to audience interest and attendance. Maybe I’m just ahead of my time and twenty years from now they’ll be doing it. But for now. Nada.

A number of years ago I received a letter from an upset mother who wanted me to meet with her daughter’s high school soccer team. It seems her daughter didn’t get along with her teammates and her mother wanted me to straighten out the situation by meeting with her teammates and getting them to change. After evaluating the situation, it was obvious that it was the daughter who needed changing. And I recommended her daughter meet with a professional therapist. She had what I would identify as low self-esteem and was seeing everything and everyone around her from a negative perspective. That’s when I applied a phrase I had once read that “We see things as we are. Not as they are, but as we are.” Athletes who feel bad about themselves generally will interact negatively with their teammates and have a disrupting influence on team chemistry. When I pointed this out to her mother as gently as possible, she didn’t agree. I never heard from her again.

What reminded me of this episode was the other day when I was lying on my back in a lounge chair in my backyard enjoying the sun and clouds above. As the clouds passed slowly overhead I saw, in them, a duck’s head with its mouth slightly open, a huge white whale, a fox with a big smile on its face, a man running straight up to the sky away from earth, and an opossum sniffing something floating by the end of its nose. It was much like taking a Rorschach Test, the famous test created by Swiss Psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach. Had he been present he probably would have told me that he was happy I didn’t see a knife with blood dripping from it or a dead corpse floating with a sheet over it or other ghastly images. And then it dawned on me: I was seeing my own thoughts in those clouds. And I said to myself: “God, that Rorschach was one smart guy.”

But was he? Or did he steal the idea from someone else? Like Rabbi Shmuel ben Nachmani in the Talmud. Rabbi Nachmani was born in Babylonia and lived during the last years of the third century. It was the good rabbi who came up with the observation that “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

If you’re a coach, and you have a player who is negative in his (or her) thinking, then you can help that player by providing him (or her) with a forum to unload any thoughts and feelings he (or she) may be having that are affecting his (or her) relationship with teammates. In other words, create a support group environment so that your team can share their problems and issues with each other in confidence. The result will be strong team bonding and enhanced team chemistry.

Frank Robinson’s passing reminded me of a time back in 1988 when he was in Kansas City and manager of Baltimore. His team was 0-20 and about to play the Royals. As a sport psychology consultant I called him and asked for a meeting. He agreed and when I walked into the room at Royals stadium where he was flanked by two of his assistant coaches, I explained my program to him and everything went well until I mentioned a part of the program where players were to hug each other and when I made that statement he held up his hand and said “Hold it. This meeting is over.” “Why?” I asked. And he replied “There’s no way in hell you’re gonna get Major League Baseball players to hug each other.” On my way home I thought about what I should have said: “Hey, what about Tommy Lasorda? He hugged everybody.” 😊 Soon after they won their first game of the season.

Successful coaches care about their athletes as human beings first, and then as athletic performers. This includes helping them with their personal issues and problems and having an open-door policy.

Successful coaches know that athletes do not perform well if they fear the wrath of their coach.

Successful coaches know that when they get angry they give away their power. They do not yell and get in the faces of their athletes.

Successful coaches are aware that their behavior in their own personal lives affects how they interact with their teams.

Successful coaches know that what takes place away from the field of competition affects what takes place on the field of competition.

Successful coaches encourage their athletes not to “withhold” their feelings and emotions since withholding is a form of lying that demeans them and lowers their self-esteem; as a result of withholding, athletes will take fewer risks in interpersonal relationships and create psychological baggage for themselves that affects their ability to focus and process information.

Successful coaches hold weekly team meetings and encourage, when necessary, that their athletes sometimes participate in “players only” meetings so they will feel free to discuss team related problems and issues in a support group environment, issues they may not feel comfortable discussing with their coach present.

Successful coaches know they cannot motivate their players but can create a support group environment allowing their players to discuss their personal issues and problems; and as they discuss their personal issues and problems, they will then feel better about themselves and will automatically become more motivated.

Successful coaches are constantly aware of their players’ eye contact since they know that poor eye contact is an indication that players are withholding and have unresolved issues in their personal lives.

Successful coaches encourage their players to use visualization techniques, including the use of video tape sequences accompanied by a music track with meaningful lyrics.

Successful coaches encourage their players to “excel for a higher order” by helping others less fortunate than themselves, thereby enhancing their own feelings of self-worth and their performance.

Successful coaches are those who are able to tap into their athletes’ belief systems, realizing that the athlete’s beliefs affect performance, not the coaches.

Successful coaches do not micromanage their teams during competition and allow their athletes to use their God-given talents.

An increasing number of college baseball teams are delving into Analytcis when coaches want to know about “a pitcher’s velocity or spin of the ball out of his hand or a hitter’s exit velocity and launch angle off the bat.” It all sounds very good but what Analytics doesn’t do is look into an athlete’s personal life to find out if he (or she) is experiencing personal problems such as an anger issue or a bad relationship with his girlfriend (or boyfriend) or internal problems with a coach or a teammate. That’s why I believe it’s important that teams are transformed into support groups where they can get things off their chests which helps them feel better about themselves and increases their feelings of self-worth. Over the years I’ve found that when athletes are happy and their lives are in harmony they perform close to their skill levels on a consistent basis.

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This article includes some degree of speculation.  But the value of a players only team meeting is valid.

One of the 2018 NCAA March Madness Tournament coaches made a choice which, in my opinion, probably didn’t sit well with his team and could have been the reason they lost in the second round to a less talented team. The coach, who will remain unnamed, had a star freshman player who joined the team early in the season and immediately experienced a foot injury that kept him from suiting up all season long. So the coach did the best he could do with the healthy members of his team and they made it into the post-season tournament. About that time, his star athlete’s foot became healed well enough so he could play. The coach inserted him into the first tournament game early and the second tournament game also. Those players who worked their butts off all season long and had developed excellent chemistry with other members of the team were required to ride the bench and received very little playing time. This probably didn’t sit well with the team. But no one said anything because the coach makes those decisions based on information he has available to him. He IS the coach and that is his job. But maybe, just maybe, it might not have been a bad idea to allow his team to hold a players only meeting and allow them to determine if the star athlete should be allowed to replace the player who had worked hard all season long, or should he ride the bench. This is another example of how most of the time good team chemistry is as important, or possibly more important, than talent. And good chemistry is often the result of a players only meeting.

Much has been written in the media about how America’s women have been sexually abused by their bosses and supervisors and until now, have been reluctant to speak up because they feared the consequences of their honesty.

But something very similar is happening in the field of sports (and has been happening for a long time) based on the way some white coaches treat their black athletes behind closed doors. If a white coach treats an African-American athlete badly and the athlete speaks up, more than likely he will not only be kicked off the team but other teams will be reluctant to have him join them because he is immediately identified as a trouble-maker. The ramifications of this are enormous, especially since the athlete will be deprived of the opportunity to obtain a college degree. Rather than fight their coach and the front office (who is aware of their coach’s behavior but still support him) they clam up, saying nothing, especially to the media. Here’s an example:

A number of years ago, half-way through the season, I was called upon to help an NCAA Missouri Basketball team who, up to that time, was 3-15. My job as a sport psychology consultant was to help build team chemistry and help the players improve their performance. This involved each player standing and sharing with his teammates what was on his mind, with no coach present. There were twelve players on the team, ten of whom were African-American. At our first session, which was much like a support group meeting with all comments made to be kept in complete confidence within that room. What I heard from players was startling and amazing.  Since the players wouldn’t speak up about how their coach was treating them, I took it upon myself to approach a friend who was on the board of the university. He took action and when the season ended, that coach was fired. Unfortunately, word leaked out that it was I who approached the university and from that day on, no one at the university would hire me.

One last note: Once the “players only” weekly team meetings began, the team went on to win 8 out of their last 10 games.  The coach, who was highly superstitious, thought it was because he hadn’t changed his undershorts.

 

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