Monday, March 31, 2008

Sadness or Madness?

Thank you, Davidson. And thank you, Kansas. Thank you to Bob McKillop and Bill Self. And, of course, thank you to all of the coaches and players from the Wildcats and Jayhawks who finally produced a tournament game worth paying full attention for all forty minutes. I mainly speak for many of the nation's viewers since I will watch any and every game anyway. Folks who tune into the tube around tourney time are not always interested in which team runs the flex offense or plays a box and one or scores 30 percent of its points in the paint. (I watched this one with a soccer junkie). March-weather fans care about who wins, the excitement of individual plays, and most of all, if their bracket remains intact.

The Davidson-Kansas game, however, was the best game of the tournament. Possessions were crucial, defense was pronounced, structure was evident, and contrasting styles made for a solid storyline. Finally, a contest that was competitive (the exact situation one would hope for on the second weekend!). The average scoring margin of the other seven games over the last four days was 15.5. And none, barring the West Virginia-Xavier match, were even that close.

The top teams were, well, unquestionably dominant. So much for the popular “pressure to win as the favorite” argument. Even Memphis-Kansas turned into an old fashioned beat down. I must throw in one last thank you to the Memphis team for silencing all the critics. It shot over 83 percent from the free throw line. More significantly, the Tigers have attempted at least 32 free throws in each tournament game – even if they shoot a Shaq-like percentage, they’re getting 20 points from the stripe.

Coach isn’t sweatin’ either. According to Calipari, he has mentally tough players who shoot with correct mechanics, which eases his worry of misses in crunch time. In other words, “I told you so. Stop hating on the most athletic and most explosive team in the country. Who needs to shoot well from the perimeter when we can get to, and over the rim, with ease?” (Memphis has an effective field goal percentage of more than 50 percent and holds opponents under 44 percent in the same category. Plus, it is ranked eighth nationally in turnover percentage, meaning it takes care of the ball.)

A fan wants to see what is advertised – March Madness. Throughout the last week until Sunday night, all that swarmed was March Sadness. Where were the plays to make one jump out of a seat? The intense possessions? The last minute heroics? Four number one seeds in the finals…unprecedented. And a surprise at this point in history with the so-called uniformity in college basketball. Perhaps David Stern’s regulation to keep high school players out of the draft is already servicing amateur hoops. The strongest programs in the nation now have plenty (at least, more than the past few seasons) of pro prospects on their rosters. I suppose that if a youngster does have to attend a school before making the jump to the NBA, it behooves him to commit to a UNC, Memphis, UCLA or Kansas. May as well compete for a national title while going to a couple of classes.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Getting High More Than Mental

In 2001, I had an article published in the now defunct Boston Sports Journal that described the phenomenon known as the "runner's high," a feeling of ultimate enjoyment and possible euphoria engendered from intense exercise. My claims were mainly based on personal experience and other runners' accounts, however, there was no scientific evidence to demonstrate any fluctuation of brainy chemicals during physical activity. The theory existed with no proof.

Rousing research has recently informed us that what was thought to be valid for so many years really is; that something actually is occurring in the brain. That something (or those somethings) are increases in narcotic-like chemicals in the blood known as endorphins. The exciting finding, made possible via PET scans, is that endorphins were produced in higher quantities in the emotion relegated parts of the brain which provided the runners in the study with the high feelings. It's no longer purely a psychological manifestation or an educated guess that the brain's functions are responsible for the change in an exerciser's mood.

I'd like to see a similar experiment with athletes besides everyday road runners or marathon maniacs. Scan football or hockey players before they go out and create enough chemicals to feel no pain at all (discounting the morning after angst). When potential injury or harm to others is possible, what parts of the brain are activated besides the limbic (emotional) and prefrontal (organizational) areas? If pain receptors are somehow strengthened or manipulated to be more resilient during an extreme stimuli provoking activity, the reaction may suggest a flight or fight response.

More so than a pure adrenaline rush, the brain prepares the body for painful outcomes and also helps to organize the motor processes and decision making of someone in danger. The strong survive because they are able to generate more excitement, increase intensity, and become more resilient to whatever force may strike (whether it's an opponent, the pounding of the pavement, or a ball headed straight for the body).

Athletes who train on a daily basis and who are made to practice hard with contact and more physical force may indeed be training not only bodies, but their brains to achieve the high more often. The reality of the physiological high gives more credence to coaches who insist on training the mind as much as the physique. The ability to bounce back and be mentally tough just may be possible because neuronal chemicals are collaborating and attacking the target in one's head, so that the reaction is psychologically created from physiological mechanisms.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Advancing with Confidence

Davidson's head men's basketball coach Bob McKillop was quoted in the New York Times this past weekend with an appreciative simile that coaches and sport psychologists are bound to savor. "Confidence is very fragile. It's like glass. When it drops it can break into a lot of pieces."

Fortunately for McKillop and his hoopin' Wildcats, the only traces of anything shattered were the hearts of the highly favored Hoyas from Georgetown and the attempted defensive schemes of Gonzaga. When it came down to shutting down Davidson, opponents were left with fragments of glass in themselves. Everyone knows that Stephen Curry dropped 70 in two games, but what about how his teammates handled the pressure? Try these numbers: 18 assists and 14 turnovers in the first round and then, against one of the nation's top defenses, 10 dimes and only 5 TOs! Five! In fact, in round two, Davidson created 16 more field goal attempts for itself via valued possessions and offensive boards.

Most importantly, though, the team looked and played confidently. And the red-hot Curry was the five-star spice. In the same article, McKillop went on to say that sometimes during the year his team was "more plastic" and "didn't break into pieces." Well, they now resemble hints of armor and will need their newly-created coating as they head into the round of 16 to face yet another highly rated defensive team in Wisconsin.

Confidence can come in waves. As Davidson discovered, there was a splendid splash of it in North Carolina over the weekend. The team didn't drown in the 17-point deficit against Georgetown. Somehow, as all solid teams do, it managed to play each possession and create opportunities. The physical action influenced the psychological play, and shifted the momentum. But it was the mental stability to stay with the game plan that allowed the plays to manifest.

Confidence is critical for the 16 teams left, and the further away from fragile they are the more likely they are to advance. Easier said than...well...thought.

Doc's order of favorites, based on the weekend's performances, from armor to plastic:

North Carolina - a well-balanced diet
Kansas - hungry and fast munchin' 'hawks
Louisville - Pitino's pieces are sweet
West Virginia - out to prove they aren't crumbs
Michigan State - well prepped Spartans
Washington State - structured meal
Wisconsin - a foundation too good to pass up
Davidson - upgrade the dishes from plastic
...other tastes...
Western Kentucky

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Madness in the Hardwood Mind

And here we are again. Just a memory away, Florida's men were raising their second consecutive trophy after plowing through another field of 64, err, I mean, five. The Division I NCAA basketball tourney is not only a phenomenal competitive collaboration of the best college hoops, but a time that a nation takes part in the fast-paced action, last second heroics, and shining moments. And much of the time, analysts, coaches, players, and even some fans agree that the most mentally focused team will be the one to win its last game of the season.

Yes, I believe in that statement as well. Motivation, concentration, intensity, handling pressure, managing hype - all of these characteristics either impede or invigorate teams. And usually we, as a society, honor the most mentally tough group, the one that makes it through the first weekend unscathed, into the sweetness, and out to the last quad standing. How could that unit not be the most mentally stable? After all, there are so many outstanding teams and so many games throughout the year decided by just one possession. One possession! One block out. One secured loose ball. One cross screen. One inside out dribble. One shot.

Four major contributing factors to W's besides points scored are free throws, rebounds, field goal percentage, and turnovers. Great teams are able to stay at the top in all of these categories. But what about a mental toughness category? Wouldn't it be interesting to rate the psychological profile of a collective hoop group? Performance under pressure: 9. 40 minute focus: 8. High quality head: 10. Maybe the Florida team had a rating of 92. Then a 95 the next year. Was the North Carolina team a 93? UConn a 99? Was the Fab Five of Michigan that lost an 82? Arbitrary numbers, of course, but enthralling to say (or think) the least.

This year, as mentioned, it seems like a dozen teams have a chance at winning it all based on physical prowess, quicks, scoring possessions, coaching, and defensive schemes. But what about the mental factor and being able to absorb and divert pressure, manage emotions, and deal with on- and off-court challenges that only breed ever brewing madness?

Many have chosen Pittsburgh as the squad that will squash all others in the mental arena. Then there are the vets, the coaches and programs who have been there. Will they meet the anxiety and allow it to cook for them? UNC, Duke, UCLA... What about pressure to prove? Memphis, Kansas... Do Johnny or Self finally finish at the front? A Georgia Bulldog on a roll? A Butler opening the door for a new era? The best mid-range player leading the Mountaineers down the lane? Balanced Hoyas? We'll just wait and see. Tomorrow, the hardwood minds meet each other, most importantly themselves.

Cognitive Coordinating

The New York Times recently reported that sport psychology is a thriving business. Now, more than ever, athletes of all ages (as young as seven years old) are using various professionals and educational materials in order to enhance their performances. As a sport consultant for the better part of a decade, I work with youth, college, and professional athletes who present similar issues, habits, and pressures mentioned in the media. However, one concept continues to clog my own head: for all of the mental game emphasis, the ratio of actual work time on mind skills is far below the recommended duration cited by coaches and athletic professionals. Even A-Rod’s unearthly contract hasn’t belittled his belief that “…it really comes down to 90% mental.” (60 Minutes, 12/16/07).

How often have we heard coaches and athletes on television use the words “focus”, “relax”, “confidence” and “pressure”? These terms have served as significant ingredients in sustained mental stamina for as long as athletic competition has existed. Couple those components with the emphasis on strength and conditioning (all natural, that is) and the 21st century elite athlete is a machine born of the ultimate mental and physical units (ever witnessed Roger Federer?). Does a less experienced athlete, especially one younger than 22, really know how to employ cerebral tactics? Sport psychology no longer entails solely sitting and tinkering with negative thoughts over a bowl of Wheaties; the field now envelops the mental energy necessary to train comprehensively. Easy for the best athlete in town who hasn’t seen ten candles on her cake yet, right?

Sport psychology is not exclusive to problem solving. The discipline functions as an all-around prototype for performing more effectively, no matter a person’s goal or occupation. Whether an attempt to boost self-efficacy, react without thinking, delete past failures, or strengthen group cohesiveness, understanding the thought-emotion-behavior connection is vital. For all of the chatter about becoming sound students, athletes, or professionals (leadership, well-being, stress levels), techniques based on substantiated research should be conceived and utilized… easier said than put into cognitive-behavioral motion.

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