By John F. Murray, PhD
First, What is Happening in the NFL Playoffs!
Hello from clinical and sports performance psychologist Dr. John F. Murray in Palm Beach, Florida. With all the excitement and craziness that is the NFL and the 2016 playoffs, I thought it was time to chime in again.
There is no question that the Cincinnati Bengals just lost a game mentally to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Not only did they lose it, they lost it big and they lost it because they had obviously not been properly prepared to deal with emotions in the heat of battle. Joey Porter taunted them and they bit. This kind of behavior is unacceptable and they are sadly at home watching the rest of the playoffs because their mental performance stunk. It is a hard lesson to learn, but one that teams seems to keep forgetting about time and time again.
With proper advanced imagery and resilience training, those kinds of mistakes would never happen. Players would have been so inundated with mental distractions and frustrations in visualization sessions where they were forced to keep their cool that the likelihood of a meltdown would have been close to zero. We have seen this thousands of times in sports and we will continue to see it most often in teams and athletes not training their mental skills regularly.
Over in another wildcard playoff game, Blair Walsh missed a chip shot field goal that was closer than an extra point to lose a game when the team had all but sealed the victory against the Seahawks. On the one hand I must feel really bad for Walsh and we are all human and this can happen. On the other hand, the success rate of a 27 yard field goal is above 98%, so the skill itself is virtually automatic. This same skill under the extreme pressure of winning or losing is not so easy. This demonstrates that what you see is not what you get when it comes to pressure, and it only argues further that players need to train regularly their minds for such occasions.
In my work, I see these things all the time because mental performance comes out in the ordinary moments of sports just as it does in the critical moments. There are countless careless lapses in the first quarters of games, just as there are horrible chokes in the fourth quarters. The reality is that mental performance is always around us, and the team or athlete that manages their mental skills better (areas such as confidence, focus, goals, resilience, emotional control, imagery etc.) gain an often decisive advantage over those who do not. In fact, in my book “The Mental Performance Index” I discovered that this newly created measure that included mental performance accounted for success better in the Super Bowl games than any other factor and it was upwards of 80% correlated with success. Ignore mental skills only to your peril was the take home message of my study and book.
Now I’d like to share with you a little guarantee that I made to the entire sports world and it’s a slight variation of a previous article that I published.
Sports are constantly in flux and evolving. New techniques and plays are always being developed and there is an almost linear progression that seems to take place from year to year as more money, research and accumulated experience contribute to a better mousetrap. NFL passes thrown as they were in 1946 would be easily picked off by most high school safeties today. Tennis forehands in 1930 at Wimbledon would not come close to winning in the first round of any boy’s 16 year old championship today, and major league baseball pitchers from the 1920s would probably be knocked out in the first inning of every division I college game today. Darwin was right … evolution is relentless!
One of the still rarely discussed, but no less important aspects of peak performance improvement takes place in the training of the mind or “mental coaching” as it is often called. While athletes may only be able to jump so high and sprint so fast, there is an equally important aspect of achievement that is much more flexible and amenable to change. It has unlimited potential unlike the physical ceilings of jump height or strength. It resides between the ears in that most marvelous computer of all – the brain – and it flexes its own form of elbow grease in areas such as hope, confidence, focus, resilience and smarter decision making.
Sports psychology is the science and practice most responsible for this training of the brain for high performance, and many casual observers just assume that all great athletes have a sports psychologist or mental coach, but I have found that not to be true at all. My estimation having worked 17 years as an independent practicing clinical and sports psychologist is that less than 10% of college, professional and Olympic athletes are doing mental training regularly and properly. While this may seem very odd, since gaining a performance advantage is crucial and the most pressing need for these great competitors, consider the reality. When I completed my specialized internship in sports psychology from 1997 to 1998, it was the only sports psychology internship in the United States that was also approved and accredited by the American Psychological Association’s internship consortium! I’m not sure the situation is much better today, 18 years later. Training opportunities are rare and hard to find.
The truth is that the profession that trains practitioners to do mental coaching and sports psychology work is still in its infancy. Let’s consider the analogy of the development of the field and practice of psychology itself. While the science of psychology began in a Leipzig, Germany lab in the 1880s, it was not until the 1960s and 70s that it was commonplace to see a psychologist in private practice. I like to call this beginning recognition of the field as the “Bob Newhart” era, after the popular sitcom of the 70s depicting the Chicago-based psychologist we all know and love.
Dr. Phil is an extension of Bob Newhart in the media today, but even he is not a sports psychologist. So when you consider that it took about 90 years for the science of psychology to become a viable widespread clinical practice, there should be no surprise that qualified and experienced sports psychologists are few and far between since this science only began in the 1960s and 70s, or just 40 years ago. By psychology standards, the field and practice of sports psychology is like psychology was in 1925! It was all over the world in academic and research settings, but only a handful of rare individuals practiced psychology back then. It was not until after WW2 with the training opportunities of the VA hospital system brought about by head injuries sustained on the battlefront, that psychology really had an opportunity to become a profession. The Boulder Conference, as it was called, created hundreds of internships for future practicing psychologists overnight in the VA system. There are many thousands of psychologists today but still only a handful of properly trained and qualified sports psychologists.
I knew I was taking a little bit of a risk in getting into such a new field when I went back to graduate school in 1991. I had been a tennis coach worldwide, and mostly in Europe, and over there the idea of mental coaching had taken much firmer hold philosophically, but the graduate school education was still far better in the United States. So I came back to the University of Florida, got a couple masters degrees, a PhD, the aforementioned specialized internship, and finally a specialized postdoctoral fellowship. By 1999, I was on my way with a new practice in a very rare field.
I was in a field that was so new that I realized I had to publish to get the word out. I wrote hundreds of articles and I wrote the book “Smart Tennis: How to Play and Win the Mental Game” and got the top tennis player at the time, Lindsay Davenport, to endorse it. It is now in three languages with almost 20 printings. I later wrote a second book that expressed my passion for all that is football and titled it “The Mental Performance Index: Ranking the Best Teams in Super Bowl History.” This book was also very well endorsed. The reviews from NFL Films and Tom Flores were excellent. Even Don Shula gave me a quote. However, even these powerful recommendations will take time to hit the mainstream. I had to do more.
In writing this second book, I realized that I had stumbled upon a major finding, and I grow ever more excited whenever I ponder this. Since the beginning of mankind, mental skills and smart play were always important for survival. In the cave era, if you wanted to feed your village, you had to remain calm, poised and focused to be able to properly throw that spear into the wooly mammoth. While there were certainly no sports psychologists back then, and still few today, the truth then and today remains that mental performance is and always was critical to success. Spear throwers had to figure it out alone back then.
Broadcasters, sports writers, and authors all lend credence to the vast importance of peak mental performance that still exists today. Athletes known as overachievers constantly outperform those with more raw speed or strength because they make better decisions. The stay focused rather than getting rattled in the heat of battle. They remain confident and resilient no matter what the situation is, and we all recognize that their performance has nothing to do with their limbs and muscles and everything to do with their brain! It was this realization that mental performance matters that led me on the passionate journey of creating a “Mental Performance Index” and writing a book with the same name in order to share my passion.
I realized that mental performance was critical, but I was astounded that nobody was taking the time to measure it. There were no statistics to capture how well a team performed mentally, so I decided to create one, and the abbreviation is MPI. The most amazing part of this is what happened when I analyzed the data for my book. I had studied every play in Super Bowl history and rated each play with the MPI, essentially measuring football a different way by looking at each moment and including an adjustment for the mental performance. When I did this with the help of several statisticians, I discovered something phenomenal. It was this MPI, or measurement of the moment, that correlated best with winning when compared with almost 40 other statistics. This emphasis on performance in the moment and mental skills, in other words, had best captured what it takes to win a football game. In my mind, what had always been known, but never formerly measured until the MPI, was not only important to success …. it is probably the most important factor in success!
Since my book and passion are very much centered on the sport of football, why are there still so few sports psychologists in the NFL? How about the other major sports of hockey, baseball and basketball? While I’ve worked with professional franchises and their top stars, both privately and paid by the teams, it has usually been to put out fires or help a single player rather than as a program to prepare entire teams for success.
The bottom line is that coaches and executives in the major professional sports have still not really discovered sports psychology. Given that today is still analogous to only the year 1925 in psychology terms, this should not be too surprising. But given the amount of money spent on top players, and the turnover rate in coaching and high management, one would think that mental coaching would have been long ago discovered as essential for every team from day one of training camp. What else could be going on you might ask?
I think there is still a fear of the unknown. It is a fear that coaches and managers have about mental coaching and peak performance sports psychology. Could this be a fear that hiring a top employee or consultant will somehow steal the thunder of the head coach, or put the team at risk in some way? Coaches cannot be that controlling, can they?
While I cannot speak for other sports psychologists, I always start with the assumption that the coach is the captain of the ship and I am there to provide a needed service just the same way any professional would, all the way from the team physician to the dentist, trainer, assistant coach, and massage therapist. I am not the coach and have no desire to be the coach. He brings me in to help with his own philosophy of football. I am there to adapt to his needs to help him and help the team and players achieve worthy goals.
I do know that about 12 years ago, while on the sidelines of an NFL team practice, the head coach said the following to me: “While you might be the best and most well trained sports psychologist in the world, I just cannot stand in front of my team today and tell them they have a psychologist.” That comment still reverberates with me today as the possible reason why there is hesitancy, but I think times are changing. In other words, in the past there was the idea that it was shameful or showed weakness in some way to seek mental coaching. When you consider the history of mental health care, which began in treating those who were mentally ill, it makes sense. That coach somehow thought that telling his team that they had a success coach was the same as telling them they were all mentally ill. How ludicrous, but how probably true! I get it. He was afraid!
It is my hope that today more coaches and managers will realize that just as doctors and lawyers and coaches study for years and practice for years to accumulate knowledge and practical wisdom in their chosen area of study, smart sports psychologists are no different. I did not get into the field to treat mental illness. I did not spend years in graduate school to have someone be ashamed of my profession. I had been a worldwide coach, and I wanted to open my expertise to the new and exciting findings about training the mind rather than just the body.
I love what I do today as a sports psychologist. But I still get the majority of my clients from pro and amateur athletes calling on their own, or the parents or private coaches calling. I want that to change, and it is partly why I wrote “The Mental Performance Index.” If you read this, you will learn about this coach/sports psychologist relationship and how to ensure that everything goes smoothly to best help the team, how problems are prevented before they occur, and much more about the best teams mentally and physically in Super Bowl History.”
My guarantee is that your team and players will prosper with mental coaching. You will discover that there is no shame associated with trying to make yourself or your team better through proper mental coaching. A player can only run so fast and hit so hard, but by helping players tweak their mental performance just a little, the whole team will benefit. I guarantee it! Imagine what would happen if each player got 15% more confident, more focused, and more resilient. Do you think the team would also benefit. You can bank on it because I guarantee it. The days of fear are over. The biggest fear might be not investing in mental coaching for our teams and players.
I hope you enjoyed this initial walk down the avenue of sports psychology.