The “CURSE” is reversed! Sports, the media, the sports-fan and superstitions – How the imaginary becomes real and takes on a life of its’ own: i.e. The fallout from the impossible dream of the Red Sox coming from three games back and one out away from being swept in the ALCS to beat the Yankees and then take four in a row from the St. Louis Cardinals to finally win their first World Series since 1918. In this special edition of the Mental Toughness Newsletter we will address some of the relevant issues that emerge in relation to slumps, losing streaks and the agonizing frustration and heartache of the sports fan.
IN THIS ISSUE:
“I am NOT a Red Sox fan.”
“The ‘Curse of the Bambino’ and other nonsense about slumps & losing streaks.”
“How the sports media helps “grow” slumps.”
“I am NOT a Red Sox fan”
I grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a mere 45 minutes southeast of Boston. While I have lived all of my life in the state, I don’t consider myself a Red Sox fan. I have been to Fenway Park and one, count ‘em, (1) live Red Sox game in over half a century and that game was one of the more embarrassing highlights of my childhood. I went with several hundred other summer campers from my overnight camp and we were forced by the psychotically twisted camp director to wear dark blue knee socks, matching blue shorts with white shirts and an absurdly dorky dark blue beanie. Pleeaaaseee! How many adult males make preadolescent and adolescent boys wear beanies and knee socks in public? The guy should’ve been locked up for child abuse and public sadism. If I could’ve crawled into a hole and waited until adulthood I certainly would have. I don’t remember the game. I don’t have a clue who the Red Sox were even playing, much less who won. I was too humiliated to pay attention. All I remember is that the bleachers were brutally hot that day and I was scarred for life because of those dumb knee socks and beanie. So how come I’ve been living and dying with the Red Sox every Fall for as long as I can remember?
I’m not a Red sox fan but I absolutely hate the Yankees. Perhaps it’s inbred into your system when you grow up in Massachusetts or anywhere in New England. I get a certain kind of sadistic pleasure and sense of well-being whenever the Yankees lose and, if it happens to be to the Sox, so much more the better. It’s not that I don’t respect the Yankees. On the contrary! I think that they have been consistently one of the best teams in baseball. Joe Torre, their current manager is a class act and a brilliant skipper. Derek Jeter, their starting shortstop is an amazing athlete, first class human being and a wonderful ambassador for the game. Perhaps it would be easier to justify my inbred hatred for them if they were simply a bunch of stuck up, egotistical, overpaid slobs. They are not even close. They seem to be genuinely good human beings. But I still hate them far more than is reasonable. What’s up with that?
I’m not a Red Sox fan. I rarely watch any complete games during the regular season. Sure I’ll watch an inning or two here and there. So how come I can’t pull myself from the TV whenever the post season rolls around? Why do I feel so miserable every time the Sox lose? How come I can’t bear to watch them whenever the Yankees are beating up on them? What’s with all these powerful emotions coursing through my system? What’s wrong with me? Maybe I need a shrink or something.
I’m not a Red Sox fan, so how come I have brutally vivid memories of the ball going through poor Bill Buckner’s legs when the Sox were so tantalizingly close to winning that elusive World Series Championship in 86, only to lose to the Mets? Why is it that I feel so much compassion for hapless Mr. Buckner who was eventually driven from New England and then out of baseball completely by all the idiotic hate mail, vitriolic sports talk show hosts and scathing print articles all of which single handedly blamed him for the World Series loss. How come I was depressed for days after the Sox lost to the Yankees in the seventh game of last year’s, (2003) ALCS championship? Why did I even care? I don’t have a Red Sox hat. I don’t have any Red Sox jerseys. I don’t have any Red Sox knee socks. I don’t even have an official Red Sox beanie! So what’s my problem?
I’m not a Red Sox fan, so how come the media’s treatment of “The curse of the Bambino” irks me so. I don’t even believe in any of that made-for-print garbage. There is no bleeping curse. There never was any bleeping curse! This kind of mentality is never adopted by successful athletes. What’s the point of going into a season, game, inning or even an at-bat with a past focus like that? What’s 1918, what happened last season or what you ate for dinner three nights ago have to do with the present anyway? Absolutely nothing unless you got food poisoning from that meal! Worrying about past losses, failures or setbacks are a wonderful recipe for disaster, performance-wise. All you do when you “time travel” into the past like that is recapture all those unsettling thoughts and emotions. So how come I was agonizing during the last several innings of this 2004 World Series that Boston might somehow blow their lead, that they might once again find a way to steal defeat from the closing jaws of victory like they had so many times in the past? Only a die-hard Boston Red Sox fan would worry about that crap. As a Sports Performance Consultant I know better. And besides, didn’t I already tell you that I’m not a Red Sox fan.
I think I’m not a Red Sox fan, so how come I was so upset when the deal to sign baseball superstar Alex Rodriguez fell through this season? So who really cares if A-Rod wasn’t a Red Sox? And why was I feeling so ripped off when George Steinbrenner of the deep pockets signed him to play for the New York Yankees instead? Was it Yankees’ envy? Why did it hurt even more whenever A-Rod hit well against the Sox? This sports fan stuff is insidious. It just sneaks right up behind you and bites you in the butt before you even know what hit you, and then you start feeling and acting wicked weird.
So when you’re a true sports fan you end up closely identifying with your team and its’ players. It’s as if somehow, in the vast reaches of your mind, you’ve tricked yourself into believing that you are a part of that team. As a result, your mood goes up or down depending upon how your team performs. When they make good plays you get excited and feel good for them. When they screw up, you end up feeling angry and upset with their incompetence. As if you could actually do better! When your team wins, you are naturally ecstatic and the world seems like it’s a much better place. However, when they lose, you end up feeling seriously bummed. In this way your emotions are directly tied to your team and its’ individual players. Of course, this doesn’t even come close to describing my reactions to the Sox. After all, I’m not a Red Sox fan.
And how about those tongue-in-cheek commercials during the post season? Boston “fans” were interviewed about what they would pay or give for World Series tickets to see their home boys play. Some offered thousands of dollars, others, the deed to their house. Still others offered up their right arm. And then there was the guy who said he’d give up his first-born. Now, of course these people weren’t really serious. But you know, had I been interviewed I might have seriously considered putting those knee socks and beanie back on for a chance to see the Sox in the World Series.
OK, so I’m not a Red Sox fan but how about that American League Championship series between the Evil Empire and the Sox! Was that sweet or what?!!!! Both my wife and daughter made fun of me over the course of the first three games because I couldn’t sit still, couldn’t stop myself from loudly uttering inappropriate words and phrases whenever the Yankees got on base, which unfortunately was far too often, and had to keep shutting the TV off because I couldn’t take anymore pain. They laughed at me while I was in agony. Can you believe that cruelty? Those damn Yankees won the first three games, totally humiliating us in the process. Once more I was going to have my heart totally ripped out of my chest during yet another pain-filled Fall. But I repeat, I am not a Red Sox fan. I just feel certain things deeply.
And how cool was it when Mariano Rivera, the unhittable New York closer and Mr. Dependable came into the game in the 9 th inning of the fourth game to seal the Sox’s fate and put the remaining nails in Boston’s coffin. With two outs and one batter away from humiliating us (I mean the Red Sox) once again, he gives up the game-tying run! I’m telling you I am not a Red Sox fan, but we now had a breath of life, a glimmer of hope, and the Yankees got to suffer just a little. Now that’s something worth savoring! And then we ended up winning that game in dramatic fashion in the 12 th to send the series back to Yankee Stadium.
And then the Sox staged this made-for-the-movies, completely surreal comeback to win the last three games right in the heart of the Evil Empire, storied Yankee Stadium! Oh my heart goes out to George Steinbrenner. I feel his pain. (Yuk, Yuk). Mind you, I’m not a Red Sox fan and I don’t believe in curses but as far as I was concerned, that was the defining end to that Bambino thing. After beating the Yanks and winning the ALCS, the World Series at that point was a bit anticlimactic. The impossible was already accomplished. There was finally joy in Mudville. The Sox staged the biggest comeback in playoff history and it just so happened to coincide with the Yankees’ biggest collapse in team history. If that’s not sweet justice then I don’t know what is. But I am not a Red Sox fan. I am, however, one very happy boy these days!
I am not a Red Sox fan. It’s just that I’ve been walking around with a smile on my face for weeks? Explain to me why I’m feeling such a profound sense of joy and relief, as if the weight of the world has been lifted off my shoulders. What’s with that? Why am I so happy that the year 1918 has now become totally and completely irrelevant? Why did I feel so compelled to watch Sports Center over and over again so I could see them replay the ALCS and World Series highlights? Heck, I even watched that silly parade on TV and while I did, I couldn’t stop smiling. It’s a good thing I’m not over identified with this team. In fact, I have to tell you that I am truly relieved that I am not a Boston Red Sox fan.
Are you stuck in a slump? Are you blocked by fears? Do you consistently underachieve? Let me help you get back on track. Call Dr. G today at (413) 549 1085 for info on his phone coaching sessions.
“The ‘Curse of the Bambino’ and other nonsense about slumps & losing streaks”
The following is a discussion between athletes of various “cursed” athletic programs. The teams these high school and college students play for believe themselves to be either jinxed or cursed and as a result, have been stuck in some form of extended slump or repetitive performance problem. Let’s listen in on what they have to say:
“We’re jinxed you know. We can never seem to beat South High. We always lose to them no matter what. Even if we’re ahead going towards the end of the game it doesn’t matter because we’ll still find a way to mess things up. Just look at what happened two years ago. We had a 12- point lead going into the fourth quarter and we ended up losing by 9! Do you believe that? And last year we had the bigger team and we still got crushed by 25! I don’t get it. It’s got to be a jinx. There’s no other way to explain our run of failure against these guys!”
“I know what you mean. Our college football team has lost 16 games in a row! Count ‘em up! 16! That’s a losing streak that spans the better part of two seasons. In so many of those losses we found some really creative ways to blow it. What really bugs me though is that this year we have a much better team. We are much stronger than last year. There’s no way that we should still be losing, especially to some of the teams we’ve fallen to this season. It just doesn’t make much sense to me. It’s as if we expect to lose no matter what. There have been so many games that we’ve led going into the final 10 minutes. Then our opponents run a big play. But even if they don’t score, and we’re still very much in control of the game, it’s as if we suddenly believe that they’ll come from behind anyway to beat us. We lose our will and momentum. It’s almost like we just give up. Both on the field and the sidelines it’s as if everyone’s going, ‘Uh oh. Here we go again. I knew this was going to happen.’ And then we really do lose.”
“It’s funny. That sounds just like our D-I basketball team. Last year we were a really young team, mostly freshmen and sophomores. We had a lot of talent but not very much experience. At one point in the season we lost 11 games in a row and almost every one of those losses was pretty much the same. We’d get a lead in the third quarter to an opponent that we were at least as good as, if not better and then, like clockwork, they’d make a run and we’d fold. Over and over again. It was as if, when they came at us, we’d suddenly panic and start making really dumb mistakes. Maybe we really expected to lose. If I were honest I’d have to admit that whenever the other team made their run I use to think like you said, “it’s happening again. I know it and we’re going to blow it once more!”
“Dude! You guys could be talking about our high school soccer team. As long as we’ve been playing in our school league we’ve never beaten Amity, our archrival. Ever! How’s that for a slump that goes back almost 20 years. I think just once, early in league play we actually tied them, at least that’s what the town fathers say. Here’s the really weird part. We consistently beat the teams that beat Amity! But there’s something about that team that messes up our heads. Nowadays everyone makes jokes about the Amityville horror show. Boy do I hate that dumb movie and here we are living it! Ever since I made the varsity team no one wants to play them. Everyone seems afraid of Amity. It’s like they have this power over us that’s otherworldly. Kinda like how the Yankees used to have it over the Red Sox. I don’t have a clue why we always seem to lose to them. Personally I don’t think they’re any great shakes until we get out there. Then all these weird things start happening. Calls go the wrong way, our best striker badly turns her ankle and is out for the season or our shots ricochet off the posts or cross bar. The totally bizarre thing is their shots always manage to find our net. It’s like the game is haunted by ghosts or something weird. I know of course that’s totally absurd and far out. But that’s how it feels to us out there. We’re waiting for all these bizarre things to go wrong that will make us lose and then they somehow do!”
So what’s all this slump stuff really about? Can athletic teams actually be cursed? When a team gets mired in a losing streak, what causes the bad times to just keep on rolling? Was there anything real to the Curse of the Bambino? After all, it did last 86 years and those Red Sox always did seem to find creative and heart breaking ways to lose!
Here are my thoughts on slumps, losing streaks and these so-called ‘curses’ or jinxes. They are always a figment of your frustrated and discouraged imagination and, as a consequence, they are self-maintained. First of all, we’re talking about sports here, not voodoo or black magic. I know that coaches, athletes and their fans are very superstitious individuals. However, when it comes right down to it, these imaginary afflictions play absolutely no direct role in the outcome of athletic contests. Rest easy. There are no curses, jinxes or haunted teams in sports. The ghost of Babe Ruth was not following the Red Sox around for 86 years. He didn’t make the ball go through Bill Buckner’s legs. He didn’t help Bucky bleepin Dent hit that game winning homerun. If you believe in stuff like that, then it’s your beliefs that are the problem more than anything else.
In sports you are always going to see teams with winning and losing streaks as well as individual athletes mired in slumps. You’re going to sometimes find games decided by seemingly bizarre and unlikely circumstances. You’re going to see dramatic, last-second, game changing momentum shifts. That’s just the nature of competition. It’s what makes our games so much fun. We never really know for sure what will happen.
In sports you’re also going to have bad luck and ill fortune play a deciding role for one team, just as much as good luck does for the other team. While you can work hard and prepare for almost every possibility as an athlete or coach, blind, dumb luck can and sometimes does still play a huge role in deciding the game’s outcome. That’s just a fact of life and sports. Sometimes the difference between a game winning or momentum killing play is decided by mere inches or split seconds. When I win a critical, match turning point in tennis because my ball hits the net and dribbles un-hittable over onto my opponent’s side, this is not a result of my superior skill or cunning match play. It is flat-out, blind luck. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Is there any rhyme or reason to how this luck operates? Well, certain motivational speakers and high intensity coaches would like you to believe that you “create” your own luck by your attitude and how hard you prepare. And while this is certainly true to some degree, the bottom line is that you really can’t control how lady luck operates. She may decide to look down upon you and smile sweetly or, depending upon her mood, break wind or worse in your direction. While you can increase the chances that things will go your way by your preparation, beyond that there is very little that you can actually do to tip the scales of chance in your favor. Whether you wear your lucky socks, eat that special chicken dinner before the contest or carefully avoid stepping on any cracks on game day doesn’t really change what’s going to happen in that game. However, what does have a significant affect on the performance outcome is what you believe. In a funny way, if you still insist on believing in jinxes and curses, then you can inadvertently end up creating one for yourself. Let me explain:
The real problem here isn’t so much whether curses or jinxes are real. It’s whether you believe that they are. It’s your beliefs as an athlete that most often times become the key factor in fueling slumps, losing streaks and these so called runs of bad luck.
When we talk about your beliefs as a causative factor in slumps, we must first look at what else actually feeds these slumps and losing streaks. Understand that despite what the media and all the experts may say, dropping 8 games in a row doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re in a slump. Losing 6 times in a row to the very same opponent doesn’t mean that you’re cursed by them. Like it or not, losing is part of the fabric of sport. There are always winners and losers. Close games sometimes get decided in very cruel and sudden ways by chance. However, multiple losses don’t necessarily mean that you’re in a slump. In fact, some of those losses can represent brilliant performance on your part. A slump is more a state of mind than a specific number of failures. It has its’ roots in what you the athlete think or say to yourself about the tough loss or multiple failures. In sum, what really causes a slump are your perceptions and beliefs about the consecutive losses.
Here’s how it works: What you think or say to yourself going into or during a performance instantly changes your body physiology. That is, if you tell yourself that you can’t beat this opponent, might lose, always choke or otherwise fall apart under pressure, then your body will instantly respond by getting physically tighter. Since one of the primary secrets to peak performance at every level is being loose and relaxed, tight muscles will prevent you and your team from executing to your potential. More specifically, tight muscles will wreck your timing, slow down your reflexes and reaction time and completely ruin your mechanics. Simply put, if you’re too uptight going into or during a competition, then you’re more likely to choke your guts out and seriously underachieve. What I’m saying here is very basic. The wrong kinds of thoughts and attitude going into a game will consistently set you up to fail.
Tight muscles aren’t the only problem with believing that you’ll lose yet again. Thinking that you’re cursed, jinxed or stuck in a slump will unconsciously set up what’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe that somehow you’ll find a way to steal defeat from the closing jaws of victory, then that belief will trick you into either not giving it a full effort or giving up too easily. If you expect failure, the minute things go south, you’ll be less inclined to maintain your intensity of effort. In addition, you’re also more likely to give up too soon. Because you only give a half-hearted effort when you run into hardship and tend to prematurely quit, you’re more prone to failure. Once you do fail, you end up reinforcing the limiting beliefs that you or your team are cursed or somehow doomed to fail over and over again. In fact, the current failure gives you more ammunition to support that already negative belief. i.e. “See, what did I tell you? I knew this was going to happen. We always lose!”
So much of performance in sport is powered by this self-fulfilling prophecy cycle, although it’s not always a negative one. For example, if you go into a game or competition believing that you can be successful, then you’re far more likely to give a more intense effort overall. You won’t hold yourself back. Furthermore, when things start to go badly for you, because you still believe in your ability to persevere you will not give up so easily. Instead you will keep on keeping on. Frequently it’s this refusal to give up that puts you in a position to do the impossible, to come from behind for the win. When you are successful, your victory tends to reinforce your already positive beliefs. i.e. “See, I knew I could we could do it all along!”
So with all slumps and losing streaks you need to be careful about what you believe going into and during your performances. If you expect failure or heartache, then you will inadvertently be setting yourself up to get exactly what you don’t want. Furthermore, if you want to really break the stranglehold that a slump may have on you, you must learn to do a better job of controlling your pre and during game focus of concentration.
Not only are slumps self-maintained by an athlete’s pre and during game thoughts or self-talk and beliefs. They are also fed by that athlete’s focus of concentration before and during the game. The classic concentration mistake made by athletes that most often fuels a slump is what I call “time traveling.” The athlete or team mentally shuttles back and forth between the past and the future.
For example, first they may remember what happened in past games. They recall the failure, disappointment, bad breaks, nervousness and tentativeness. Then, after they have recaptured all these negative physical sensations and emotions they quickly jump ahead to the future and entertain the “what if’s,” (i.e. What if I choke again? What if we lose? What if she beats me?” etc.). I know of no better strategy for sending your anxiety level through the roof than focusing on the future and everything that could possibly go wrong.
When your concentration jumps from past to future in this way, you will cause three things to happen: First, as I just mentioned, your anxiety or stress level will spike. Second, your confidence will crack and then crumble. Finally, being uptight and having low self-confidence are a deadly one-two punch that will KO your performance every time.
To avoid falling into that slump, jinxed or cursed trap you need to learn to discipline yourself to mentally stay in the NOW of the performance. You need to focus on this game, this half, this quarter and this play, one play at a time. Hanging onto the past or worrying about the future will mentally take you out of the performance and undermine your play. As a coach this means that you do NOT want to remind your team or specific athletes of how badly they blew it last time. This will NOT help them avoid making the same mistake in this game. This will NOT help them believe in themselves. This will NOT keep them calm. This will NOT motivate them to play at a higher level. What this kind of a reminder will do is negatively distract them from the task at hand in the NOW and make them too nervous to perform to their potential.
If you want to constructively deal with your team’s problems in the past DON’T pick the pre-game talk to do this. Don’t remind them during the game either! Whether you’re an athlete or a coach, work on past problems, failures and mistakes only in practice. This may seem like a pretty basic concept, which it is. However, I still run into far too many coaches and athletes who still believe that thinking about the past and mistakes while you’re currently competing is an OK thing to do. Trust me on this one. It’s NOT OK! What you want to do mentally once you’ve made a mistake is to quickly let it go and refocus your attention on what is going on in the NOW.
The bottom line is this: YOU CAN NOT BE IN A SLUMP IF YOU KEEP YOUR FOCUS OF CONCENTRATION IN THE NOW. Slumps have their roots in mentally leaving the NOW and collecting some frequent flyer mileage for some serious “time traveling.” Do NOT waste your mental energy by hanging out in the past, especially when your past is like the “Nightmare On Elm Street.” Believing in curses, jinxes and the like is a waste of mental and emotional energy which is better served being constructively channeled into this game and this play. This is the focus that will help you break the back of that slump and more often lead you to peak performance.
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“How the sports media helps grow slumps”
If TV sportscasters, writers and talk show hosts were all farmers, one of the staple “crops” that they’d grow would be the “performance problem.” Why? Slumps, blocks, choking and repetitive performance difficulties oftentimes seem to be very carefully cultivated by the sports media who are continually looking for something “newsworthy” to do “show and tell” with in front of the listening, reading and viewing public. And what could possibly be more newsworthy and entertaining than someone else’s pain, heartache and performance misfortunes? Hey. It’s the good stuff!
Now we’re not just talking about any old amateur farmers here. Some of these media sports guys are professional grade and therefore very serious about the quality of the “crop” that they “produce.” Towards this end they continuously nurture it with only the best fertilizer around: Pure, unadulterated, 100% B.S with no fillers, additives or preservatives and absolutely no artificial ingredients! So what am I really talking about here?
I’ve heard it from many great coaches and athletes that you shouldn’t believe half of the positive things that the media writes and says about you and that you also shouldn’t believe half of the negative things either. Why? The sports media, like many “fair weather” fans are a very fickle group indeed. They will generally write wonderful things about you as long as you or your team are performing well. “You’re the greatest, the next John Elway, a little Serena Williams, a true prodigy, a superstar.” However, the minute you start to struggle, botch an important play, have a bad game or two or lose a close one, they will begin to raise an ugly side that can catch you completely off guard and take your breath away just like a sucker punch to the stomach. “Perhaps he’s overrated.” “No, we thought she was much better than that but now that the competition is a little stiffer we can see that she really doesn’t have what it takes.” “Did you see those errors last night? They were shameful. My great grandmother can throw the ball better than that.” “He must be in a slump.” “Maybe she’s lost her touch?” “It’s seems clear that he’s all washed up?”
In almost no other profession or endeavor are you under more of a microscope than in sports. The higher the level that you compete at, the higher the power is turned up on that microscope. What this means is that everyone from sports fan, to beat writer to talk show host and guest wants to weigh in on you, your game, your mouthwash, your self-worth and value to society. Imagine going to work or school on a daily basis and having everyone around you continuously watching and evaluating your every move. Then, later that night you get to either read about what others really think of you or, for more entertainment, you can listen or watch the sports talk shows as they freely discuss how they think you did that day. In the sports media, everyone seems to be an “expert” on you and your game, and therefore under the illusion that they have the ability to fairly and effectively evaluate and judge you.
Understand that I’m not just talking about professional athletes here. Certainly the pros get the brunt of the sports media’s attention. However, we can also add college, high school and even younger aged athletes to this mix. If you play a sport and you do it well, then you’re considered fair game.
The sports media feed the slump problem in a number of different ways. The first has to do with the issue of expectations. Understand that one of the biggest mental mistakes for athletes to make going into a game, match or race is to carry their expectations with them. That is, if they are focusing on a certain outcome that they want or certain goals, i.e. to score 18 points, pitch a shutout, catch 3 touchdown passes, score a goal, qualify for Nationals or win the match then they have expectations. Similarly if they go into the competition worrying about a certain negative outcome happening to them, (i.e. what if I choke, lose, get shut out, don’t make the varsity, commit another error, etc.”) then they are also carrying expectations. Expectations will continually set athletes up for failure. Your expectations make the performance too important, draining the fun out of it and tightening your muscles. If you walk out onto the track, field or court with tight muscles, the one thing that you can be assured of is that your game will do a nifty disappearing act.
The fact of the matter is that the sports media is all about outcome and expectations. It’s the outcomes that they think make the greatest stories. For example, during the Olympics we need to know who’s going to win the most medals and will the US win the most golds? Winning is sexy and losing is, well….losing. As a result, the media reflexively focus on the outcome before and after a game and their questions tend to steer athletes in this general direction:
Reporter : “So this is a really big, must-win game tonight, Gunner, how do you think you guys will do?”
Gunner : “Well, Stan, I’m just going to go out there and try to do my best, like I do every game.”
Reporter : “C’mon Gunner. You know that the winner of this game goes on to the playoffs and the loser goes home until next year. Seems to me that if there was ever a time to step it up and throw some big touchdown passes, today’s game is the time. What do you say?”
Gunner : “You know Stan, we’re going up against a very good team today. They’re defense is tops in the league and their offense is no pushover. It’ll be a battle and should turn out to be a great game. For me, I’m just going to go out there and try to have some fun.”
Reporter : “C’mon Gunner. How can you possibly not take this game seriously when there’s so much riding on it?”
In addition to adding to the pressure normally experienced by athletes and tending to distract them from the task at hand by over-focusing on expectations and outcome, the sports media has a way of reminding athletes and teams of their past failures and problems. Go no further than the Red Sox and this past season for a great example. What was this whole 1918 thing about anyway? What about the curse nonsense? When reporters bring this subject up they are dragging the athlete’s consciousness back into the past, back to the images and emotions of failure. What’s with that? How constructive is it for an athlete to be thinking about last season’s collapse or disappointments? It’s not!
The problem with going into today’s competition with past failures bopping around in your consciousness, is that this kind of mentality and focus will tighten you up and ruin your performance in either one of two ways. First, it can trap you into trying too hard in order to prevent that previous failure from occurring once again. When you try too hard, your muscles tighten and you end up forcing or muscling your performance. Trying too hard is one of the best ways to guarantee that you will NOT get what you really want. Second, if you are worried about past incidents of choking, messing up or failing, then you will be more vulnerable to playing cautiously or tentatively. If you try to not choke, not lose or not make mistakes, your performance will lack the necessary aggressiveness and spontaneity for peak performance and, as a result, you will end up choking, losing and/or making a ton of mistakes.
As I’ve mentioned previously, one of the main mental dynamics that fuels slumps, losing streaks and repetitive performance problems is a past focus. When the sports media keep reminding an athlete or team of their past gaffs or failures, they inadvertently encourage this athlete to keep focusing on what should be forgotten. This recent baseball season I worked with a starting infielder for a large market Major League baseball team who was having trouble with his fielding. This athlete was quite talented and rarely committed errors. However, in a two or three game span he uncharacteristically made several errors. The television, print media and talk show hosts had a field day with this, ripping him about his bad games. In fact, they focused on it for several weeks. Everyone seemed to have something “important” to say about this ball player’s so-called problem. The fact of the matter was that he just had a few bad days. Nothing more, Nothing less.
Referring to the media, he bitterly complained to me that they were not letting him forget his errors. He felt that they weren’t at all interested in talking about any of the great plays that he had made yesterday or the day before. Instead they wanted him to comment on these two or three bad games and “whether he was worried that he might screw up again.” To make matters worse, for the first time in his life he was walking out to his position thinking nervously about the “what ifs,” (“Oh man, What if I mess up again today? What if I boot another ball or sky one into the crowd?”).
When you’re an athlete in this position and you take what the media is writing or saying about you seriously, you will soon find yourself in a heap of trouble, performance-wise. First, your concentration will nervously shuttle back between the past and the future, remembering your mistakes in the past and then worrying about making more of them in the future. Second, and as a result of this time traveling, you’ll be distracted from the play at hand and therefore more likely to screw up yet again. Third, listening to people continually put you down tends to do a number on your self-esteem and self-confidence. This, in itself is another distraction, which touches off all kinds of powerful and frequently unhelpful emotions. For example, when the fans, sports writers and sports talk shows turned against this ball player he was deeply hurt and angered. He knew had made a significant contribution to his team over the past few years. He knew he had been Mr. Clutch during last year’s playoffs. The fact that all this had been forgotten in the wake of two or three bad games bothered him tremendously. How quickly people forget.
One of my very first suggestions to this athlete was for him to shut the radio off on his drive home from the ballpark, to stop listening to these negative talk shows. In addition I told him to stop reading the local sports page and to stop watching the sports news on TV. What’s the point of listening to, reading about or watching people who don’t really know or care about you, rip you? There is no point unless you’re a masochist!
One final way that the sports media “plant” the seeds of slumps in the minds of athletes: Peak performance is an unconscious process. In other words, you will always perform to your potential when you are not thinking, when you’re on automatic. As an athlete, thinking too much while you’re performing is always hazardous to your performance health. Athletes who struggle with slumps, fears and blocks are notorious for over thinking and over analyzing. Evaluating and analyzing your play while you’re performing is a great way to tie yourself in knots and send your performance directly to the outhouse. If you really listen to what the sports media are saying about you or your team, their analysis and criticism are exactly what you DON’T want going on in your head. This is another very good reason why it’s important for you to keep your pre and during game focus away from what others may be thinking or saying about you!
Remember, when you get ready to perform, what’s really important is what YOU are doing at the moment. Keep your focus on YOU and your job. Forget about those around you. Let go of what others may be saying about you. Let go of what others may say after the competition, especially if these others are part of the sports media. I love reading some of the articles in Sports Illustrated and The Boston Globe. I get a chuckle from watching the ESPN anchors do their humorous thing. However, if you happen to be the target of any of these stories, it’s best to not let that garbage anywhere near your cranium. Do not allow these seeds to get planted and take root in your head. Just because someone may say you’re washed up or in a slump, doesn’t make it so. It does, however make for some pretty good fertilizer, if you know what I mean!
Dr. G is one of the top Sports Performance Consultants in the country. If you have any questions you’d like answered or for more info on his one-on-one phone coaching either email him at Goldberg@competitivedge.com or call directly (413) 549 1085.
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