Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Moving On and Moving Up

I have always wondered how people are able to move from one job to another so suddenly...coaches get other positions, players get traded, workers get transferred. Well, I'm in the midst of it right now as I have been named Head Men's Basketball Coach for the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, CA.

It is going to be an exciting and challenging era as we create the new wave of Caltech basketball -- and I am really looking forward to it.

As a coach at MIT, I have always marveled at the abilities of our student-athletes to achieve success both on and off the court. Building a program with high caliber academic players is truly invigorating.

Being in the LA area, maybe I will get the opportunity to meet Kobe Bryant and quiz him about his mind -- after all, bball guru Sonny Vaccaro believes he is brilliant:

"Kobe has his own mind," Vaccaro said. "He's bright. He could have gone to MIT and been successful. I watched his formative years. Even when he left Adidas, he did it because it made good business sense. He made decisions. He's never been afraid."

"Kobe is his own man. One of the most unique people I've met in my 69 years."


Had Kobe gone to college, I suppose he would have been a true student-athlete...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Value of Mental Toughness

Comparisons are natural. People size up people they like, they don't like, they want to like, they want not to like...and those that are like them or not like them or they want to be like them...ugh. Critics and fans love to analyze past and present athletes with the "who is greater?" dilemma.

Regardless of the motivation, I like the insight Michael Jordan provides about Kobe Bryant's development as the most complete basketball player in the world. To become the best (MJ talks about his philosophy in the sidebar video ->), athletes take aspects of other people's games and apply those characteristics and skills to their own. It's an equation of observational learning, modeling, vicarious skill building, and dedicated application.

Further, the talk of mental toughness is an exceptional truth that embeds the star as it hovers the basketball universe. Lindy's Pro Basketball 2008-09 has the story via BallerBlogger and 20 Second Timeout:

...it becomes quickly obvious that Jordan respects Bryant, without even a hint of condescension. After all, Jordan respects anyone who does the work, who has the mental toughness, to climb the heights. Bryant's done the work and displayed the toughness...
...Winter has repeatedly emphasized that Scottie Pippen's role in the success of the Bulls cannot be overestimated; on the flip side, Winter and West both criticized the lack of mental toughness of Bryant's current supporting cast, a weakness that became glaringly apparent during the 2008 NBA Finals. "The Lakers just are not mentally tough"...

The last comment reminds me of the Bulls gallop to greatness in 1991, which showcased the basketball antithesis of this past season's runner-up from LA. David Halberstam writes in Playing for Keeps:

Winning in the NBA more often has to do with psychological qualities than physical ones. Veteran coaches and players know that the margin of difference comes more than anything else from superior mental toughness. Quality players on great teams know how to win, how to finish a game, how to block out a hostile crowd on the road; they speak of the ability of great teams to bend the will of lesser teams to their own. If these phrases sound to the outside world like clich├ęs, within the league they have achieved the status of gospel. In a season as long as the NBA's, where one game runs into the next, where mental fatigue is often greater than physical fatigue, what sets the great players apart is a capacity, in the dogs days of February, on the road, when their bodies ache, to see a game against a lesser opponent as being important and to bring a high level of preparedness to it. Greatness in the NBA does not just require great skill, it demands the ability to go out and play hard night after night, and the ability to inspire one's teammates to play hard as well. That was what set players such as Bird, Johnson, and Thomas apart -- not only their fierce will but its effect on the their teammates. By 1990, the Bulls and the Pistons looked about even; in fact, if anything, in terms of pure talent, the Bulls looked superior. But so far, the Pistons owned the Bulls because they managed to get inside the heads of the Chicago players.

The one thing a championship-level team liked least to do was to give off any sense of vulnerability to a contender, particularly one that imagined its fortunes on the ascent. And so issues of mental toughness were critical: Were you mentally strong enough to expose the weaknesses of a rival team and emphasize to that team its own weaknesses before that team exposed your own vulnerabilities?

When a Receiver Loses His Mind

So, wide receivers come from a different mold than other football positions. The New York Times describes the "divas" as flamboyant egomaniacs, players who have the mentality of world class sprinters who do as they wish in the open field -- and sometimes even celebrate prematurely.

A friend of mine who played college football says receivers do not have to abide by the same responsibilities as the other spots on the field, that they are in a position that enables them to do their own thing more than anyone else. I guess that explains the brashness of Eagles' rookie wide-out DeSean Jackson as he "lost control" of the football just before crossing the goal line on Monday night. Was he striving for an early celebratory Usain Boltish finish? Trying to upstage Terrell Owens and his running, lean-in-over-the-line act earlier in the game? Or maybe he was just upset his name didn't make the NYT article and he wanted a little more ink?

See full video here.

Monday, September 15, 2008

They are Human, Right?

Sunday, I woke up to Randy Newman's "Back On My Feet Again" as I sat down to a delicious breakfast, and proceeded to read about the pressures that athletes face. Are we not surprised that professional ball players are actually human? That they, too, encounter everyday anxieties and feel unwanted stress on their shoulders? I suppose that society does not care; fans do not want to hear it. Why? Because the athletes are making millions of dollars, hence the "deal with it" message screaming from the public.

Problem is, there is a difference between a million dollar athlete and his million dollar mind. Often, the former becomes history, overtaken by the expectations created by the latter. The result is a million dollar splatter.

Once an athlete makes it to the big leagues or the professional ranks, is he not infallible? Just ask Barry Zito or Vince Young. Zito was the best pitcher in baseball, a former Cy Young winner with the curve of all curves and a free-loving lifestyle that was magnetic to friends and females. And then, coupled with the highest paying pitching contract in history, his boyish, unhittable pitching persona was gone -- along with his captivating personality. Expectations were too heavy to lift, social networks broke and friends dropped like flies. Mental caused maladjustments to the physical. Confidence became cursed. Freedom became flawed.

From "The Mystery of Barry Zito" (NYT):

According to [Giants' pitching coach Dave] Righetti, the mystery was that Zito, inexplicably and without suffering injury, had lost 5 miles per hour off his already modest 89-m.p.h. fastball and, also inexplicably, had lost control of his devastating curveball. “It’s not physical,” Righetti said, sitting in the visitors’ dugout before a game against the Cleveland Indians in late June. “I mean, he’s not injured. It’s a matter of confidence.”

In truth, Zito’s pitching problems are probably the result of both physical and mental problems. “He had speeded up his motion,” Righetti said, “which caused him to overstride.” Zito’s arm has been trailing his lunging body a split second too late. This causes him to lose speed off his fastball and to fling his curveball high, rather than snapping it low across the plate. He lost control of his curve, Righetti said, “and batters weren’t swinging at it. Then he stopped throwing as many curves as he used to.” Righetti said the funny thing was, when Zito threw on the sidelines in warm-up sessions, “everything was locked in. But the game speeded him up. You know, this is a tough game to be on top for years.” He meant that the greatest athletes, who have 20-year careers of peaks and valleys, have the ability to will themselves out of occasional slumps.

“I’ve made mechanical adjustments lately,” Zito said during our breakfast in late June. “My curve and fastball are better now. But your body’s gonna do what your mind lets it do. You have to surrender to the pitch. You try to control the process, not the result. A New Age guy told me that the last thought you have before you let the ball go — I hope the batter doesn’t hit it — determines where it goes. All the preparation, off-season work, can be done in by that last thought.”


Meanwhile, Young lost his mantra (or, followed through on it) -- one that he delivered after Donovan McNabb's controversial comments about the lofty pressure of black quarterbacks compared to their white counterparts. Young explained his belief in doing something else: if a player can't handle playing the position, then get out.

Well, he suddenly did that himself, to the point of questionable return. He became so emotionally unstable, a search and rescue suicide watch was in effect. Rhoden's review recommends not therapy, as Warren Moon counts on now, but a history lesson for the most challenging position in organized sport.

The pressure mounts at all levels. The good thing about the youth aspect, though, is summarized in what Todd Balf writes. When the competition is over, when the tryouts are done, the athlete returns to his true self, where he can act his age.

Says Balf, a 12-year-old can cuddle up and cry when he doesn't reach his goal (as long as his parents are supportive and not obsessed with early specialization and excessive competitiveness). A 30-year-old pro, it seems, has nowhere to go...maybe music is the answer.

Get me back on my feet again,
Back on my feet again.
Open the door and set me free,
Get me back on my feet again.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Dissecting QB Development

Great quarterbacks are a special breed. One of the toughest positions to learn and play in all of sports, a quarterback has to be mentally tough enough to handle pressure from all angles, both on and off the field. Saturday's New York Times article about USC QB Mark Sanchez highlights many psychological components of performance, from his father's creative development activities to his ability to learn from mistakes.

On focus:

When Sanchez took batting practice as a teenager, his father quizzed him on the periodic table as each pitch was about to arrive. While gauging the speed and location of a fastball, his brain was also attempting to recall the atomic weight of magnesium.

When he was younger, he dribbled a basketball while wearing glasses that blocked his view of the ball — all the while facing rapid-fire questions on multiplication tables.

And when he dropped back to pass a football, working on his touch by lobbing the ball over a goal post, he had to know who the 13th president was. Answer: Millard Fillmore.

On leadership:

This focus on leadership comes easily for Nick Sanchez. A former Army sergeant, he is a captain in the Orange County Fire Authority and a member of the national urban search and rescue team. The search-and-rescue duty took him to New Orleans after Katrina, to New York after the Sept. 11 attacks and to Oklahoma City after the bombing of the federal building.

“In a sense, it is like football,” the elder Sanchez, who is a regular at U.S.C. practices, said of his rescue efforts. “The group I’ve been with has been very successful. We live together, we work together. You can call the same play 50 times, and there’s always a different result. It might be a traffic accident, a residential fire — you have to function, react and deal.”

On personality:

His arm may be strong — he threw a ball 60 yards to Ronald Johnson in a season-opening win over Virginia — but it is matched by his personality. Sanchez plays with a let-it-all-hang-out vibe, always eager to look for a big play. During the week, he bounds around the practice field, pumping up teammates or peppering coaches with questions. His teammates have dubbed him the Mexican Jumping Bean.

“Leinart and John David were very methodical, in-control guys,” said Jeff Byers, a fifth-year senior guard. “Mark knows what’s going on, but he’s got a much higher energy. He’s very charismatic. The O-line, we love him.”

Friday, September 12, 2008

Cerebral Matter

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


Mets pitcher Brian Stokes understands the importance of the mental game:

As much as last season tested him, Stokes said he never grew discouraged. He returned home to California and spent some of the off-season performing exercises to improve his mental toughness.

“It wasn’t physical, I knew, because I had gotten to the major leagues,” Stokes said. “But I learned that you work on your physical side your whole career and neglect the mental side sometimes.”


Pay attention to the excuses you make because that may make a difference in performance:
Self-handicapping is essentially excuse-making, but that which occurs before a performance begins. By conjuring these barriers to success, we attempt to establish a no-lose situation. After all, how can someone expect you to succeed with all of those obstacles in your way? And if you should succeed, then how amazing is it that you overcame so much adversity?

Want to work on your memory? Listen to music:
The overwhelmingly positive nature of these findings brings to question the connection between music, memory, and emotion and what the relationship ultimately means. For example, music and positive feelings have been linked with the increase in dopamine, a hormone and neurotransmitter that is associated with the pleasure system in the brain. And as Morrison explains, musical prompts may help not so much in storage, but in memory retrieval, perhaps acting as aids for recall when memory fails us as we age.

How is your cognitive closure?
The amount of time that someone spends making a choice affects what kind of information that they use to make that choice. Research on these individual differences suggests that people who try to make decisions quickly use easily available aspects of the environment to make a choice. Imagine for example, an advertisement that shows Tiger Woods advertising a watch. The ad might also have information about the watch that tells you something about its function. Someone low in Need for Cognition will be swayed by the celebrity endorsement. Someone high in Need for Cognition will pay more attention to the qualities of the watch.

Are you brave or afraid, or both?
My point isn't that the fear-mongers have nothing to fear. Maybe they do; maybe they don't. Rather it's that there's something weirdly dogmatic about the simple assertion that because they're anxious they're brave. They want this association to stand without regard to the fear-worthiness of any specific thing they say they fear.

Dig your Digs - It Means More than you Think

Perceptions are crucial. In sports, how a team interprets its program or an opponent is often the best motivator -- and the forethought may even be a predictor of success. If athletes feel that their program is cared for, and that the established environment has been enriched, then they will want to hold down their end of the bargain -- whether it is an agreement in writing or not.

Some coaches have their players sign contracts in the beginning of a season, outlining the athletes' promises to put in substantial effort throughout the season. Others, like Coach K and his Redeem Team staff, leave coaching messages for the players (e.g. "We're 0-0" or "Play like a champion"), perhaps on the bus seats or in the locker room. And, it could be the latter that is the most important setting.

The locker room is like a baby's crib, even the womb, where players spend much time -- in play and preparation. Simply put, as Musselman suggests, it needs to become an atmosphere of development, just as the playing surface is one of learning and hard work. If the "preparation" room looks and feels good, the team is more likely to take care of its quarters. And if the pad is treated well, it will breed an aura of seriousness and sound teamwork. A nice place is much harder to mess up.

It's like the broken window theory. People are less likely to destroy a place, even commit a crime, if their surroundings are attended to in a thoughtful manner. Malcolm Gladwell explains how the theory relates to The Tipping Point:

The broken-window hypothesis was the inspiration for the cleanup of the subway system conducted by the New York City Transit Authority in the late eighties and early nineties. Why was the Transit Authority so intent on removing graffiti from every car and cracking down on the people who leaped over turnstiles without paying? Because those two "trivial" problems were thought to be tipping points-broken windows-that invited far more serious crimes.
In a way, a team is influenced not only by the coaching staff, practice drills, and opponent, but by its environment.

Mind your digs, ya' dig?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Injury Outlook

Injuries are a part of sports, just as bad calls and heckling fans. Unfortunately for the New England Patriots, Tom Brady's injury is devastating - at least, at first glance. Often times, an injury to one player leaves an opportunity for another to step in and step up.

It could be predicted that the team's system will take over without the new age star, with supermodel and real estate investments soothing his side - after all, the aforementioned program is the basic mantra of the Pats anyway. Brady thrives in Belichick's system because he has the work ethic, leadership ability, and talent to enhance the framework. And he had his chance after Drew Bledsoe went down. Maybe Matt Cassel's strengths as a two sport athlete and former Earthquake Kid will help.

As for Brady and his upcoming psychological challenges, the recovery process will be dependent on his mental game. Perhaps his tough mindset will aid him in a quicker recovery from a physical standpoint, as his motivation to get healthy and stick to the rehab plan will become priorities. Research has shown that a positive frame of mind and the ability to imagine oneself healing do indeed speed recovery.

Athletes who are able to modify their outlook by interpreting events in an effective manner are more likely to come back mentally strong. Feedback from video that instantly reminds a player of what she could do pre-injury is a technique that needs to be utilized...and replaying the situations over and over again with a desired outcome via mental imagery is also helpful.

The mental aspect of becoming completely comfortable on the field again will be Brady's highest hurdle. Athletes often run the risk of re-injury because they overcompensate muscles during movements or continue to visualize a similar occurrence of the pain and suffering. The ability to convince oneself that he can compete again is a barrier with which many an athlete struggles, as "...the psychology of being banged up is very different than that of recovering from surgery."

The mind does not always know when the body is actually healed; thus, one's thoughts may construct images that relate to the original incident. Maladaptive cognitions can increase anxiety and fear and, of course, wipe away any confidence the athlete may have.

Depending on the status of the athlete, especially if he is one who has not reached the pinnacle, having to sit out can be a positive situation. I have known many athletes that have been forced to watch from the sidelines due to injury or another reason, and in retrospect, the time away is what they needed for their development. For instance, take Michael Crabtree, the top receiver in college football:

Allen Wilson, the coach at Carter High, says the year off was a blessing for Crabtree, giving him time to learn the nuances of playing receiver. Better still, it fueled him, adding to the hunger that Wilson believes makes the receiver special: "Not getting to play that year was the best thing that could have happened to him."
Not that Brady needs any time off, of course.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Psychological Ingredients of a Coach

The Crossover Movement recently reviewed research by the United States Olympic Committee that centered around coaching. Interestingly, sport psychology was found to be the fourth most important area in "understanding body of knowledge", preceded by skills, strategies, and teaching. Meanwhile, twenty insights signify coaches' emphasis on topics in sport psychology (see below, with corresponding sport psych topics in blue).

It seems, despite what coaches are trained in, or what the results show as most important, the mental game and the psychology of performance are underestimated -- yet highly significant, thus highlighted throughout. Perhaps, at the very least, sport psychology needs to be considered a major component of the "skill" category.

  1. Ability to instill belief/trust/confidence in athletes - self-efficacy
  2. Big Vision, balanced by ability to set and adjust goals - goal setting and extrinsic motivation
  3. Care about others more than self - cohesion
  4. Perseverance and a sense of humor - personality
  5. Attention to skills development of athletes; tailored to athlete needs - attentional zones
  6. Precise training techniques and coaching on a daily basis - attentional zones and flow
  7. Ability to filter - attentional zones
  8. Problem solving orientation - decision making
  9. Ability to observe without judgment - perspective taking
  10. Desire to improve through knowledge - intrinsic motivation
  11. Quality Decision makers under pressure - decision making and anxiety regulation
  12. High level of integrity and fairness - character
  13. Ability to multi-task with equal amounts of high energy - attentional zones
  14. Knowledgeable and with an ability to transfer knowledge simplistically - effective communication
  15. Focused on the process - attentional zones and flow
  16. Creative, open minded to new ideas and approaches - personality and intrinsic motivation
  17. Having thick skin - resiliency, anxiety regulation, and mental toughness
  18. Flexible, but decisive - leadership ability and personality
  19. Excellent instructional skills, ability to deliver messages - effective leadership and communication
  20. Understands critical zone training - information processing and flow

Friday, September 5, 2008

Getting Through the Fouls

Couldn't pass this up...

Many times, players complain about "no calls" in practice. They say out of frustration, "In a game, that's a foul!" -- in an attempt to remind coaches to call fouls during drills or scrimmages. However, in a real game, players may not be able to finish because they aren't used to getting hacked -- or they aren't mentally tough enough to get through the hammering. Or, it's just plain immoral to let the fouling go.

So, take the angle of Adrian Dantley and his training tips, courtesy of a book from 1987, via 20 Second Timeout:

Playing underneath is tough, no question about it. You have to be willing to get fouled and take a beating. I prepare myself for this in the summer by playing with friends, working especially on my moves under the basket. We'll often play half-court for four or five baskets, and allow grabbing and holding when a player goes to the basket. Other times we'll decide to play the entire game without calling fouls. By playing like this, I'm able to concentrate on making my offensive move and following through with my shot even though I'm being pushed and shoved while I'm doing it. It often gets like that or even rougher when you play underneath in the NBA.

Cerebral Matter

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


Head Games in auto racing:

The battle for the IndyCar championship is won on the course, but Helio Castroneves is trying to influence the outcome off the track.

Castroneves, who enters Sunday's Detroit Indy Grand Prix on Belle Isle 43 points behind driver points-leader Scott Dixon, has refined his strategy to include mind games with the New Zealander.

"I'm trying to do everything I can," said Castroneves, who will start on the front row with Dixon after turning in the second-fastest qualifying lap Saturday of 102.412 mph. "We're trying to get into his head."

Sarah Palin is prepared to deal with pressure. After all, she was a sportscaster and still is a competitor.


Ian Poulter is fed up and sick of dealing with distractions:
"It's just so mentally draining to be in this position, to listen and read and to get all the b.s all week. It's seriously, seriously mentally draining."...

...“They are the people I feel really sorry for,” he said. “They are going to be feeling pressure as it is and you don't want to be standing over a three-footer with so much doubt in your mind, not knowing if the ball is going to run straight.”

Music is great to listen to on many levels. It can change a person's mood instantly – one of the reason athletes use it to mentally prepare for competition. But, did you know listening to those tunes can actually help one heal?


Modeling is how we learn. Young athletes emulate veterans in various ways. Players even choose their numbers based on who they love as kids:
“When I was in high school, I used to watch basketball and the Chicago Bulls,” Aceves said this morning. “Dennis Rodman was one of the best players at that time. The way he played, he played a lot mentally. He made the other players get frustrated.”

But you’re not nuts, right, Alfredo?

“But I’m not nuts,” Aceves said, laughing.

Is your favorite coach really that valuable?


Can Nadal keep up his torrid mental pace?
“I think I help a little bit, him to play to this level,” Nadal said. “He played well today, but I didn’t play with normal intensity. I play a little bit less intensity than last few months for sure. Probably I’m a little bit tired more than usually.”…

…Despite flying from the United States to Beijing and back in the last two weeks, Nadal said jet lag was not as much a problem as mental fatigue from a grueling season.

Is an addiction to crossword puzzles healthy? What is happening in your mind gym?


Maybe it’s ok to be bored…at least some of the time:
In a recent paper in The Cambridge Journal of Education, Teresa Belton and Esther Priyadharshini of East Anglia University in England reviewed decades of research and theory on boredom, and concluded that it’s time that boredom “be recognized as a legitimate human emotion that can be central to learning and creativity.”

Leaving Lasting Impressions on the Court

Novak Djokovic wriggled around like a caterpillar on steroids. With apparent aggression and aggravation stemming from the far-from-tame Flushing Meadows fans that hold Andy Roddick close to their American Dream hearts, the Serbian unleashed tennis talent followed by regrettable words and a bewildered attitude after the intense match:

“Andy was saying I have 16 injuries in last match,” Djokovic told the Arthur Ashe crowd. “Obviously I don’t.” That elicited a round of boos that Djokovic acknowledged by saying: “Yeah, right. Like it or not, it’s like that.”

Referring to the crowd, he continued: “I know they’re already against me because they think I’m faking everything. That’s not nice, anyhow, to say I have 16 injuries and I’m faking it.”
These statements were in response to Roddick’s comments the night before:
“You know,” he said, “he’s either quick to call the trainer or he’s the most courageous guy of all time.”
Granted, Roddick added fuel to the already blazing fire – but what happened to winning with dignity? Better yet, a confident pride that peels off the underlying message of, “See, I told you so…now let’s move on to the next round.”

Djokovic obviously had his feelings hurt and, even during the match, let out the emotion with loud, low screams – from his mouth and from his racket. Djokovic held off the city favorite on his favorite court, in what appeared to be Roddick’s best overall effort in a while (Roddick has had nagging injuries himself but looked confident and performed impressively in this year’s U.S. Open).

16 injuries? Djokovic couldn’t let it go even though he himself is not always the most courteous. How many times has he mocked other players with his impersonations of them on the court? He is half-joking then, too, right?

Roddick understood what he proclaimed in the press conference. He is a competitor and a past champion in the Open. He doesn’t want to hear excuses – athletes who mention their injuries, even minor, are looking for an out, just in case they don’t perform well. Plus, in Djokovic’s case, he has previously been blamed for taking too much time between games in order to take care of his body – and possibly the opponent’s mind.

Congrats to Djokovic. He held off the Roddick run, the NY fans, and the supposed injuries. However, a typical tennis thank you to the fans was in order. Praise them anyway.

In the future, it will take more of an effort to change the impressionable minds of the spectators. Djokovic should think about the transformation of his image back to the butterfly that people thought we was when he came onto the tennis scene, as a composed, engaging challenger to the top seeds.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Scouting the Political Hardwood

Hyped for hoops season to begin, I'm ready to formulate the first scouting report of the season. So, why not start with the most popular competition occurring in the country?…

...The Presidential Race in a hypothetical 2-on-2.


The Donkeys

#23 Barack Obama - 6-2, guard/forward, 47 years old

Basketball Bio: Obama is a straight up baller. His jersey number causes one to recall images of another famous Chicago hoopster. He has been known to play pick-up just about anywhere: Brown U., UNC, with the military, and against Stuart Scott on SportsCenter.

What to Watch for: athletic ability…uses wiry body well…has a knack for slashing…wants to drive hard…prefers going to the left, but can finish to his right…solid mid-range game with hanging lefty pull-ups…very active off the ball…must box him out…will look to get teammate involved…known to have some perimeter touch…may reach and look for steals on D.

#33 Joe Biden - 6-0, forward, 65 years old

Basketball Bio: Not very experienced in hoops, but has a natural capacity to learn without extra substances. (In fact, he helped pass a bill outlawing androstenedione used for performance enhancement).

What to Watch for: team player…he’ll do the dirty work…strong on the boards…will try to convert some lay-ups.

The game plan: The Donkeys will look to utilize the pick-and-roll some of the time, but they will most likely go to a 1 out-1 in set, that puts the ball in Obama’s hands. He’ll look to create off the dribble while Biden establishes position down low. At times, look for the give-and-go with hi-low action.


The Elephants

#99 John McCain - 5-7, guard/power forward, 72 years old

Basketball Bio: No history, but his toughness and experience as a Navy captain and prisoner of war make up for lack of skills. Plus, he has a history in filling out brackets.

What to Watch for: Won’t move that quickly…slow lateral movement…will try to set-up his teammate, but will mostly stay in the paint…tires quickly…attempts to hit the boards...not much of a shot…experience with physical therapy may come in handy.

#22 Sarah Palin - 5-10 point guard, 44 years old

Basketball Bio: Experienced player who was very rugged and resilient in high school. She was nicknamed “Sarah Barracuda” because of her intensity and passion on the court. Understands the game of basketball and other sports (she is a former sportscaster). Known for hitting game winning free throw in state championship game with a stress fracture.

What to Watch for: clutch player and wants to take the winning shot…very strong and aggressive…she is the go-to…good handles…can hit the mid-range shot…wants to come off of picks.


The Game Plan

Offensively, the Donkeys shouldn’t have any trouble scoring, especially if they share the ball. Obama’s knowledge of the game and understanding of his team’s strengths and limitations will help them succeed. He’ll look to involve Biden, but Obama’s activity all over the court will prove to be his team's key. With Obama's first step and Biden’s positioning, they have the capacity to jump out to an early and insurmountable lead.

Defensively, the Donkeys may try to trap the Elephant pick-and-rolls early in order to minimize any good looks at the basket. If McCain can get open, Barracuda may just have enough in her to dump it down for a couple shot opportunities. Time-outs will be critical.

Interestingly, Obama will be guarding Barracuda for much of the game, rather than facing his direct running foe -- but this is a team game. Remember, it wasn’t Michael versus Magic in 1991. Rather, MJ’s running mate, Scottie Pippen, was the one assigned to Johnson.

Biden should be able to wear down McCain quickly, so Barracuda will have to keep her spirits high and her defensive stance low and long.

If Barracuda can keep Obama in front of her when he has the ball, and work some clock on offense, her team will have more of a chance. And if she somehow can get open and nail a couple of shots, the Elephants may gain some confidence and momentum.

Look for Joe Lieberman to provide a special half-time analysis on both teams.


Check out Obama's basketball clips

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Catching up to Steve, at Nashspeed

The recent SLAM post on Steve Nash and Musselman's reminder about great point guards caused me to recall an unforgettable performance. I happened to be at the playoff game in 2005 when Steve Nash put on a dazzling display, willing his Phoenix Suns to an overtime thriller against the Mavericks in Dallas. He was one rebound shy of a triple-double and dropped 39 points on his old team. He also dished out a dozen dimes and drilled five 3-pointers (see official box score).

What was, and is, most impressive about the former league M.V.P. is his mental and physical conditioning. He consistently plays at an exciting pace, from a fan's perspective and a teammate's point of view. His capacity to perform at Nashspeed, both on the court and in his mind, is what makes him special. He can anticipate action as good as anyone -- and better than most -- and possesses uncanny instincts, characteristics that allow him to create and finish plays with impeccable timing and draw-dropping reactions.

It is important to note that he was not born with Nashspeed; rather, he became a student of the game. Nash understands that in his role of team leader and point guard, it is crucial to be able to relate to other people:

At Santa Clara University, Nash studied sociology, which - at first - was a way to avoid classes he thought he would dislike. However, Nash says he grew to enjoy his studies because the subject fueled his interests in psychology and people. "I thought sociology was very educational, if not practical in a career sense."
Further, to be able to play fast, his mind has to tick with extraordinary kick. His mental imagery abilities are most likely higher than other players', as previous studies have shown. Nash understands that his mental work was as significant as his physical practice:
Nash spent many hours perfecting his talent. He videotaped college and NBA basketball games so he could "watch the players' moves over and over, and then try to do them myself." Nash thinks the visualization techniques and mental agility so useful in sports will soon be more recognized as crucial skills for all aspects of life.
Nash's conditioning gives him an advantage, but more importantly, supplies him with steadfast confidence. In the past, he has not had to worry about staying in shape because he works on his fitness levels year-round. His love for soccer helps him maintain his form and his understanding of how to develop has helped him get to the top. Perhaps even more impressive is his ability to communicate and speak about his mindset. The 2007 Charlie Rose interview demonstrates Nash's excellence, as an athlete and an analyst.


Tuesday, September 2, 2008

To Throw, or Not to Throw?

Andy Roddick's recent racket hurls at the U.S. Open beckon the question: release the rage or hold it in? The exploration involves both moral and psychological issues. For Roddick, his moments of mayhem have helped him defeat his opponent. As a model of composure, he has been as unsure as the the levees in New Orleans.

His second round recap from ESPN:

Andy Roddick smashed his racket not once but twice, leaving it a mangled mess that matched the state of his game at that point.

Facing a big deficit, staring at what would have been a big upset, Roddick suddenly changed everything against a younger, less-experienced, less-accomplished version of himself at the U.S. Open.
And his actions from Sunday in the New York Times:
It was sometime during the third set that Andy Roddick's racket met its demise. As he whipped it to the ground, little blue shards splintered onto the blue hardcourt, the latest victims of Roddick’s frustration. It was not quite the twisting, mangling punishment he had given the tools of his trade earlier in the United States Open, but on Sunday, he did not have as much to be upset about...

...Less than 30 minutes after he littered the court with racket crumbs, he completed a straight-sets victory over the 31st seed...
I had a chance to observe a current pro as he trained at MIT two days before heading to New York for the U.S. Open. His practice was focused and intense, every drill, every point played as if it were the last in a championship match. As I watched, I was impressed with his concentration. He meticulously practiced his serve with his hitting coach

Then he proceeded to fault, I suppose a very unsatisfactory one in his mind. With that miss, in a shocking show of frustration, he grabbed another ball and took an controlled, yet uncontrolled, swing and blasted the ball over the MIT dorm that overlooked the tennis courts. He smacked the ball as if the target was the Harvard boat house that sits on the Charles River.

And then, as if he had released every ounce of energy that evoked tantrum times as a toddler, he was calm again. He drove the next serve right by his partner for an ace.

The incident made me think about the frustration-aggression theory, in that once provoked, an emotion can build to the point of such aggravation that it can drive an athlete to change his persona, if only for a brief bit. However, in that 60 seconds, a violent phase can ensue and cause even the tamest human to display anger, by the whack of a ball with brutalizing force or the hammering of a racket into the ground…a matter that toys with one’s mental toughness and a situation that beckons one to "shape up or ship out".

Roger Federer was once asked about the controversial behavior that may seem minimal, yet is quite long lasting in memory:
Federer used to love that kind of show but is now campaigning to stamp the practice out. He said: "For kids watching, I want them to have a proper example. I enjoyed watching Goran, McEnroe and those guys throwing racquets. I thought it was funny. But at the same time, I don't think a tennis player needs to act this way.

"I think there are different ways and I hope that kids get inspired by this more than throwing racquets. But then again, I think it's okay, too, to throw a racquet here and there. It's not a problem."
What is interesting from a developmental perspective is that Federer was not always in control of his emotions; he discovered how to control and motivate himself in other ways. He even took a Michael Jordan stance, and would tell himself that he is in front of thousands of people who have never seen him play before:
I was very emotional. I was never the angry person, more the sad and disappointed person. I would cry a lot after losing matches; I would throw my racket in disappointment. It was very hard for me to accept missing three, four points in a row. The first one I could sort of accept. The second one would be like, well, now you better not miss the next one, but if I did, then the racket went flying. I'd have to scream or something, because it just wasn't acceptable. But as time went by, I started to relax. You get on center courts around the world, people are watching, and you're like, "Well, now I can't throw my racket," because it's embarrassing. Today I'm much more in control of myself, whereas before it was a weak point of my tennis. People would say, "If you can get to him mentally, you've got it." And now it's become a strong point in my game.

It was never easy for me. Because people were constantly saying I was talented and that I was going to make it, I always had that burden. It was like, if I make it, then I'm only doing what's expected of me, and if I don't, then I'm a disaster because I missed on a great career or wasted my talent. I also had a hard time working out. I would ask, "Why do I have to do this? I'll just be tired tomorrow." But I think by asking a lot of questions, I was able to learn. And then over the years, through hard work, my game started to become really fluid. I never really thought it was that way naturally, because I always felt I had to make a great effort. My technique was always sort of nice, but I was shanking a lot of balls, and I really had a tough time keeping the ball in the court. But by getting stronger mentally and physically, my game started to evolve, and all of a sudden I found myself where I am right now, dominating the game.
Now, just a year before the interview with Billie Jean King, Federer faced a youthful Rafael Nadal and the former showed off his heaving ability (yes, you can see the ordinarily centered Roger unravel in the video below).


Normally known for his serene presence on court, Federer did not turn the match in his favor until he became angry.

At the end of the ninth game of the third set, after missing a break-point opportunity, Federer uncharacteristically slammed his racket to the ground.

"I was really angry, so I threw it out," Federer said. "I was very disappointed. I was missing one opportunity after the other. I really felt like I'm climbing uphill all the time, and I had an opportunity and I missed it again, and I just had enough.

"Who knows, maybe it did me good, and I kind of woke up."

Nadal, ranked No. 31 in the world, felt that he was getting under Federer's skin.

"It's surprising to see Federer throw his racket, but it makes you think you're closer to victory because he's frustrated," said Nadal, who plays left-handed but does everything else right-handed.
In his own words, Federer admits to his tossing of strings, although a Gladwell Blink second (a fleeting, yet significant feeling) reminds the tennis star that certain actions are not the brightest, particularly as they relate to his own behavior and his pocket (not that he has to worry about affording new equipment):
I’ve broken a few rackets over my career, but only very few intentionally. It mostly happened out of anger and not because I wanted to break it, which I think is a big difference. When I throw it I try not to break it. Rackets are expensive, after all – somehow that always crossed my mind before it left my hand!
Considering these examples, it is safe to assume that more rackets will be committed to the air and the ground. Amateurs, however, need to consider the consequences, perhaps from a "Don't try this at home" perspective. Roddick and Federer have managed to use aggression releases to their advantages, though a perfect, positive correlation between racket tossing and winning is doubtful. The pros have demonstrated their resiliency, their capacity to quickly recover from a negative thought and its resulting behavior. By no means, though, do they advocate for their volatile actions. Competitiveness can get the best of them, at least for a few seconds.

It seems best to continue on the track of regulated intensity without obtrusive eruption. Unless, of course, society alters its views and racket throwing becomes categorized as some sort of art form.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Phelps Wins Again

Michael Phelps' latest victory did not result in a gold medal, but it did demonstrate the main reason for his eight Olympic wins. He smashed the competition on this site's latest poll, claiming just under 60 percent of the total, or 92 of the 157 votes. D-Wade finished in a far away second with 15 percent of the count, while Nastia and Yao tied for third. Every athlete tallied one vote except the two-sport star Rebecca Romero.

It is safe to assume that Phelps does indeed possess that tough of a mind, although the prediction did not entail this much of a massacre. The votes come from people around the world, so it is interesting to note that humans everywhere are equally impressed with the swimmer's mental game and accomplishments. (It would have been insightful to have been able to read a reason for each selection).

The outcome may have something to do with his popularity and the number of times we were able to watch him race, hear him talk, and read about his training (psychologically, the more we witness or vicariously spend time with a person, we come to think that we know the individual -- even if we never meet him -- hence, the obsessed sports fanatic).

As discussed previously, it is very difficult to measure greatness, especially remarkable endeavors across various sports. Phelps' mental ability to maintain his level of perfection throughout competition is unquestionably the reason he was the most favored answer of the proposed question.

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