sports psychologist & clinical psychology

DID PRESSURE GET TO MARTIN, PLAYERS?

Tallahassee Democrat – Jun 7, 2007 – Randy Beard – Executive Sports Editor – College baseball moves into the super-regional phase Friday without five teams that were supposed to still be clinging to the home-field advantage.

The upset victims include a top-seeded Vanderbilt squad loaded with All-Americans and, of course, an extremely talented Florida State bunch that was led by Tony Thomas Jr., who already has hauled in two national player of the year awards.

With Texas, Arkansas and San Diego also having exited from the road to Omaha, it means quite an all-star cast has been invited to this year’s pity party.

Apparently, in this era of parity, misery doesnt love just any company.

But then, FSU head coach Mike Martin has long suggested that the any-given-day premise has carried weight in his favorite sport. It even explains his favorite refrain, Thats baseball.

But is it, really?

Prior to this NCAA tournament, it certainly hadn’t been that applicable in the post-season since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1999. Sixty-six percent of the top-eight seeds (42 of 64) had advanced to the College World Series during the previous eight years.

So it’s probably a little early, if not difficult, to try to make sense of why only three of the selection committee’s chosen eight“ 37.5 percent “ still have a shot at reaching Omaha this season. And yet, thats where were at with only No. 2 seed Rice, No. 3 seed North Carolina and No. 5 seed Arizona State still standing among the final 16 teams.

Martin doesn’t believe weve seen the last of the upsets, either.

“I don’t think there is any question that the number of teams in college baseball that can get to Omaha are increasing, he said. Thats the great thing about baseball, its so unpredictable. Five of the top eight seeds were beaten. Anything can happen. Who would have thought the Yankees would lose four in a row to Boston three years ago? Its an unpredictable sport. The best team doesnt always win.

That parity defense may or may not get Martin off the hook with the angry message board crowd, which has spent the past several days tossing around analysis, assertions and accusations after the Seminoles stumbled down the stretch.

As the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season champions and the No. 6 national seed, the Seminoles won just three of seven games at tournament time.

Ditto, counting the regular-season home finale against Clemson, FSU was just 3-4 in its last seven games at Dick Howser Stadium.

Did the pressure that comes with high expectations finally get to the players?

Dr. John F. Murray, a sports performance psychologist from Palm Beach, said studies at the major-league level suggest that baseball teams enjoy less of a home-field advantage during the playoffs than their counterparts in basketball and football.

“Home teams might actually have a disadvantage in crucial games because, the theory being, the pressure is greatest when your fans are expecting you to win, said Murray. (Being affected by pressure) tends to be even more pervasive in a sport like baseball where fine motor skills are important in pitching and hitting.

After two games against Mississippi State last weekend in a Tallahassee regional in which FSU batters combined for nearly twice as many strikeouts as hits and where two clutch pitchers got into inescapable jams, its easy to make the logical leap that the pressure may have gotten to the Seminoles.

“It’s a psychological thing in the sense that sometimes people become over-activated and they try to do too much, they press, they try to force things, rather than letting them happen naturally,â€Â? said Murray. “That can sometimes be influenced by home crowds or expectations or outside pressure, if you let it.â€Â?

Murray said the best athletes survive pressure situations because they remain extremely confident while still expecting to receive their opponent best shot. But he also believes a different dynamic can be at work when it comes to team sports.

“Some people will say Im nuts to say there is a team personality, but I really believe that, he said. “I like to believe that both levels are influenced, so a team has a personality, if you will, and then the individual players can have their own struggles, too.

Martin wouldn’t disagree, knowing all too well how one pitcher can befuddle an entire lineup of good hitters.

“Those are games that only the sport of baseball can create, said Martin. You dont have that in any other sport. If that pitcher happens to be keeping you off-balance, and you are hitting balls right at people, that has a way of getting in your head, so to speak.

“We hit a lot of balls hard against Mississippi State and they made some outstanding plays … Mississippi State just happened to play better than we did and got the job done.

That’s baseball.

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.

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