sports psychologist & clinical psychology

WHO’LL WIN THE SUPER BOWL? ASK THE `FOOTBALL SHRINK’

Sun Sentinel – Feb 4, 2004 – Howard Goodman – In the ceaseless buildup to Super Bowl XXXVIII, few people in our area have been as busy as John F. Murray.

Murray, who lives and works in West Palm Beach, has been giving newspaper and radio interviews all over the country this past week, applying science to the vagaries of human performance.

In other words, he’s measured who’s really the better team.

Murray is a licensed sport psychologist. He helps athletes improve their mental focus. His Web site features thank-yous from the likes of tennis player Vincent Spadea.

And he is available for interviews, especially since he started trumpeting his Murray Performance Index as a way of publicizing his ideas about “focused execution” and “pressure management.” It’s a statistical method of analyzing football teams.

As a Super Bowl predictor, it’s a perfect one-for-one.

Last year Murray used it to forecast the Tampa Bay Buccaneers-Oakland Raiders matchup. While the conventional wisdom saw an easy win for the Raiders, Murray said the Buccaneers would conquer by two touchdowns. Final score: Bucs, 48; Raiders, 21.

“Football Shrink Calls It,” The Arizona Republic said.

His secret?

“What I’m looking at is how teams perform in the moment.”

This sounds New Age, but Murray is more jock than guru. A devout Miami Dolphins fan, Murray was born in Fort Lauderdale, grew up in Boca Raton and Coral Gables and played and coached tennis.

He might have even more diplomas than calluses, including: two master’s degrees and a doctorate from the University of Florida.

Ironically for a guy tagged “football shrink,” his method doesn’t look into athletes’ heads or souls or relationships with their mothers. He says he just uses what’s visible: how well the players block, tackle, catch and throw.

This season he studied every game of the pro football playoffs. He rated the execution of every offensive and defensive play, giving point values from zero to 1.000, like a baseball batting average. Under his system, a humdrum three-yard run gets .500. A spectacular clutch pass play can get 1.000. A penalty or turnover draws zero.

An overall team score of .600 is excellent. A team at .700 is almost guaranteed a win.

“By rating every play, by looking at every single moment of a game, if you will, I believe I’m getting a more accurate read of how a team actually performed, rather than how they feel they performed based on the outcome,” Murray says.

I respect Murray’s attempt to bring more rationality to a sport already overloaded with statistics and analysis. His focus on how a team executes — how well it stays alert and focused — makes sense.

But the romantic in me hopes the game proves too slippery for his numbers. Sports would lose half their flavor without their unpredictability.

You’ve got teams that play flawlessly, game after game — and then collapse, for no apparent reason. Brett Favre’s father dies in a car accident — and instead of emotional paralysis, the Green Bay QB plays one of the greatest games of his life.

The lack of a script is a big reason we keep on watching.

Luckily for devotees of chaos theory, Murray’s measure of perfection is itself imperfect. It doesn’t take into account such factors as weather, crowd noise or coaching. In other words, Murray will grade how well a team executed a certain play but not whether that play was a good idea to start with.

What about tonight’s game between underdog Carolina and New England?

The doctor says it will be very close.

Throughout the playoffs, Carolina has reached perfection 52 percent of the time to New England’s 51.9 percent.

But in key moments, such as critical third or fourth-down plays, Carolina has scored .561 and New England a lesser .482. And the Panthers’ defense (.517) has out-performed the Patriots’ offense (.469).

So once again the shrink defies the crowd:

The Panthers by a hair.

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