Wanting It

Relax. This post is not about sex. Nor is it about the political race, which has become tiresome. It’s about sports psychology, which is something I find most perplexing and even at times interesting.

Recently the Minnesota Vikings travelled to Philadelphia, city of Brotherly Love, to play the Eagles in football. The Eagles had lost two games in a row on the road whereas the Vikings were 5 and 0 and had just had a bye-week. I suspected going into the game that Philadelphia would have the edge and indeed they did, winning 24-10 — and the game wasn’t even that close. I watched the first few minutes of the game and then turned off the television: the Eagles clearly wanted the game more than did the Vikings. It was that simple. And yet, none of the talking heads I watch on Mondays even mentioned the psychological dimension of the game. They talked about how Minneota’s young offensive line couldn’t handle Philadelphia’s excellent pass rush, their weak running game without Adrian Peterson, and other elements of the game that were supposed to explain the embarrassing loss the Vikings suffered (coach Zimmer’s words).

I have been around sports for years and have coached football, basketball, and (mostly) tennis for years. I have always thought about the psychological problems my players might have going into a game or a match and I attempted to head off any jitters or loss of nerves the players might face. In tennis, especially, I always told my players that as long as they played their best that was all anyone could ask. I looked for effort. Period. I never talked about winning or losing. I figured if they played their best they would probably win and if they lost their opponent was simply better than they were on that day. It happens. By not criticizing them after a loss and getting them to focus on their own games my teams had pretty good success. It helped raise their self-confidence, which is essential to good performance.

The psychological element in sports is fundamental and a key to how a player performs on the field or the court. If two players, or teams, are facing each other and they are of equal, or nearly equal, ability levels, the team that wants the win will win. It is the power of positive thinking. The golfer who knows he will sink the 6 foot putt will almost always do so. The basketball player who knows he could make the free-throw will almost ceretainly make it. It is all about wanting something and having the confidence that one will attain it. But beware cockiness! A coach must keep an eye on that possibility. Confidence is a good thing; over-confidence is not. In golf a bogey often follows a birdie; in tennis a double-fault frequently comes on the heels of an ace. Watch out for P.B.F. —  post-birdie-foul-up.

I suspect the Vikings went into the game in Philadelphia a bit cocky. After all, they were 5-0 and their opponent was 3-2 with two losses in a row. The media had hyped up the Vikings and the players doubtless watch ESPN and may even read the newspapers — who knows? They came in figuring all they had to do was show up. But that sort of cockiness, an over-abundance of confidence, is a danger to a good performance. P.B.F. Balance is the key: knowing that one can win if he or she performs well but not taking it for granted. After all is said and done the mental aspect must translate into excellence of performance.

I suspected that Mike Zimmer would have a difficult time getting his players ready for that game, getting them into the mindset that would prime their engines and make them want to win more than their opponents. It was apparent form the start that this had not happened. The Eagles players were “pumped.” They wanted the game more than their opponents. And wanting it, once again, gained the upper hand.

Coaching is an art more than an science. And getting players motivated, keeping up their confidence, and convincing them that a game somehow matters in the grand scheme of things is something very few men or women seem to be able to do. (On the other hand, if a player is too keyed up, the coach must convince them that the game really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. After all, it’s only a game. The key is to know the players and to know which “buttons to push.”) But in the end the one who wants it more, given more or less equal skill levels, will win.

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Out Of Control?

The image of the NFL which so many people work so hard to protect seems to have taken a beating of late. The Ray Rice pummeling of his wife in an Atlantic City elevator was the highlight of the past few weeks, but the recent story of Adrian Peterson’s “whooping”  of his  4 year-old son now takes center stage. For the moment. Stay tuned.

As a resident of Minnesota who notes in the large print of my contract with the state that I will always be loyal to the Minnesota Vikings, it pains me to think that the talented and seemingly likable Peterson would strip a branch from a nearby tree and whip his son for pushing his brother; the boy was later taken to the doctor’s office with cuts and bruises over much of his small body. As it happens, I was switched as a child on the backs of my legs. My mother lost her temper, switched me with a willow stick and then insisted that I wear long pants to visit one of her friends so the welts would not be visible. Peterson says he was whipped as a boy and Bill Cosby makes fun of the fact that his father took his belt to him and his brother when they were little. That’s the way it was done in those days.

But no more. Now any sort of corporal punishment is regarded as abuse and the parent is held accountable. The jury is out on whether or not this is a good thing, but on the face of it uncontrolled anger on the part of a large and strong parent “whooping” a young child is clearly abuse. I ask, however, is all corporal punishment abuse? My sense of it is that when done in extreme cases by a parent who is on control of his or her emotions it may be necessary and effective way to manage a child who is otherwise out of control. It is not crystal clear to me that corporal punishment used judiciously is more harmful to the child than is the almost total absence of restraint so prevalent today.

But because of the extent of damage to his son, the case of Adrian Peterson is exceptional, and as the latest in a series of violent incidents on the part of an astonishing number of NFL players it raises several questions. Those questions not only address the issue of what sort of punishment would be appropriate for a man as strong as Peterson for taking out his anger on a helpless boy. They also address the question of whether his loss of control in this case (which he admits and which is apparent from the consequences) might be the result of the use of anabolic steroids. It is certainly the case that this man, along with his fellows in the NFL train their bodies to be as hard and strong as humanly possible. And it is clear that there is widespread use of steroids in the NFL to assist in improving performance in a violent sport. Further, it appears to be the case that their use can result in uncontrolled violence.

We need to recall the case of Lyle Alzado who died of brain cancer which was at the time attributed to the use of anabolic steroids. His description of his condition shortly before his death is gripping:

I started taking anabolic steroids in 1969 and never stopped. It was addicting, mentally addicting. Now I’m sick, and I’m scared. Ninety percent of the athletes I know are on the stuff. We’re not born to be 300 lbs or jump 30 ft. But all the time I was taking steroids, I knew they were making me play better. I became very violent on the field and off it. I did things only crazy people do. Once a guy sideswiped my car and I beat the hell out of him. Now look at me. My hair’s gone, I wobble when I walk and have to hold on to someone for support, and I have trouble remembering things. My last wish? That no one else ever dies this way.

The issue of whether steroid use lead directly to Alzado’s death has been  questioned, but increasing testosterone in a male animal most assuredly increases the tendency toward violence, which in football players is already high. Further, the NFL has known about the use of steroids since the 1960s and instituted a testing policy in 1987 that resulted in suspensions as early as 1989. However, as we know from cases like those of Lance Armstrong, there are ways around testing and the use of anabolic steroids appears to be widespread in the NFL — if not in college football and even at the level of the high schools.  Many a high school football player is now as large and nearly as strong as a professional football player thirty years ago. Perhaps it is a coincidence. Perhaps it is not.

In any case, the NFL players union has recently approved a new drug testing policy that includes such things as HGH which will supplement the testing of steroids even though, again, there are ways around those tests as well. The agreement also guarantees lesser punishments for players who might be caught out using marijuana. But in light of the recent incidents of violence on and off the football field, where players are larger, faster, and stronger and incidents of injury to the players themselves (including concussions) are increasing — coupled with growing numbers of cases involving players being violent toward those whom they profess to love — one must wonder if the NFL has the will or the ability to curb the use of the supplements, and the violence. After all, the games sell out and pro football is Big Business.

Social Conscience

Not long ago I made passing reference to the apparent fact that a great many athletes who make millions of dollars playing a game and getting endorsements seem to lack any sort of social conscience. I realize that there are notable exceptions — such as Billie Jean King, Magic Johnson, Kevin Garnett, and Adrian Peterson — to name a few. But on the whole, many athletes are reluctant to speak out about the problems around them and to lend their considerable weight, money, and reputation to movements that might actually help rectify many social ills — such as poverty and the lack of opportunity for so many people. The medieval thinkers would have called this the “sin of omission,” the failure to act when an evil is clearly perceived. The problem is that many of these athletes simply don’t perceive the ills that surround them in this society.

Billie Jean King(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Billie Jean King
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Indeed, when many athletes retire the best they can think of is to open an academy or a school where they will teach youngsters to play the games that made them famous. I blogged about Andy Roddick not long ago in this respect. That is not a bad thing and it is nice to see these people “giving back” to the games they play, but they are after all just games. There are more serious problems  that need attention, to be sure. This simply shows us how small the world the world is in which these people live.

But when you think about it, what are we to expect? Take golf, for example. Sports Illustrated does a poll every year among the American male golfers, and except for David Duval (who has recently been relegated to golf’s minor leagues), there isn’t a single American golfer who would be caught dead voting for a Democrat. This is not to say that only Democrats are socially responsible; that is surely not the case. But so many of those golfers are simply concerned to make sure they keep a tight grip on as much of their money as they possibly can, and they seem convinced that the best way to assure that is to vote for Republicans. If they do get involved with charities it is usually ones that touch them in a close, personal way. God forbid the state or country should take some of their money and do some real good with it.

These men tend to identify the Democratic Party with Socialism and while they have no idea what that means, they know they don’t want to have  anything to do with it. But again, what are we to expect? They fly all over the world, but they have no idea what is going on in that world. They live in gated communities; fly in private jets or first class accommodations; stay in high-priced hotels or rent a condominium during their current tournament; play at the world’s poshest golf courses and are taxied back and forth in the latest expensive SUV;  and they engage in conversation only with like-minded, wealthy Republicans. They are the pawns of their corporate sponsors — as suggested by their clothing which is covered with corporate logos. In fact, the only people with more logos on their clothing are the Nascar drivers and they aren’t really athletes, as George Carlin reminded us years ago: they are rednecks driving around in circles.

In any event, golfers resemble so many of the other wealthy athletes living in a shrunken world talking only to others who think as they do, and worried that “the government” is going to take away some of their easy money (witness Phil Mickelson who recently threatened to move out of California because they passed a bill taxing wealthy citizens at a higher rate. Goodness!)

But, while we can only regret that socially aware athletes like Arthur Ashe are no longer around, when all is said and done we really should be thankful for the handful of wealthy athletes who do give some of their money and time to deserving causes — such as children’s hospitals and hurricane relief, for example. It’s remarkable that they rise above the level of awareness that seems to be the norm in the sports world where narcissistic men and women are chasing their dream in the form of a palatial home, expensive cars, and safe investments. But as they would be the first to tell me: it’s their money. Who am I to say what they should do with it?