Sports Psychology Mind Games Column at Canesport.com – John F Murray – September 8, 2011 – 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.
September 5, 2011 – Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium – College Park, Maryland
Maryland Terrapins 32 (.508) Miami Hurricanes 24 (.475)
Hello Miami fans, football lovers, and perhaps some football haters after this first disappointing loss to Maryland to start the Golden era. I am disappointed, you are upset, and the rest of the football world is wildly celebrating UM’s stumble out of the gate feeling that Miami got just what it deserved after the NCAA violations.
Let’s not try to sugar coat this loss. It hurts a lot. But this is what sports is all about, taking the bad with the good and making it better. True winners never sulk. After a loss, they first try to deeply understand what happened, and then they suck it up, spit it out, and make positive changes and corrections based on their mistakes.
There is always another game, and with a talented group of starters returning for the Ohio State game in two weeks, there is huge opportunity for growth. Maybe even a big upset is on the horizon.
This column will help keep us focused on what is important and what we control, and that is simply the “process” and the “performance” on every single play rather than the “outcome,” whether the team won or lost, or whether Nevin Shapiro is smiling in his jail cell or some reporter is taking another shot at the Canes.
In my work with teams and athletes, I’ve found that the greatest progress often occurs right after a loss or a disappointing low period. Nothing gets an athlete’s or team’s attention more than losing. The good news is that you are never really as bad as you think you are … or as good as you think you are too, so the trick in sports is to be able to continually bring the passion and fire week in, week out to the present moment, and somehow learn to forget about results while practicing and competing. Pushing the envelope to get better in the most challenging of times pays off later in the season and also in upcoming years, too.
In this, my first post-game review using the Mental Performance Index on the Hurricanes’ team, you are introduced to a whole new way to analyze a football game with a new tool that is very effective in summarizing the truth of what actually happened – play-by-play in the physical and mental trenches of a football game.
I developed the Mental Performance Index (MPI for short) over eight years and it has proven incredibly powerful in teasing out the keys to victory or defeat in a football game.
The Index consists of 14 new statistics summarizing relative football performance for each team that played in a game against one another. The numbers always range from .000 to 1.000, so it is like a baseball batting average, but for a football team where .500 is a roughly average performance of a team.
In some ways the MPI scores are like an index of perfection, as a perfect team would score 1.000 theoretically (100% of perfection) and a team that did nothing at all good in a game would score .000. As Herman Edwards once said, “on every play somebody screws up” and it is has proven to be the case with MPI ratings. The range of the MPI total score in a game is almost always between .400 and .600. That means that as a whole most teams perform between 40% and 60% of perfection in a game, supporting Edwards’ claim.
There are about 150 plays in a football game multiplied times 11 players per team, or 1,650 chances per game for each team to mess up.
In my new book, the best performing Super Bowl team on Super Sunday scored at.591 as a team overall, so only at 59.1 percent of perfection. This sounds horrible, but playing a game at 60% of perfection is amazing and almost guarantees victory. The .591 mark would be well over the 95th percentile in terms of team performance.
On Monday night, for example, Miami scored a .475 while Maryland came in at .508 and won the game.
With a live view of the game supplemented often by a video of the game afterwards, and a written play-by-play account of every single play to check my work, I sit with my computer and meticulously rate the performance of each team on every play of the game. It usually takes about three hours. My computer automatically converts my ratings into a .000 to 1.000 metric. When I rate a play, I do so in a way that is extremely simple, football smart, statistically balanced, and consistent over the years. It is simple for me to capture the essence of how the teams did on the play, and I adjust for many factors such as pressure situations, clear mental mistakes, or clearly superior smart play.
It is a rating of how the teams did in the moment by moment analysis of every play. By rating every meaningful play in a game, I have obtained more data than any traditional statistic, and this provides me another advantage. The huge number of observations increases my statistical power and sensitivity to discover subtle differences.
In rating the games, I essentially reinforce precisely what I teach my athletes and teams as a sports psychologist, namely to stay focused and execute in every moment. They are encouraged to focus on process and performance in every instance, and not on outcome, and I score execution and performance in every instance, and not outcome or points.
There is no wiggle room for being careless or sloppy. The MPI is an index of perfection, and players’ mental mistakes, carelessness, and great focus will influence the scoring accordingly. There are no excuses for penalties and turnovers on the MPI and that is how it should be.
But many teams and players get distracted by all the fluff in this ADD culture that many athletes find themselves in. There are so many off-field distractions that a no-nonsense, hard-nosed emphasis on process and performance goals actually reduces pressure or fear for players, leading to reduced mistakes and better execution.
Some teams win a game after being outperformed by their opponents, and this can easily lead to overconfidence or lackadaisical preparation for the upcoming game. With MPI data, players would know how they actually played despite the fortunate win, and it would keep them hungrier in their fear of a letdown. Other teams win the battle in the trenches of moment by moment performance, but might lose a heartbreaker due to one or two rare plays or poor referee calls. These teams need to stay the course and be encouraged that they were doing everything right, but that the ball did not bounce their way.
After studying thousands of games, I have found that better performance usually wins the game, and it appears to be the case about nine out of 10 times. In my study of every Super Bowl for my recent book, “The Mental Performance Index: Ranking the Best Teams in Super Bowl History,” only four of the 45 winning teams were outperformed on the MPI. So this supports this rough 10% estimate of anomaly.
Since we do control performance, but not outcome, I am measuring only what is controllable and only what I tell my athletes to focus on. Any good sports psychologist will tell you that placing performance over outcome is a huge key to winning.
It is ironic that, by not focusing on winning, we actually win more … but it makes sense. This makes their lives a lot easier and it makes sense to know how you actually did despite the final score which is often inaccurate. The final score is an arbitrary number, not a scientifically verified indicator of how well a team played. Sure you need it to win the game, but you need to focus on doing well in the moment to score points, not focus on scoring points which is a distraction.
The 14 main MPI statistics that I created include:
(1) MPI Total (MPI-T) for overall team performance; (2) MPI Offense (MPI-O) for offensive performance alone; (3) MPI Defense (MPI-D) for defensive performance alone; (4) MPI Special Teams (MPI-ST) for special teams performance alone; (5) MPI Total Pressure (MPI-TP) for team performance in pressure situations; (6) MPI Offense Pressure (MPI-OP) for offensive performance in pressure situations; (7) MPI Defense Pressure (MPI-DP) for defensive performance in pressure situations.
The first 7 MPI statistics are expressed in terms of how a team performed in a game on a scale of .000 to 1.000 with .500 being roughly average performance. In addition to these seven statistics that describe the performance of just one team, as much as possible a relatively pure measure of team performance, I also created MPI difference statistics by calculating the scores on these seven MPI statistics of one team minus the opponent’s corresponding MPI statistic.
For example, the MPI Total Difference score is calculated by taking the MPI Total score of a team and subtracting the opponent’s MPI Total score resulting in a statistic that shows “dominance,” or how much better one team performed that day compared with their opponent.
These additional seven MPI statistics are as follows:
(8) MPI Total Difference (MPI-TD) for dominance of one team over another overall; (9) MPI Offense Difference (MPI-OD) for offensive dominance over an opponent’s defense; (10) MPI Defense Difference (MPI-DD) for defensive dominance over an opponent’s offense; (11) MPI Special Teams Difference (MPI-STD) for special teams dominance; (12) MPI Total Pressure Difference (MPI-TPD) = Total dominance in pressure; (13) MPI Offense Pressure Difference (MPI-OPD) = Offensive dominance in pressure; (14) MPI Defense Pressure Difference (MPI-DPD) for defensive dominance in pressure.
To do a complete analysis of a game, I do not stop with the MPI. I also look at the 14 most traditional statistics (e.g., net yards, turnovers, penalties…) to see if there are any notable results using an extensive set of norms I’ve developed. I can look at any one of the 14 MPI statistics or 14 traditional statistics and see where it fits along the normal distribution known as the normal or bell curve in statistics.
In fact, I will often report the statistic in percentiles as well as in a raw score so that you will understand more clearly what the score means and how extreme it is. For instance, you will see in the upcoming post-game report that Maryland gained 499 yards against Miami. This places them roughly in the 95th percentile on this factor, a quite impressive performance. Just so you understand percentiles, if there were 100 random teams selected for net yards gained, Maryland would have performed better than 95 of these teams when they reach the 95th percentile.
Pressure Offense and Defense on the MPI means those offensive plays and defensive plays that I define as pressure situations in a game. While there are exceptions based on play meaningfulness, it typically refers to plays that have a greater amount weighing on them … good examples are third and fourth down plays that are meaningful. In these instances, it has to happen for the teams on that one play. The offense needs a first down or they are forced to give up the ball. The defense has to stop the offense or they risk giving up more field position and possibly a score. So these “pressure” situations, as I define them and as I think anyone smart in football would define them, raise the stakes considerably.
It is analogous to a poker game where a double bet is made. More is riding on the play. Psychologically that means that the teams need to be able to cope with the potential pressure by playing well in these clutch situations. And doing so is evidence of high mental performance. So I have a way to reward teams a little more when they do well in pressure, and punish them a little more on the MPI when they do poorly in these critical moments where it “has to happen or else.” I isolate out just those pressure offense plays and pressure defense plays and the scores for pressure offense and pressure defense will show just that … how the offense did in just those pressure situations and how the defense did in just those pressure situations, and I also have a total pressure score which is how the entire team did in pressure.
It will not be a simple average of offense and defense because there are usually an uneven number of plays a team might run on offense and defense. The bottom line is that part of my madness (and it is quite simple) is to make sure that I measure those pressure situations too … because the greatest teams mentally seem to find a way to do better in critical moments. Make sense?
Sometimes my analysis will match exactly what the mainstream reporters are saying, but often I’ll add a slight twist or new insight that was not revealed. I only observe what happened on the field of play, and back it up by written play by play summaries, but I have a huge advantage in having taught statistics at the college and graduate school levels, in knowing mental performance and how to incorporate that in the scoring, and in knowing football too.
How shall we analyze this Maryland vs. Miami game? You might wonder if the game was played at a high quality level or not. To start, this was a game of overall below average quality performance as the combined MPI-T scores for each team (.475 + .508 = .983) fell below the 1.0 mark (an indicator of overall average performance).
Taking a broad look at the data, Maryland outperformed Miami on 5 of the 7 main MPI scores, and they did better in all the traditional statistics except for net yards rushing in which Miami was slightly better (172 to 151). No wonder they won the game too.
We next look at total performance of the teams (Total MPI Score) and it is clear that Maryland decisively outperformed the Hurricanes by a margin of .508 to .475. While Maryland’s overall performance was only slightly above average, the .475 posted by Miami is definitely below average. It is fair to say that this was a winnable game for Miami, or stated another way, Miami also beat themselves.
How did this happen? The most extreme statistics that jump out (residing on an extreme end of the bell curve distribution in statistics) are the combined negative impact of turnovers (4) and penalties (10) for Miami. This T + P = 14, a combined value that is horrendous, falls below the 5th percentile. I use T + P as one of the factors in my book on the Super Bowl and in my MPI game ratings because it is a great indication of sloppy, careless errors. But like others I also look at turnovers and penalties separately.
So if you had to isolate one factor as most responsible for this loss, it would have to be the mistakes Miami made in turnovers and penalties. Seeing this statistically and numerically at the 5th percentile or worse gives Coach Golden some real firepower in actual performance data and normative standards to encourage an improvement in protecting the ball and avoiding careless penalties before the Ohio State game.
Two turnovers for Miami resulted in Maryland scores, and these two straws broke the camel’s back, but there were a lot of other influences too as we shall see.
As previously stated, Maryland gained 499 yards in this game, and the Maryland offensive MPI score (.544) combined with Miami’s defensive MPI score (.424) illustrates this mismatch. Credit Danny O’Brien’s quarterback play and the 348 yards passing which was at the 90th percentile, but it had to hurt Miami to have so many starters on defense out of this game.
While Miami’s offense performed better than Maryland’s defense in this game (.479 to .467), it was a much smaller influence than Maryland’s offensive dominance over Miami’s defense. The mistakes on offense eliminate any need to celebrate, and since those scores were both below .500, we applaud even less. However, it does give Miami hope for the future once it learns to greatly reduce mistakes.
Interestingly, Miami’s special teams were the best unit on the field this day, and they destroyed Maryland’s special teams on the MPI .717 to .488. If this had not been the case, Maryland would have likely won this game in a much easier manner with better field position.
We should all credit Maryland for performing better in the clutch. The Terps outperformed Miami in total pressure situations .492 to .477, and their performance in offensive pressure situations (.574) shows that they earned a victory even if Miami also beat themselves with carelessness. My best guess is that inexperience was a major factor here.
In summary, Maryland clearly outperformed Miami in this game (and also won) largely due to their passing attack, especially in pressure situations, combined with Miami’s depleted defense. The most extreme and perhaps influential factor of all were the four turnovers and 10 penalties committed by Miami and the +3 Takeaway minus Giveaway statistic for Maryland, which had just one turnover.
I hope you have enjoyed this first game review after a more detailed explanation of the MPI and why it is so needed in football.
When I finished my most recent book, which is all about how I came up with the idea of the MPI, how society stigmatizes mental factors, and about how the Super Bowl teams would fare in a mythical competition pitting every one of the 90 teams against one another, a lot of top people in football stepped forward to help me with my mission.
When I ask you to drink the Kool Aid of the MPI, realize that it is mostly just hard-nosed and objective football with the benefits of science. Mental opportunities are everywhere if you open your eyes.
Eliminate those 14 huge mistakes or just reduce them to five and Miami would have won this game.
Dr. John’s Maryland vs. Miami Game Lesson: “Don’t Beat Yourself”
The University of Miami had everything against them but still had a chance to win if they had just held onto the ball and reduced penalties. While Maryland earned this win, Miami fumbled the golden goose at the start of the Golden era.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
I hope you enjoyed this journey into the world of sports psychology.