Friday, August 29, 2008

Systematic Coaching

Paul Johnson believes in himself and his system -- and he is not afraid to implement team building tools and show an unwavering passion for his philosophy of a team:

“It’s not just his offense; he teaches toughness, he shows a sense of pride, a sense of determination,” said Mike Sewak, the co-offensive line coach, who has known Johnson for 23 years. “The best way to do that is get involved, and he’s involved with his team.”

“He is incredibly confident, the most confident coach I have been around, bordering on cocky,” Andrew Gardner, a senior left tackle, said. “Every day, you hear about people questioning whether this offense is going to work on this level, and I think he gets tired answering questions about it because he knows it will work.”

Coaches often teach and preach specific systems on offense and defense, along with other values. Systems are important for the development of players, teams, programs, and franchises. In basketball, with a thoroughly planned structure and an understanding of spacing, screening, interaction, and scoring spots, five people become one on the floor. More significantly, every member of the team, including the coaches, becomes unified. When there is ultimate belief in the system from the top, a trickle-down effect occurs that results in a long term team investment.

Coach K did not always run a 4-out spread offense in the ½ court like the one of his recent Duke teams and the 2008 USA Team. He used to teach a motion offense with different looks and varied screening action. He has adjusted his sets to highlight drive and kick opportunities, three-pointers, and isolations on the block. Coach Calipari has not always utilized the Dribble Drive Motion (DDM); he ran something completely different when he was at UMass.

Good players can adjust to any system. It’s not necessarily the offense and the plays that are, or are not, effective. It comes down to how personnel are used and how the system is taught. Utah’s Jerry Sloan believes in his system and wants players on his team who fit its style. Many teams do not have the benefit of breakdown players like Lebron James or Derrick Rose, so those squads have to maximize the skills of the individuals they do have. Players have to understand their roles just as coaches need to realize how the pieces fit together.

In Pistol, Press Maravich’s philosophy is explained via George Krajack, who was once his best player at Clemson:

“Press never had the same kind of talent that guys like McGuire and Everett Case had. He didn’t have anybody who could break you down off the dribble. He didn’t have anybody who could take over a game and win it by himself. None of us were good enough to freelance…He was forever designing schemes…Press could move those salt and pepper shakers (from the meal table) around until he figured out a way to beat anybody…”

A great teacher and a potent system can create exceptional players. Further, with preparation and concentration, as Bob Knight emphasizes, the mental game can make up for what a player may lack in athletic ability. Knight writes in his autobiography:

“We’ve had some kids who weren’t great basketball players who have been really good scorers, because of the way we used them.”

In a sense, described here is a taste of Gestalt, the psychological theory that proposes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Fittingly, a system is a set of parts that work together to form a complex mechanism. The whole, or the mechanism, is actually made up of myriad components: the vision for the program, communication, social dynamics, player and staff roles, skill development…the list goes on and on. But the system truly works when the players wholeheartedly believe in it, or at least, believe they believe in it (a later discussion).

What is truly extraordinary is when there is a talented player who works harder than anyone, is convinced by the overall mechanism, has the respect of his teammates, and plays in the system with supreme creativity and confidence. (Sounds a bit like MJ, huh?)

Cerebral Matter

Each week, “Cerebral Matter” highlights articles, anecdotes, and analyses related to the psychological aspects of performance.

  • To a reporter who asked for her motto when she was on the “brink of mental defeat,” (Dara) Torres coolly replied, “You know, I’ve been doing this for so long that I don’t get on the brink of mental defeat.” (NYT)
  • Silver medalists at the Olympics seem to perform what we call an upward comparison — they compare themselves against someone better off than them. Bronze medalists seem to perform downward comparison — they tend to compare themselves with people who did worse. (PT)
  • While (Candace) Parker admits to some physical and mental fatigue, she is attempting to use these Olympics to do more than help the United States win its fourth consecutive gold medal in women’s basketball.

    With her resplendent smile and transcendent game, Parker is close to becoming the first international icon in her sport…

    …With her ability to dunk with flair, Parker has changed the women’s game. Gail Goestenkors, the coach at Texas and an assistant with the national team, said that while recruiting in July, she noticed that many high school prospects were dunking, a mental barrier she said Parker helped break. (NYT)
  • The Twins demoted (Francisco Liriano) after Oakland pounded him for six runs and five hits in two-thirds of an inning in an 11-2 drubbing.

    So when Liriano’s mechanics appeared out of whack last Wednesday, Redmond said he suspected why.

    “This is the team that he blew his arm out on,” Redmond said. “I think that might have been something to do with it. It might be a little mental thing for him to get over. But he made it.” (NYT)
  • Their coach has been known to sing to them — Bob Dylan, no less — and ask them questions, to shake up their thinking. And sometimes she drops her Socratic ways and tells them to control the ball better.

    Either way, it worked Thursday night for Pia Sundhage of Sweden, one of the great hires by any American sports federation. Under Sundhage’s tutelage, the American women displayed mental resilience, outlasting their own dangerous lethargy, as they won their second straight gold medal in the Olympic soccer tournament with a 1-0 victory over Brazil. (NYT)
  • This morning’s (August 21, 2008) New York Times shows Usain Bolt’s new world record, relative to the 250 greatest 200-meter sprints ever. Not only does this not look like a normal distribution, it doesn’t even look like the tail of any standard distribution (Justin Wolfers) has ever seen... (Freakonomics NYT Blog)
  • “There is a huge amount of social and psychological forces keeping people from quitting,” Ori Brafman said. He gave an example of an experiment by a Harvard professor who auctioned off a $20 bill. The catch was that while the winner got the $20, the bidder who came in second had to pay the amount of his bid, but got nothing in return.

    The experiment was done repeatedly with a variety of participants, and most bidders dropped out at about $12, usually leaving two to fight it out, Mr. Brafman said.

    “They didn’t want to be a sucker, paying $12 for nothing,” he said. The record? A bid of $204 for a $20 bill.

    “Rather than thinking about winning, they’re playing not to lose,” he said…

    … “It is as important to teach someone how to quit as staying committed,” he said. “Lots of times people just stop showing up, and that’s wrong.” Rather, he suggested, say something like “ ‘I tried to work it out, and this not a good match for me.’ Do it in a responsible manner.”

    The truth is, it sometimes shows more courage to leave than to stay. (NYT)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Coined Path

What happens when you’re ranked No. 188, playing the world No. 1 in the U.S. Open, on a court that has more fans than the one you prefer to play on, in a match you don’t believe you can prevail in?

Well, if you’re Julie Coin, you win. And that is impressive considering the circumstances.

How many times does an athlete actually admit that she wasn't expecting to win? Or answer honestly with a gasp of disbelief? Who has the capacity to even fight from the underground up, especially when starting a competition with a monotonous mindset?

The qualifier from France played each point with focus and energy and found herself with a 6-3 first set win. She lost the second set 4-6, but maintained her forehand, serve, head game and rhythm. Then she blasted a couple of aces in the final set before holding on to triumph, 6-3.

It was a classic case of the best player crumbling and the extreme underdog reaching within, gaining confidence, and staying patient.

The greatest upset in tennis history? I’m not sure about that, but Julie surely coined her newly discovered path -- a humble winner headed to the next round…

Is Yao Broken?

Earlier, I wrote about "The Psychological Weight of a Nation" and the intense strategies China uses to become competitive. Now that the Olympics are complete, do there exist post-game resources for competitors? Are measures being implemented to support the athletes who trained for years, even their entire lives, for the spectacle in Beijing?

I particularly wonder about the athletes who "failed" in their country's opinion. When one works so hard, especially because of external pressures, and then does not succeed, he or she is bound to internalize and even exaggerate or distort the thoughts and feelings that accompany the outcome. Every comment or emotion can become magnified, and if there is not a support system in place, the result may be detrimental to one's psyche.

Yao Ming spoke of his disappointment and despondency:

“After (the) Lithuania game, I come back to my room and I feel my energy just go away,” Yao said. “My body is empty. I have a couple minutes lying on the bed when I cannot even move. Not because I’m tired, but because mentally I feel really, really sad. These games I’ve prepared for almost my whole life and now they’re over.”

Have you ever experienced so much stimulation from an event that you find yourself "crashing" after it ended? Yao seems to be in a similar situation, only multiplied by numbers beyond most of our conceptions. Only his peers can relate. He was molded and groomed for his sport, the most monumental of unwritten promises to his homeland. And now the air is deflated from the once tireless tires, despair drifting through the consummate model of strength and courage. Yao assimilated the words and dreams of a billion and now has to digest and deal with the consequences.

Is it conceivable that all of the counselors, psychologists, and trainers who were hired to prepare the athletes for competition are now concentrated on the "cool down" segment? Are professional helpers working with individuals who struggled in the arenas and on the fields so they don't struggle for the rest of their lives? For many who did not succeed as they hoped, including Yao, it's time to resurrect the foundation and harness the resiliency that is ever so important in not only athletics, but life.

Nobody wants to see a drooping giant. Especially in Houston.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Comparing Results, Similar Ratings

There have been a substantial number of visits to this site since the post on USA player productivity, a summary of statistics derived from the Performance and Productivity rating (PaP). Here, we compare results from some of the more popular formulas known to calculate an estimate of productivity, whether the analysis is referred to as NBA Efficiency, Win Score, Game Score, Credit, PaP, or WARP. I even threw in an experimental "colleague" stat.

As one can guess from box scores and observations, Wade and James are always at the top. Bosh follows them in third, except in the new PaP, a stat that accounts more than the old for the ability to score. Here, we find Kobe in the top three. The big man from the Raptors was certainly an important power in the team's run for the gold and these stats do not account for the number of screens he set, how hard he ran the floor, or how he squatted into his stance to defend guards. Chris Paul is consistently in the top five and, by far, the most influential point guard. From there, it’s the steady Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard rounding out the top six.

By no means are these statistics a substitute for the ability to play basketball within a system, nor do they define strategy, leadership, chemistry, or other intangibles -- but they are interesting to examine. For an even more in depth analysis of Team USA that uses +/-, explore APBRmetrics.

(click to enlarge)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

What Sports Do For Development

The recent news about Shaquille O'Neal, the self-proclaimed, “Eighth Wonder of the World”, makes me marvel. I suppose the giant does not know what to do with himself in the off-season. He was certainly absent on the tour when the Dreamy Redeem Team went to one of the genuine great wonders. Stalking a young woman? Free-styling about a former teammate? While Kobe Bryant was in Beijing changing his image, making new friends and fans, and earning a gold medal, O’Neal was busy getting into trouble -- or, letting past trouble find him.

Participation in sports helps keeps kids off the streets. In some cases, evidently, being involved in athletics also serves adults. Kobe’s passion for basketball has allowed him to develop as a human being, a distinguished athlete who we have witnessed transform from an immature phenom, to a controversial selfish player and questionably disloyal husband, to one of this year’s most fascinating and respected ballers. Shaq, on the other side of the world, has crumbled into an ancient mound of mouthy morsels, an artifact that undoubtedly takes up space and is past its prime.

Forget the Jordan comparisons, as Kobe so bluntly put during an interview with Stephen A. Smith during the NBA Playoffs (see video). Bryant is his own being now. He does everything he can to smile, stay healthy, and improve. Kobe has always been focused on basketball. Shaq desired other elements related to stardom, and for that reason, did not improve to the point where he truly can be called the amazing nickname he once gave himself. Could it be that Kobe has assumed a Darth Vaderish role? From good and young at heart, to evil, and back to good for the rest of his career?

Whatever the case, people will remember the images of Kobe in the Olympics, playing hard, cheering on fellow Americans, and complimenting his teammates and coaching staff. These are scenes and behaviors that serve youth well.

Stories of helicopter parents, adults who preach winning to 9-year-olds, leagues that ban spectators, and an emphasis on interscholastic games over school exams are more and more prevalent. Too many adults want their kids to be the next Kobe… or Tiger, Nastia, Nadal, or Phelps.

These Games demonstrated the two-way street of athletic development. Stars shining for other stars. Coaches demanding and supporting their athletes. Athletes striving for perfection with marked adulation for their trainers. Community building was at its finest. World-class athletes were sent back in time, to a place where they were young and dreamy and wide-eyed and excited to be next. There was, as there will always be, an urgency to win and increase medal count, but the examples of teamwork, dedication, support, and sportsmanship were both magnificent and educational -- even for the best athletes in the game.

Monday, August 25, 2008

When It All Comes Together

Cohesion, coaching, feel, focus, and talent. It all came together in the Men’s Basketball Gold Medal Final, which I was finally able to catch on The USA and Spain were quite effective on offense as players from both teams were often able to create penetration opportunities via dribble drives or entry passes. Spain actually attempted 20 more 2-point field goals than the US. Spain made an effort to use pick-and-rolls to open up the floor and pound the ball into the Gasols while the Spanish zone forced (or allowed, depending on interpretation) the US to take 28 3-pointers (of which the Americans hit 13). In sum, though, the effective field goal percentages, which adjust for the fact that a 3 is worth one more point than a 2, tell the story with Team USA converting at a rate of 70% on 65 attempts to Spain’s 57% on 74 shots. A look at the true shooting percentages, which integrate free throws, also supports the outcome: US 73% to Spain 62%.

The teams executed their game plans and only committed a combined 27 turnovers. Whereas the US often relied on game flow predicated on spreading the floor, 4 out-1 in situations, and transition scoring, Team Spain used its pick-and-roll game, hi-low action, and inside presence to generate a balance of scoring opportunities. Team USA ran two dozen pick-and-rolls to start its half court plays, often with Chris Bosh initiating the action. The couple of times that Bosh and Dwight Howard slipped their screens, they were found in the paint for a 2-point conversion or a Spanish foul.

Though it only scored directly on five of those P&R’s, the Americans were able to move the ball or penetrate for lay-ups or wide-open kick outs. Spain had a hard time containing the driving abilities and passing of its opponent, although the US was not unbelievable at stopping Spain’s attack either. Time and time again, Spain was able to blitz through checkpoints, often out of its 1-2 high set that allows the playmaker to come off of a pick at either elbow. As the US failed to close down those areas, Spain moved the ball and capitalized on poor rotations and slow defensive block slide-downs for 2’s or kick-outs for 3’s. The US did, however, make an effort to contest shots, and even when Spain scored, Coach Mike D’Anotoni’s lightning fast outlets off of makes put the US at an advantage.

Dwyane Wade, as usual, was spectacular throughout with a PaP of 40.4 (for those familiar with John Hollinger’s Game Score, Wade’s was 22.4, 8 points higher than Kobe’s). Wade went right at the rim when he first touched the ball in the first quarter, steadily opened up his game with four 3-pointers, and produced breakaways with sleek steals. Kobe took over in the fourth and demonstrated to the world his killer instinct that has so often been discussed (PaP 24.5, GmSc14.2). Chris Paul also went to work and demonstrated why his versatility was so important for his team’s fortunes (PaP 26.3, GmSc 11.8).

Other observations:

Although used sparingly, Tayshaun Prince utilized his eight minutes in the final game and made significant plays (PaP 34.5).

Interesting how Carmelo Anthony really relished the role of spot-up shooter -- he did not have to do much else. He was second on the team to Kobe’s 53 3-point attempts. Melo took 37 3’s during the Games and 27 2’s (don’t think he reached his predicted rebounding goal).

Coach K called two time-outs in the final. After the first one, Spain turned to its zone defense and the US attempted three straight 3-pointers and missed all of them. Fortunately for Team USA, it had Kobe on the floor, and in attack mode, after the second US time-out. He proceeded to drive in for a lay-up, record two assists, and nail a 3.

Despite Wade’s dominance, Kobe’s outstanding team play, and CP13’s steadiness, Lebron James was voted most important USA player on this site’s poll by a wide margin, winning by more than 30 votes. There is no substitute for a 6’8” phenom who can block shots like he is receiving TD passes, power dribble through defenses as if he is a rushing fullback, distribute like a PG, or put on a showy smile with the best of them.

Congrats, Team USA. It was an exciting and inspiring run…

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Redeeming Qualities from the Top

There is something pleasantly refreshing, and also inspiring, about one of the most sought out, respected, and successful coaches speaking sincerely about his hopes and thoughts. The NBC interview with Coach K at halftime of the semi-final Argentina-USA game summarized this experience.

Coach K explained that his mentor, Bob Knight, offered words of encouragement as the popular Duke coach was about to embark on the mission of leading the current version of Team USA to Beijing. Even before he took the job, Coach K's decision process seemed to encompass a slight doubt, as if he asked himself, "Can I really do this? Am I the right person for this job? Will the players respond?"

Knight, most likely in a stern and convincing manner with more honesty than even the most straightforward Charles Barkley statement, told his former West Point guard the only advice Coach K needed: "Be yourself." The General continued to remind Coach K that he is a great coach and these are players that want to be coached. It's really as simple as that.

As Coach K replayed the Knight conversation, he became emotional. Anyone could tell that he was talking to NBC and its viewers from the gut, that it meant so much for Knight to justify Coach K's past. Knight made him recall that his apprentice has earned the respect of even the most accomplished pro ballplayers and possesses a knowledge of the game that even they appreciate. The conversation meant everything to Coach K, who is arguably one of the best coaches in the world, especially in terms of building a program.

Coach K understands what it means to lead the Redeem Team. He pointed out that these Games are the most significant set of basketball events that take place -- nothing against his Duke program, but that this is the Olympics. Once again, honesty and heart shining through to the world.

He is surrounded by the most talented NBA players, and there seems to be an understanding on both sides. He gives them his all, and they give him their's. They know what he preaches as a coach, and he has not had to worry about team building or emphasizing the importance of supporting fellow American athletes at other venues.

Coach K's humility may be the most redeeming part of this team.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Striding Toward Mainstream

One of the reasons the Games are so captivating is that the world is able to view all sorts of athletics, 24/7, from the traditional swimming and gymnastics events to the rising basketball popularity to the track and field competitions to the fascinating table tennis and beach volleyball matches.

Usain Bolt has sprinted and danced into people’s hearts and living rooms faster than his world-record breaking runs. His success is substantial for his country and his sport. He has been referred to as a “freak of nature”, as an “anomaly”, and a “wonder”. One may question his mental makeup since he appears blinded by youth, a class clown who seems to want nothing more than to play around with his peers only minutes before he takes his mark. I’ve heard people question his pre-run routine. “Why is he not focusing?” “How can he be so loose?” “Is he just cocky?”

I’d argue that he is anxious to get started; he just releases his energy in another way. He makes himself feel welcome, wanted, and psyched to get started. It must be difficult to keep all of that excitable energy inside oneself in front of 91,000 screaming fans. Bolt often states he just wants to have fun and enjoy himself -- and I'm sure his words help ease his nerves.

Here is a shout out to those events everyone else does not necessarily care about. For example, imagine the pressure of an Olympic skeet shooter. He or she must be still, quiet the mind, utilize a steady finger, and fire at a small target after years of training. Props to the participants who love what they do and become the best in the world.

Rebecca Romero certainly knows about working toward perfection -- in two different Olympic sports. She already won a silver in rowing four years ago, a sport that is mentally and physically grueling.

Romero then set her sights on Beijing, but in cycling -- and saw all of her hard work pay off.

Here is a fitting excerpt about the mental game in rowing from the Otago Daily Times:

Rowing New Zealand high performance manager Andrew Matheson said every crew would prepare in their own way.

He believed the mental game is what sets an Olympics apart from the annual world championships, where New Zealand have been a dominant force in all three stagings since Athens.

"It's a small but significant difference. A lot of it comes down to the mind, handling the pressure," Matheson said.

Kudos to the athletes who do not necessarily get as much attention as Phelps or Nastia or Bolt. They are all awe inspiring, from a physical and mental perspective, and as deserving as any to be thrown into the mainstream.

A Look at USA Basketball Productivity

Out of pure curiosity, I calculated performance and productivity ratings (PaP) for individual players on the USA Men’s Basketball Olympic Team through their first six games. The results help evaluate the opinions of visitors who voted on this site’s poll – more importantly, the statistics provide data to support who is “gettin’ it done by goin’ to work” during the Games.

Even the common viewer can postulate that King James is a flat-out star and “Superman” Howard is a beast in the paint. Bosh, as his production shows, has been active and provided stability at both ends of the floor. Besides Bron-Bron, however, nobody has been more multitalented than the man from Miami.

D-Wade has performed like the Energizer bunny on Red Bull, and the ratings demonstrate his versatile play. He has been absolutely everywhere, offensively and defensively and, to the average fan, a heck of a player to be coming off the bench. As many coaches say, though, it’s not who starts – it’s who finishes the game. And in Wade’s case, it’s also what he does every minute he is on the floor.

Here are the ratings for all players who have logged at least 75 minutes. Note that in creating the formula for these ratings, I attempted to attend to the points of emphasis for this USA team, namely defense and rebounding (Coach K priorities), sharing and taking care of the ball, and ability to convert all types of shots: free throws, 2-point field goals and 3-point field goals.

Interestingly, the top five are a solid squad, especially if we think of a more typical lineup with two bigs, two wings, and a point, rather than the 4-out, 1-in trend.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Pushing Fast Forward on the Moment

After Lolo Jones collected herself from the Beijing Olympic track, just minutes after collapsing to her knees and replaying the heartbreaking trip-up that cost her the gold medal in the 100m hurdle final, she told NBC this:

"I felt the gold around me...but if you can't finish the race, you don't deserve to be the champion."

Her honesty shows her character. The fleeting thought demonstrates her demise.

What happened? She was in the lead, her face exemplifying the intensity and focus that made her one of the favorites. Just the day before, she sent a message of her own that she was out to win and certainly could. But when she fired over (and into) the ninth hurdle, a look of agony, disbelief, and astonishment came over her as she attempted to make up for the ever precious second of lost ground. She was beaten. And her mind did it. It got the best of her because she already "felt the gold" around her.

More specifically, Jones’ mind jumped out in front of her. Up until that point in the race, she was on autopilot. Her body was doing what it was trained to do – sprint and leap. She was in the "no-think" phase. Yet, by her post-race comments, it can be interpreted that she, albeit only for a split second, fast forwarded to a another image. She envisioned the outcome, the medal draped around her neck.

The predictive imagery may have cost her the win (it even prevented her from medaling at all). As soon as she thought of another scene, one that entailed a different set of movements, she became distracted. Her mind-body connection that was operating so smoothly became slightly disrupted. She was moving so fast, that what appeared to be the most inconsequential of reactions, actually infiltrated her momentary action. The thought, the image, ruined her rhythm and cost her the race.

Some may say she choked. Contrary to that cliché, though, it had nothing to do with sudden athletic asphyxiation. She was taken away and plagued with a prophecy that made her jump to the future. It wasn’t choking in the sense of holding back or freezing in pressure performance, often characterized by over-thinking. And it wasn’t panic either, where one ceases to think at all. (See Malcolm Gladwell’s analysis of choke versus panic). It was more about a subtle, yet abrupt cognitive reorganization of psycho-physiological capacities.

There was not a decrement in performance caused by the inability to cope with the conditions. Rather, there was a transfer of attention -- a shift from the unconscious (instinctual motor program from years of training) to the conscious (fast forward to a different scene) and then back, in less than a second, to the previously non-analytical unconscious. The flow of performance was in disarray, however minimal. Lolo’s motor program became confused and her foot hit the hurdle.

Gladwell explained the differences in modes to ESPN:

The basic idea is that all of us have two different ways of "knowing" how to perform a physical task. The first is conscious knowledge. If I ask you how to use a can opener, you can tell me. The second is unconscious knowledge, which is the knowledge that we have that we can't really describe.

For example, if you gave me a picture of blank keyboard and asked me to write in appropriate letters in the right places, I'd have to think really hard before I could do that accurately. My conscious knowledge of a keyboard is pretty weak. But right now I'm typing at perhaps 40 words per minute, and I'm having absolutely no trouble finding the right letter on the keyboard without thinking at all.

That's my unconscious knowledge system at work, and in that mode I'm a great typist. These two systems are quite separate. And on tasks that we are good at -- like typing, in my case, or throwing a baseball in, say, Derek Jeter's case -- our unconscious systems are way better than our conscious system...All those airballs by the Kings in Game 7 with the Lakers were the shots of players who suddenly start to think about where each letter was instead of just instinctively typing. That was Knoblauch's problem too, and the more he worried about his throwing the harder it was to get back into unconscious mode.

Some of the most popular “chokers” have been ranked: Bill Buckner, Chris Webber, and Jean Van de Velde each made the list. Actually, Buckner may have not choked, but lost focus, much like the fast forwarding of Jones. Webber seemed to have panicked; he experienced an exodus of any rational thought whatsoever. Van de Velde…well, by definition, he choked. He became tight. He over-analyzed. He fell apart.

Maybe Michael Phelps can attribute his record setting Games to his amazing ability to focus on the present. He merely makes no mental errors, and, most importantly, has no fast forwards. He stays in the moment.

Alicia Sacramone? Perhaps it was as comprehensible as a technical mishap. Or did she envision a hopeful moment in the not-to-distant future that caused her to shift attention and enter conscious mode -- a place where one is more likely to resort to a heightened awareness of action and surroundings that impedes trained movements?

Even Lolo, one of the most talented, most humble, and most dedicated athletes, is not immune to mistakes. After trying to deal with the unforeseen, she later stated, “Sometimes you just lose your mind.”

Unfortunately for her, it was too late to catch up to it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Talking to Yourself Doesn’t Mean You’re Crazy

Remember Karl Malone’s mouth moving mantra before he shot free throws later in his career? Ever notice Tiger chattering pre-putt or post-shank? If you’ve been watching various Olympics events, you may have observed many athletes muttering or moving their lips as they get ready to run, swim, or vault.

American hurdler Lolo Jones (who wanted to put pressure on her opponents in the 100m semifinals) and others have mentioned that they talk to themselves to keep them psyched up for the imminent and intense competition. No, the talking doesn’t mean they’re insane – it’s actually a mental technique that athletes utilize to stay at the top of their game.

In psychological terms, the talking is referred to as self-talk (not a very complicated term, huh?). It’s also known as verbal persuasion, a component of Albert Bandura’s self-efficacy theory. Verbal persuasion, which can be initiated by oneself or a third party, entails triggers or statements of encouragement that are repeated to a person with the idea that, the more one hears something, the more one starts to believe it. In a sense, one learns to develop or maintain a mental rhythm of vocab.

Athletes use self-talk or verbal persuasion to increase self-efficacy (otherwise known as situational self-confidence). They may also employ self-talk to motivate, focus, or regulate athletic arousal. Often, self-talk is applied during a mental routine to prepare the body for movement or combat negative thoughts and unfavorable emotions.

There has been a wealth of research in psychology that supports the advantages and usefulness of self-talk, especially when combined with other peak performance strategies.

Athletes are involved in running conversations with themselves all of the time, but they may not even realize it. They really need to ask, “What am I saying and is it effective?” The heightened awareness will help them create a mental game plan, and hopefully one that parallels the 80-20 approach emphasizing the positives.

Learn to talk to yourself the right way -- it's a valuable performance tool. At the very least, tell yourself that.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Why Team USA versus Germany was Meaningful

During today’s game, it was commented that the outcome was meaningless -- at least as it relates to seedings heading into the medal round. Well, it sure did not appear meaningless to Team USA. Often times, there is a lack of energy and intensity in a "meaningless" game. Not today. The players came out of the gate focused and motivated. Other observations:

• High energy circulating from the tip
• Defensive pressure all over the court – ball pressure, help-side, and playing passing lanes
• Lightening quickness in transition
• Solid play well into the third quarter that led to an extension of the lead

The process and outcome were meaningful for the team's momentum and chemistry as it heads into the next game against Australia.

I have been impressed with Kobe’s leadership and noticeable development as a teammate and representative of his country. His interview with Pao Gasol on Saturday was refreshing. To see him joking around with a teammate, noticing that he can be “boys” with another star, was a superb situation. He is also highly motivated by the atmosphere at the Olympics. He was genuinely excited during the swimming relay on Sunday morning (there was a shot of him screaming and cheering from the stands) and must have heard about Jason Lezak’s complimentary remarks. Kobe later talked about his intent to uphold his team’s end of the bargain (not letting the USA down).

I’m sure his team is also motivated by the women’s team, who has just been pounding opponents.

And, how about Lebron’s dunk in the third quarter against Germany? When that lane opened, Doug Collins’ anticipation skills forced him to let out an “Uh-oh.” A moment later, Bron-Bron jumped off two feet outside the paint for a powerful, in-your-face, leaning hammer slam.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

When Does Great Become Greater?

It’s true -- the world witnessed athletic greatness when Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympic Champion in history with the gold medal medley relay on Sunday in Beijing. He has now accomplished what no other participant in the Games has been able to do and, as ESPN columnist Jemele Hill argues, redefines greatness.

Tread water lightly, though -- many athletes truly have not been able to win eight golds. Not because they couldn’t, but because the opportunities didn’t exist.

There is no doubt that Phelps is a magician, a mega-star, a multi-talented freak in the water. His focus, his motivation, his ability to deal with pressure, and his routine set him apart…as well as his sportsmanship and gentlemanly dealings with the press who would like nothing more than to get closer to him than his tight, world-record breaking swimsuits. But, comparing him to the preeminent athletes of all time? In traditional team sports? When there is only one championship per year? Come on. That is almost as ridiculous as the media’s portrayal of the newest fastest-man-in-the-world’s reputed pre-celebration during the 100-meter sprint. (A scene that was hyped up in the media and, by the time it was televised on NBC, had to be shown in slow motion just to catch the reported chest pounding).

Why do we need to rethink greatness? Phelps is great. Like, ludicrously great -- there is no argument.

But comparing him to Michael Jordan or the greatest athletes in other sports in history?! If MJ had a shot to win eight competitions related to basketball in one year, is it not thinkable that he would? How about a new Olympics sport featuring basketball skills and a classic Jordan in his prime? Picture this line-up over a 7-day period:

1) 1-on-1
2) Free Throw Contest with Eyes Shut
3) Slam Dunk Championship
4) Defensive Stopper Game
5) Hot Shot Field Goal Shooting Match
6) Fundamental Footwork Competition
7) Most Creative In-Air Finish Moves
8) 5-on-5 Championship

These add up to eight separate events. And I bet he’d have a good chance at taking all of them – especially if he was committed to achieving greatness, by the preceding definition set-forth that includes “athlete”, “mental toughness”, and “limits”.

I was extremely elated and relieved when Kobe Bryant questioned the interviewer during the NBA Finals when the latter asked, yet again, about the comparisons between Kobe and Jordan. Bryant responded with a plea hovered around a smile and a “let it go” attitude. He asked that the discussion be halted because there is no other Michael Jordan.

There is no other Jordan. Just as a colleague of mine reported recently that there is no other Pistol Pete in response to the Ricky Rubio eagerness. No other Joe Montana or Tiger Woods or Wayne Gretzky or Lance Armstrong or Jackie Robinson or Lusia Harris or Althea Gibson. (Talk about enduring strain and mental toughness? One certainly has to include the last three. Read William C. Rhoden’s book).

By no means am I suggesting that Phelps’ accomplishments be undercut. I’ve dedicated the past week to him, his regiment, his words, and his training. I haven’t missed an interview. But to question other greats in comparison to him? Insane. Others don't train like he does because there aren’t opportunities to win as much as he does.

Dara Torres was determined to enhance her performance. Age doesn’t matter, especially when one continues to train and has all of the resources available to be at the top of her game. Impressive, yes. Impossible, no.

Let us be proud to witness such intensity, concentration, and determination. But do not underestimate what other renowned performers have accomplished. Great can always become greater, particularly when there are unprecedented goals and new technology-- just look at the world records falling on a daily basis.

Phelps captivated us, but don’t let his mastery hold us captive.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Believe in Greatness

Ridiculous. Just look at this image.

Whenever something in sports stimulates a perfectly calm person to jump out of a chair, scream "Yes!" in his friend's living room, and execute a high-five with others who really aren't that well versed in the sport to begin with, I suppose it signifies one of the rarest and most dramatic events ever.

So be it. Phelps' unwillingness to lose made a believer of millions when he won his 7th gold medal by the slimmest possible margin. Even Mark Spitz, who admits he was not surprised by the victory, is grateful for it all... and what a wonderful exchange of words the two champions had on NBC about their accomplishments and career comparisons.

For more on the greatest Olympian of all time, check out this article on Phelps' mental game. It's reminiscent of Lance Armstrong's feats, an athlete who was so focused, so fit, and so physiologically gifted, that he made the impossible seem possible.

After an eventful and successful individual competition in gymnastics for the USA, who knew the Games would be followed by a .01 win? The Olympics get better and better. I wonder what Team Spain and Ricky Rubio, the so-called Next Maravich, have in store?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Basketball Connections

Many thanks to freelance writer David Friedman for taking the time to write about MIT basketball and aspects involved in the psychology of performance.

Check out the two separate articles here:

David’s blog at 20 Second Timout

SLAM Online - Athletic Intelligence

Also, TrueHoop reported an article from Newsweek about the brain-body connection (originally in Nature) in athletes that ties into research about mental imagery and its effect on athletes. In my doctoral dissertation, I found that the higher rated basketball players in the study were also more effective kinesthetic imagers – meaning they can sense action in their bodies and on the court before it occurs.

Wade-ing Through Beijing

What Dwyane Wade is doing is impressive – maybe not as ridiculously captivating as Michael Phelps, but surely worth watching. In fact, Wade personally reports the swimmer’s success.

Two players stuck out to me in the game against Greece: the high-flying, energetic, versatile Lebron James and the energizer, slasher, defensive guru, D-Wade. The word is he isn’t known for defense in Miami, but don’t tell him that (actually, Craig Sager did, and Wade seemed surprised). His perimeter aggressiveness and execution has been phenomenal, especially against the Greeks who constantly run pick and rolls, back cuts, and ball reversals. Coach Musselman agrees.

Wade is motivated and focused and plays with something to prove. He didn’t like playing third wheel to King James and NCAA champion Carmelo Anthony when they all entered the league. Now, he is coming back from injury and has his sights set on returning to the status that earned him an NBA Finals MVP. I’ve always loved his game and have much respect for him as a player, leader, and teammate. He accepts his role and then performs admirably. (He did miss a free throw box out of the shooter when he first entered the game but then made up for it with a spectacular steal and no-look lob pass to Kobe Bryant for a dunk).

The USA team showed that if it can share the ball (23 assists on 36 field goals) and force turnovers (25 attributed to the opponent) to enable transition scoring, then it may not need to convert free throws (albeit 23 attempts), shoot over 40% from the three (7-20), or out-rebound the other team (38 each).

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Phelps Gives Lesson in Mental Game

For someone (like myself) who works with and studies the mental makeup of athletes for a living, there is nothing like having the opportunity to analyze Michael Phelps’ performances in these Olympic Games on a daily basis. At any moment, while viewing the NBC broadcasts or researching various news sites, another quote or anecdote is communicated about his idiosyncrasies, his training, his emotions – even his ever-present mother.

It’s no surprise that the common viewer can quite easily understand what makes him so good. He puts in the effort, sets challenges, stays positive, and enjoys himself, his teammates, and his ability to represent the country (and really the global sport of swimming for that matter).

He also has the perfect swimmer’s body and continues to work on his strength and athleticism. For instance, he knew that he could put in work that would enable a more effective and explosive turn, so he initiated an intense strength and conditioning weight workout. His powerful force and technique off the wall is more evident than the Spanish basketball team’s reason for posing for a team picture in a potentially, politically slanted manner.

Other remarks we’ve heard or read about Phelps:

  • Has the best mind of anybody else
  • Maintains a bulletin board of motivational reminders
  • The bigger the event, the bigger the performance
  • Works harder than anybody else
  • Wants to destroy competition
  • Gets out and seizes the lead or puts it in cruise control and then blitzes by
  • Wants to make a statement
  • Sets high goals and wants to do something nobody has done before

Again, he is proof (it’s considered unsound to “prove” anything in psychological research, but Phelps gives me good reason and – ha – proves there is an exception) that the greatest of the greats are at that level because of their ridiculous mental toughness and head games. Tiger wants to demolish every one, every course, and will only call it quits when he can’t compete anymore. Jordan felt the same way – a couple times. Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Pete Sampras. Lance Armstrong. Brett Favre. Oh, right.

The most elite athletes are so focused, have picture perfect bodies for their sports, and train and play with a confidence of which others become jealous insofar as labeling the hardest workers arrogant or pompous. Phelps seems to be such an encouraging model for the cause of the elite. He enjoys setting new World, err Phelps, Records. He means something to his USA teammates, yet he also draws on their energies and their accomplishments. It’s stated best in The Australian:

Fellow Olympic gold medalist Aaron Peirsol said it was Phelps' mental strength that separated him from the rest.

"At this level I do believe it is more a mental game than it is anything and it takes a certain amount of guts to do what Michael is doing," Peirsol said.

"He has just pushed us and we have all pushed each other, what Michael is doing is elevating everybody else's performance."

Phelps is taking forward just one lesson from that relay race.

"Jason (Lezak) just proved that anything is possible," Phelps said. "He was a body-length behind the world record-holder with one lap to go in a 100m freestyle race, and he came back and got his hand on the wall first."

The impressiveness is astounding. It’s not like there is a defense out there, directly impeding his swimming stroke or holding his feet as he prepares to sprint towards the finish. In sports like swimming or gymnastics or golf, one’s own mind may act as a better "D" than even the Celtics’ championship curtain.

On the other hand, the thoughts one generates can truly help an athlete prepare and perform, rather than harass and halt. And we (sport psychologists commenting on the mental game, coaches, aspiring athletes, and the layperson) are lucky to be able to watch possibly the greatest athlete of all time give a master lesson in how to control one’s mind and behavior -- whether he wins three more gold medals or not, Phelps is the PROOFessor.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Psychological Weight of a Nation

One could say it’s China versus Phelps. Although the nation of 1.3 billion is behind in the total count, it has earned 14 golds to the United States’ 10 (five of those attributed to the machine-like swimmer who is now the most decorated Olympic champion). But it’s the China determinism that is the other story, one that is semi-impressive and semi-unsettling.

The Chinese government is driven and believes it has created novel opportunities for its athletes to win the 2008 Games. The structures in place and the strategies the country’s officials established to screen potential athletes are intense. Future competitors and Olympic hopefuls are developed from a young age and the methods by which they are trained engender enormous expectations.

Focused? Yes. Fair? Not necessarily.

From a psychological perspective, the drive, regiment, and motivation are a plus. Both coaches and athletes need these elements in order to improve and become successful. So, far, the training culture is effective. Besides setting precedents (for instance, the gymnastics squads seizing gold), other sports have become highly competitive. China made efforts to analyze its limitations in various events and target athletes who can put them on the sporting map. Further, a great number of sport psychologists are on staff to provide balance and support individuals and teams, holistically.

Counseling professionals, though, also recognize the substantial strain and stress that has been placed, or forced, on many participants. Yao Ming was the perfect vision, the child of two great Chinese athletes, practically engineered to become the nation’s great hope. An ambassador of the game that is becoming the most popular sport in China, Yao has carried the weight with promise and dignity.

Others though, do not seem as fortunate or willing, especially those that claim the intensity is too tough, the training too harsh, and the expectations too high. When it comes to health being a factor and a possible life threat, the goal becomes compromised. Yet, many do not want to give up. There is pride involved. There is money at stake. There is a new identity in the horizon. The culture has infiltrated the minds of many and inflicted a workmanlike, militaristic, do or die attitude.

Overcoming adversity is one thing; winning at all costs another.

If Bela Karolyi’s accusations are valid -- that the Chinese women’s gymnastics team is violating rules with underage participants -- there is something much more disturbing occurring. Could China really be going that far? Does it not want to become victorious the honest way, through hard work and old-school coaching? Or is Bela simply bitter, not being able to be center stage on the floor and pressing his promise that it’s better to come from behind with no pressure?

Karloyi’s claim that it’s easier for the younger kids in gymnastics (suggesting the Chinese) to win because of their innocence and immunity to what the events truly signify is not entirely realistic. It’s true that fledgling flippers may have more fun and are naturally looser, but experience often comes out on top -- at least in other sporting events.

It appeared that the Chinese were the calm ones from the very first vault, while the Americans never relaxed or became comfortable as a unit. China was focused, hours and years of deliberate training and cultural influence having reassured the government’s dream. The USA, led by the courageous Alicia Sacromone, didn’t answer the call. The immense pressure to perform perfectly and guide her teammates to the gold was evident even before her team’s turn.

We’ll continue to observe the happenings of the Beijing Games and the grand design of the host territory. If China does indeed succeed it its plans through excessive workouts and secluded students, then, as the public states, the investment is worth it. If not, maybe China should adopt the agenda of the Panda caretakers who develop a bears’ self-esteem through coaching with caring and understanding.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

USA Basketball Championship Means Much More than Gold

Fans and folks involved in basketball in the United States must understand just how crucial it is that the Redeem Team follows through and completes its mission initiated four years ago. Yes, the players want to stand atop the winners’ podium with medals around their necks and make a statement to rest of the world that they are indeed the hardwood superpower.

The underlying ambition, however, extends much further than that particular image of celebration and accomplishment. The pressure is great -- not as overwhelming as Yao Ming’s imposed calling that places more than one billion bodies on his back -- but heavy as in win or go home…a loss with the latter could force one to eventually succumb to a resulting sorry state of basketball at the premier levels.

The elite minds are worried about the evolution of the sport. Could basketball in the States enter into a recession as well? The leaders of basketball met in September 2006 and this past April to discuss the development (or malnutrition) of youth basketball. On another day, Coach Stan Van Gundy voiced his concerns about the lack of fundamentals and extreme emphasis on winning in this country at the lower levels.

The rise of street ball, with all of its mayhem, music, and magnetism, has capitalized on the artistry and popularity of hoops, yet struggled to convey the importance of working on form shooting, setting up curls and fades, and defending the pick and roll.

AAU, in many instances, could stand for Anyone After Underdevelopment, as many fathers-and-fans-now-coaches aim their sights on sponsors, traveling to Florida and Vegas, and acting as agents that claim to be friends with all of the top colleges.

To add to the complexity, high school superstar Brandon Jennings will live in Europe before I even get to travel there again. And Josh Childress has taken flight via a sweet overseas deal after playing for the Atlanta Hawks (and working out at MIT). There exists a true threat of talent migrating for the winter -- only the direction is not south.

Players are not considering leaving -- they are leaving.

The twelve athletes in Beijing now represent the highest hope to not simply take back the gold, but maintain what the US, thankfully, still does have: exciting college basketball. Otherwise, the game will gradually breakdown like an unstable press break. And the conditions could worsen. Forget establishing “40 minutes of hell”– how about 12 months of how to improve?

If the US Olympic Team does indeed reclaim success in the spotlight on the grandest stage, at least it will be accomplished with players and coaches who believe in development. The pressure remains, but anything short of gold is much more troublesome.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Time to Talk Comes After the Swim

Talk is cheap. Unless it’s really rich talk, like the type that happens hardly ever. Like when a team guarantees victory, and then unbeknownst to its members, has its mouth sealed shut by a motivated and awe-inspiring effort that a box office-breaking, multi-million dollar feature film can’t even do justice.

“That might be the most incredible relay split I’ve ever seen in my entire life!” exclaimed NBC Olympics swimming commentator Rowdy Gaines after the US 4x100 free relay team claimed victory in an all-out duel that muzzled the mouths of the flabbergasted French crew. Earlier, one of the team members of the previously favored squad, as Bob Costas lovingly surmised, spit some heavy trash talk by stating he and his teammates had come to SMASH the Americans.

Talk about fuel to the ever-burning Olympic fire.

After a solid 200 meters by part-condor, part-dolphin, part-man Michael Phelps and teammate Garrett Weber-Gale, the third leg for the US fish hit a current that saw the fifth lane French take the lead over the fourth lane Americans. And for a few seconds, it turned into a full-length lead heading into the turn for the final 50m.

Just as the commentators were going to crown the flibbertigibbity French the winners (as many predicted), Jason Lezak rode into a historical wave that instantly increased my heart rate and had me yelling, “Go! Come on four!” as if I were rooting for an underdog thoroughbred at the Kentucky Derby.

The race was already occurring at a blistering pace – all three leaders were way ahead of the world record line. And then Lezak, who is 32-years-old and coaches himself, did what fellow American Katie Hoff was narrowly unable to do in her 100m back – finish strongly, as in landing the very last touch.

The conclusion was more than strong – it was fierce. It was the fastest split in history (46 flat) by a longshot and concluded with a 3:08:23 world record and only the slightest of triumphs. In closing in on his counterpart, Lezak provided an excitement that we may never witness again in another race, or even the Olympics for that matter, as he overcame odds and dramatically beat his foe to the wall.

Lezak remarked later that he was simply tired of losing, as the US came up short in the last two sets of Games.

As the US team celebrated, Phelps could be heard, yelling, “That’s what I’m talking about!”

Unbelievable. Truly, eight one-hundredths of a second to talk about.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Does Preparation Become Excessive Perspiration?

A tennis pro colleague of mine called to my attention Thursday’s Boston Globe article about Red Sox infielder Dustin Pedroia. For those of you who don’t know, Pedroia happens to be hitting extremely well these days. He also has a pre-game regiment that many major leaguers may not want to admit for fear of receiving an accusatory, “Why aren’t you doing that, too?”

The All-Star second basemen in Beantown thinks nothing of personal records or Manny-esque drama. Rather, he prepares for games with focus and a drive to enhance performance for the betterment of his team. And that mindset helps set him apart.

As does Ray Allen’s, although his pre-game plan borders on clinically obsessive-compulsive (see Jackie MacMullan’s April article). Think Nomar tightening and tapping in the batter’s box, only expand the scene to the entire day (check out Ray's itinerary from Men’s Fitness). Allen’s awakenings may cause some folks to fatigue just thinking about his schedule, one that specifies the type of bread and ounces of water he consumes after his 200 pre-team meeting warm-up shots.

Some players think nothing of their teammates’ rituals while others have joined in the action. But when does preparation to this extent become unnecessary? I suppose it’s really just up to the athlete (especially one who gets paid and has time to participate in long-winded activities that consume the entire day).

My long-time friend, Mike Gambelunghe, was a two-sport star in high school and college, and he would often go out to the field on game day mornings and visualize the action. He then proceeded to eat his favorite meals and watch game film. MIT All-American Jimmy Bartolotta wears his special shooting shirt, listens to his personal playlist on his iPod, and has other idiosyncrasies in his routine to create comfort as he prepares for basketball contests.

There is no exact equation for preparation, although production of a good sweat is key for getting the mental and physical juices flowing. As the body warms up, the mind warms up -- and as long as an athlete is gradually getting into the ideal competition zone, who can criticize?

Performing at the top entails understanding ones own limitations and cues – if an athlete can create a credible routine that works, then credit that person with a clap and a dap. Even if others believe it may be excessive.

Players want to be pushed. That is why they keep going back, day after day, putting themselves in a situation where they will be asked to run more, jump higher, and possibly be chastised in front of their peers. So, prepare to perspire. Just make sure it’s controlled and conducted in manners that minimize the chance of injury or other health issues.

Monday, August 4, 2008


Even the pros of pros prepare for pressure. At least, they have to learn how to, as Carmelo Anthony stated in a June 23 article about the unfortunate failure to win gold at the last Olympics.

"We really had not a clue as to what we were getting into," Anthony said.

Well, this time they do, and the physical play, the suspicious refereeing, the legalized offensive goaltending, the jet lag and the fatigue -- none of it will surprise them. Still, the man who put this team together is the man who ultimately will be judged as a Team USA success or failure.

The “man” the last sentence refers to is the head of it all, Jerry Colangelo, who did his research, consulted the experts, and formed what he hopes to be a true team – a group of unselfish NBA ballers who have experience, personality, and the skills to get it done. He and Team USA added shooters and versatility, leaders and go-getters, and assembled a staff of well-respected coaches from the college and pro ranks.

Being prepared, though, is the key. Coach K, in his sanguine and literal tone, emphasized his mentality in one of the first meetings and, thank goodness, Melo seems to get it now. There was no passing out of gas station shirts to symbolize work ethic, as Eric Musselman points out about Harbaugh’s new Stanford gridiron squad; rather, the mood was one of “it’s time to get serious and win this thing again.” I haven’t heard a straight-out statement of guaranteed gold from anyone yet, although the staff boldly mentioned that they have the talent and wherewithal to be successful – especially if the defense is disciplined. And with Kobe leading the way as the so-called stopper, he looks to relish the role of licking his chops as his opponents lick their wounds.

It seems that this group of superstars is focused and excited to be representing the country. They are there, hopefully, because they want to be there – luminaries who love the camaraderie, the experience, and the desire to put the U.S. back on top in the basketball world. Heck – Dwyane Wade is the 6th man and they almost have a 1:1 coach to player ratio!

If it comes down to the question of the mental game in a close-knit contest with Argentina or Spain or Greece, all they need is to read Bill Russell’s 1965 narrative from Sports Illustrated that highlights his key psychological points related to competing and out-thinking the opponent.

Let’s just hope they aren’t all puking pre-tip to prepare as Russell was known to do -- unless, of course, it's a necessity for mental development and they perform like he did.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Creating Character(s)

All of this character talk makes my gears shift, my wheels turn, and my head crave diesel so I can get as much out of each fill-up as possible. There are quite a few situations out there that cause wonderment and raise the question: can a character have character and does character cause character? Confused? Me, too.

John Wooden said that sports do not build character -- they reveal it. Others believe losing in sports reveals character… and then may proceed to help build it. And, others state that winning reveals it as well, whether one is empathetic and congratulatory to the losing side or finds success construed with semi-illegal videotaping of opponents.

The Patriots built a franchise with the mindset that putting the right individuals (or characters) together creates an overwhelming character-istic that is necessary for a championship team – proof that an outlandish or hard-to-figure character can be pulled into a scene of mutual respect, dignity, and glory without disrupting the foundation that was built. (e.g. Corey Dillon – check. Randy Moss – check.) And then the team is tainted with the taping allegations. Oops. Is the character of the franchise intact, leaving one of the characters a bit frayed around the edges like his sweatshirts?

The Red Sox patterned the same character theory. Bring in players that will fit the mold of the already established character-types. I supposed Manny was a character for a long time, then stopped being so much of one for a short time, and then couldn’t really maintain the desired sports definition and blew up his newly-found image faster than a Tyson Gay sprint. Solution: ship him out to LA where he can be near another character, one who was fresh, then frazzled, then forgotten, then fake, and then formed.

All of a sudden, Kobe Bryant is a great guy as well as the best basketball player on earth (unless you’re a Lebron fan). Did you catch the halftime “family” show during one of the NBA finals late-nights? Kobe with his loving wife and kids on a couch in their living room (actually, and not surprisingly, it looked like a familiar Jordan scene in his Rare Air book). Most recently, Kobe was interviewed about the Olympics redemption squad and its chances of winning back the gold. And his response as well as various teammates’ featured all-too-familiar chemistry terms. Is his reincarnated character shining through? (By the way, I wish Fran Fraschilla would explain the FIBA officials’ “three or four times a game you’ll scratch your head with bad calls” commentary – are they characters officiating with less than 100% character or do they have something against the US characters?).

Kevin Garnett seems to have great character. His flagrant f-bombs aside, he cares about winning, his teammates, the staff, the fans, and his friends. Didn’t he buy all of the Celtics players gifts (suits) during training camp as a token of his humanity and inner self?

I recently finished The Assist, the book about Jack O’Brien and his championship Charlestown teams in Boston. O’Brien, although a character in his own right, had a knack for not only building character out of characters, but also teaching them how to reveal it.

By definition, character entails the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual. We often think of someone with character as good, people who do right by others and are positive role models. Conversely, we may think of characters as people who don’t necessarily conform. When we recruit at MIT, we look for student-athletes that demonstrate character in the former realm – upstanding citizens who are coachable. Yet, I also envy the character who will take his role seriously with a bit of flavor, as long as its bearable and regularly controllable rather than distracting and perplexing (see Dennis Rodman as a “Bad Boy”, as a Spur, as a tamed Bull, and then as a, well, I’m not sure). We refer to the latter as personality and creativity, and maybe even as leadership if molded in the right way.

The bottom line: I believe that playing, coaching, and watching sports helps to develop character and build characters, all the while teaching us how to reveal our character to other characters.

Characterize that.

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