Playing sports head games

Some believe struggling athletes - and no, Kyle Boller, we're not naming names - need psychological help to get in the zone.

December 19, 2005|By JOHN WOESTENDIEK | JOHN WOESTENDIEK,SUN REPORTER

Whether it is a pre-shrunk Kyle Boller we see tonight, we may never know - that, after all, is confidential. But if head coach Brian Billick did have Boller spend some time with the team psychologist or psychiatrist (the Ravens have both), and if it worked, a more composed and confident quarterback should take the field against the Green Bay Packers tonight.

Billick's prescription of therapy - mentioned as a "possibility" after Boller's dismal performance in Denver last Sunday - might conjure images of the young Ravens quarterback on the couch, recalling childhood traumas, but a session with the team shrink (and most teams have one these days) is often something else entirely.

More commonly, it's all about gaining focus, visualizing positive outcomes, increasing self-confidence and getting into what athletes like to call "the zone," i.e., the mental game.

If Boller saw a mental-health professional - and keep in mind, this is all just idle speculation - the clinician was probably not so much a quiet, chin-rubbing type as a motivational go-getter. The therapy was probably not so much Freudian as Lombardian, and the therapist less Bob Newhart than Tony Robbins.

Instead of answering questions such as, "How does that make you feel?" Boller more likely would have been slowly repeating phrases of self-affirmation, such as "I am quick and agile" or "I am calm under pressure" or, maybe, "This pass will be caught ... by someone on my team."

Instead of delving into his past, Boller more likely would have run through a scripted scenario of a make-believe game, complete with obstacles encountered and how - in calm and masterful manner - he overcame them.

And his visit with a shrink - even if we did know it happened - would have been largely stigma-free.

"In 1984, if you said you were working with a sports psychologist, people thought you were kind of weird," golfer Brad Faxon was quoted as telling the Tampa Tribune last year. "Now if you don't, you are kind of weird."

Tiger Woods has had a psychologist on staff since before he became a teenager - not because he's a basket case, but to help him achieve the high level of concentration, confidence and discipline necessary to excel as a golfer.

Countless other athletes - from tennis players to race car drivers - are giving their minds the same attention they have long given their muscles and availing themselves of the psychologists, consultants and mental coaches to help them perform at optimum levels.

Of course, this isn't limited to sports. Nowadays, everyone wants "high performance," a term once reserved for automobile engines; and the quest that evolved in the professional sports world is now under way everywhere from the boardroom to the bedroom.

Bookstores are flooded with volumes on "getting the edge" and "getting into the zone," and Web sites about maximizing your performance are a dime a dozen - stayinthezone.com, accessthe zone.com, zonestrategies.com, zoneperfect.com, thewinning mind.com, zoneofexcellen ce.com, alphaachievement.com and mentaledge.net to name just a few.

The importance of the mental game has long been recognized, as far back as the 1910 Olympics, some say - and well before Yogi Berra pointed out, as only Yogi could, that "baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical."

It did not become an established field until about 40 years ago, and didn't really become a lucrative one, for some at least, until the 1980s.

Most professional sports teams, and, increasingly, college ones, now have a psychologist or psychiatrist on staff or retainer, and many individual athletes turn as well to an array of personal coaches, consultants and gurus.

Some have six secrets, some have eight steps, some have 10 rules - and a lot of them repeat each other - but they all promise to help you make the most of yourself if you buy their book, take their course or enroll in their program.

Publicly suggesting your quarterback needs a shrink may not sound like maintaining confidentiality, or particularly wise management.

But whether Billick - the co-author of Competitive Leadership: Twelve Principles for Success - did so is subject to interpretation.

Billick's remarks came at a news conference, in response to a question about using sports psychologists to help players. The question did not mention Boller, but the answer did.

"Anything you can do, any amount of money we spend to focus these players on whatever can help them is astounding," he said. "There might be a couple things that I have in mind that I think could help put Kyle or any of our quarterbacks in a more productive mental state as they prepare for the game, whether it's mental exercises that they go through, or physical ones."

Billick went on to say Boller, who committed three turnovers in the Ravens' 12-10 loss to the Denver Broncos last week, often plays at a frenetic pace, leading to mental mistakes. "He has to calm his mechanics down."

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