THESE DAYS, TACKLING THE SECRETS
OF THE ATHLETIC PSYCHE
IS ALL PART OF THE GAME PLAN.
Illustration by Bill Hall, who holds copyright. Not for use without permission.
WRITTEN BY LARRY ELDRIDGE JR.
The conclusion of a stirring, high-wire football game between Pitt and West Virginia early in the 1989 season saw the numbers on the scoreboard at Mountaineer Stadium in Morgantown read West Virginia 31, Pitt 31. But the surreal scene on the field as the final gun sounded belied the apparent stalemate reflected by the score. Pitt's players and coaches were celebrating wildly, while dejected West Virginia players staggered about in a shocked daze.
The reason? Pitt's Ed Frazier had calmly kicked a 42-yard field goal as time expired to complete an uproarious fourth-quarter comeback, knotting the score. Though the outcome was a draw, it was hardly a hollow one for Pitt. The Panthers had "won" this tie by overcoming tremendous adversity--a 31-9 deficit with nine minutes left in the game--avoiding what had appeared to be an almost certain defeat.
John Calipari, the New Jersey Nets' head coach who spent three years as an assistant basketball coach at Pitt before catapulting into the national spotlight by rebuilding the University of Massachusetts into a national power, coined (and has since copyrighted) a code for his team that captures the essence of what occurred that night in Morgantown seven years ago: "Refuse to Lose." The Panthers didn't technically win the game, but they clearly were motivated as hell not to lose it.
The will to win is a powerful motivating force in athletics, as it is in all of life. No one wants to lose a fight, or a war. Nobody wants to lose at the blackjack table. You never buy a lottery ticket without hoping to win. Survival of the fittest? That's the ultimate victory.
Winning produces rewards--and it has always inspired maxims. Win at all costs. To the victors go the spoils. Winner take all.
But is winning as important to college athletes as it used to be? As we approach a new millennium, are today's college athletes motivated by the same drives and goals as their predecessors? What internal and external forces inspire the current generation of college athletes?
For college coaches, that last one is the $64,000 question. It always has been.
The margin separating success and failure in sports is often more than a state of mind. When all else is equal (and sometimes when it's not), count on the athlete with the mental edge.
In the world of competitive athletics, as in the world at large it so frequently mirrors, intrinsic motivation is the holy grail, the magic elixir every coach seeks and covets.
There are as many theories, philosophies, strategies, and doctrines about the secrets of motivation as there are athletes and coaches on the planet. Among the small circle of men and women who coach varsity sports at the University of Pittsburgh, there is little consensus on the most effective methods of successfully motivating college athletes, or, as wrestling coach Rande Stottlemyer puts it, "pushing the hot buttons."
"I'm a firm believer," basketball coach Ralph Willard says, "that the more you
"Probably about half of the athletes I encounter don't understand the level of self-motivation you need to be successful at the highest level of competition. It's not that the self-motivation isn't there; their understanding of the level required isn't there. So it is my job as a coach to help those athletes figure it out."
The cerebral aspects of motivation and competition in college athletics are being addressed more passionately than ever before. Some schools now even include sports psychologists on their administrative staffs. Many coaches are dabbling with the intangible, using mental imaging and visualization to help improve performance.
Pitt baseball coach Mark Jackson engaged the services of a sports performance
Visualization requires an individual to imagine and "see" a desired event in the mind's eye, such as hitting a pitched ball or making a free throw, over and over again. It is just one of the mental exercises used by Brundrett, a part-time faculty member in Pitt's sociology department. Brundrett's physical and mental training techniques are designed to break down the mindsets that may limit an athlete's performance, while enhancing the athlete's decision-making skills, concentration, composure, and confidence.
Pitt men's swimming coach Chuck Knoles, a strong advocate of visualization, feels it lends a calming effect to the tension of competition. "There is a degree of
"We call it being 'in the flow.' As athletes get older, it becomes more difficult to find ways to keep them just at that point because so many factors can disturb their ability to get into the flow."
Visualization can help athletes operate in a "flow" state during competition and ignore external distractions such as crowd noise or other disruptive or negative stimuli.
Brundrett points out that the brain tends to operate on two different levels. "Part of the brain evaluates activity," he says. "The other part is the doer. As an event is happening, it is natural for the brain to want to evaluate what is going on, to ask, 'Am I doing this correctly?' or 'What are the consequences going to be if I do this?'
"But in sports this can have a disruptive effect. If you are in a competition, you shouldn't be thinking and analyzing, you should be doing. You should be acting and reacting to what your senses are telling you, not analyzing for consequences. When you begin evaluating while you are competing, you slow yourself down."
Ralph Willard couldn't agree more. "I think the single most important thing to be successful in basketball is to react and not to think," he says. "When you get to the point where you've done something at the ultimate energy level and the ultimate mental level...when you've pushed and pushed yourself and you've done something a thousand times, you don't even think about failure and you don't even think about succeeding. You just do it."
In the forward to the classic Zen in the Art of Archery, D. T. Suzuki writes: "As soon as we reflect, deliberate, and conceptualize, the original unconsciousness is lost and thought interferes.... The arrow is off the string but does not fly straight to the target, nor does the target stand where it is. Calculation, which is miscalculation, sets in.... Man is a thinking reed, but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking."
Writes W. Timothy Gallwey in The Inner Game of Tennis, "Perhaps this is why it is said that great poetry is born in silence. Great music and art are said to arise from the quiet depths of the unconscious, and true expressions of love are said to come from a source which lies beneath words and thoughts. So it is with the greatest efforts in sports; they come when the mind is as still as a glass lake."
Such moments are called "peak experiences" by the humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow. Common characteristics of people having those peak experiences are feeling at one with the experience, feeling free of blocks, inhibitions, cautions, fears, doubts, controls, reservations, self-criticisms, and brakes. The individual is non striving, nonneeding, nonwishing; he or she just is. The athlete who can shut out irritating external stimuli and just compete is the athlete who will survive the crucibles of pressure.
"It is a myth that great athletes can perform well under pressure," Brundrett says. Great athletes do not perform well under pressure. Nobody performs well when they are feeling pressure. The great athletes understand how to take the pressure off themselves.
"You hear people say about an athlete, 'He's a pressure player,'" Brundrett adds. "Wrong. He's a 'nonpressure' player."
To have an uncluttered, focused mind during competition requires considerable mental preparation. It helps to have a sensitive coach.
"I think it is paramount to understand the meaning of the moment, whatever that moment is, that you and the athlete are confronting together," Chuck Knoles says. "It helps to understand the moment, for instance, of the pain and struggle an athlete feels when he is failing at a repetitive set in a grueling workout, when he is out of oxygen, out of energy. If you as a coach can relate to that moment and help him get through that moment, then you are going to have a better athlete who is going to have more confidence in you as a coach, and also more confidence in what he can do as a swimmer.
"The coaches that are good at this are the ones who will be most successful in the long run. If you can stay away from the formality of 'I'm coach, you're athlete,' and get inside the head of the athlete and try to understand what the athlete is going through in a particular moment, you can ultimately get more out of the athlete."
Competitive sports, when all is said and done, are still about winning. But there are different ways to win.
"Winning is overcoming obstacles to reach a goal, but the value in winning is only as great as the value of the goal reached," Gallwey writes. "Reaching the goal itself may not be as valuable as the experience that can come in making a supreme effort to overcome the obstacles involved. The process can be more rewarding than the victory itself."
"Another thing to consider," Brundrett says, "is the aspect of what to do to stay motivated if you are winning. Michael Jordan won three NBA championships and then walked away from the sport. He was bored. It didn't excite him any more.
"So Phil Jackson, the Chicago Bulls' coach, did something brilliant. Instead of saying, 'Well, let's go try to win a fourth title,' or 'Let's try to be the greatest team of all time,' he took a different approach. He talked with his players about boundaries, real and imagined, and about breaking through the boundaries.
"What he really did was to create and sustain an environment where there was tremendous energy being focused on the notion of continual self-improvement, both as individuals and as a team. He allowed his players to take risks without fear of negative consequences, which is probably why a player like Dennis Rodman fit in with the Bulls so well.
"The Japanese have a word for this process: kaizen. Kaizen translates into 'never-ending improvement.' And once you can get an athlete addicted to the process of always improving, of seeking constant, never-ending improvement, then you're going to have champions--one after another."
"A big part of coaching is providing the right kind of atmosphere for the athletes," says Pitt women's gymnastics coach Debbie Yohman. "But I have always felt you can't motivate someone to do something he or she doesn't want to do at some intrinsic level. Some athletes are motivated more by one coach than another, or by one style of coaching rather than another. But if I try to impose my will on an athlete who doesn't already have her own will to improve and succeed, any positive results that might occur from my coaxing would be temporary or short-term at best.
"There has to be something--some seed, some desire--inside an athlete for a coach to work with."
Tim Gallwey offers a picture of that "desire." "The surfer waits for the big wave because of the challenge it presents," he writes. "He values the obstacles the wave puts between him and his goal of riding the wave to the beach. Why? Because it is those very obstacles, the size and churning power of the wave, which draw from the surfer his greatest effort. It is only against the big waves that he is required to use all of his skill, all his courage and concentration to overcome; only then can he realize the true limits of his capacities."
And as the wave helps the surfer discover his or her own inner heights, in competitive sports, an athlete's competitor provides the same measure.
"In true competition, no person is defeated," writes Gallwey. "Two players benefit by their efforts to overcome the obstacles presented by the other. Like two bulls butting their heads against one another, both grow stronger, and each participates in the development of the other."
All of which doesn't mean that Vince Lombardi, et al were wrong. But remember the next time you look at a scoreboard, regardless of the results, there may have been unseen victories unfolding before you. There are many ways to keep score.