Posts Tagged ‘football psychology’

The Mental Side of the NFL Playoffs and a Little Guarantee

By John F. Murray, PhD

First, What is Happening in the NFL Playoffs!

Hello from clinical and sports performance psychologist Dr. John F. Murray in Palm Beach, Florida. With all the excitement and craziness that is the NFL and the 2016 playoffs, I thought it was time to chime in again.

There is no question that the Cincinnati Bengals just lost a game mentally to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Not only did they lose it, they lost it big and they lost it because they had obviously not been properly prepared to deal with emotions in the heat of battle. Joey Porter taunted them and they bit. This kind of behavior is unacceptable and they are sadly at home watching the rest of the playoffs because their mental performance stunk. It is a hard lesson to learn, but one that teams seems to keep forgetting about time and time again.

With proper advanced imagery and resilience training, those kinds of mistakes would never happen. Players would have been so inundated with mental distractions and frustrations in visualization sessions where they were forced to keep their cool that the likelihood of a meltdown would have been close to zero. We have seen this thousands of times in sports and we will continue to see it most often in teams and athletes not training their mental skills regularly.

Over in another wildcard playoff game, Blair Walsh missed a chip shot field goal that was closer than an extra point to lose a game when the team had all but sealed the victory against the Seahawks. On the one hand I must feel really bad for Walsh and we are all human and this can happen. On the other hand, the success rate of a 27 yard field goal is above 98%, so the skill itself is virtually automatic. This same skill under the extreme pressure of winning or losing is not so easy. This demonstrates that what you see is not what you get when it comes to pressure, and it only argues further that players need to train regularly their minds for such occasions.
In my work, I see these things all the time because mental performance comes out in the ordinary moments of sports just as it does in the critical moments. There are countless careless lapses in the first quarters of games, just as there are horrible chokes in the fourth quarters. The reality is that mental performance is always around us, and the team or athlete that manages their mental skills better (areas such as confidence, focus, goals, resilience, emotional control, imagery etc.) gain an often decisive advantage over those who do not. In fact, in my book “The Mental Performance Index” I discovered that this newly created measure that included mental performance accounted for success better in the Super Bowl games than any other factor and it was upwards of 80% correlated with success. Ignore mental skills only to your peril was the take home message of my study and book.

My Guarantee

Now I’d like to share with you a little guarantee that I made to the entire sports world and it’s a slight variation of a previous article that I published.

Sports are constantly in flux and evolving. New techniques and plays are always being developed and there is an almost linear progression that seems to take place from year to year as more money, research and accumulated experience contribute to a better mousetrap. NFL passes thrown as they were in 1946 would be easily picked off by most high school safeties today. Tennis forehands in 1930 at Wimbledon would not come close to winning in the first round of any boy’s 16 year old championship today, and major league baseball pitchers from the 1920s would probably be knocked out in the first inning of every division I college game today. Darwin was right … evolution is relentless!

One of the still rarely discussed, but no less important aspects of peak performance improvement takes place in the training of the mind or “mental coaching” as it is often called. While athletes may only be able to jump so high and sprint so fast, there is an equally important aspect of achievement that is much more flexible and amenable to change. It has unlimited potential unlike the physical ceilings of jump height or strength. It resides between the ears in that most marvelous computer of all – the brain – and it flexes its own form of elbow grease in areas such as hope, confidence, focus, resilience and smarter decision making.

Sports psychology is the science and practice most responsible for this training of the brain for high performance, and many casual observers just assume that all great athletes have a sports psychologist or mental coach, but I have found that not to be true at all. My estimation having worked 17 years as an independent practicing clinical and sports psychologist is that less than 10% of college, professional and Olympic athletes are doing mental training regularly and properly. While this may seem very odd, since gaining a performance advantage is crucial and the most pressing need for these great competitors, consider the reality. When I completed my specialized internship in sports psychology from 1997 to 1998, it was the only sports psychology internship in the United States that was also approved and accredited by the American Psychological Association’s internship consortium! I’m not sure the situation is much better today, 18 years later. Training opportunities are rare and hard to find.

The truth is that the profession that trains practitioners to do mental coaching and sports psychology work is still in its infancy. Let’s consider the analogy of the development of the field and practice of psychology itself. While the science of psychology began in a Leipzig, Germany lab in the 1880s, it was not until the 1960s and 70s that it was commonplace to see a psychologist in private practice. I like to call this beginning recognition of the field as the “Bob Newhart” era, after the popular sitcom of the 70s depicting the Chicago-based psychologist we all know and love.

Dr. Phil is an extension of Bob Newhart in the media today, but even he is not a sports psychologist. So when you consider that it took about 90 years for the science of psychology to become a viable widespread clinical practice, there should be no surprise that qualified and experienced sports psychologists are few and far between since this science only began in the 1960s and 70s, or just 40 years ago. By psychology standards, the field and practice of sports psychology is like psychology was in 1925! It was all over the world in academic and research settings, but only a handful of rare individuals practiced psychology back then. It was not until after WW2 with the training opportunities of the VA hospital system brought about by head injuries sustained on the battlefront, that psychology really had an opportunity to become a profession. The Boulder Conference, as it was called, created hundreds of internships for future practicing psychologists overnight in the VA system. There are many thousands of psychologists today but still only a handful of properly trained and qualified sports psychologists.

I knew I was taking a little bit of a risk in getting into such a new field when I went back to graduate school in 1991. I had been a tennis coach worldwide, and mostly in Europe, and over there the idea of mental coaching had taken much firmer hold philosophically, but the graduate school education was still far better in the United States. So I came back to the University of Florida, got a couple masters degrees, a PhD, the aforementioned specialized internship, and finally a specialized postdoctoral fellowship. By 1999, I was on my way with a new practice in a very rare field.

I was in a field that was so new that I realized I had to publish to get the word out. I wrote hundreds of articles and I wrote the book “Smart Tennis: How to Play and Win the Mental Game” and got the top tennis player at the time, Lindsay Davenport, to endorse it. It is now in three languages with almost 20 printings. I later wrote a second book that expressed my passion for all that is football and titled it “The Mental Performance Index: Ranking the Best Teams in Super Bowl History.” This book was also very well endorsed. The reviews from NFL Films and Tom Flores were excellent. Even Don Shula gave me a quote. However, even these powerful recommendations will take time to hit the mainstream. I had to do more.

In writing this second book, I realized that I had stumbled upon a major finding, and I grow ever more excited whenever I ponder this. Since the beginning of mankind, mental skills and smart play were always important for survival. In the cave era, if you wanted to feed your village, you had to remain calm, poised and focused to be able to properly throw that spear into the wooly mammoth. While there were certainly no sports psychologists back then, and still few today, the truth then and today remains that mental performance is and always was critical to success. Spear throwers had to figure it out alone back then.

Broadcasters, sports writers, and authors all lend credence to the vast importance of peak mental performance that still exists today. Athletes known as overachievers constantly outperform those with more raw speed or strength because they make better decisions. The stay focused rather than getting rattled in the heat of battle. They remain confident and resilient no matter what the situation is, and we all recognize that their performance has nothing to do with their limbs and muscles and everything to do with their brain! It was this realization that mental performance matters that led me on the passionate journey of creating a “Mental Performance Index” and writing a book with the same name in order to share my passion.

I realized that mental performance was critical, but I was astounded that nobody was taking the time to measure it. There were no statistics to capture how well a team performed mentally, so I decided to create one, and the abbreviation is MPI. The most amazing part of this is what happened when I analyzed the data for my book. I had studied every play in Super Bowl history and rated each play with the MPI, essentially measuring football a different way by looking at each moment and including an adjustment for the mental performance. When I did this with the help of several statisticians, I discovered something phenomenal. It was this MPI, or measurement of the moment, that correlated best with winning when compared with almost 40 other statistics. This emphasis on performance in the moment and mental skills, in other words, had best captured what it takes to win a football game. In my mind, what had always been known, but never formerly measured until the MPI, was not only important to success …. it is probably the most important factor in success!

Since my book and passion are very much centered on the sport of football, why are there still so few sports psychologists in the NFL? How about the other major sports of hockey, baseball and basketball? While I’ve worked with professional franchises and their top stars, both privately and paid by the teams, it has usually been to put out fires or help a single player rather than as a program to prepare entire teams for success.

The bottom line is that coaches and executives in the major professional sports have still not really discovered sports psychology. Given that today is still analogous to only the year 1925 in psychology terms, this should not be too surprising. But given the amount of money spent on top players, and the turnover rate in coaching and high management, one would think that mental coaching would have been long ago discovered as essential for every team from day one of training camp. What else could be going on you might ask?
I think there is still a fear of the unknown. It is a fear that coaches and managers have about mental coaching and peak performance sports psychology. Could this be a fear that hiring a top employee or consultant will somehow steal the thunder of the head coach, or put the team at risk in some way? Coaches cannot be that controlling, can they?

While I cannot speak for other sports psychologists, I always start with the assumption that the coach is the captain of the ship and I am there to provide a needed service just the same way any professional would, all the way from the team physician to the dentist, trainer, assistant coach, and massage therapist. I am not the coach and have no desire to be the coach. He brings me in to help with his own philosophy of football. I am there to adapt to his needs to help him and help the team and players achieve worthy goals.

I do know that about 12 years ago, while on the sidelines of an NFL team practice, the head coach said the following to me: “While you might be the best and most well trained sports psychologist in the world, I just cannot stand in front of my team today and tell them they have a psychologist.” That comment still reverberates with me today as the possible reason why there is hesitancy, but I think times are changing. In other words, in the past there was the idea that it was shameful or showed weakness in some way to seek mental coaching. When you consider the history of mental health care, which began in treating those who were mentally ill, it makes sense. That coach somehow thought that telling his team that they had a success coach was the same as telling them they were all mentally ill. How ludicrous, but how probably true! I get it. He was afraid!

It is my hope that today more coaches and managers will realize that just as doctors and lawyers and coaches study for years and practice for years to accumulate knowledge and practical wisdom in their chosen area of study, smart sports psychologists are no different. I did not get into the field to treat mental illness. I did not spend years in graduate school to have someone be ashamed of my profession. I had been a worldwide coach, and I wanted to open my expertise to the new and exciting findings about training the mind rather than just the body.

I love what I do today as a sports psychologist. But I still get the majority of my clients from pro and amateur athletes calling on their own, or the parents or private coaches calling. I want that to change, and it is partly why I wrote “The Mental Performance Index.” If you read this, you will learn about this coach/sports psychologist relationship and how to ensure that everything goes smoothly to best help the team, how problems are prevented before they occur, and much more about the best teams mentally and physically in Super Bowl History.”

My guarantee is that your team and players will prosper with mental coaching. You will discover that there is no shame associated with trying to make yourself or your team better through proper mental coaching. A player can only run so fast and hit so hard, but by helping players tweak their mental performance just a little, the whole team will benefit. I guarantee it! Imagine what would happen if each player got 15% more confident, more focused, and more resilient. Do you think the team would also benefit. You can bank on it because I guarantee it. The days of fear are over. The biggest fear might be not investing in mental coaching for our teams and players.

I hope you enjoyed this initial walk down the avenue of sports psychology.

Dimension IV: A New Finding in Sports Science and Football

I am the author of ““The Mental Performance Index: Ranking the Best Teams in Super Bowl History”” which discusses a shocking realization and an important scientific discovery in team sports. It is something that should over the years (as this book becomes more and more distributed and understood) really support sports psychology and the mission of sports psychologists, and help coaches and teams win much more too if they adopt the learning! Can you tell that I am excited?

While “The Mental Performance Index” is the title of a book, it is also the name of a new statistic that I invented for football. Before this book, football team mental performance, and in fact all team mental performance, was simply never measured professionally, accurately or at all. By measuring this in all 45 Super Bowls played from 1967 to 2011, I made the incredible discovery that this measure of performance (which includes mental performance in a total measure of performance) is what separates winning teams from losing teams. The factor appears to be even more important than points scored or given up.

The shocking realization is that we had overlooked something so critical to success forever, but when we looked at it professionally it correlated with winning more than any other statistic! It was better than all the other traditional stats for football team performance. That is what I mean by a scientific discovery in team sports. After this book finally gets around, the world should never really be exactly the same in sports or sports psychology.

Order Book at Below Link

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

New Super Bowl Book Reveals Team Mental Performance, Never Before Measured, is Actually a Main Key to Winning

Palm Beach, FL – May 10, 2011 – “The Mental Performance Index: Ranking the Best Teams in Super Bowl History” (World Audience, Inc., see www.JohnFMurray.com) is a new book written by clinical and sports psychologist Dr. John F. Murray after eight years of research that pits all teams that have ever appeared in the Super Bowl against one another to determine which team is best.

For the first time ever, “mental performance” is measured as a part of overall team performance in football, and higher correlations with winning are revealed than with all other traditional team statistics. Tom Flores of the Raiders writes the foreword, pro football hall of fame sportscaster Lesley Visser writes the epilogue, and Don Shula provides a quote about mental and physical preparation from his coaching days.

Dr. John F. Murray, a licensed clinical and sports psychologist, describes in his book a new way of measuring team performance with just one number called the “MPI” or “Mental Performance Index,” and a new annual competition called the MPI Bowl involving every team that has ever appeared in a Super Bowl.

Tom Flores, two-time Super Bowl champion head coach of the Raiders, and a winner in 4 Super Bowls with no losses, writes in the foreword: “Dr. Murray’s Mental Performance Index can be and will be the next part of sports evolution in the 21st Century.”

Don Shula, the NFL’s winningest coach, stresses the primacy of mental and physical preparation with a quote for Murray’s book taken from words he himself had used in his days of coaching.

Others contributing to or supporting the book include pro football hall of fame inductee Lesley Visser who wrote the epilogue on Bill Walsh and his genius with the San Francisco 49ers, NFL Films President Steve Sabol who called the book “a fascinating work of remarkable scope and scholarship,” Coach Doug Blevins, who called the book “a masterpiece,” and past NFL players including Jim “Crash” Jensen, Nick Lowery, and Dan Johnson.

In the book, Murray writes about how a mere hunch led him to make a remarkable discovery about something missing in sports. “There were many team performance statistics to show how well a team performed in areas such as yards gained, time of possession, and turnovers, said Murray, but no statistic captured mental performance or how smart a team played, so I created one.” It is called the Mental Performance Index or MPI for short. Amazingly, the MPI, it is revealed, correlates with winning and performance in the Super Bowl more than any other traditional team performance statistic. The message for coaches and teams is to begin measuring mental performance and training players in these areas in order to stay ahead.

“The book appeals to a wide audience of readers because it has that human interest element of striving for improvement at all levels,” said Murray. Murray, once dubbed “The Freud of Football” by the Washington Post, shares anecdotes about the people and situations influencing him to eventually become a sports psychologist and develop the MPI. He also discusses some of the early struggles trying to break into the NFL, how the MPI and mental coaching can be introduced to a football program, and he gives his 44 Super Bowl Lessons that can be applied to situations in daily life.

For Further Information or interviews:

John F Murray, PhD
Telephone: 561-596-9898
Web: http://www.JohnFMurray.com

A Sneak Preview of CaneSportMagazine.com and Football Psychology

Note: Publisher Jim Martz writes a great column on football at CaneSportMagazine, an online and print publication dedicated to the University of Miami. In the not-yet-published upcoming issue, he spoke with Dr. John F Murray about the letdown teams experience after success, and about real versus artificial enthusiasm. Below is the raw and unedited version of Jim’s contribution, re-printed here in its entirety with his permission. Those interested in the University of Miami football should subscribe to this terrific publication and all the great contributions at http://www.CaneSportMagazine.com. I hope you enjoy the below article as an example of quality of writing you will find there.

By JIM MARTZ – CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. – It sounded like New Year’s Eve here Saturday afternoon. Every time Virginia scored, the band would strike up “Auld Lang Syne.” And they did it often, much to their surprise and delight. They change the words, of course. It’s not about “Should auld acquaintance be forgot?” For the Cavaliers’ fans it’s a celebration song, and it was party time on this cool, sunny day.

Virginia’s football season had been practically down the toilet going into the game. Now the University of Miami’s season is on the brink of being down there. It’s anything but party time.

Virginia’s stunning 24-19 upset victory over 22nd-ranked Miami marked the third time in the last four games that the Hurricanes seemed flat for much or all of a game. How can that happen Saturday on a team that controlled its own destiny toward a BCS bowl? On a team that finally had the schedule in its favor?  Who’s to blame: coaches or team leadership? Or both?

“Tough loss,” said coach Randy Shannon. “You can’t win a game when you have six turnovers (it was five) like we did. We moved the ball offensively but when you have six turnovers there’s no way you should win games. “We played well in the fourth quarter and got a chance to win it. Defensively we hung in there the whole entire time, just didn’t come up with the third down play to get off the field and give the offense another shot at it.”

The Hurricanes can still reach the ACC Championship game in Charlotte but they’ll need help. Someone will have to knock off Virginia Tech, and, of course, the Hurricanes will have to defeat the Hokies at home Nov. 20. And, obviously, the Canes will have to defeat Maryland at home this Saturday and win at Georgia Tech on Nov. 13. And they may have to do it with their fourth-string quarterback, true freshman Stephen Morris.  “We’ve got to bounce back,” Shannon said. “We don’t control our destiny any more. We’ll bounce back and get ready for Maryland next week.”

Does Saturday’s setback alter the goals? “No, we still have to win each game one by one and just keep going from there,” Shannon said. Each year lately the Hurricanes tease you, make you think they can play for the ACC title. Then they break your heart. Yes, the loss of Jacory Harris early in the second quarter was huge. But against a 3-4 Virginia team that had been blown out by Florida State and North Carolina, the Canes should have been able to win without him. They should have been able to win by just pounding the ball. The Cavaliers ranked 114th in the nation in rushing defense, for heaven’s sake. Georgia Tech ran for nearly 500 yards against them. I thought the backs for the most part ran hard, but they didn’t have many holes. If someone had said to me before the game that Virginia would intercept five passes, I would have said that’s impossible because you don’t need to throw a whole lot to win that game.

Lots of unanswered questions, such as: Why didn’t Lamar Miller didn’t touch the ball until the fourth quarter? During the too-little-too-late comeback, why was Stephen Morris throwing deep so often when the Canes were finally getting big chunks of yards on the ground? Why are there so many dropped balls by receivers still at this stage of the season? Zero sacks by a Hurricane defense that was second in the nation in tackles for loss? Only one turnover for a defense that also ranked among the best? Unacceptable against a team the caliber of Virginia, especially with all that was at stake. Twelve penalties costing 95 yards? Unacceptable against anyone.

It’s hard to offer answers when questions can only be posed to the head coach and four players after a game. That’s all that was made available to the media after Saturday’s game. The media used to be able to go in the locker room and interview – if you hustled – a dozen players and two or three assistants. Now, since the locker room has been closed in recent years and assistants have been off limits, only Shannon and a few players are brought in to an interview room. A few more players are available at the Tuesday press conference but no assistants, and a few players, sometimes assistants, are available after early week practices.

My point: Access to UM football players and coaches has never been this limited going back to the 1970s, perhaps even longer. So, when fewer answers are available, even more questions are raised and unanswered. And just when you thought the Canes’ stellar play in the romp over North Carolina a week ago had quieted the critics, the negativism now will soar on the talk show and chat rooms. It won’t stop unless the Hurricanes run the table and get some lucky help.

Even that probably won’t quiet things because this question will remain: Why are the Hurricanes so inconsistent mentally and physically? Allow me to offer this, and it’s not an excuse: College football has never been more fluid than it has been the last five seasons. It becomes moreso every year. How else do you explain all the wacky scores, like undefeated fifth-ranked Michigan State trailing 30-0 at the half against Iowa.? Or Virginia Tech losing at home to James Madison, or was it Dolly Madison? Or Texas getting stomped on at home by UCLA and Iowa State but knocking off undefeated Nebraska on the road? Or the Florida Gators returning most of their team but losing three in a row? The list goes on and on.

I asked Shannon if the team was excited or flat before Harris was injured. “We were still excited no matter what,” he said. “Any time you lose somebody it’s going to go down a little bit. Like I said, we bounced back and the guys responded.” With all these ups and downs, maybe the Hurricanes need some psychological help. Sports psychologists are more involved in working with athletes and teams than ever. Some old school coaches see it as a sign of weakness; others embrace it.

I talked to prominent sports psychologist Dr. John Murray of Palm Beach about ups and downs. He had a poignant message: “It’s so easy after success to have a letdown,”he said. “After success you’ve really got to focus on making your game even better. Immediately get in there and set another goal to make it even better than it was before. Number two, you need to have a sense of urgency. There’s always room for improvement. Three, keep doing what you do best. And finally, walk the walk. If you want to improve, just don’t talk about it.”

Then there’s the matter of genuine enthusiasm (is that what we saw in the North Carolina game?) and false enthusiasm, such as the day at Louisville a few years ago under Larry Coker when the Canes stomped on the Cardinals’ midfield logo before the kickoff, then got stomped on themselves by Louisville.

“Real or genuine enthusiasm is the sincere overflow of hard work, effort, and a long-term focus on a worthy goal,” Murray said. “It is a no holds barred passion that shows that a person’s past history or team is invested fully in what they are doing, and that they are going to give 110% effort to accomplish the task they are focused on no matter what happens or no matter how long it takes. “When I think of real enthusiasm I think more of great performances than cheerleading. I think of Kellen Winslow (Sr.) in the 1981 playoffs for the San Diego Chargers, who looked like he had been pulled off the battlefield five times and just kept on going back out. I think of Marcos Baghdatis continuing to play despite a terrible cramp. I think of Dan Marino and the Dolphins preventing the Bears in ’85 from stealing their immortal accomplishment in ’72 of going undefeated and beating the Bears in front of a national audience.

“Artificial enthusiasm is when a player or team gets excited when things are going well, but then goes flat when there is adversity. Artificial enthusiasm might also have less of a focused or enduring or patient or persistent quality than real or genuine enthusiasm. Vince Spadea coming back from the biggest losing streak in the history of pro tennis by grinding for two years in the middle of nowhere until his ranking was decent enough to return to the sport he loved even more after the effort – that is real or genuine enthusiasm. It is also more characterized by a team or player’s desire to do well themselves rather than to put down another team or player. In other words, genuine enthusiasm is focused on performing well and realizing a long and hard-fought desire or goal. It has neither time nor interest in putting others down or stomping on logos, for goodness sakes. It is a more healthy selfish quality of affect that is oblivious to the opponent and how ugly they might be or how much that rival is despised.”

The Canes don’t stop on logos any more. Fans wish they’d stomp on opponents more often like the teams of the 1980s and early 90s. Dream on, you’re not going to see that again at UM. But a team can strike a balance between the taunting days of old and false bravado. The 2001 national champion Hurricanes had that balance. They had big-time swagger and class. The current Canes have class. The swagger seems to make cameo appearances.

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into the world of Miami Hurricanes football and sports psychology.