sports psychologist & clinical psychology

Mind Games: Miami Escaped Bullet in Rare Game

Sports psychology in Canesport Magazine – October 19, 2011 – John F Murray – Publisher’s Note: “Mind Games” is a column written for CaneSport 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 as the Hurricanes navigate through the season.

This game started like wildfire with hopes of a huge Canes rout, then kept you right there on the edge of your seat till the very end as UNC almost came back to win after being down 27-3.

Time expired and Miami was victorious. It was a win very much needed for the young regime of Al Golden after heartbreaking losses to KSU and Virginia Tech in the final seconds, and especially the improbable reversed call inches short of the goal line on the last play against KSU.

But was this win over a decent North Carolina team (and in their house) the result of unlucky odds evening out, or did Miami truly outperform the Tar Heels and justifiably walk away victorious?

We’ve asked this question for years after games, but now with the Mental Performance Index we can also answer the question directly.

Here is your answer: Miami escaped a bullet like never before because North Carolina performed clearly better overall through the entire four quarters in this game. Thank your lucky Hurricane stars above, because 9 out of 10 times Miami would have lost based on analysis of hundreds of games using the MPI.

I am not saying that UM did not earn its victory fair and square according to the rules of the game. The Hurricanes scored 30 points to their opponent’s 24 points, and that qualifies for a win because scoring more points is how you win. So huge congrats to Miami, but just know who your daddy really was last Saturday rather than getting some overconfident notion that UM took apart UNC. It was actually the reverse. UNC outperformed Miami.

While scoring points is the key to winning in football, points are just another statistic like yards gained or turnovers. You might even be shocked to learn that several of the 14 MPI statistics correlated with winning better than points scored or given up in the studies I did in my new book “The Mental Performance Index: Ranking the Best Teams in Super Bowl History” (World Audience, New York, 2011).

This may seem absurd at first glance, but it makes sense when you consider that teams like Miami last Saturday might score on several big plays but then play terrible for the rest of the game as the other team roars back and almost wins. In the end most are only excited by the win, but smart coaches, fans and players should also know if that win was one of those rare 1 in 10 games where sunshine smiles on the outperformed team. In this game, UNC clearly outperformed Miami on the MPI-T by a margin of .521 to .500, yet Miami found a way to win the game in spite of that.

Better overall team performance almost always leads to victory, and this is why good coaches and sports psychologists keep their players focused on the nitty-gritty play-by-play process and consistent performance factors in practice rather than allowing them to think too much about game outcome.

And that is another reason why I take the time to measure this play by play performance in the moment. It yields a richer statistic than all the others (even points scored) and when coaches have this data in their arsenal, they are better positioned to prepare their team for victory in the next game. If I were Al Golden and I saw this data, I would tell the team to be very careful about overconfidence and to realize that they got away with murder last Saturday, and that unless they continue to get and play better moment to moment they are going to be easily dispatched with a similar performance when fate is not so kind.

Exceptions to the notion that better performance leads to winning occur for a number of reasons. Just a couple broken assignments or rare big plays can lead to a 14 or 21 point swing as it did for the Pittsburgh Steelers in winning Super Bowl XL despite being outperformed by the Seattle Seahawks on MPI-T. Of the 45 Super Bowl games, only 4 times did the outperformed team on the MPI-T win. And if this Canes/Tar Heels thriller had been a Super Bowl game, it would have qualified as the 5th rare game in Super Bowl history.

Let’s start by looking at the goals set for this game from the last article and see how the Hurricanes fared:

Goal 1: Improve Defensive Performance to at least .480: Result: GOAL ACHIEVED! The Canes defense was better in this game and scored .494 on defense (MPI-D), which is slightly above average as a defensive performance goes, but still 4% worse than UNC’s offensive score on the MPI-O of .535. So while the defense was better than in previous games, it was still manhandled by UNC’s offense. Regardless of this, the goal was set and the goal was achieved!

Goal 2: Improve Special Teams to at least .600: Result: GOAL NOT ACHIEVED. Miami scored at an even .500 on the MPI-ST statistic and again failed to maintain the standard of great special teams play set in the first few games. So while the play was not terrible, it was not good either, and Miami knows they can improve here.

Goal 3: Improve Offensive Firepower to at Least .550: Result: GOAL NOT ACHIEVED. Miami also scored at .500 on the MPI-O which was coincidentally the same score that UNC’s defense posted (MPI-D = .500). This indicates average overall offensive performance last Saturday despite the big plays in the first half and nowhere near the goal set.

Goal 4: Reduce Penalties from 9 to 5: Result: GOAL ACHIEVED WITH FLYING COLORS! Miami had only 3 penalties against a team that is historically penalized less than their opponent. The same was the case in this game as UNC only had 2 penalties. Even so, Miami’s greater focus and reduction of carelessness had to help in this win and the Hurricanes should be proud for achieving this goal.

Goal 5: Win the Turnover Battle Again: Result: GOAL ACHIEVED! Miami had only 1 turnover whereas UNC had 2. Congrats Miami! This is a very important statistic, and this one also shows good focus.

Of the five goals set, the Canes succeeded in achieving three of the goals and one of them with flying colors (reduced penalties). We know from goal setting research that goals should be set at a moderately difficult level, and that teams don’t always succeed on all goals set. Achieving 3 of 5 goals as the Canes did here is a very positive sign of progress even in a game where they were outperformed.

The game overall was played at a slightly higher quality level than most games, and this was primarily due to reduced penalties on both sides of the ball (5 total). Looking at the other data, there were very few extreme scores on the normal distribution curve, which means it was a fairly close game and fairly average as performance goes. While the performance of the two teams was close, there is still no doubting that UNC played better and should have won. UNC outperformed Miami on 8 of the 14 MPI variables, and almost all of the traditional variables too.

But while UNC outperformed Miami, Miami had UNC’s number in key pressure situations, and this shows improving mental toughness.

UNC performed slightly better on offense, defense and special teams than Miami, but Miami outperformed UNC on all 6 pressure indicators! UM’s greatest dominance in pressure situations came on defense (MPI-DP=.643, 75th percentile). Overall, the performance of Miami in pressure situations was better than UNC by 13% (MPI-T = .567 for Miami, MPI-T = .438 for UNC).

In more traditional statistics, Miami was horrible in rushing the ball (44 yards, 11th percentile) but good in passing (267 yards). Overall net yards gained favored UNC (429, 87th percentile) to 311 (near the 50th percentile).

Of course the most important statistic in this game was points scored versus points again, and Miami found a way to do it, winning 30-24 on the strength of better pressure performance in all areas, reduced penalties, reduced turnovers, and a little long overdue good fortune!

See what can happen when mental performance improves? Even a team that is manhandled can sometimes just find a way to escape that bullet and win the game … and Miami did exactly that!

Go Canes, but count your blessings in this game and perform better next week or it could get ugly fast!

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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