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.


Unknown said...

Doc, I love these blog postings. I think about many of these things as well. My latest question: how much of the mental toughness of a team comes from the coach(ing)? If any, how do you approach this?

P.S. I love the balance between thoughts and actions (such as box outs, free throws, etc.) The game of basketball (unlike most academia) forces the performance of both.

Great job!


Dr. Oliver Eslinger said...

Great Q...Many squads take on the persona of their coaches. Often, a coach's body language and the ways in which s/he communicates with players and other coaches has a direct impact on the mental game of the players. Of course, this "game" within the game also depends on the talent and chemistry of the team and outsiders do not get the chance to view what happens in practices; however, coaching the mental side is ALWAYS happening whether intentional or not. It's just as important for coaches to be aware of their own actions and words as players.

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