sports psychologist & clinical psychology

WHEN WE SLUMP, WE’RE ONLY HUMAN; A-ROD? HE’S A BUM

New Jersey Star Ledger – Aug 30, 2006 – Greg Saitz – Alex Rodriguez, meet Otto Crombet. Rodriguez plays baseball for the New York Yankees, pulls down about $22 million a year and is getting lots of grief lately because he hasn’t been able to hit a little round ball.

Crombet sells cars for Montclair Acura in Verona, makes about $22 million less than Rodriguez and has gone through his own ruts moving cars. So he doesn’t have much sympathy for the guy they call A-Rod.

“I’ve come through many slumps and I don’t make a pittance of what he makes,” said Crombet, a 61-year-old Vietnam veteran who said he pulled through a tough patch of his own this past winter. “Every salesman hits a slump. It’s part of the business. Life is not just roses and wine. It’s up and down. We all face it, and the successful ones overcome it.”

Slumps aren’t just for athletes. But you notice the dry spells more when the slumper is someone who makes more in one week than most of us do in a decade.

And in the case of Rodriguez, who has seven times as many strikeouts (14) as hits (two) in his past five games, a slump is enough get him booed every time he walks to the plate. In his home stadium.

Imagine being jeered every time you write a bad story (not that that ever happens). Fail to sell a Sub Zero refrigerator. Or make a bad trade on Wall Street.

“They almost develop a sense of learned helplessness,” said New York psychologist Alden Cass, who counsels top producing stockbrokers. “These slumps are normal and cyclical, just like the markets.”

Cass, who is president of Catalyst Strategies Group, said he tells the financial advisers and hedge fund traders whom he deals with not to worry about losing a ton of money over the course of a day or a month. He uses a stress ball in the shape of a baseball and tells his clients, “Don’t aim, just throw the ball.”

Athletes will tell you the same thing, but in interviews yesterday most said they still have their methods for dealing with slumps.

“I probably did a lot of things differently to try to get out of it — probably a lot of things I shouldn’t have done,” said Don Mattingly, the Yankees’ hitting instructor. “I wasn’t the kind of guy who just said, ‘I’m going to come out of it.’ I would hit more, work more, study more. I changed stances way too much, moved my hands up and down on the bat … everything.

“Stupid, really, when I looked back on it.”

Pro tennis player Vince Spadea was in one of the sport’s worst slumps in 2000 — he had managed to lose 21 straight matches. Performance psychologist John Murray, who worked with Spadea to get him back on track, said oftentimes the harder someone tries (are you reading this, A-Rod?), the worse they do.

“That’s because you do things that are not necessary, you overdo it and that leads to a variety of problems,” said Murray, whose practice is in Palm Beach, Fla. The key — for athletes and everybody — is not thinking about the outcome. “It distracts you from what’s relevant, and can create fear and pressure.

“The way to get out of it is to often simplify, back to what I call the beginner’s mind.”

After claiming, “my whole career was a slump,” former professional tennis player Patrick McEnroe said he also tried to visualize a good serve or a good stroke and build on that.

“In an individual sport like tennis, it’s very hard to break out of a slump because it’s all about confidence,” McEnroe said. “When you’re in a slump, the other players can sense it in the locker room and they use it to their advantage and it gives them an edge.”

Rodriguez, who came to the Yankees before the 2004 season and has been a frequent target of grouchy fans, isn’t alone in his struggles. New York Mets third baseman David Wright — a contender earlier in the season for the National League Most Valuable Player award — is in the biggest home run drought of his short career.

“This game is funny,” said Randy Johnson, the Yankees’ pitcher. “I’ve played and watched a lot of games, and I’ve played against some of the great players and with great players, and some of them make it look pretty easy. And you know what? It’s the day or the couple of weeks that they don’t make it look easy anymore, that bad week or couple of weeks or whatever, and we think, ‘Oh, what’s wrong?’ And it’s not that easy. Sometimes, things spiral.”

In New York, as Johnson and Rodriguez can attest, the pressure to win can only make matters worse.

Mets first baseman Carlos Delgado is playing his first season in New York and hit some rough patches early in the season. He said he has seen players do everything imaginable to turn around their luck, including players showering in full uniform with their bats.

“Sometimes, if it’s really bad it can bother you off the field,” Delgado said. “But it’s not like, ‘I didn’t get a hit today. I’m going to go home and kill the family.'”

So what’s a frustrated Yankee fan to do if A-Rod strikes out five or six more times in today’s double-header?

Relax. After all, it’s just a game and all slumps run their course.

“The thing about it is once you make a sale, you feel better about yourself and you’re apt to make the next sale,” said Crombet, the Acura salesman. “If you do the right things — stay focused — you very seldom get into a slump.”

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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