Monday, April 28, 2008

Ready for a Challenge?

I suppose I may have left out the most mentally tough sport from the current poll. Typical sports fans usually don't think about triathalons or Ironman competitions - maybe that is why those individuals are typical. Just reading about Jeff Conine's recent obsession (NYT, 4/23/08) may make a person anxious and fatigued:

“It’s all about being mentally tough,” he said. “With long-distance triathlon, it’s all about knowing when to push your body and when to rest and persevering through these boring six-hour rides and three-hour runs.”

Sounds like he is ready for the challenge.

Speaking of challenges, how about the UMass equestrian team? It is about to embark on the national scene as it is a regional champion ... and it has succeeded despite not being a recognized (funded) sport on campus. Somehow, the team (whose coach is a volunteer) has managed to topple its opponents, raise travel funds, and stay committed despite it not being a scholarship sport.

Goes to show what a true team can do when it's up against all odds.

And, talk about a challenge ... the following is my recent letter to the New York Times in response to its article, "In Choosing a College, It’s Prestige Vs. Debt," which highlighted a family that is expecting to receive scholarship money based on soccer skills.

To the Editor:

Unfortunately for Rosalie Glauser and her son Tex, the promise of a soccer
scholarship from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts is no more likely
than the New York Knicks nullifying Isiah Thomas’ coaching future in Madison
Square Garden. MCLA is an N.C.A.A. Divison III institution - translation: no
athletic scholarships.

Contingent upon the sport, there may be 200 to 400 four-year schools
committed to success in college athletics, yet none of them officially
allocate funds to support individual athletes alone. Yes, there are
financial strategies that may assist prospective student-athletes (specified
alumni funds or need-based money that is more accessible via recruiting
support), but there exists no pure pool for sport excellence.

In a time that demands coherent explanation of higher education financing,
it is a monumental mistake to presume that a college education will be
compensated in full based solely on athletic prowess.

-OE, 4/19/08

Friday, April 18, 2008

Don't Mind Me

This past week, psychological warfare has roamed the sports world with predictions and pulse-pounding points from various athletes. Boxing champ Bernard Hopkins formed his tactics by way of trash talk about race and pure domination. The Atlanta Hawks say they aren’t scared of the number one Celtics and believe they will win with the “no pressure on us” mentality. And the recent confidence of Manny Ramirez is off the charts. Just the other day he spoke of staying relaxed, having fun, and inviting challenges. Result? The next game, he beat the Yanks with two impressive home runs and looked as calm as the Charles in January as he cranked numbers 493 and 494.

There is often much made of the sensational statements that athletes produce before sporting events, probably more the sake of media prodding. After all, interviews and interrogations provide reporters, analysts, and fans with considerable amounts of data to discuss. Sure, coaches, athletes and teams draw upon emotions and prophetic words intended to motivate and focus folks for upcoming competitions. Yet, once the match begins, those notions are (thankfully) disregarded like John Rocker’s ticks. Depending on the personality of the athlete and the type of battle about to begin, the cognitive combat is more significant. Imagine Tiger yelling out a Muhammed Ali-like line in the pre-PGA tourney press conference: “Mickelson is so ugly that he should donate his face to the US Bureau of Wild Life!” That could stir much more emotional coffee than the prototypical pleasantries of golfmanship usually encourage.

Heated verbal exchanges and flamboyant forecasts may enliven events, but most of the time they don’t mean much once the competition is under way unless the words were so mentally damaging to the opponent that he fell apart (recall Scottie Pippen’s promise to Karl Malone: “The Mailman doesn’t deliver on Sunday.”) One can ignore or even forget the mind teasers…at least until the conclusion when the interviews begin again.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Money Mentality

Many underdog-lovers may root against Tiger Woods. They feed off of mere mortals breaking through and stealing a first place finish in a championship match. In fact, there were many players this past week on the PGA Tour who claimed they would take Tiger down. I, however, love watching Woods win every tournament. There are so many details within his game that are appealing to the mental aspects of performance.

His confidence - he was asked the other day, “Nicklaus or you?”
His answer was, “Me.”

His demeanor – calm with an air of intensity and focus. It’s almost as if he forces opponents into extra strokes with his posture, his expressions, and his faith in himself.

His approach with the media – he is honest, he looks interviewers in the eyes, and he takes the time to talk.

His practice – I’ve heard he cannot sit still and he has an obvious drive to be the best. And he follows through on his dreams. According to his long-time coach Butch Harmon, “He is the best student I’ve ever had. He is like a sponge. He soaks up information and he always wants to learn and get better.” And he can practice when he is on vacation!

He is a winner, both physically and mentally, because of his work ethic – he often speaks of “grinding” in golf, the role mental energy plays to concentrate consistently in high pressure situations.

A radio host recently said that he is the golf version of the Yankees or Notre Dame football or Duke basketball. I believe he is better. He wins more (he plays in more championships due to the structure of the Tour, but even his number of top finishes is extraordinary considering the number of opponents in the field!). He often finds himself in the money, figuratively and realistically (nearly one million for coming in second in this past Masters, though to him, “Second sucks”). If it weren’t for a couple of millimeters of miscues on putts, he would have his 17th major and fifth Masters now.

So much pressure. So much preparation. Being able to observe such dominance in one domain is pure pleasure, and a phenomenon I would like to behold and examine again and again.

And it looks like he will win the poll for the most mentally tough...

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Cognitive Collapse

Pressure can cause strange reactions. It can cause one to overreact, tighten up, or cloud one’s judgment. Whatever the case, if it’s not addressed with even a brief brain bout, the initial result can turn into an epidemic. Illustration: a championship event. Closing out a basketball game can be difficult on many levels, and Memphis learned that the hard way last night. With 8:50 left in the game, Kansas led 47-46. At the 2:12 mark, Memphis led 60-51 after Rose and company compiled a sizzling span in which the point guard himself scored 10 points. The Tigers looked like they were poised to cement the so-called “dream team” label, but the stability they used to get to that state suddenly vanished.

They gave up an uncontested jumper with 1:56, then threw the ball away as Kansas canned a three. CDR made two free throws, but his team went on to miss four of its next five. He also missed a crucial jumper that would have given Memphis a four-point cushion. Meanwhile, Kansas made two more freebies, another 2-pointer, and the clutch three to tie it with two ticks left. The OT was no contest. Memphis collapsed and Kansas capitalized. Emotions shifted. San Antonio became a swing region, where one party that had made such progress suddenly saw its seasonal development evaporate into the Texas air. A team that appeared confident for so long allowed the intensity of the moment to probe and then plow, forcing regrettable pressure to rise. And then, as Billy Packer gloriously commented (and I actually agreed with him), we witnessed the ability, rather inability, to make shots when pressure was paramount.

What happened to the 38-1 squad during the final, fatal fourth? Strong defense diminished. Heel-playing began. Hope overtook expectation. The mental game became most influential. Panic prevailed. Playing fast and being aggressive worked for Memphis. Slowing pace and having to think did not. For example, when it was shut off from the lane, by virtue of the lockdown man defense that cut off right hands and partly because of the box-and-one, creating shots in the half court became more difficult. The Tigers didn’t have enough re-routing power to combat the clutter. Couple that with a contaminated motor program in the last couple of minutes that prevented a smooth stroke and all Coach Cal was left with was a clowder of cats to be categorized as catastrophic.

The brain needs millions of neurons for a player to shoot and make a free throw. Complex functions occur at blazing rates that make use of all of the lobes and human senses. A plaguing thought or even an abrupt delusion can corrupt the shot, causing negativity, constriction, and, ultimately, misfire. Unfortunately for Memphis, the infection spread swiftly, just as the wings of the Jayhawks extended into "Self"ish history.

Other madness observations

  • It took the “premier” college basketball announcer around four game minutes to realize the Jayhawks were in a box-and-one … once he did, he was very proud, repeating the finding a half dozen times.
  • Is it me or does Digger Phelps incessantly bully Dicky V.? During the pre-game on ESPN in which the panel of experts was seated adjacent to the water, Bob Knight, in an explanation about officials not calling obvious charges said, “I can take Dick and with one finger I can push him back.”As Knight pressed Vitale’s chest with his index finger, Digger chimed in. “Not far enough … Right in the river, baby! … Say goodnight Dick! … Can you swim?!”
  • The Stanford women wear black uniforms to intimidate, run the triangle offense, have a 20-point scorer, shoot more than 72 percent from the foul line, and hold teams to 56 points per game at 35 percent field goal shooting. Let’s see if those details work out against the defending national champions who average 78 points per game and have the best player in the women’s game. Should be another great one.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Head Count: Crunching Championship Numbers

The latest line has Memphis favored by two over Kansas in tonight’s NCAA national final. After its convincing win over UCLA on Saturday, the Tigers are poised to add to their history making season with one last victory – a W that would give them their 39th of the campaign. The Kansas Jayhawks, however, will be no pushover after they forced a nation to take notice with their trouncing of North Carolina. The team from the Big 12 demonstrated why its defense is ranked number two in the country with relentless guard pressure and swarming help (ten steals and nine blocks). The Memphis D is almost identical, though the Tigers cause more opponent misses from behind the arc.

In fact, practically all of the other team numbers are similar. Both teams average 80 points per game and hold teams to 61. Kansas has a slightly higher effective field goal percentage due to its ability to hit the three (Memphis actually takes and makes more three’s per contest!) Kansas free throw shooting is right where it needs to be at 70 percent, ten percentage points higher than Memphis (though, again, the Tigers killed it from the charity stripe on Saturday going 20-23, getting to the line more often than the Bruins thanks to its penetrating guard tandem of Douglas-Roberts and Rose).

Both teams are great at taking care of the ball. Memphis only turns it over 17 percent of its possessions, less than twelve times on average – critical considering it plays at a high pace with 70 possessions per game. Kansas is about the same, averaging just one more TO per outing. When it comes to cleaning the glass, both teams are plus seven.

Let’s go deeper. Both teams want to get up and down the floor. They both finish well. Both play great defense. The Tigers have two guys in double figures (CDR is #78 at 17.7 ppg. nationally) while the Jayhawks have four, none of which are ranked in the top 100 although that is a positive stat. Memphis is going to run its dribble-drive-motion (drive, kick, drive, kick, “Rose jump as high as he can and get off a shot,” maybe miss, Dorsey eat the glass, and dunk you very much). Kansas may have the guards that can contain and prevent the DDM with Chalmers and Robinson leading the way (they get more than four steals per game), plus it has a big guard in Brandon Rush to rotate. What could be key is the post players who are waiting in the paint for non-stop penetration – Arthur and Aldrich swatted a total of eight shots on Saturday. Both Kansas and Memphis, with length, athleticism, and sound defenses, are very good at preventing foe foul line visits. Just getting to the line more than 20-25 times is going to be crucial.

Kansas must limit the Rose from blooming, deny CDR, and contest shots in the lane. It must get good shots via its versatile offensive sets that utilize various screening series. Coach Self-“less” play has allowed the Jayhawks to advance with a balanced attack that keeps the opponent guessing. Memphis will have to defend inside and out, and hope that its guards can do damage as they’ve done all year. While crossing Tiger paws that Dozier and Dorsey stay out of foul trouble, creating scoring possessions off of turnovers and maximizing free throw opportunities could give Coach Cal’s team just enough for the title. Let’s hope that Kansas can stay focused for 40 minutes and not have a mental breakdown with poor possessions like it did against UNC midway through. It would be great to see a national title game go down to the last shot. There is no question that both teams want it and have the weapons, but who will play with enough stability to make it happen?

Friday, April 4, 2008

Scientific Minutemen

The best game I saw live this season was when the UMass men’s basketball team played at Boston College on December 12. Yes, it was gratifying to be just behind the opponents’ encampment, within earshot of each squeal and squeak. But the satisfaction was not born from the seat proximity or even the competitiveness of the contest. It was not because the visitors had nearly five cats averaging double figures and threw on a full-court press with every opportunity. Not because the team’s turnover rate was one of the best in the nation. Or that it played at turbo speed with seven more three-point attempts per game than its opponents. Or even that it boasted two Boston University transfers whom I was impressed with when they were on Comm. Ave. The reason I enjoyed that game was because of what I witnessed oozing from the team’s soul: pure passion and support for one another. It was, in effect, human actions and reactions that created winners of this sort.

Whether the science stemmed from genuine personalities, observable loyal relationships, or fortuitous recruiting is not certain. Sometimes, team chemistry is planned. Other times, it just happens. My guess is Travis Ford and the rest of the coaching staff both nurtured and entertained nature the entire year, not just during this game. Their guys rooted for each other every minute. The bench was so buoyant that I thought an official was going to burst a warning for inappropriate enthusiasm!

The players who were not in the game were so focused on the action it was as if they were hurled into the post-season, already playing in a championship game. Each time a substitution occurred, the outgoing player was greeted with numerous hi-fives, compliments, and, yes, even full body clinching hugs, as if the congratulatory teammates were going to drain every ounce of their teammate’s energy before he was able to sit down.

Because of the Minutemen’s team liveliness, I became an instant fan. It’s no wonder they made it to the NIT finals. A collection of athletes who is talented, believes in the coach’s philosophy, and exemplifies the qualities of the UMass unit certainly has all of the elements necessary for success. In psychological terms, the team possessed both task cohesion and social cohesion. There was a clear vision for success often communicated, sometimes non-verbally, by group leaders that demanded everyone stay driven; and there existed clear unity among all team members that created a true family spirit, an openness among a breed of males that would be shunned in other realms of our society.

Though UMass recently fell short in the championship game of the NIT, I hope that others were able to understand its endowment of perhaps the most important statistic. Although the characteristic was not revealed in any box score or game recap, the team chemistry was off the charts and the squad should be applauded (while the next coach attempts to reinvent the science).

Based on original Visionary template by Justin Tadlock
Visionary Reloaded theme by Blogger Templates

Visionary WordPress Theme by Justin Tadlock Powered by Blogger, state-of-the-art semantic personal publishing platform