sports psychologist & clinical psychology

Head Games on the Diamond

Charleston Mercury – May 7, 2009 – Spencer Broom – Three seconds on the clock. Your team is down by two against your hated rival, and Joe the Kicker is lined up 42 yards away on the right hash, wind barely brushing against the flags in the distance, the crowd tantalizingly silent.

The whistle blows, bodies begin clashing. The snap, the hold, the kick is up….

Fundamentally, only two results can occur in this scenario. Either ol’ Joe misses it, sending you and your buddies to the car in a foul mood and cursing the relationship you have with your team. Or Joe becomes your new hero and is carried off the field as the toast of the town, not to be forgotten in the near future.

Yet, despite those two reasonably simple and contrasting outcomes, the variables that are put into play as foot meets ball can go much deeper than plain leg strength.

Just ask Dr. John F. Murray, one of the premier sports psychologists in the world.

“There is an art and a science to understanding how each player ticks and also how to be able to bring out the best in that person,â€? Murray said via phone from Palm Beach, Florida, where he runs his practice. “You have your talent, your physical skills, and then you have your mental skills. Those all go together with effort to determine performance, and how well you perform determines whether you win or lose.â€?

Murray, dubbed “The Roger Federer of Sports Psychologistsâ€? by Tennis Week and “The Freud of Footballâ€? by the Washington Post, has been providing sports psychology along with clinical psychology services to help individuals, organizations and teams succeed for over 14 years, not to mention writing a best-selling book, Smart Tennis: How to Play and Win the Mental Game.

While it seems fans and media types alike would prefer our athletes to be cut from the mold of Terminator – robot seeking to destroy the opposition without so much as a glitch – it is a vision that is confounded by real human deficiencies.

Athletes struggle with common problems like everyone else, problems such as anxiety, low confidence or improper management that unavoidably effect performance, Murray says. He estimates about 80 percent of the people he sees are seeking to perform better in their individual sports.

Murray has worked with individual athletes from tennis players – he has played and coached tennis including an ATP professional at the Australian Open — to quarterbacks, as well as entire teams, and says one of the most common issues he encounters is athletes that perform well in practice but can’t reach the same level of performance in live game situations.

Yogi Berra once stated, “Baseball is 90 percent mental — the other half is physical.â€? And though Yogi’s math was a bit rusty, the basic principle holds true in all sports.

“If you ask any group, ‘How important do you consider mental skills?’ depending on the sport you will get inevitably people raising their hands and saying 70,80,90 percent,â€? Murray explains. “Then if you ask, if its 70-90 percent, how often do you train your mental skills, how much time do you spend on that in your training time, they will always say 5 percent to nothing.â€?

The lack of training represents the challenge for a sports psychologist. Nearly everyone recognizes the magnitude of the mind in athletics, yet it is hardly practiced enough, like, say, offensive or defensive drills.

“That’s the gap that you are filling,â€? Murray says of the function of a sports psychologist. “You’re a high performance advantage to somebody with the science of success that’s derived from many years of solid research, in both psychology and the sports sciences.â€?

A bit of the research that Murray mentions includes his own Mental Performance Index (MPI), which is a measure of an overall football team’s performance in a game by looking at every meaningful play and including mental aspects of performance. He calls it the percentage of perfection.

Progress is obviously being made within the field, though Murrays says it is difficult to gauge the overall awareness.

However, one needs to look no further than the recent NFL draft to see the influence of sports psychology. Amidst 400 pound bench presses and 4.4 40-yard dashes, more and more professional organizations, specifically the NFL, are taking the time to administer psychological assessments, especially among skill position players (namely quarterbacks) in the scouting stage of amateur players.

With money on the line, teams are attempting to slim the chances of wasting a big payday on a player who shows signs of psychological immaturity or imbalance that weren’t correctly taken into account. In sports, the mind is gaining ground on the legs and arms in terms of usefulness on the field of play.

But Murray still sees plenty of room for growth.

“[Professional leagues] are not doing it preventively or proactively,â€? Murray says. He is currently working on a book based on football and psychology. “Usually what they do, they have people they pull from when they need them, when there is a problem they can’t solve. In my opinion, that is putting a bandage on it after it’s too late. “

Murray would prefer consistent contact with athletes in order to understand their needs fully, their strengths and weaknesses, thereby developing an ongoing plan to move forward with accordingly.

He rehashes on a time he approached former (2000- 2004) Miami Dolphins and current Pittsburgh Panthers head coach Dave Wannstedt about bringing in a sports psychologist for regular office hours to work with the players as needed. His idea was rebuffed. And a “we’ll call you when we need youâ€? attitude was given in return.

“For a league that is so invested in success and professionalism, that’s really the thinking,â€? Murray says. He cites a Good Old Boy system that is prevalent within coaching ranks that would rather utilize more of their own former teammates and coaches to come in and speak with their players than a sports psychologist.

Small steps seem to be the most prudent approach at this point in time for sports psychologists in professional sports. Know that we’re here and we can help you; just let us show you is the mantra right now.

Murray, who says that there are fewer than a handful who make their living exclusively practicing sports psychology, which might a potential roadblock to growth, wants to assist others the way he did professional tennis player Vince Spadea. Spadea suffered from the longest losing streak in ATP history; after working with Murray, he rose from 300 in the world to the top 10.

A broken psyche, a wounded confidence or a misguided culture within a team or program is truly where Murray’s field begins.

“It’s just being able to help that person in a professional way to perform at his or her highest level, to do it in a systematic, ongoing training way,â€? says Murray. “There are so many possibilities that could be affecting that person because we are all so complex.â€?

One athlete’s problems can be complex enough, but when you begin to imagine a full squad of players there is an innumerable amount of psychological variables that can have a profound impact on a team’s success, or lack thereof.

The easiest and most common expression thrown on a sports entity that has struggled over a number of years is curse. Murray scoffs at the word, calling it ridiculous. And what sports psychologist wouldn’t? Because for every Chicago Cub’s Curse of the Billy Goat that is still ongoing, there is a Boston Red Sox Curse of the Bambino that has been seemingly broken. Does anyone even remember the Red Sox “curseâ€? anymore?

Changing a losing culture, Murray says, can only take a small dose of success, breaking through the wall of low confidence. Though he does believe the past influences the present and the future, Murray points to a famous Henry Ford quote, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.â€?

Finding the happy medium of personalities to productively lead a team along with correct psyche is essential.

Take a team like Murray’s own Miami Dolphins. For the past decade, a once proud organization had been reduced to nothing more than a laughingstock, barely sniffing anything remotely close to a winning record. Then enters the rough and tough disciplinarian Bill Parcells, a man who will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame with two Super Bowl rings. As the new vice president of football operations prior to last season, he begins to transform the mentality within the team through personnel and coaching moves and — boom! — they are AFC East champions in 2008.

“What he does, being tough on his players, making sure things are done the right way, is very similar to what a sports psychologist does,â€? Murray says. “What we are doing as sports psychologists is taking it to another level, being available to the players and understanding much deeper so we can help the Bill Parcells of the world have their players perform even better.â€?

All in all, psychology and its use in sports is still in the infancy stages, and Murray says he will know they have progressed past that when his phone is ringing off the hook from the likes of the Yankees and the Dolphins, though the foundation that has already been laid creates optimism for the future of the field.

So next time Joe the Kicker lines up for the game winner, perhaps he will have the security in knowing that when the ball is in the air he has been prepared to perform at the peak of his ability, physically and mentally.

By the way, the kick was good. Now everyone can go home happy.

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