Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Crowds, Clay, and Craziness

Small city, greater chances?
The idea of a home court advantage is more than intriguing. The fact that environment can occupy such a critical role in the way a team prepares and plays is perplexing. Yet, it’s understandable, too. Players like to feel comfortable. They like to be fitted in great gear, execute pre-game at their own baskets, and hear their home game warm-up music. They get excited for their home announcer, their own bench, and their locker room. Phil Jackson suggested the experienced (or aged, depending on interpretation) Spurs are facing an arduous path this week, as they aren’t allotted much time for recovery between games. The modern NBA schedule insists on a game every other day regardless of travel.

Could it also be that Mizruchi’s (1985) study is valid in the 21st century - that home court advantage is related to the surrounding city size? If so, Boston has nothing to worry about, especially with LA, San Antonio, and Detroit as the final teams standing. He found that the smaller and more intimate cities produced more successful teams at home. Loyalty. Connectivity. Supportive fans. The talk of the town directly influences the play all around. Maybe there is something to be said for positive spectator thoughts and high crowd energy. (Superstitious folks tread lightly)…

French connection?
Rafa Nadal is on his way to defending his own home court at the French Open. He looks to win his fourth title on the historical clay where he has been no less than dominant. Pressure? Not really. Former tennis great Alex Corretja believes Nadal beholds the psychological toughness to keep on rolling at Roland Garros, a place where his record is a ridiculous 21-0. "He has the mental power," Corretja said. "He believes he was born to be the best. He doesn't think he can ever lose."

Mentally tough or just plain insane?
The looking-to-be famous Frenchman Michel Fournier has spent two decades preparing for his great leap from the edge of the atmosphere after selling his home and raising $20 million. Unfortunately for him, the jump from 130,000 feet above the ground continues to get postponed due to mishaps with his advanced balloon and spacesuit. Technology is supposed to keep him alive during his two-hour ride up and less than 15-minute fall, one that would "go down" in history. I suspect he is so focused now that he is 64 and has the mindset of “let’s just get this thing off the ground” that his anxiety is lessened. I’d love to know if the pressure in his mind exceeds the pressure in his suit…

Friday, May 16, 2008

Engineering Athletic Focus

(Doc's column from the May publication of In Motion, MIT's department of athletics, physical education, and recreation newsletter)

“Being at MIT puts tremendous amounts of time constraints and pressure on [student-athletes].”

No doubt, this opening statement by a junior MIT student-athlete is as true as the Pythagorean theorem. More than 800 students compete in MIT intercollegiate athletics and it’s safe to assume that the majority would agree with the athlete’s proposition. He speaks not in discontent or criticism, but with the sincerity of Tiger Woods in the golfer’s quest to be the best. “I want to be what I’ve always wanted to be: dominant,” he once stated.

Woods isn’t afraid to inform the world of his idea, just as our student-athletes know they are in Cambridge for a reason. For that, they endure lack of consistent sleep for, well, years. Awareness of the unsettling hurdle is one thing; understanding how to increase and maintain focus during practice and competition is another.

A common strategy for improving concentration during an athletic event involves the integration of a mental trigger mechanism. The trigger can be a word (“Go”), a phrase (“I can do this”), a feeling (“smooth”), or an image (“picturing a successful action”). Whatever an athlete chooses as his or her trigger, it needs to be easy to recall and, hence, generated with a minimal amount of effort. “I use a lot of positively reinforcing visualization,” commented a graduate student-athlete. “I think that I have found success with focusing my mind on the motions I want to achieve and then [partnering] that up with a lot of physical practice.”

Being able to trigger desired experiences and outcomes with a mental tool allows an athlete to minimize possible distractions and re-center her mind on the moment. A trigger is especially useful at MIT because of the limited amount of actual practice time. A sophomore elaborated, “Because of our pretty intense schedule and workload, we often don't have as much time as other teams to work on our game on the court. As such, we have to work on our mental game to get that edge over the other players at other schools.”

As we continue to motivate, teach, and demand the best out of our student-athletes, a pitch or prompt to them about triggers may be helpful. And it may just work for you, too.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Home away?

Unbelievable. Unprecedented. Undeniable proof that the NBA is a business. With commissioner David Stern hoping for the next great Finals matchup between the Celtics and Lakers as much as OJ Mayo and Roger Clemens are convinced they did nothing wrong, fans await the outcome of a psychological experiment. According to Dan Shaughnessy today, Celtics management has done everything it can to make the C's feel at home in Cleveland with delivery of the Globe to hotel rooms, Legal clam chowder, celebrity Celtic fans in attendance, the home dancers, and more. And, with Stern's consent, Boston gets to wear their HOME white uniforms while the Cavs are stuck in dark jerseys! Talk about favoritism? Cleveland will use it all as ammunition, fuel to the fire. The only element not mentioned was referee ties to the green (and I really hope there is nothing like that).

By the way, The Onion ran a great article on Isiah Thomas' reasoning for taking the Knicks job in the first place. It reported his motivation as a "large-scale psychological study of New York residents." Intriguing, amusing, and irritating all rolled into one...

Monday, May 5, 2008

Home Lovin'

The NBA playoffs may force a rabid spectator to ponder the potential home court advantage in sports. We visited this powerful place in a piece during the NCAA basketball tournament, but a single elimination format leaves much room for error in the home favor foray. In a potential seven game series, surrounding a team with stability seems to be much more a strength. Being at home for multiple games allows a team to take refuge in a less vulnerable environment even though intensity is increased.

Celtics fans were first-hand observers of both the drudgery and domination that develops during a two-two-one-one-one playoff format. Four home games at the Garden resulted in as many victories by an average of 25.25 points. Three contests in Atlanta dealt the C’s that many losses. Although the total points by which Boston was defeated happened to be just 17, a loss is a loss is a loss. At home, though, the Celtics were much more moved, feeling as thought they were sent by some spiritual deity that would have shipped them off to a remote island had they even thought about playing a close game.

What happened on the road? Inept energy? Too much travel? Fuddled focus? The Hawks soared in their sky but drowned in Boston’s bottle. Same players. Same coaches. Same plays. Same lineups. League assigned officials…Different fans. I guess the crowd does cause the variance. Wouldn’t it be interesting to run that experiment using the audience as the predictor? Take them away and see what happens in the opposing arena?

And what about what losing on the road can do? The fatigue and frustration from being among strangers sometimes forces one to lose it during fiery action (see Marvin’s take down of Rajon in Boston or Paul Pierce’s headband fling in Atlanta).

So far (and historically), it’s good to be at home. In the first round of this year’s playoffs, home teams went 32-12 and three series featured a 3-3 mark in one’s own confines.

By the way - the Celtics only lost six games at home all season! And their margin of victory for the year was more than ten points, which puts them up there with Michael Jordan’s championship Bulls teams.

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