Posts Tagged ‘sports psychology’

Head Games on the Diamond

Charleston Mercury – May 7, 2009 – Spencer Broom – Three seconds on the clock. Your team is down by two against your hated rival, and Joe the Kicker is lined up 42 yards away on the right hash, wind barely brushing against the flags in the distance, the crowd tantalizingly silent.

The whistle blows, bodies begin clashing. The snap, the hold, the kick is up….

Fundamentally, only two results can occur in this scenario. Either ol’ Joe misses it, sending you and your buddies to the car in a foul mood and cursing the relationship you have with your team. Or Joe becomes your new hero and is carried off the field as the toast of the town, not to be forgotten in the near future.

Yet, despite those two reasonably simple and contrasting outcomes, the variables that are put into play as foot meets ball can go much deeper than plain leg strength.

Just ask Dr. John F. Murray, one of the premier sports psychologists in the world.

“There is an art and a science to understanding how each player ticks and also how to be able to bring out the best in that person,â€? Murray said via phone from Palm Beach, Florida, where he runs his practice. “You have your talent, your physical skills, and then you have your mental skills. Those all go together with effort to determine performance, and how well you perform determines whether you win or lose.â€?

Murray, dubbed “The Roger Federer of Sports Psychologistsâ€? by Tennis Week and “The Freud of Footballâ€? by the Washington Post, has been providing sports psychology along with clinical psychology services to help individuals, organizations and teams succeed for over 14 years, not to mention writing a best-selling book, Smart Tennis: How to Play and Win the Mental Game.

While it seems fans and media types alike would prefer our athletes to be cut from the mold of Terminator – robot seeking to destroy the opposition without so much as a glitch – it is a vision that is confounded by real human deficiencies.

Athletes struggle with common problems like everyone else, problems such as anxiety, low confidence or improper management that unavoidably effect performance, Murray says. He estimates about 80 percent of the people he sees are seeking to perform better in their individual sports.

Murray has worked with individual athletes from tennis players – he has played and coached tennis including an ATP professional at the Australian Open — to quarterbacks, as well as entire teams, and says one of the most common issues he encounters is athletes that perform well in practice but can’t reach the same level of performance in live game situations.

Yogi Berra once stated, “Baseball is 90 percent mental — the other half is physical.â€? And though Yogi’s math was a bit rusty, the basic principle holds true in all sports.

“If you ask any group, ‘How important do you consider mental skills?’ depending on the sport you will get inevitably people raising their hands and saying 70,80,90 percent,â€? Murray explains. “Then if you ask, if its 70-90 percent, how often do you train your mental skills, how much time do you spend on that in your training time, they will always say 5 percent to nothing.â€?

The lack of training represents the challenge for a sports psychologist. Nearly everyone recognizes the magnitude of the mind in athletics, yet it is hardly practiced enough, like, say, offensive or defensive drills.

“That’s the gap that you are filling,â€? Murray says of the function of a sports psychologist. “You’re a high performance advantage to somebody with the science of success that’s derived from many years of solid research, in both psychology and the sports sciences.â€?

A bit of the research that Murray mentions includes his own Mental Performance Index (MPI), which is a measure of an overall football team’s performance in a game by looking at every meaningful play and including mental aspects of performance. He calls it the percentage of perfection.

Progress is obviously being made within the field, though Murrays says it is difficult to gauge the overall awareness.

However, one needs to look no further than the recent NFL draft to see the influence of sports psychology. Amidst 400 pound bench presses and 4.4 40-yard dashes, more and more professional organizations, specifically the NFL, are taking the time to administer psychological assessments, especially among skill position players (namely quarterbacks) in the scouting stage of amateur players.

With money on the line, teams are attempting to slim the chances of wasting a big payday on a player who shows signs of psychological immaturity or imbalance that weren’t correctly taken into account. In sports, the mind is gaining ground on the legs and arms in terms of usefulness on the field of play.

But Murray still sees plenty of room for growth.

“[Professional leagues] are not doing it preventively or proactively,â€? Murray says. He is currently working on a book based on football and psychology. “Usually what they do, they have people they pull from when they need them, when there is a problem they can’t solve. In my opinion, that is putting a bandage on it after it’s too late. “

Murray would prefer consistent contact with athletes in order to understand their needs fully, their strengths and weaknesses, thereby developing an ongoing plan to move forward with accordingly.

He rehashes on a time he approached former (2000- 2004) Miami Dolphins and current Pittsburgh Panthers head coach Dave Wannstedt about bringing in a sports psychologist for regular office hours to work with the players as needed. His idea was rebuffed. And a “we’ll call you when we need youâ€? attitude was given in return.

“For a league that is so invested in success and professionalism, that’s really the thinking,â€? Murray says. He cites a Good Old Boy system that is prevalent within coaching ranks that would rather utilize more of their own former teammates and coaches to come in and speak with their players than a sports psychologist.

Small steps seem to be the most prudent approach at this point in time for sports psychologists in professional sports. Know that we’re here and we can help you; just let us show you is the mantra right now.

Murray, who says that there are fewer than a handful who make their living exclusively practicing sports psychology, which might a potential roadblock to growth, wants to assist others the way he did professional tennis player Vince Spadea. Spadea suffered from the longest losing streak in ATP history; after working with Murray, he rose from 300 in the world to the top 10.

A broken psyche, a wounded confidence or a misguided culture within a team or program is truly where Murray’s field begins.

“It’s just being able to help that person in a professional way to perform at his or her highest level, to do it in a systematic, ongoing training way,â€? says Murray. “There are so many possibilities that could be affecting that person because we are all so complex.â€?

One athlete’s problems can be complex enough, but when you begin to imagine a full squad of players there is an innumerable amount of psychological variables that can have a profound impact on a team’s success, or lack thereof.

The easiest and most common expression thrown on a sports entity that has struggled over a number of years is curse. Murray scoffs at the word, calling it ridiculous. And what sports psychologist wouldn’t? Because for every Chicago Cub’s Curse of the Billy Goat that is still ongoing, there is a Boston Red Sox Curse of the Bambino that has been seemingly broken. Does anyone even remember the Red Sox “curseâ€? anymore?

Changing a losing culture, Murray says, can only take a small dose of success, breaking through the wall of low confidence. Though he does believe the past influences the present and the future, Murray points to a famous Henry Ford quote, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.â€?

Finding the happy medium of personalities to productively lead a team along with correct psyche is essential.

Take a team like Murray’s own Miami Dolphins. For the past decade, a once proud organization had been reduced to nothing more than a laughingstock, barely sniffing anything remotely close to a winning record. Then enters the rough and tough disciplinarian Bill Parcells, a man who will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame with two Super Bowl rings. As the new vice president of football operations prior to last season, he begins to transform the mentality within the team through personnel and coaching moves and — boom! — they are AFC East champions in 2008.

“What he does, being tough on his players, making sure things are done the right way, is very similar to what a sports psychologist does,â€? Murray says. “What we are doing as sports psychologists is taking it to another level, being available to the players and understanding much deeper so we can help the Bill Parcells of the world have their players perform even better.â€?

All in all, psychology and its use in sports is still in the infancy stages, and Murray says he will know they have progressed past that when his phone is ringing off the hook from the likes of the Yankees and the Dolphins, though the foundation that has already been laid creates optimism for the future of the field.

So next time Joe the Kicker lines up for the game winner, perhaps he will have the security in knowing that when the ball is in the air he has been prepared to perform at the peak of his ability, physically and mentally.

By the way, the kick was good. Now everyone can go home happy.

Yankees will have hands full with latest A-Rod controversy

amNewYork – Jason Fink – The Yankees’ season is about to get a lot more interesting.

With injured star Alex Rodriguez set to return within a week, experts say the Bombers will have their hands full, as the controversial slugger and his teammates cope with the onslaught of negative publicity over the explosive tell-all bio published Monday.

Besides alleging more extensive steroid use than A-Rod has admitted to, the book portrays him as insecure superstar whose jealousy of teammate Derek Jeter borders on obsession.

“It’s a gossip cauldron and it could turn into a fire pit if not properly managed,â€? said John Murray, a sports psychologist. “Everybody will say it doesn’t matter and talk is cheap but this is the biggest stage in the world and these players know what’s being said about them.â€?

In one telling scene from “A-Rod: The Many Lives of Alex Rodriguez,â€? author Selena Roberts describes how on the night of the 2008 All-Star game at Yankee Stadium both players hosted parties with celebrity guest lists.

“Not even Madonna stopped by (A-Rod’s party), and most of Alex’s teammates skipped the bash in favor of the All-Star celebration hosted by Derek Jeter,â€? Roberts writes. “Alex was last seen sitting in a back booth at the 40/40 Club with his mother.â€?

A-Rod, 34, was constantly comparing himself to the team captain, Roberts writes, revealing something of an inferiority complex.

When out at nightclubs, according to the book, A-Rod would ask women: “’Who’s hotter, me or Derek Jeter?’â€?

“’The Jeter thing ate Alex alive,’â€? a friend of Rodriguez told Roberts. “’It was always about Jeter.’â€?

In what could prove a continuing distraction, Roberts writes that the rift between the two stars split the team.

“The tension between Jeter and Rodriguez escalated to the point where the clubhouse – and management – began to take sides,â€? the book says. “In the middle was a team that, (outfielder Gary) Sheffield says, ‘didn’t know what to think about the soap opera.’â€?

All of this has left fans wondering whether the team, which has battled tabloid stories about A-Rod before, can ignore the sideshow.

“It’s never good to have rivalry within the team,â€? said Mike Cioli, 36, of Manhattan. “I think they will be distracted but I don’t see how it will affect the performance.â€?

Sports psychologist Robert Udewitz, who practices in Manhattan, said the hype surrounding A-Rod’s off-field peccadilloes – which include a highly publicized divorce and alleged affair with Madonna, as well as the steroids admission – may well hurt the team.

“These little stressors become bigger and bigger,â€? he said. “You don’t see too many teams who thrive on adversity.â€?

Melinda Hsia contributed to this story

The Mental Side of the 2009 Sony Ericsson Open Tennis Tournament

Florida Tennis Magazine – May, 2009 Issue – By John F Murray, Ph.D. – Smart Tennis Sports Psychology Workshop in London June 19 and 20 – Sponsored by The Bulldog Club (the finest bed and breakfast in hand picked private homes around London) and the Sutton Tennis Academy (the best tennis academy in England), Dr. John F. Murray will conduct his 8th year of sports psychology workshops on the weekend before Wimbledon in London. Tennis players and coaches of all levels are encouraged to attend on one of two days, June 19 or 20, where they will receive a full power-point presentation on mental skills, training and exercises in classroom and on court, a relaxation/imagery session, an individual mental skills evaluation, a personally signed copy of the top selling tennis psychology book “Smart Tennis: How to Play and Win the Mental Game,â€? and a full year of follow-up mental coaching support with Dr. Murray by email. If you will be anywhere near the UK on the weekend before Wimbledon, you will not want to miss this exciting annual event. Celebrities and touring pros often attend. To book your place, please contact Dr. Murray at 561-596-9898 or send an email to johnfmurray@mindspring.com.

The 2009 Sony Ericsson Open once again lived up to its billing as the 5th best tournament of the year, and there were two surprise champions. Fans feasted on their usual blend of superb entertainment, tropical sunshine, and South Florida style. There is no better place in the world in March!

This month we examine some of the mental highs and lows as we stroll through the draws of the winners. Andy Murray, who’s been training extensively in South Florida, took the men’s title, cruising in from the #4 seed. The thrilling Brit only two weeks before had lost a heartbreaker in the finals of Indian Wells to Rafael Nadal. He won 11 of 12 matches in an unbelievable run! I enjoyed emailing back and forth with Andy’s mother and top British tennis coach, Judy Murray, who endorses my sports psychology workshops in London every year. Andy would rise to the top here with unheard of ball control and rapidly maturing mental skills. Over in the ladies side, 11th seeded Victoria Azarenka of Belarus surprised the world by shocking #2 seed Serena Williams in the finals after other top seeds Safina, Jankovic, and Dementieva fell by the wayside. I’m going to have to pull out my Russian dictionary to write this article! Now let’s now examine some of the mental skills on display.

Men’s Draw

Andy Murray received a bye in the first round before coming back to knock off Juan Monaco of Argentina 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 in the second round. He played erratically in the first set, but pulled from solid resilience in hanging in there, improving the quality of his play, and closing it out when he had to. In the third round, Murray bounced back again after starting 0-3 to Massu of Chile. The resilient control artist clawed and clawed back, and was also helped by an extremely rare four double faults in a row served up by the Chilean. In the fourth round, Murray had little trouble dispatching an angry 6’4’ Serbian Viktor Troicki 6-1, 6-0. Troicki cursed repeatedly in his native language and lost total composure, only hastening his annihilation. Next up was the mighty 7th seed Fernando Verdasco of Spain who had beaten Murray at the Australian Open earlier this year. With an eye for an eye on his mind, Murray refused to allow his confidence to dip from past results. He quickly destroyed the Spaniard 6-1, 6-2 whose body language was atrocious throughout the match. This set up a grudge semi-final match between Murray and 5th seed Juan Martin Del Potro, as both players had claimed gamesmanship in past matches. Murray focused much better on the battlefield and survived a 6-1, 5-7, 6-2 thriller. Del Potro later explained it away that he was tired after his match with Nadal. While this may be true, it’s never a good idea to make justifications and excuses after, as this rarely promotes future mental toughness. In the finals, Murray equaled fellow UK national Tim Henman’s 11 titles by rolling over Djokovic 6-2, 7-5. Amazing fitness and finesse were the order of the day as Murray played to start, then refused to be discouraged after down a break in the second. I emailed Judy Murray to send her and her son a big congrats and she replied to me that “we Murray’s need to stick together.â€? While everyone is saying that Andy can be the next Wimbledon champion, I have a warning. I know he can do it, but don’t fall for the hype Andy. You don’t need that kind of pressure. Just keep playing great tennis and your career will take care of itself!

Women’s Draw

Nineteen year old Victoria Azarenka is one of the hottest stars on the tour with all 3 of her career titles coming this year (Brisbane, Memphis, and now Key Biscayne). After watching her play, I believe she might dominate tennis soon. She had a temper problem early in her career and is starting to gain greater mastery over her feelings. She sure did this week. Despite her success this year, many would not know who she is in a lineup, but that is changing fast. After a first round bye she eased past the Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-2, 6-2, showing great poise and patience in some very tough points. She dispatched another Russian, Anna Chakvetadze 6-1, 6-4 in the third round, and again kept her cool in tight spots. The waltz continued in the fourth and fifth rounds as she mopped up Hungary’s Agnes Szavay 6-2, 6-4, and Australia’s Samantha Stosur, 6-1, 6-0. Her powerful two handed backhand combined with a positive energy and aggressive play often gave her first strike advantage over her foes. Onto the semi-finals where she would face the higher ranked Svetlana Kuznetsova. It would be “the biggest win of my career’ said the teenager after her victory. The match lingered 2 hours and 40 minutes in the sweltering heat, but Azareka controlled her nerves and emotions to win the big points and force a final with Serena Williams. Could she win yet another title this year by defeating one of the most successful players in history? Fresh legs would carry the day as Williams was hurting with both a sprained ankle and sore thigh muscle, and the rising champion on the women’s tour prevailed 6-3, 6-1.

How David Beats Goliath

The New Yorker – May 11, 2009 – Annals of Innovation – When Underdogs Break the Rules – by Malcolm Gladwell – When Vivek Ranadivé decided to coach his daughter Anjali’s basketball team, he settled on two principles. The first was that he would never raise his voice. This was National Junior Basketball—the Little League of basketball. The team was made up mostly of twelve-year-olds, and twelve-year-olds, he knew from experience, did not respond well to shouting. He would conduct business on the basketball court, he decided, the same way he conducted business at his software firm. He would speak calmly and softly, and convince the girls of the wisdom of his approach with appeals to reason and common sense.

The second principle was more important. Ranadivé was puzzled by the way Americans played basketball. He is from Mumbai. He grew up with cricket and soccer. He would never forget the first time he saw a basketball game. He thought it was mindless. Team A would score and then immediately retreat to its own end of the court. Team B would inbound the ball and dribble it into Team A’s end, where Team A was patiently waiting. Then the process would reverse itself. A basketball court was ninety-four feet long. But most of the time a team defended only about twenty-four feet of that, conceding the other seventy feet. Occasionally, teams would play a full-court press—that is, they would contest their opponent’s attempt to advance the ball up the court. But they would do it for only a few minutes at a time. It was as if there were a kind of conspiracy in the basketball world about the way the game ought to be played, and Ranadivé thought that that conspiracy had the effect of widening the gap between good teams and weak teams. Good teams, after all, had players who were tall and could dribble and shoot well; they could crisply execute their carefully prepared plays in their opponent’s end. Why, then, did weak teams play in a way that made it easy for good teams to do the very things that made them so good?

Ranadivé looked at his girls. Morgan and Julia were serious basketball players. But Nicky, Angela, Dani, Holly, Annika, and his own daughter, Anjali, had never played the game before. They weren’t all that tall. They couldn’t shoot. They weren’t particularly adept at dribbling. They were not the sort who played pickup games at the playground every evening. Most of them were, as Ranadivé says, “little blond girlsâ€? from Menlo Park and Redwood City, the heart of Silicon Valley. These were the daughters of computer programmers and people with graduate degrees. They worked on science projects, and read books, and went on ski vacations with their parents, and dreamed about growing up to be marine biologists. Ranadivé knew that if they played the conventional way—if they let their opponents dribble the ball up the court without opposition—they would almost certainly lose to the girls for whom basketball was a passion. Ranadivé came to America as a seventeen-year-old, with fifty dollars in his pocket. He was not one to accept losing easily. His second principle, then, was that his team would play a real full-court press, every game, all the time. The team ended up at the national championships. “It was really random,â€? Anjali Ranadivé said. “I mean, my father had never played basketball before.â€?

David’s victory over Goliath, in the Biblical account, is held to be an anomaly. It was not. Davids win all the time. The political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases. That is a remarkable fact. Arreguín-Toft was analyzing conflicts in which one side was at least ten times as powerful—in terms of armed might and population—as its opponent, and even in those lopsided contests the underdog won almost a third of the time.

In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet and girded himself with a sword: he prepared to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath. But then he stopped. “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it,â€? he said (in Robert Alter’s translation), and picked up those five smooth stones. What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.â€?

Consider the way T. E. Lawrence (or, as he is better known, Lawrence of Arabia) led the revolt against the Ottoman Army occupying Arabia near the end of the First World War. The British were helping the Arabs in their uprising, and the initial focus was Medina, the city at the end of a long railroad that the Turks had built, running south from Damascus and down through the Hejaz desert. The Turks had amassed a large force in Medina, and the British leadership wanted Lawrence to gather the Arabs and destroy the Turkish garrison there, before the Turks could threaten the entire region.

But when Lawrence looked at his ragtag band of Bedouin fighters he realized that a direct attack on Medina would never succeed. And why did taking the city matter, anyway? The Turks sat in Medina “on the defensive, immobile.â€? There were so many of them, consuming so much food and fuel and water, that they could hardly make a major move across the desert. Instead of attacking the Turks at their point of strength, Lawrence reasoned, he ought to attack them where they were weak—along the vast, largely unguarded length of railway line that was their connection to Damascus. Instead of focussing his attention on Medina, he should wage war over the broadest territory possible.

The Bedouins under Lawrence’s command were not, in conventional terms, skilled troops. They were nomads. Sir Reginald Wingate, one of the British commanders in the region, called them “an untrained rabble, most of whom have never fired a rifle.â€? But they were tough and they were mobile. The typical Bedouin soldier carried no more than a rifle, a hundred rounds of ammunition, forty-five pounds of flour, and a pint of drinking water, which meant that he could travel as much as a hundred and ten miles a day across the desert, even in summer. “Our cards were speed and time, not hitting power,â€? Lawrence wrote. “Our largest available resources were the tribesmen, men quite unused to formal warfare, whose assets were movement, endurance, individual intelligence, knowledge of the country, courage.â€? The eighteenth-century general Maurice de Saxe famously said that the art of war was about legs, not arms, and Lawrence’s troops were all legs. In one typical stretch, in the spring of 1917, his men dynamited sixty rails and cut a telegraph line at Buair on March 24th, sabotaged a train and twenty-five rails at Abu al-Naam on March 25th, dynamited fifteen rails and cut a telegraph line at Istabl Antar on March 27th, raided a Turkish garrison and derailed a train on March 29th, returned to Buair and sabotaged the railway line again on March 31st, dynamited eleven rails at Hediah on April 3rd, raided the train line in the area of Wadi Dhaiji on April 4th and 5th, and attacked twice on April 6th.

Lawrence’s masterstroke was an assault on the port town of Aqaba. The Turks expected an attack from British ships patrolling the waters of the Gulf of Aqaba to the west. Lawrence decided to attack from the east instead, coming at the city from the unprotected desert, and to do that he led his men on an audacious, six-hundred-mile loop—up from the Hejaz, north into the Syrian desert, and then back down toward Aqaba. This was in summer, through some of the most inhospitable land in the Middle East, and Lawrence tacked on a side trip to the outskirts of Damascus, in order to mislead the Turks about his intentions. “This year the valley seemed creeping with horned vipers and puff-adders, cobras and black snakes,â€? Lawrence writes in “The Seven Pillars of Wisdomâ€? of one stage in the journey:

We could not lightly draw water after dark, for there were snakes swimming in the pools or clustering in knots around their brinks. Twice puff-adders came twisting into the alert ring of our debating coffee-circle. Three of our men died of bites; four recovered after great fear and pain, and a swelling of the poisoned limb. Howeitat treatment was to bind up the part with snake-skin plaster and read chapters of the Koran to the sufferer until he died.

When they finally arrived at Aqaba, Lawrence’s band of several hundred warriors killed or captured twelve hundred Turks, and lost only two men. The Turks simply did not think that their opponent would be mad enough to come at them from the desert. This was Lawrence’s great insight. David can beat Goliath by substituting effort for ability—and substituting effort for ability turns out to be a winning formula for underdogs in all walks of life, including little blond-haired girls on the basketball court.

Vivek Ranadivé is an elegant man, slender and fine-boned, with impeccable manners and a languorous walk. His father was a pilot who was jailed by Indira Gandhi, he says, because he wouldn’t stop challenging the safety of India’s planes. Ranadivé went to M.I.T., because he saw a documentary on the school and decided that it was perfect for him. This was in the nineteen-seventies, when going abroad for undergraduate study required the Indian government to authorize the release of foreign currency, and Ranadivé camped outside the office of the governor of the Reserve Bank of India until he got his way. The Ranadivés are relentless.

In 1985, Ranadivé founded a software company in Silicon Valley devoted to what in the computer world is known as “real timeâ€? processing. If a businessman waits until the end of the month to collect and count his receipts, he’s “batch processing.â€? There is a gap between the events in the company—sales—and his understanding of those events. Wall Street used to be the same way. The information on which a trader based his decisions was scattered across a number of databases. The trader would collect information from here and there, collate and analyze it, and then make a trade. What Ranadivé’s company, TIBCO, did was to consolidate those databases into one stream, so that the trader could collect all the data he wanted instantaneously. Batch processing was replaced by real-time processing. Today, TIBCO’s software powers most of the trading floors on Wall Street.

Ranadivé views this move from batch to real time as a sort of holy mission. The shift, to his mind, is one of kind, not just of degree. “We’ve been working with some airlines,â€? he said. “You know, when you get on a plane and your bag doesn’t, they actually know right away that it’s not there. But no one tells you, and a big part of that is that they don’t have all their information in one place. There are passenger systems that know where the passenger is. There are aircraft and maintenance systems that track where the plane is and what kind of shape it’s in. Then, there are baggage systems and ticketing systems—and they’re all separate. So you land, you wait at the baggage terminal, and it doesn’t show up.â€? Everything bad that happens in that scenario, Ranadivé maintains, happens because of the lag between the event (the luggage doesn’t make it onto the plane) and the response (the airline tells you that your luggage didn’t make the plane). The lag is why you’re angry. The lag is why you had to wait, fruitlessly, at baggage claim. The lag is why you vow never to fly that airline again. Put all the databases together, and there’s no lag. “What we can do is send you a text message the moment we know your bag didn’t make it,â€? Ranadivé said, “telling you we’ll ship it to your house.â€?

A few years ago, Ranadivé wrote a paper arguing that even the Federal Reserve ought to make its decisions in real time—not once every month or two. “Everything in the world is now real time,â€? he said. “So when a certain type of shoe isn’t selling at your corner shop, it’s not six months before the guy in China finds out. It’s almost instantaneous, thanks to my software. The world runs in real time, but government runs in batch. Every few months, it adjusts. Its mission is to keep the temperature comfortable in the economy, and, if you were to do things the government’s way in your house, then every few months you’d turn the heater either on or off, overheating or underheating your house.â€? Ranadivé argued that we ought to put the economic data that the Fed uses into a big stream, and write a computer program that sifts through those data, the moment they are collected, and make immediate, incremental adjustments to interest rates and the money supply. “It can all be automated,â€? he said. “Look, we’ve had only one soft landing since the Second World War. Basically, we’ve got it wrong every single time.â€?

You can imagine what someone like Alan Greenspan or Ben Bernanke might say about that idea. Such people are powerfully invested in the notion of the Fed as a Solomonic body: that pause of five or eight weeks between economic adjustments seems central to the process of deliberation. To Ranadivé, though, “deliberationâ€? just prettifies the difficulties created by lag. The Fed has to deliberate because it’s several weeks behind, the same way the airline has to bow and scrape and apologize because it waited forty-five minutes to tell you something that it could have told you the instant you stepped off the plane.

Is it any wonder that Ranadivé looked at the way basketball was played and found it mindless? A professional basketball game was forty-eight minutes long, divided up into alternating possessions of roughly twenty seconds: back and forth, back and forth. But a good half of each twenty-second increment was typically taken up with preliminaries and formalities. The point guard dribbled the ball up the court. He stood above the top of the key, about twenty-four feet from the opposing team’s basket. He called out a play that the team had choreographed a hundred times in practice. It was only then that the defending team sprang into action, actively contesting each pass and shot. Actual basketball took up only half of that twenty-second interval, so that a game’s real length was not forty-eight minutes but something closer to twenty-four minutes—and that twenty-four minutes of activity took place within a narrowly circumscribed area. It was as formal and as convention-bound as an eighteenth-century quadrille. The supporters of that dance said that the defensive players had to run back to their own end, in order to compose themselves for the arrival of the other team. But the reason they had to compose themselves, surely, was that by retreating they allowed the offense to execute a play that it had practiced to perfection. Basketball was batch!

Insurgents, though, operate in real time. Lawrence hit the Turks, in that stretch in the spring of 1917, nearly every day, because he knew that the more he accelerated the pace of combat the more the war became a battle of endurance—and endurance battles favor the insurgent. “And it happened as the Philistine arose and was drawing near David that David hastened and ran out from the lines toward the Philistine,â€? the Bible says. “And he reached his hand into the pouch and took from there a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine in his forehead.â€? The second sentence—the slingshot part—is what made David famous. But the first sentence matters just as much. David broke the rhythm of the encounter. He speeded it up. “The sudden astonishment when David sprints forward must have frozen Goliath, making him a better target,â€? the poet and critic Robert Pinsky writes in “The Life of David.â€? Pinsky calls David a “point guard ready to flick the basketball here or there.â€? David pressed. That’s what Davids do when they want to beat Goliaths.

Ranadivé’s basketball team played in the National Junior Basketball seventh-and-eighth-grade division, representing Redwood City. The girls practiced at Paye’s Place, a gym in nearby San Carlos. Because Ranadivé had never played basketball, he recruited a series of experts to help him. The first was Roger Craig, the former all-pro running back for the San Francisco 49ers, who is also TIBCO’s director of business development. As a football player, Craig was legendary for the off-season hill workouts he put himself through. Most of his N.F.L. teammates are now hobbling around golf courses. He has run seven marathons. After Craig signed on, he recruited his daughter Rometra, who played Division I basketball at Duke and U.S.C. Rometra was the kind of person you assigned to guard your opponent’s best player in order to shut her down. The girls loved Rometra. “She has always been like my big sister,â€? Anjali Ranadivé said. “It was so awesome to have her along.â€?

Redwood City’s strategy was built around the two deadlines that all basketball teams must meet in order to advance the ball. The first is the inbounds pass. When one team scores, a player from the other team takes the ball out of bounds and has five seconds to pass it to a teammate on the court. If that deadline is missed, the ball goes to the other team. Usually, that’s not an issue, because teams don’t contest the inbounds pass. They run back to their own end. Redwood City did not. Each girl on the team closely shadowed her counterpart. When some teams play the press, the defender plays behind the offensive player she’s guarding, to impede her once she catches the ball. The Redwood City girls, by contrast, played in front of their opponents, to prevent them from catching the inbounds pass in the first place. And they didn’t guard the player throwing the ball in. Why bother? Ranadivé used that extra player as a floater, who could serve as a second defender against the other team’s best player. “Think about football,â€? Ranadivé said. “The quarterback can run with the ball. He has the whole field to throw to, and it’s still damned difficult to complete a pass.â€? Basketball was harder. A smaller court. A five-second deadline. A heavier, bigger ball. As often as not, the teams Redwood City was playing against simply couldn’t make the inbounds pass within the five-second limit. Or the inbounding player, panicked by the thought that her five seconds were about to be up, would throw the ball away. Or her pass would be intercepted by one of the Redwood City players. Ranadivé’s girls were maniacal.

The second deadline requires a team to advance the ball across mid-court, into its opponent’s end, within ten seconds, and if Redwood City’s opponents met the first deadline the girls would turn their attention to the second. They would descend on the girl who caught the inbounds pass and “trapâ€? her. Anjali was the designated trapper. She’d sprint over and double-team the dribbler, stretching her long arms high and wide. Maybe she’d steal the ball. Maybe the other player would throw it away in a panic—or get bottled up and stalled, so that the ref would end up blowing the whistle. “When we first started out, no one knew how to play defense or anything,â€? Anjali said. “So my dad said the whole game long, ‘Your job is to guard someone and make sure they never get the ball on inbounds plays.’ It’s the best feeling in the world to steal the ball from someone. We would press and steal, and do that over and over again. It made people so nervous. There were teams that were a lot better than us, that had been playing a long time, and we would beat them.â€?

The Redwood City players would jump ahead 4–0, 6–0, 8–0, 12–0. One time, they led 25–0. Because they typically got the ball underneath their opponent’s basket, they rarely had to take low-percentage, long-range shots that required skill and practice. They shot layups. In one of the few games that Redwood City lost that year, only four of the team’s players showed up. They pressed anyway. Why not? They lost by three points.

“What that defense did for us is that we could hide our weaknesses,â€? Rometra Craig said. She helped out once Redwood City advanced to the regional championships. “We could hide the fact that we didn’t have good outside shooters. We could hide the fact that we didn’t have the tallest lineup, because as long as we played hard on defense we were getting steals and getting easy layups. I was honest with the girls. I told them, ‘We’re not the best basketball team out there.’ But they understood their roles.â€? A twelve-year-old girl would go to war for Rometra. “They were awesome,â€? she said.

Lawrence attacked the Turks where they were weak—the railroad—and not where they were strong, Medina. Redwood City attacked the inbounds pass, the point in a game where a great team is as vulnerable as a weak one. Lawrence extended the battlefield over as large an area as possible. So did the girls of Redwood City. They defended all ninety-four feet. The full-court press is legs, not arms. It supplants ability with effort. It is basketball for those “quite unused to formal warfare, whose assets were movement, endurance, individual intelligence . . . courage.â€?

“It’s an exhausting strategy,â€? Roger Craig said. He and Ranadivé were in a TIBCO conference room, reminiscing about their dream season. Ranadivé was at the whiteboard, diagramming the intricacies of the Redwood City press. Craig was sitting at the table.

“My girls had to be more fit than the others,â€? Ranadivé said.

“He used to make them run,â€? Craig said, nodding approvingly.

“We followed soccer strategy in practice,â€? Ranadivé said. “I would make them run and run and run. I couldn’t teach them skills in that short period of time, and so all we did was make sure they were fit and had some basic understanding of the game. That’s why attitude plays such a big role in this, because you’re going to get tired.â€? He turned to Craig. “What was our cheer again?â€?

The two men thought for a moment, then shouted out happily, in unison, “One, two, three, ATTITUDE!â€?

That was it! The whole Redwood City philosophy was based on a willingness to try harder than anyone else.

“One time, some new girls joined the team,â€? Ranadivé said, “and so in the first practice I had I was telling them, ‘Look, this is what we’re going to do,’ and I showed them. I said, ‘It’s all about attitude.’ And there was this one new girl on the team, and I was worried that she wouldn’t get the whole attitude thing. Then we did the cheer and she said, ‘No, no, it’s not One, two three, ATTITUDE. It’s One, two, three, attitude HAH ’ â€?—at which point Ranadivé and Craig burst out laughing.

In January of 1971, the Fordham University Rams played a basketball game against the University of Massachusetts Redmen. The game was in Amherst, at the legendary arena known as the Cage, where the Redmen hadn’t lost since December of 1969. Their record was 11–1. The Redmen’s star was none other than Julius Erving—Dr. J. The UMass team was very, very good. Fordham, by contrast, was a team of scrappy kids from the Bronx and Brooklyn. Their center had torn up his knee the first week of the season, which meant that their tallest player was six feet five. Their starting forward—and forwards are typically almost as tall as centers—was Charlie Yelverton, who was six feet two. But from the opening buzzer the Rams launched a full-court press, and never let up. “We jumped out to a thirteen-to-six lead, and it was a war the rest of the way,â€? Digger Phelps, the Fordham coach at the time, recalls. “These were tough city kids. We played you ninety-four feet. We knew that sooner or later we were going to make you crack.â€? Phelps sent in one indefatigable Irish or Italian kid from the Bronx after another to guard Erving, and, one by one, the indefatigable Irish and Italian kids fouled out. None of them were as good as Erving. It didn’t matter. Fordham won, 87–79.

In the world of basketball, there is one story after another like this about legendary games where David used the full-court press to beat Goliath. Yet the puzzle of the press is that it has never become popular. People look at upsets like Fordham over UMass and call them flukes. Basketball sages point out that the press can be beaten by a well-coached team with adept ball handlers and astute passers—and that is true. Ranadivé readily admitted that all an opposing team had to do to beat Redwood City was press back: the girls were not good enough to handle their own medicine. Playing insurgent basketball did not guarantee victory. It was simply the best chance an underdog had of beating Goliath. If Fordham had played UMass the conventional way, it would have lost by thirty points. And yet somehow that lesson has escaped the basketball establishment.

What did Digger Phelps do, the season after his stunning upset of UMass? He never used the full-court press the same way again. The UMass coach, Jack Leaman, was humbled in his own gym by a bunch of street kids. Did he learn from his defeat and use the press himself the next time he had a team of underdogs? He did not.

The only person who seemed to have absorbed the lessons of that game was a skinny little guard on the UMass freshman team named Rick Pitino. He didn’t play that day. He watched, and his eyes grew wide. Even now, thirty-eight years later, he can name, from memory, nearly every player on the Fordham team: Yelverton, Sullivan, Mainor, Charles, Zambetti. “They came in with the most unbelievable pressing team I’d ever seen,â€? Pitino said. “Five guys between six feet five and six feet. It was unbelievable how they covered ground. I studied it. There is no way they should have beaten us. Nobody beat us at the Cage.â€?

Pitino became the head coach at Boston University in 1978, when he was twenty-five years old, and used the press to take the school to its first N.C.A.A. tournament appearance in twenty-four years. At his next head-coaching stop, Providence College, Pitino took over a team that had gone 11–20 the year before. The players were short and almost entirely devoid of talent—a carbon copy of the Fordham Rams. They pressed, and ended up one game away from playing for the national championship. At the University of Kentucky, in the mid-nineteen-nineties, Pitino took his team to the Final Four three times—and won a national championship—with full-court pressure, and then rode the full-court press back to the Final Four in 2005, as the coach at the University of Louisville. This year, his Louisville team entered the N.C.A.A. tournament ranked No. 1 in the land. College coaches of Pitino’s calibre typically have had numerous players who have gone on to be bona-fide all-stars at the professional level. In his many years of coaching, Pitino has had one, Antoine Walker. It doesn’t matter. Every year, he racks up more and more victories.

“The greatest example of the press I’ve ever coached was my Kentucky team in ’96, when we played L.S.U.,â€? Pitino said. He was at the athletic building at the University of Louisville, in a small room filled with television screens, where he watches tapes of opponents’ games. “Do we have that tape?â€? Pitino called out to an assistant. He pulled a chair up close to one of the monitors. The game began with Kentucky stealing the ball from L.S.U., deep in L.S.U.’s end. Immediately, the ball was passed to Antoine Walker, who cut to the basket for a layup. L.S.U. got the ball back. Kentucky stole it again. Another easy basket by Walker. “Walker had almost thirty points at halftime,â€? Pitino said. “He dunked it almost every time. When we steal, he just runs to the basket.â€? The Kentucky players were lightning quick and long-armed, and swarmed around the L.S.U. players, arms flailing. It was mayhem. Five minutes in, it was clear that L.S.U. was panicking.

Pitino trains his players to look for what he calls the “rush stateâ€? in their opponents—that moment when the player with the ball is shaken out of his tempo—and L.S.U. could not find a way to get out of the rush state. “See if you find one play that L.S.U. managed to run,â€? Pitino said. You couldn’t. The L.S.U. players struggled to get the ball inbounds, and, if they did that, they struggled to get the ball over mid-court, and on those occasions when they managed both those things they were too overwhelmed and exhausted to execute their offense the way they had been trained to. “We had eighty-six points at halftime,â€? Pitino went on—eighty-six points being, of course, what college basketball teams typically score in an entire game. “And I think we’d forced twenty-three turnovers at halftime,â€? twenty-three turnovers being what college basketball teams might force in two games. “I love watching this,â€? Pitino said. He had a faraway look in his eyes. “Every day, you dream about getting a team like this again.â€? So why are there no more than a handful of college teams who use the full-court press the way Pitino does?

Arreguín-Toft found the same puzzling pattern. When an underdog fought like David, he usually won. But most of the time underdogs didn’t fight like David. Of the two hundred and two lopsided conflicts in Arreguín-Toft’s database, the underdog chose to go toe to toe with Goliath the conventional way a hundred and fifty-two times—and lost a hundred and nineteen times. In 1809, the Peruvians fought the Spanish straight up and lost; in 1816, the Georgians fought the Russians straight up and lost; in 1817, the Pindaris fought the British straight up and lost; in the Kandyan rebellion of 1817, the Sri Lankans fought the British straight up and lost; in 1823, the Burmese chose to fight the British straight up and lost. The list of failures was endless. In the nineteen-forties, the Communist insurgency in Vietnam bedevilled the French until, in 1951, the Viet Minh strategist Vo Nguyen Giap switched to conventional warfare—and promptly suffered a series of defeats. George Washington did the same in the American Revolution, abandoning the guerrilla tactics that had served the colonists so well in the conflict’s early stages. “As quickly as he could,â€? William Polk writes in “Violent Politics,â€? a history of unconventional warfare, Washington “devoted his energies to creating a British-type army, the Continental Line. As a result, he was defeated time after time and almost lost the war.â€?

It makes no sense, unless you think back to that Kentucky-L.S.U. game and to Lawrence’s long march across the desert to Aqaba. It is easier to dress soldiers in bright uniforms and have them march to the sound of a fife-and-drum corps than it is to have them ride six hundred miles through the desert on the back of a camel. It is easier to retreat and compose yourself after every score than swarm about, arms flailing. We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity. It’s the other way around. Effort can trump ability—legs, in Saxe’s formulation, can overpower arms—because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coördination.

“I have so many coaches come in every year to learn the press,â€? Pitino said. Louisville was the Mecca for all those Davids trying to learn how to beat Goliaths. “Then they e-mail me. They tell me they can’t do it. They don’t know if they have the bench. They don’t know if the players can last.â€? Pitino shook his head. “We practice every day for two hours straight,â€? he went on. “The players are moving almost ninety-eight per cent of the practice. We spend very little time talking. When we make our correctionsâ€?—that is, when Pitino and his coaches stop play to give instruction—“they are seven-second corrections, so that our heart rate never rests. We are always working.â€? Seven seconds! The coaches who came to Louisville sat in the stands and watched that ceaseless activity and despaired. The prospect of playing by David’s rules was too daunting. They would rather lose.

In 1981, a computer scientist from Stanford University named Doug Lenat entered the Traveller Trillion Credit Squadron tournament, in San Mateo, California. It was a war game. The contestants had been given several volumes of rules, well beforehand, and had been asked to design their own fleet of warships with a mythical budget of a trillion dollars. The fleets then squared off against one another in the course of a weekend. “Imagine this enormous auditorium area with tables, and at each table people are paired off,â€? Lenat said. “The winners go on and advance. The losers get eliminated, and the field gets smaller and smaller, and the audience gets larger and larger.â€?

Lenat had developed an artificial-intelligence program that he called Eurisko, and he decided to feed his program the rules of the tournament. Lenat did not give Eurisko any advice or steer the program in any particular strategic direction. He was not a war-gamer. He simply let Eurisko figure things out for itself. For about a month, for ten hours every night on a hundred computers at Xerox PARC, in Palo Alto, Eurisko ground away at the problem, until it came out with an answer. Most teams fielded some version of a traditional naval fleet—an array of ships of various sizes, each well defended against enemy attack. Eurisko thought differently. “The program came up with a strategy of spending the trillion on an astronomical number of small ships like P.T. boats, with powerful weapons but absolutely no defense and no mobility,â€? Lenat said. “They just sat there. Basically, if they were hit once they would sink. And what happened is that the enemy would take its shots, and every one of those shots would sink our ships. But it didn’t matter, because we had so many.â€? Lenat won the tournament in a runaway.

The next year, Lenat entered once more, only this time the rules had changed. Fleets could no longer just sit there. Now one of the criteria of success in battle was fleet “agility.â€? Eurisko went back to work. “What Eurisko did was say that if any of our ships got damaged it would sink itself—and that would raise fleet agility back up again,â€? Lenat said. Eurisko won again.

Eurisko was an underdog. The other gamers were people steeped in military strategy and history. They were the sort who could tell you how Wellington had outfoxed Napoleon at Waterloo, or what exactly happened at Antietam. They had been raised on Dungeons and Dragons. They were insiders. Eurisko, on the other hand, knew nothing but the rule book. It had no common sense. As Lenat points out, a human being understands the meaning of the sentences “Johnny robbed a bank. He is now serving twenty years in prison,â€? but Eurisko could not, because as a computer it was perfectly literal; it could not fill in the missing step—“Johnny was caught, tried, and convicted.â€? Eurisko was an outsider. But it was precisely that outsiderness that led to Eurisko’s victory: not knowing the conventions of the game turned out to be an advantage.

“Eurisko was exposing the fact that any finite set of rules is going to be a very incomplete approximation of reality,â€? Lenat explained. “What the other entrants were doing was filling in the holes in the rules with real-world, realistic answers. But Eurisko didn’t have that kind of preconception, partly because it didn’t know enough about the world.â€? So it found solutions that were, as Lenat freely admits, “socially horrifyingâ€?: send a thousand defenseless and immobile ships into battle; sink your own ships the moment they get damaged.

This is the second half of the insurgent’s creed. Insurgents work harder than Goliath. But their other advantage is that they will do what is “socially horrifyingâ€?—they will challenge the conventions about how battles are supposed to be fought. All the things that distinguish the ideal basketball player are acts of skill and coördination. When the game becomes about effort over ability, it becomes unrecognizable—a shocking mixture of broken plays and flailing limbs and usually competent players panicking and throwing the ball out of bounds. You have to be outside the establishment—a foreigner new to the game or a skinny kid from New York at the end of the bench—to have the audacity to play it that way. George Washington couldn’t do it. His dream, before the war, was to be a British Army officer, finely turned out in a red coat and brass buttons. He found the guerrillas who had served the American Revolution so well to be “an exceeding dirty and nasty people.â€? He couldn’t fight the establishment, because he was the establishment.

T. E. Lawrence, by contrast, was the farthest thing from a proper British Army officer. He did not graduate with honors from Sandhurst. He was an archeologist by trade, a dreamy poet. He wore sandals and full Bedouin dress when he went to see his military superiors. He spoke Arabic like a native, and handled a camel as if he had been riding one all his life. And David, let’s not forget, was a shepherd. He came at Goliath with a slingshot and staff because those were the tools of his trade. He didn’t know that duels with Philistines were supposed to proceed formally, with the crossing of swords. “When the lion or the bear would come and carry off a sheep from the herd, I would go out after him and strike him down and rescue it from his clutches,â€? David explained to Saul. He brought a shepherd’s rules to the battlefield.

The price that the outsider pays for being so heedless of custom is, of course, the disapproval of the insider. Why did the Ivy League schools of the nineteen-twenties limit the admission of Jewish immigrants? Because they were the establishment and the Jews were the insurgents, scrambling and pressing and playing by immigrant rules that must have seemed to the Wasp élite of the time to be socially horrifying. “Their accomplishment is well over a hundred per cent of their ability on account of their tremendous energy and ambition,â€? the dean of Columbia College said of the insurgents from Brooklyn, the Bronx, and the Lower East Side. He wasn’t being complimentary. Goliath does not simply dwarf David. He brings the full force of social convention against him; he has contempt for David.

“In the beginning, everyone laughed at our fleet,â€? Lenat said. “It was really embarrassing. People felt sorry for us. But somewhere around the third round they stopped laughing, and some time around the fourth round they started complaining to the judges. When we won again, some people got very angry, and the tournament directors basically said that it was not really in the spirit of the tournament to have these weird computer-designed fleets winning. They said that if we entered again they would stop having the tournament. I decided the best thing to do was to graciously bow out.â€?

It isn’t surprising that the tournament directors found Eurisko’s strategies beyond the pale. It’s wrong to sink your own ships, they believed. And they were right. But let’s remember who made that rule: Goliath. And let’s remember why Goliath made that rule: when the world has to play on Goliath’s terms, Goliath wins.

The trouble for Redwood City started early in the regular season. The opposing coaches began to get angry. There was a sense that Redwood City wasn’t playing fair—that it wasn’t right to use the full-court press against twelve-year-old girls, who were just beginning to grasp the rudiments of the game. The point of basketball, the dissenting chorus said, was to learn basketball skills. Of course, you could as easily argue that in playing the press a twelve-year-old girl learned something much more valuable—that effort can trump ability and that conventions are made to be challenged. But the coaches on the other side of Redwood City’s lopsided scores were disinclined to be so philosophical.

“There was one guy who wanted to have a fight with me in the parking lot,â€? Ranadivé said. “He was this big guy. He obviously played football and basketball himself, and he saw that skinny, foreign guy beating him at his own game. He wanted to beat me up.â€?

Roger Craig says that he was sometimes startled by what he saw. “The other coaches would be screaming at their girls, humiliating them, shouting at them. They would say to the refs—‘That’s a foul! That’s a foul!’ But we weren’t fouling. We were just playing aggressive defense.â€?

“My girls were all blond-haired white girls,â€? Ranadivé said. “My daughter is the closest we have to a black girl, because she’s half-Indian. One time, we were playing this all-black team from East San Jose. They had been playing for years. These were born-with-a-basketball girls. We were just crushing them. We were up something like twenty to zero. We wouldn’t even let them inbound the ball, and the coach got so mad that he took a chair and threw it. He started screaming at his girls, and of course the more you scream at girls that age the more nervous they get.â€? Ranadivé shook his head: never, ever raise your voice. “Finally, the ref physically threw him out of the building. I was afraid. I think he couldn’t stand it because here were all these blond-haired girls who were clearly inferior players, and we were killing them.â€?

At the nationals, the Redwood City girls won their first two games. In the third round, their opponents were from somewhere deep in Orange County. Redwood City had to play them on their own court, and the opponents supplied their own referee as well. The game was at eight o’clock in the morning. The Redwood City players left their hotel at six, to beat the traffic. It was downhill from there. The referee did not believe in “One, two, three, attitude HAH.â€? He didn’t think that playing to deny the inbounds pass was basketball. He began calling one foul after another.

“They were touch fouls,â€? Craig said. Ticky-tacky stuff. The memory was painful.

“My girls didn’t understand,â€? Ranadivé said. “The ref called something like four times as many fouls on us as on the other team.â€?

“People were booing,â€? Craig said. “It was bad.â€?

“A two-to-one ratio is understandable, but a ratio of four to one?â€? Ranadivé shook his head.

“One girl fouled out.â€?

“We didn’t get blown out. There was still a chance to win. But . . .â€?

Ranadivé called the press off. He had to. The Redwood City players retreated to their own end, and passively watched as their opponents advanced down the court. They did not run. They paused and deliberated between each possession. They played basketball the way basketball is supposed to be played, and they lost—but not before making Goliath wonder whether he was a giant, after all.

Dr. John F. Murray Interviewed in Writers and Authors

Writers and Authors – Tuesday, April 28, 2009 – Interview with John Murray – Please explain, what is sports psychology?

THAT IS AN EXTREMELY BROAD TERM THAT REFERS TO FIELDS INVOLVED IN THE SCIENCE AND PRACTICE OF UTILIZING PSYCHOLOGICAL KNOWLEDGE AND TECHNIQUES TO THE BETTERMENT OF SPORT, THE IMPROVEMENT OF ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE, THE WELL BEING OF THE INDIVIUDAL AND MANY MORE THINGS TOO! ONE WAY TO THINK OF IT IS THE FIELD OF PSYCHOLOGY APPLIED TO SPORT, BUT IT ALSO INVOLVES THE SPORTS SCIENCES.

You have travelled worldwide as a tennis professional.. Have you always had a passion for sport?

YES. I GREW UP IN SOUTH FLORIDA WHERE I COULD PLAY AND WATCH SPORTS YEAR-ROUND. AT AGE 9 DON SHULA CAME TO TOWN AND IT HAS NEVER BEEN THE SAME IN SOUTH FLORIDA J … TENNIS IS POPULAR ALL OVER THE WORLD, BUT FLORIDA IS A GREAT MECCA FOR THAT SPORT WHICH I TOOK UP IN MY YOUTH

What made you take up writing?

TRAINING AS A PSYCHOLOGIST FORCES YOU TO THINK AND WRITE CLEARLY AND WITH PRECISION. AT THE UNIVERISTY OF FLORIDA I MUST HAVE DONE 3-4 NEW ASSESSMENT REPORTS EACH WEEK ON THE PSYCHOLOGY CLINIC ROTATION FOR MANY YEARS. I SHARED MY KNOWELDGE IN MANY COLUMNS AND THEN WROTE SOME BOOKS. I ENJOY WRITING NOW AS IT IS A WINDOW INTO THE MIND AND A MEANS OF HELPING OTHERS GREATLY.

Tell us a bit about your book Smart tennis: How to Play and Win the Mental Game.

AS A TENNIS PRO, BUDDING CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST, AND BUDDING SPORTS PSYCHOLOGIST, I WANTED TO COMBINE THESE THREE DISCIPLINES TO HELP PEOPLE IMPROVE WITH THEIR STRONGEST WEAPON – THE MIND. I WAS AWARE OF THE WELL KNOWN “INNER GAME OF TENNISâ€? AND BRAD GILBERT’S “WINNING UGLY,â€? BOTH TERRIFIC BOOKS THAT HELPED MY TENNIS GAME AS WELL AS EARLIER COACHING, BUT THERE WAS NOTHING YET THAT REALLY PULLED FROM THE SCIENTIFIC ADVANCES IN SPORTS PSYCHOLOGY TO HELP THE TENNIS PLAYER. TIM GALWEY WAS A COLLEGE TENNIS COACH AND GILBERT WAS A TENNIS PLAYER, BUT NEITHER HAD THE SCIENTIFIC BACKGROUND IN BOTH FIELD OF PSYCHOLOGY THAT I HAD, SO I TRIED TO STAND ON THEIR SHOULDERS AND GO BEYOND THEM TOO IN GIVING PEOPLE AN EASY SET OF SOLID PRINCIPLES THAT WERE FOUNDED ON RESEARCH RATHER THAN ASSUMPTION, DATA RATHER THAN OPINON. IT IS STILL SELLING WELL IN ITS GENRE 10 YEARS LATER AND I SAW IT IN BEIJING, CHINA AND ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA RECENTLY, AND HAS BEEN TRANSATED INTO SPANISH AND JAPANESE AS WELL. IT DID NOT HURT TO GET THE TOP TENNIS PLAYER IN THE WORLD AT THE TIME, LINDSAY DAVENPORT, TO ENDORSE THE BOOK ON THE COVER.

Your commentary is found almost daily in thousands of newspapers, magazines, and trade journals. Did you find it easier to write your book or to write articles for publications? Why?

WRITING ARTICLES IS FAIRLY EASY BECAUSE THE TOPIC IS USUALLY MORE CONFINED AND NARROW. WRITING A BOOK IS DESERT WARFARE. YOU NEED 6 MONTHS OF TOTAL FOCUS WITH AT LEAST 6 HOURS A DAY, AND A PATIENT ATTITUDE TO EDIT IT 20 TIMES IF NEEDED. SO WHILE WRITING A BOOK IS HARDER, IT IS ALSO FAR MORE REWARDING BECAUSE IT EVENTAULLY MAKES IT ALL AROUND THE WORLD AND HELPS MANY MORE PEOPLE.

What projects do you have planned for the future?

MANY. I AM WORKING ON A BOOK ABOUT THE PSYCHOLOGY OF FOOTBALL AND HAVE WORKED ON PROJECTS ABOUT BUSINESS AND DIET/WEIGHT CONTROL. I HAVE A SERIES OF WEBSITE THAT I WILL BE UNLEASHING BEFORE TOO LONG. I HAVE PLANS TO WRITE A MORE GENERAL BOOK ON SPORTS PSYCHOLOGY TOO. IF I EVER GET THE TIME I WOULD LOVE TO WRITE A NOVEL, HOST A NATIONAL TV AND RADIO SHOW, AND KEEP BUILDING AWARENESS ABOUT THIS GREAT FIELD THAT IS REALLY A SCIENCE OF SUCCESS.

Where can people find out more about you and your book?

MY WEBSITE AT WWW.JOHNFMURRAY.COM IS THE STARTING POINT. THE BOOK IS IN MOST BARNES AND NOBLE STORES, AND BORDERS BOOK STORES, OR ON AMAZON.COM OR CAN BE SEEN ALSO AT WWW.SMARTTENNIS.COM

Anything else you’d like to add?

I ALSO LIKE TO COMMENT ON SOCIAL ISSUES IN SPORTS. I THINK THE MAJOR SPORTS TEAMS NEED TO UTILIZE SPORTS PSYCHOLOGSITS ON A DAILY BASIS TO HELP THEIR TEAMS IMPROVE, HELP THE INDIVIDUALS ON THE TEAM LEAD HEALTHIER LIVES, AND TO PREVENTIVELY HELP IN MANY AREAS THAT ARE DETRIMENTAL TO BOTH INDIVIDUALS AND SOCIETY (E.G., GUN VIOLENCE, DRUGS, POOR EXAMPLES FOR OUR CHILDREN).
Posted by Jo Linsdell- Founder and Organiser of PROMO DAY! at 10:40 AM
Labels: books, featured author, Interview, John Murray, sports

NFL teams examine minds of potential draft picks, too

McClatchy Newspapers (Published in over 70 media outlets including AP Wire, Kansas City Star, Boston Herald, Honolulu Advertiser, and more) – Kent Babb – April 19, 2009 – KANSAS CITY, Mo. — They want a breakthrough. They want to dig deep enough to scratch a nerve, break it down and tear through the protective layers of toughness and ambition.

Here’s the scene: A stranger taps you on the shoulder, pointing the way toward a room or a hallway or a corridor, and that’s where he’ll ask questions about your childhood or your past or your parents. You met this person two minutes ago, and you trust the stranger because — why? He’s working for a NFL team at the league’s scouting combine, yet another of a hundred questioning gatekeepers, like the man who measures the vertical jump or the other who initiates the bench-press display.
This stranger is giving a test, and with the right answers, you may pass through his gate and hear your name called at next weekend’s NFL draft. The right combination of answers, and entrance could be worth $40 million.

What if your father is in prison? Or you busted your roommate’s nose at the beginning of sophomore year? Or skipped class for three weeks straight? Or told your coach once to take his playbook and shove it? Or tried Ecstasy once, or was it twice? Or don’t especially enjoy playing football?
“Questions about yourself, nitpicking at your character,â€? says Chiefs offensive tackle Branden Albert, a first-round pick last year. “You’ve got to be honest.â€?

He’ll ask those questions and make notes. He’ll measure your words, your tone, your body language. When he’s finished, you’ll head toward another test, and the sports psychologist will begin compiling a report to share with more strangers, and they’ll determine not just whether you’re worth millions, but if you can handle the reality of being worth that kind of money.

As pro football races to adapt to its next generation — with its growing salaries, refined branding and sharper scrutiny — there is a disturbing byproduct that the league is now trying to curb: Some men are just not mentally prepared for the NFL’s demands.

Former first-round draft picks such as Vince Young, Matt Jones and Plaxico Burress have, within the past year, allegedly displayed regrettable judgment and signs of perhaps questionable mental health, and teams are trying to figure out whether to help players with psychological problems or simply avoid them. They’re trying to settle that debate by examining draft prospects’ minds in the same exhaustive way that, for years, teams have tested players’ bodies.

The combine used to measure height and weight, and that was about it. But that was when an entire team could be paid what a lower-rung player makes today. They might have missed some things back then, and that might not have always been a bad thing.

“There’s got to be some sort of psychological problems with me,â€? says Joe DeLamielleure, a Hall of Fame guard who was drafted in 1973. Joe was undersized, and the Buffalo Bills overlooked that. They also overlooked that before Joe finished Michigan State, his mother was the educated one in the house, having completed eighth grade, and Joe was one of 10 children and a bed wetter and a kid who woke up at 2 a.m. on weeknights to clean his dad’s bar in downtown Detroit, and then he’d climb back into bed for two good hours before it was time to dress for school.

“Teacher told my mother that nobody yawned as much as me,â€? Joe says now. “These days, they’d have looked at all those issues and said, ’Nah, I don’t think this kid can do it.â€?’

NFL teams want the whole truth, and that means digging deeper than ever. Whether it is the best or worst new habit by NFL teams, it is difficult to argue that some don’t yet know how to appropriately gather and digest this information.

According to two well-known doctors, sports psychology in the NFL is held back by intimidation and soiled by inexperience. The problem with all that is teams have never placed as much emphasis on players’ mental framework as they are doing now.

Teams want to eliminate risk, and they have embraced psychological evaluations as a worthy research tool. It’s a start, but some teams’ commitment, comfort and expertise in the science remain in their infancy.

“We’re still in the dark ages,â€? sports psychologist John Murray says. “There are going to be a lot of mistakes as people stumble around.â€?

That was made clear in February, when Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford, the likely No. 1 overall draft pick, was evaluated at the scouting combine. A psychologist affiliated with the San Francisco 49ers reportedly prodded Stafford, 21, about lingering issues related to his parents’ divorce. Stafford bristled, and that made him look evasive; bottled up. The psychologist compiled a report and delivered it to team officials. Stafford’s reaction to the probing compelled a testy but resolute Mike Singletary, the 49ers coach, to say on a radio show that Stafford had failed an essential test — and as a result, Singletary’s team wasn’t planning to draft Stafford.

“Maybe he doesn’t belong here,â€? Singletary told Bay Area radio station KNBR.

Singletary’s comments underscored that NFL teams are no longer muting the importance of mental health. But Stafford’s case also raised concerns about the unpolished manner in which the player was evaluated, worries that the details of a confidential meeting with a psychologist had been discussed and judged publicly, and the reality that some teams view this delicate and complicated science through a black-and-white lens: that a player is either fit or unfit to play professional football.
“You have something that people don’t understand,â€? says Jack Stark, a clinical psychologist who conducted player evaluations during the combine in 1996. “They don’t know what they want.â€?
Here’s the scene: It’s late January 2003, and Barret Robbins is gone again. He’s the Oakland Raiders’ Pro Bowl center, and he has picked Super Bowl week as the time to disappear, wandering San Diego’s streets at night and heading across the border to Tijuana, Mexico. He’ll say later that he drank himself into a stupor and even considered suicide — all because he’s uncertain he can handle the expectations and pressure of playing in the Super Bowl.

After nearly a week of wandering, Robbins is incoherent at the team’s Saturday night meeting. The Raiders suspend Robbins for the Super Bowl, which the team loses, and Robbins’ teammates are furious. A year later, Oakland gives up on him, and Robbins won’t play football again. It is revealed too late that Robbins suffered from bipolar disorder and severe depression. A more haunting fact emerges: Robbins’ problems could have been treated years earlier, possibly preventing his Super Bowl breakdown and a chain reaction that killed his career.

“There were some signs,â€? says Robbins’ agent, Drew Pittman. “It’s a brutal, brutal thing. My awareness of it was changed forever by … seeing the things that happened to him.
“Society in general is not very sympathetic. Over the last five years, society has changed dramatically. The same thing is happening in the NFL.â€?

With Robbins in mind, and last year’s mysterious one-day disappearance of Tennessee Titans quarterback Young, the league is setting foot on unfamiliar ground. The principle of mental evaluations is decades old, but the emphasis is new. Until recently, teams haven’t ruled out prospects because of their psychological profiles.

“If Jeffrey Dahmer could run a 4.2 40,â€? Stark says of the old way, “somebody would go after him.â€?
Today’s standard is driven by the hope that, one way or another, episodes similar to Robbins’ can be avoided — for players’ sake and so that teams’ high-stakes gambles are more likely to pay off. With many examples of breakdowns still fresh, teams are finely tuned to erratic behavior, and they’re no longer burying mental-health concerns under a sea of toughness and machismo, a pair of elements that might have made players reluctant to seek help or admit they needed it.

Most NFL teams do not employ team psychologists. Some keep doctors on retainer or contract them as consultants, such as the time Stark evaluated players for the Miami Dolphins in 1996. Stark says he interviewed two or three players at a time, making notes of the players’ traits — self-promoter, team player, violent history, introverted, etc. — and submitted a single-spaced, one-page report on about 75 prospects. But he also noticed that some team psychologists were not qualified to assess players.

“People would call themselves doctors who weren’t doctors,â€? he says. “The owner will hire somebody they knew or because they did marriage counseling with their kids. It’s not like they go and look for the top 10 guys in the country.â€?

Stark says one “psychologistâ€? at that combine held no doctoral degree and possessed no sports psychology experience. He was, in fact, a counselor at a prison in Louisiana.

“An old boys’ network,â€? Murray says. “Legitimacy is ignored. They’re going to get what they paid for.â€?
Greg Aiello, the NFL’s senior vice president of public relations, says the league doesn’t regulate how teams conduct evaluations, enforce a standard for teams to follow, or suggest whom a team should choose to analyze prospects.

More unsettling, Stark says, is that some haven’t acknowledged that psychology begins, and doesn’t end, at an evaluation. As teams struggle to understand what their observations mean, players with perceived problems are being shunned.

“There’s a stigma,â€? Pittman says.

Here’s the scene: At the same combine that Stafford was questioned, scouts were eager to watch another potential No. 1 pick, former Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith. He is big, strong and athletic — the prototype NFL lineman. Earlier this year, Smith had been rated by ESPN’s scouting service as the most talented prospect in the 2009 draft class. But there was a problem when it was Smith’s turn to face the gatekeepers: He had disappeared.

Last month at Alabama’s pro day, Smith, a 332-pound lineman, stunned observers by removing his shirt before lumbering down a track. Last week, he fired his agent. All this after Smith was suspended for January’s Sugar Bowl.

Smith’s episodes of unpredictable behavior have added up, and he’s seen as a risky player. Now, ESPN ranks Smith as the No. 14 prospect, and he might fall from the draft’s top 10, perhaps costing him millions. Alabama coach Nick Saban, a former NFL coach, has tried to slow Smith’s fall by explaining to league officials that he simply received and followed bad advice.

“Andre Smith is a good person, a good guy,â€? Saban says. “This is a little bit of a lesson for maybe all players to learn.â€?

Stark says he has recommended to coaches that they hire full-time sports psychologists to help players who display erratic behavior, sometimes an early signal of a disorder. That way, the team that drafts a player such as Smith can determine whether he is among the 40 percent of the United States population that, according to Stark, suffers from mental illness.

“It could be a red flag,â€? he says of Smith’s behavior, “but it could be a normal reaction to being scared. Some of these kids have nobody to talk to.

“If I’m going to pay 25 million for this guy, I need to know if he’s going to walk out of camp if my coach yells at him. But let’s get him some help from the day he gets here.â€?
Stark says at least three teams — the Indianapolis Colts, Carolina Panthers and New York Giants — acknowledge the value of thorough evaluations conducted by qualified doctors. He says their examinations are comprehensive and as thorough as time constraints allow.

“They know what they’re doing,â€? he says.

But some executives and coaches remain skeptical. He says some have told him it is the coach’s job to manage players’ moods, and in the event of a crisis beyond the coach’s expertise or patience, players are directed to the team chaplain.

Stark says he would be surprised if Stafford ever trusts a therapist after his combine interview. Worse, the episode might have stifled the NFL’s progress toward taking mental health seriously. Stafford was, in a way, punished for being honest — and Stark says Stafford, and others who paid attention, might have taken from that experience that it’s better to deny or ignore problems than to address them. Stark says that contradicts what psychology is meant to accomplish.

“It’s a mess,â€? he says.

Murray says that players’ inevitable hesitation will not ease until teams invest in licensed, legitimate doctors and understand that a player’s mind cannot be disassembled and understood in the 30-minute blocks afforded each team at the combine. San Francisco 49ers director of public relations Bob Lange would neither identify the psychologist who interviewed Stafford, whether he or she is licensed, or reveal whether he or she was a team employee. Lange says that as a matter of policy, the team doesn’t discuss any part of the team’s medical approach.

“For too long,â€? Murray says, “they’ve tried to sweep it under the rug and say it’s not important. But now that they’ve embraced it, they’re doing it awkwardly.

“It’s a complex, mysterious thing, the mind. It’s a very delicate thing you have to deal with. You get all this training and you get all geared up to go, ready to help some team, and they’re afraid of it.â€?
Murray says that teams haven’t mastered how to retrieve information or find a suitable avenue to use it, but he admits it is encouraging that the NFL has begun to acknowledge the mind as a pathway to success or failure.

The mind, after all, might be the last natural frontier of predicting the difference between Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf, players who look the same on film but are far different in how they approach success and handle it. An informed, educated opinion might win a Super Bowl, and a wrong decision might set in motion a $40 million mistake.

“That decision is so critical,â€? Stark says. “Any little edge is huge. They’re looking at you and saying, ’Jack, I can’t be wrong on this one. I’ll lose my job.’ There’s just too much money involved. You can’t afford to guess wrong.â€?

Niners need to get their heads checked for stance on Stafford

Si.com – Austin Murphy – Murphy’s Law – The Jay Cutler telenovela having played out, a consensus seems to be coalescing among NFL draftniks that the Detroit Lions will make Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford the top pick in the draft.

They like his potent arm, his intelligence, his field generalship, forged in the crucible of the SEC. (Cue NFL Films orchestra, please.)

But are they missing something? Might Stafford be concealing a flaw, some pathology of character that could give fresh life to the Bobby-Layne-leveled curse that has plagued this franchise for the last half-century?

The San Francisco 49ers have done their homework, having gone spelunking in Stafford’s brain, and they’ve found something to give them pause. And we need to listen to the 49ers. It’s not as if they’re some sad-sack franchise like the Lions, who’ve been down so long it looks like up to them. No, the Niners have won 32 times since 2002 — a whopping six more victories than Detroit has managed in the same period.

In a recent SI feature, Stafford revealed to Peter King that during an interview at the NFL combine, the 49ers team psychologist pressed him on the subject of the divorce of Stafford’s parents when the quarterback was in high school. Stafford says he assured the shrink he’d adjusted well, only to be told he “sounded if he might have unfinished business.” After wisecracking to King that he wondered, in that moment, “how much I’m being charged per hour for this,” Stafford was quick to point out that he got it: with clubs forking over fortunes for first-round talent, no one wants to leave a stone unturned.

That mini-controversy was given fresh life recently, when Niners head coach Mike Singletary all but dismissed the possibility of drafting Stafford in a radio interview with KNBR in San Francisco. “If you’re going to look at drafting a guy in the first round,” he told host Ralph Barbieri, “and you’re going to pay him millions of dollars, and asking him about a divorce about his parents, if that’s going to be an issue, then you know what? Maybe he doesn’t belong here.”

By that point in the interview, it bears noting, Singletary was a bit testy. Hoping to talk about minicamp, he was instead peppered by Barbieri with knottier questions: Who is in charge here? What is the club’s chain of command? Did the 49ers get played by Kurt Warner? What happened with Stafford?

By refusing to wilt before Singletary’s clear and mounting displeasure, Barbieri served as an advocate for 49ers fans desperate for salvation from, among other things, the club’s ghastly play at the quarterback position in recent seasons. Things aren’t exactly looking up in ’09, as the Niners get ready to roll with the hydra-headed three-and-out machine otherwise known as Shaun Hill, J.T. O’Sullivan and Alex Smith.

Of the 49ers myriad needs, none is more pressing than this position. So you can’t blame Niners fans for their confusion and frustration over the fact the club has taken draft’s highest-rated signal-caller off its board because some shrink divined a buried trauma from Stafford’s adolescence.

Who is being unreasonable here? I asked Dr. John F. Murray, a Florida-based author and sports psychologist, to provide some perspective.

Of Stafford’s reluctance to “go deep” on the divorce issue, says Murray, “I can see how Singletary might view that as possibly an example of not coping with stress; of exhibiting defensiveness. They’re going to need to work closely with this guy, so if he’s reluctant to open up, that could be a red flag for the future.”

At the same time, he says, “It’s easy to see how questions about family, about sensitive situations, during a brief interview at the combine could put [Stafford] off.”

Before they tackle heavy issues, Murray explains, psychologists first spend many hours establishing a rapport and comfort zone with patients. “I’m getting to know them,” he said. “I’m asking questions in a confidential way to develop a profile so I can help them over time.” If Stafford was grilled by a stranger he viewed as a “tool trying determine his fitness for the NFL,” says Murray, “it’s easy to see why he would get his back up.”

The problem, he says, is that while NFL coaches are finally realizing “how critical mental skills are to success, they’re still experiencing growing pains in terms of understanding and dealing with psychology.” Some teams don’t get, in other words, “that it’s inappropriate to kind of shove a psychologist in somebody’s face at the last second for a particular test.”

Stafford’s awkward interview typifies the sort of heavy-handed, Orwellian overkill with which the NFL combine has become synonymous — and for which Singletary, for one, does not apologize. Once he’d simmered down on the KNBR’s air, the coach defended his team’s decision to subject Stafford to the Freud treatment.

Emphasizing the need to do homework on these guys, he pointed out that “there’s only about five or six [first-round picks] that really make an impact … It’s not an exact science, but you just have to work your tail off.” That’s why they flew in a psychologist, he went on. And even if the shrink’s questions sound “silly” and “dumb” out of context, “all of that information goes into our decision-making.”

This is where they run into problems. How much weight to attach to different nuggets of information? J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI compiled smaller dossiers on suspected reds than NFL teams have on potential free-agent signees. They’ve got two or three or four years worth of game tape. They’ve got combine results, pro day results. They’ve invited guys to visit them at their headquarters. By the time the draft rolls around, they are drowning in data.

Of course it’s important to work hard. Everybody in the NFL works hard. The 49ers are trying to return to the heights they first scaled under Bill Walsh, who died in 2007. While they scan the reports submitted by the team psychologist, members of the 49ers brain trust (such as it is) would do well to remember that, as much as he valued hard work, Walsh believed it was even more important to work smart.

GOLD: Coaches go from a scream to a whisper

Los Angeles Daily News – Jon Gold – March 14, 2009 – In a parallel universe, Keith Higgins would beckon Randall Harris to the Reseda bench, put his arm around Harris’s slight shoulders, apologize for disturbing him and politely ask if he could dole out some advice. “Now, Randall,” Higgins would say ever-so-gently, “next time you drive, look for Ryan Watkins crashing down toward the basket, and if you don’t mind – and, now, this is just a suggestion – perhaps you could pass Watkins the ball.” And Harris would say, “Gee, coach, I didn’t see it like that. Thanks for the tip. Gosh, you’re swell.” And they would both smile, go on their merry ways.

But this is not the Brady Bunch, Higgins is not Greg Brady and Harris is not the youngest one in curls.
This is Los Angeles City Section basketball and Higgins is screaming his head off. He tears into Harris with the wrath of a thousand wronged prison wardens. The veins popping out of his forehead have veins popping out of their foreheads. He is trying to prove a point and he is doing so by giving Harris a first hand look at his tonsils.

Another coach might simply calmly explain himself go over XS, reiterate us. Out of ten college pro or college games this weekend, ten different coaches will coach ten different ways. Some will yell. Some will whisper. Harvard Westlake of North Hollywood boys coach Greg Hilliard is a whisperer, living proof that yelling is not the only way.

Just when a game was getting a little close for comfort Thurday, Hilliard was relaxing. If Higgins storms the sidelines like in battle, Hilliard might as well be lounging in a recliner in Brookstown. Don’t confuse calm for disinterest though. Hilliard is just as passionate as Higgins. He just channels it differently. “I have a hard time reaching a boiling point when it comes to a kids game,” said Hilliard, who has led Harvard Westlake to nine CFS championships. I understand how the frustration builds. There are skills you develop to keep some of those things inside.

When I was younger and more frustrated, I’d go out for a three mile run after a game. Higgins doesn’t run. He yells. His style is to scream. And as he let’s Harris have it for not giving the hot handed watkins the ball on the previous play, Harris lets it all soak in. On the next trip down the court, Harris passes off to Watkins who sinks the bucket. Point taken. State bucking the trend. on that play Harris responded. It doesn’t always work so well. In a recent game, Higgins summoned Harris to the sideline and shouted at his point guard to get the defense into a two minus two minus one zone. Harris felt the team should instead shift to the one minus three minus one. Higgins insisted on the two minus two minus one. Harris reiterated his preference for the one minus three minus one. Back and forth they went.

“For me, it’s not hard to stick up for myself,” Harris said. “I go ahead and say it. Sometimes we go back and forth, but never in a negative way. We’ve never argued on something negative. Most of the time when he’s yelling at me it’s something I really need to hear. Harris can handle it. Some kids cannot. But that makes no difference to Higgins. This is his style, his way. He knows no other. With kids, it’s about survival. “They can pick up on vibes,” Higgins said. “They have a sense. They know if you’re real or fake. Their only sense it to figure out when you’re real or faking it. They know that when I’m on the court I’m real. I’m Coach Higgins. I only know one style and that’s my style.”

At Lock High School, he played for Coach Michael Jackson, the exact opposite, a pacifist, not in your face, but gentle. To Higgins it didn’t work. It did, however, lay the foundation for Higgins’ style. “My high school coach was more reserved and when you’re playing at Lock against Westchester and Crenshaw it doesn’t work,” Higgins said. “I wish someone pushed us a little harder. Back in those days, teams scored one hundred points in a game against us because we didn’t get after it, didn’t have the passion, the fire.” Higgins does not have a problem with passion. If anything, he has too much. His own high school coach was quite the opposite.

“We’ve learned to associate success with certain mannerisms,” said John F. Murray, a noted sports psychologist based in Florida. “If (Coach Higgins) associated failure with being mellow, then he’ll react differently. He was a smart kid and he learned to make those adjustments as a coach, and he did.

When Higgins took over at Receda three years ago he was confrontational from the get go. A new coach might take a different approach, might try to make nice with parents and players and faculty. He immediately made his personality known for better or worse. You go to English class, Math class it’s straightforward. On the court it’s emotions, Higgins said. At times you have to be that father figure. But there’s that fine line, father figure and coach, and the best coaches know how to juggle
that.

Not the only way, like Higgins, Hilliard was affected by his own coaches who came from an earlier generation than Higgins. Back then coaches were drill seargents and drill seargents begat softer coaches just as the next generation of softer coaches begat the Higgins of the world. “Our experiences make us who we are,” Hilliard said. “Without ado, the experiences I had as a kid made me who I am. I felt there was an absense of coaches who do it the way I do. You have the John Wooden model, my personal model, who thinks of himself as a teacher first. You have the drill seargent approach and they get great results in the heat of battle. Overall, for the success of the team, which is reaching fifteen players at a time, I’ve never wished I had a different style. Like Higgins, he knew from his start as well. “I realized very early that wasn’t going to be my style,” Hilliard said. “I started
as a head coach 35 years ago by myself, no assistants. Now, I don’t believe in going after a kid or going off but I always have a coach who can step in and be that for a kid.”

So it seems, Hilliard might not be the one to yell, but he knows the kids sometimes need to be yelled at, setting a tone. It is the second quarter against Liberty and Receda has started to showboat. Four of the first drives have resulted in lone layups. A would be game changing dunk carems off the back of the rim. Higgins is livid. He calls a timeout. His face is contorted in a way that would scard Lucifer. His eyebrows are furled in a way that displays pure, absolute disgust. His head shakes slowly, yet he says nothing, almost as if he is ready to unleash fiery hell, but is just now forming the words. His lip snarls. His eyes burn. This is not a happy Higgins. “You guys are playing the crowd. Stop looking East/West. Look North/South. He will later said he had to lay into them. Another coach might have drawn a diagram or simply called the offending player over for a quick lesson. Higgins ignores the clipboard and screams at all. It is not without consideration.

“This sounds crazy, but I try to really coach them for life,” said Higgins, whose own playing career was derailed by a car accident in 2000. “When I talk to a kid I always think about how it will affect their lives. I know this will help them be men or help them be stronger. I know these kids look at me as the coach, some as a father. I won’t have regrets because I know it will help them, and Murray says it will. Murray has worked with athletes in all sports from preps to pros. His clientel listings include some of the world’s top performers. “While every athlete reacts differently to a coaches words they all seem to respond to yelling by at least paying attention. There’s no quicker way to get attention, to have immediate behavior shift with a young person than with a slight form of punishment, Murray said, and yelling is a slight form of punishment. At the younger levels it can leave scars, psychopathology, boyish behavior, but in a structured setting it may be a good facilitator to get people to act. It might mirror the quickness with which a coach needs to respond in a basketball game. There’s no better way to wake somebody up.”

Randall Harris played basketball for years under the same coach, his father, who coached in a similar manner to Higgins. When Harris transfered to Receda from TAP and began playing for his Higgins for his last season he immediately reacted to the rants and raves of a fiery coach. “I’m pretty used to it,” Harris said. “I know where he’s coming from. I don’t take it as he’s screaming at me. He’s giving me instruction. I listen to what he’s saying, not the tone of how he’s saying it. But really, that’s exactly what he’s listening to.

“When you’re in somebody’s face and giving immediate feedback that’s often what kids are looking for,” Murray said. But there’s a lot more that goes into it than yelling. Yelling itself is not what gains respect. Being real. Higgins will approach you with his hand extended from a mile away, a smile swept across his face. Off the court after the game has ended he’s a prince. His handshakes last for minutes, his other hand draped across the shoulder as if to say “you’re my brother.”

Hilliard, whose Wolverines play Oceanview at noon, is like a kind uncle, the successful uncle who passes out words of wisdom and whose words of wisdom are to never be questioned because, why would you question them. The common link between the two besides success (both are section champions this season) is that they are both completely honest in the delivery of their respective styles. Higgins is a yeller and a screamer and he gets close enough in his kid’s faces that they could taste the same piece of gum. Hilliard is the quiet one who will sit in his chair on the sidelines and save his words for when it matters most, barely rising above a peep. “I got started in coaching because I wanted to be the kind of coach I didn’t play for growing up,” Hilliard said. That’s a coach who sets an example and became a mentor. “I don’t judge what another coach does in any way. I imagine that some of my kids would benefit by that kick in the butt. Hopefully you reach people by your style. Some of my good friends in the coaching business are wild men on the sidelines. You have to be who you are as a coach.

Hilliard is a whisperer. Higgins is a yeller. Both are winners.

Will statistics, psychology bounce Pitt’s way?

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – Mark Roth – March 20, 2009 – As the Pitt Panthers begin NCAA tournament play, it’s likely their fans have a split personality.

Even if they don’t want to admit it, a sizable proportion may be focused on how soon the team is going to disappoint them. Others are wondering how they can get to Detroit to watch Pitt play in the championship next month.

How realistic is either mindset?

For the answers, we turn to the experts — social psychologists, computer scientists, sports psychologists and behavioral economists.

None of them has played Division I hoops, and one even said, “You couldn’t fathom the depth of my ignorance about college basketball.” But they have something else going for them — a knowledge of statistics and the way humans behave.

Pitt has made it into the tournament for eight straight years, but has never made it past the Sweet Sixteen, or third round.

And while that may be a statistical trend of sorts, it may not be the right one to use this year, says Sheldon Jacobson, a computer scientist at the University of Illinois.

The key this year is that Pitt is a No. 1 seed, meaning the NCAA selection committee made it the top pick in one of four regions. In the past, Pitt was never higher than a second seed, and in most of the eight-year span, it ranged between a third and fifth seed.

The historical difference in outcomes for No. 1 seeds in the first rounds of the tournament is startling.

Since the modern version of the tournament began in 1985, 72 percent of the No. 1 seeds have won in the Sweet Sixteen round. But only 46 percent of the second seeds have won in that round, and only 24 percent of third seeds have.

So, says social psychologist Jonah Berger of the University of Pennsylvania, the question for any glass-half-empty Pitt fans should be: “What is the correct reference point to use here? Is it past performance, or is it the expectation for a No. 1 seed?”

On the other hand, for those who believe Pitt will relentlessly sweep into the championship game, Dr. Jacobson has these words of caution — once the tournament reaches the fourth round, with just the Elite Eight teams remaining, there is absolutely no statistical difference in results between the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 seeds.

But wait, some fans will say, didn’t all four No. 1 seeds make it into the Final Four last year?

Pity them. They haven’t heard of “regression to the mean,” which is a fancy mathematical way of saying the law of averages will eventually win out.

In the 24 years the modern NCAA tournament has existed, No. 1 seeds have made it into the Final Four about a quarter of the time. So this year, Dr. Jacobson said, the odds are that there will be one and maybe two No. 1 seeds that make it that far (the others are Louisville, Connecticut and North Carolina).

As the teams push forward in the tournament, most fans want their favorites to play with a comfortable lead in each game. It’s easier on the nerves and lowers copious consumption of various snack foods.

But being ahead is not always the best thing, the experts say.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Berger just finished a study that showed that when college basketball teams are behind by one point at halftime, they go on to win more than half the time, and win at a rate that is about six percentage points better than would have been expected.

“The key take-home from this,” Dr. Berger said, “is that losing can be motivating, and as a result can lead you to more success.”

In a lab experiment he did as part of the study, Dr. Berger found that when students playing a keyboard game were told halfway through that they were slightly behind their opponents, they worked harder in the second half of the contest. Interestingly, those who were told they were slightly ahead did not slack off — but they also didn’t boost their effort as much.

For some teams, that leveling-off effect can be magnified if their advantage is even bigger.

“I definitely agree if you’re up by 10 points, you can start to be fat and happy and get complacent,” Dr. Berger said.

“When you have a more talented team playing a less talented team,” Dr. Jacobson added, “and they ‘take the air out of the ball’ to protect a lead, what happens is that you equalize the skill levels of the two teams.”

Part of the reason why some teams squander leads is a phenomenon called “loss aversion,” a basic principle in human behavior that says the pain we feel from losing something we have outweighs the pleasure we get from gaining something we don’t have.

That could help explain why some coaches and players stop taking calculated risks when they have a lead, said George Loewenstein, a behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon University.

The other basic human tendency that comes into play in those situations is that players often lose motivation when they get too far ahead, even if they aren’t entirely conscious of it. Having a big lead “is so demotivating that the team that’s behind ends up coming back,” he said.

So, you’re probably thinking, it’s better if my favorite team plays close games all the way through, right?

Maybe, said Dr. Loewenstein, as long as key players don’t fall prey to “regret aversion.”

Regret aversion is the double-whammy cousin of loss aversion. It’s when you not only fear losing something you have (like a lead), but fear that you’ll be blamed for it. When that happens, players can choke, he said.

Dr. Loewenstein, echoing what many coaches say, speculates that the reason some players suddenly become clumsy or inaccurate under pressure is that they start thinking too much about what they are doing.

Most top athletes have trained so long and hard that the majority of their skills are automatic, he said.

“It’s all being orchestrated by unconscious learned mechanisms that tend to be toward the back of your brain,” he said, “and what happens is that when something is really, really important to you there’s a tendency to use the front part of your brain, even though the reality is you would perform much better if you used the back part of the brain.”

John Murray, a sports psychologist based in Palm Beach, Fla., said that fits with the philosophy he espouses in coaching professional athletes.

“I try to get people to strive toward success,” he said, “and not think about the outcome. Focusing on a positive action or skill leads to a successful outcome, but thinking about the outcome distracts your focus on the things you need to do, which is all that you have control over, anyway.”

So doesn’t it make sense that fans of elite teams would adopt the same attitude?

Unfortunately, that isn’t necessarily part of fan DNA, Dr. Loewenstein said.

“If it’s a close football game, and someone can win it with a 40-yard field goal,” he said, “if you ask a typical group of fans whether their team will make that field goal, they’ll say no. If you ask whether the other team will make it, they’ll say yes.”

Of course, that only goes to show that we fans are, as one behavioral economist has put it, “predictably irrational.”

We rely on popular conventional wisdom to get us through most situations, Dr. Jacobson said, but in fact, statistics show that real popular conventional wisdom “is rarely popular and almost never conventional, so whatever people expect to happen rarely does.”

A change would do Federer good if he wants to shed Nadal curse

CBS Sports – Lesley Visser – March 30, 2009 – KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — Nick Bollettieri, who has coached 10 No. 1 players in the world — from Becker to Agassi to Seles to Sharapova –- didn’t mince words when reflecting on what Roger Federer has to do to regain the form that made him dominant for most of the decade.

“I think he has to change his game completely,” Bollettieri said. “He’s got to serve and volley, he’s got to take chances to come in and he’s got to do something about his confidence.”

Federer is often voted fan favorite and cited for his sportsmanship, but his game has lost its gentlemanly swagger. It’s well documented that he lost his No. 1 ranking to Rafael Nadal, who has now won 13 of the 19 matches they’ve played, including epic battles at Wimbledon and the Australian Open.

For the first time in five years, Federer isn’t seeded first here at the Sony Ericsson Open, and it has been two years since he won a Masters Series event, the tournaments listed just below the Grand Slams. Federer, always dangerous but lately less damaging, could face Andy Roddick in a rematch of last year’s quarterfinal, where Roddick stunned the Swiss legend. Moving on, he would likely face Andy Murray or Nadal, both of whom have his number.

“Roger’s such a laid-back kid,” said Bollettieri, who, at 77, looks at someone 27 as still in his boyhood. “He has problems with Murray (who is 6-2 against Federer), but his major hurdle is Nadal. Roger has got to improve his backhand when Nadal hits that heavy topspin crosscourt. Roger should aim for the middle of the court.”

Nadal is hungry now, playing with breathtaking speed and power. The world No. 1, the French and Australian Open champion, the Wimbledon champion, the man who saved five match points just weeks ago against David Nalbandian  in the fourth round at Indian Wells, which he won, has nothing missing in his game.

“He’s got everything,” said legend Bud Collins. “He can play offense or defense, he can serve, he has strength, he can control the game from the baseline and he has the best inside-out forehand since Jim Courier.”

Nadal has already won six Grand Slams, an Olympic gold medal and a Davis Cup championship. He also has Toni Nadal, his uncle and coach, a position Federer has not filled since severing his relationship with Tony Roche two years ago.

“I think Roger needs a coach,” said Collins. “He told me once years ago, ‘I want to hear my own voice,’ but Nadal has crawled into his head, like a worm.”

Federer spoiled us with his gorgeous, unstoppable tennis, but he has now lost five straight matches to the Spaniard Nadal. Federer has been the overachieving perfectionist, effortless on the court. But now he needs a mental tune-up.

“Nadal is in his head,” said Collins, “the way Bjorn Borg couldn’t beat John McEnroe at the U.S. Open. This is an incredible rivalry, but Roger has lost his confidence.”

Is Federer’s run over? Will he ever win another Grand Slam? Or does he just need Dr. Phil?

“Well maybe not Dr. Phil,” said longtime sports psychologist Dr. John Murray who traveled with Vince Spadea to the Australian Open. “There is no doubt that mental coaching can have an enormous effect on confidence, and, for Roger, the clock is ticking. He should be talking regularly — 30- to 60-minute sessions, to someone who’s done a full assessment of him and his game, someone who’s actively getting him ready for matches, not just a sit down with a therapist.”

At 2-2 of the fifth and final set at Wimbledon, during the second rain delay, Nadal talked to his coach, Toni, and his trainer, Rafael Maymo, in the locker room. After two successive losses to Federer on the lawn at SW19, Nadal told his team he knew he was going to win this one. In January, Nadal brought Federer to exhausted, emotional tears after winning the Australian Open 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (7-3), 3-6, 6-2 and accepting the trophy from Rod Laver. The Sony Ericsson is scheduled to be their next encounter.

“I know this is a big week for me,” said Federer after his second-round win over Kevin Kim. “Last season was very, very tough. I’ve been struggling against Rafa, and Murray, too. I have to get wins against them to turn it around.”

Nadal is 22 and will try to prevent Federer from capturing a record-tying 14th Grand Slam. But the mighty lefty, Nadal, and the gossamer righty, Federer, have given us magnificent memories.

“Tennis has not had a period like this, with two such gentlemen at the top, since Don Budge and Gottfried Von Cramm,” said Collins of the two rivals known for their courtesy in the 1930s. “They’re both so unselfish — we’re in a golden period.”