sports psychologist & clinical psychology

Mind Games: Coping with NCAA Investigation

Canesport Publisher’s Note: Today we introduce a new feature to CaneSport.com and CaneSport Magazine called “Mind Games.” The column will be written each week by John Murray, a noted sports psychologist and author who has developed an index for evaluating the mental performance of players and coaches in games. We think it will provide all of us with a unique viewpoint each week as the Hurricanes navigate through a new season. In this introductory column, Murray tells us a little bit about himself and the index and comments on the Hurricanes’ mental rebound from the distractions of the Nevin Shapiro controversy.

I am quite excited to write my first column for CaneSport. Growing up in South Florida I cheered for Hurricanes football in the dreary 60s and 70s right on through the exciting mid-80s. After traveling worldwide for six years in tennis, I returned to the USA to become a clinical and sports psychologist and I’m proud to write a sports psychology column for CaneSport and hope you’ll enjoy it.

This forum will allow me the opportunity to discuss the psychology of the team, and also serve as the launching pad for new insights into the Canes football performance each week. I will be unleashing a powerful and exciting tool that I developed over the past eight years and wrote about in my recently published book “The Mental Performance Index: Ranking the Best Teams in Super Bowl History.”

This Mental Performance Index (or “MPI” for short) captures how well a football team performs with just one standardized statistic on a scale of .000 to 1.000 (like a team batting average), and for the first time including a “mental performance” component.

So the MPI adds enormous precision and comparisons never before possible. I’ll be sharing details of this more in my second column after the Maryland game when I use the MPI to quantify how the team actually performed. For now, just realize how excited I am to be absorbing everything related to Miami Hurricanes football. I hope that offering this unique service to CaneSport readers will make you the most informed fans in the country.

Getting back to the present day, I’d like to discuss in this first column how the Hurricanes football team is coping psychologically with the dark clouds of uncertainty caused by the assault by convicted swindler and traitor Nevin Shapiro.

Shapiro obviously had an axe to grind and showed his true team colors to be hatred and chaos for a program he supposedly loved. The university is reacting appropriately and cooperating fully with the investigation. I applaud UM for this, and for holding all students and coaches accountable for their actions. The U needs to first help the NCAA bring the truth to light.

Well needed integrity and leadership have been shown in comments by President Donna Shalala and coach Al Golden, and these two experienced leaders are a huge asset to UM during this period of pain and uncertainty. While the spotlight and scrutiny on the program could lead to some understandable distractions which reduce team performance, Miami is far from going under as a result of this, and I believe this team will only emerge stronger in the long-term.

This is a new era for Hurricane football, so it is ironic that the investigation comes when it does, but it might as well run its course so that the team can once and for all deal with it and begin with a fresh approach. It appears that some Miami players and coaches may have made some mistakes, but the idea of the death penalty is absurd and feelings of guilt amongst current players over the past are inane.

Booster violations are wrong, but Nevin was a master manipulator and Miami does not hold the monopoly on transgressions despite the impressions. Other programs have flaws too, and college players ought to be paid anyway in my opinion, but the history and tremendous success of UM football and the amazing allure of South Beach makes this a perfect storm for Miami haters.

What else is new? Everyone knocks a winner. It comes with the territory.

The way in which this team is coping so far is difficult to assess without being in on every team meeting or as a fly on the wall in the locker room, but what I’ve gathered from players and coaches indicates that this team is doing as well as any team possibly could in coping. The Hurricanes have had a huge target on their backs ever since they started winning … and even when they have not been winning in recent years. To many they are an evil empire on par with the New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Steelers, Manchester United or Real Madrid.

Regardless of the legacy of the U, this is a totally new start with the Golden era, and the investigation poses a greater threat to reputation of a dynasty than the current reality. Sorry. You cannot rewrite a history of greatness, and possibly paying inappropriately for yacht outings, wild parties, or an abortion offers little advantage on the gridiron. If anything it could lead to laziness and distractions. Football is a sport won in the trenches play by play through the sweat and grit, pain and dedication of warriors devoted to a cause. Say what you want about the transgressions of past players or teams, but the Hurricanes earned their titles and respect the old-fashioned way, not through trickery and mirrors.

Back to the present, I’m quite impressed with the way Al Golden appears to be managing the mess. Golden was a huge success at Temple and he is doing and saying all the right things by setting a great example for this team in encouraging them to focus on details. He is known as having extensive plans for every aspect of the team, and he seems positive and optimistic. He encourages an almost tunnel vision focus and was preaching distraction management months before Nevingate popped up its head out of the slime.

Practices have been cut-throat for the many open positions and there appears to be an intensity and teamwork approach that has only grown as a result of the US versus THEM reality. I agree with Gary Ferman’s assessment that it’s really just about the “us” rather than the “them” and players appear to understand that there is no need for worry about things they cannot control.

Time will tell if Golden is the answer to what this team needs, but the comments out of camp are so far exemplary. The investigation will yield whatever it yields, and there is nothing current players or coaches can do about it. Even more, I believe this investigation will bring the team closer together than it would have been without it!

The psychology of how a team copes with the ongoing stress and scrutiny of an NCAA investigation is an interesting reality. It probably has the potential to distract those players being investigated the most, but minimizing the carnage depends on the leadership of coaches and administrators.

What I keep hearing tells me that this team is far from devastated, and maybe even more inspired. In my work with athletes, the best competitive results rarely occur by making practices and imagery easy. Rather, encouraging an athlete or team to cope with remarkable stress is often the ticket to success.

By promoting a unified message of teamwork and by helping the team bond even more because the whole world is against them, Golden is cleverly building a stronger team. You see this in history in the way new governments often shake off the distractions of the past or overcome old enemies with a new battle cry, and the result is that the group or team comes to a new level of independence and self-reliance.

Al Golden encourages his team to “execute the process” according to an earlier CaneSport article. He is right on track, in my view as a sports psychologist, in helping his players perform at their very best. In fact, I will be assessing how well the team “executes the process” in my next column, because that is precisely what the Mental Performance Index measures.

In early 2000 when I kept telling my athletes to focus on performance and process and not on outcome or winning, I realized that I would need a way to measure how well they were doing that, and the MPI was eventually born. No matter how many players are deemed ineligible, Miami will find 11 players to line up against Maryland on both offense and defense, and I will be there analyzing every play to see how well those players on the field perform. We’ll then know if the players are really buying into Al Golden’s message.

Ideals thrown around by the UM football team include tunnel vision, focus on football, honesty, goals, leadership, discipline, optimism and teamwork. Many of these qualities were absent in recent years on the field, but this is a new season, a new start, and no matter how badly anyone wants to destroy this program, resiliency appears to be prevailing.

There is a new hope despite all the allegations and investigations, and I hope my column and the MPI ratings each week help this team to further focus on doing the right things both on and off the field.

Dr. John F. Murray, described as “The Freud of Football” by the Washington Post, is a South Florida native and licensed clinical and sports psychologist in Palm Beach. He provides mental coaching and sports psychology services, counseling, speeches and seminars. He recently authored his second book, “The Mental Performance Index: Ranking the Best Teams in Super Bowl History,” destroying stigmas about the mental game in sports and showing football teams how to perform better and win more games by enhancing team performance assessments and training. For further information call Dr. Murray at 561-596-9898, visit johnfmurray.com or email johnfmurray@mindspring.com.

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