Posted on: December 1, 2009 12:06 pm
Edited on: December 1, 2009 12:08 pm

Emergence and Heart: The Saints are the Real Deal

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The Saints put on a dazzling display of football on both sides of the ball on Monday night, helping the vaunted Patriot's offense look mediocre and their defense look positively inept. Mike McKensie stepped in to cover for a Saints team without one starting corner, and ended up with an interception and numerous key stops, including denying Moss a fourth and 2 pass that would have kept a drive alive in the Red Zone to bring the Patriots within a touchdown.

“I don't feel like I shut down (Patriots WR Randy Moss ) like that. It was just one of those things that the coaches did a tremendous job with the game plan." The statement is kind, but there was something else going on as well. Not every team has a game plan that allows a player to so immediately make an impact after not playing for a year.

Meanwhile the Patriots looked out of position and bewildered. There were yawning holes in their defense into which Drew Brees was more than happy to take advantage. If we watched a quarter back at the height of his game, we also watched a team play defense that seemed befuddled by their own complexity.

On the Patriots side of the ball, quarterback Tom Brady may not be playing at the heady level of his pre-injury days, but to be fair he was hurried and sacked for much of the game.  It's also true that the whole team seemed a step slow.  Or has the league finally figured out Belichick's coaching style?  Successful teams find it difficult to stop fiddling in a never ending quest to improve. By now we wonder whether Belichick defense is over thinking itself. On the offensive side, the plays seem all too familiar.

No question we watched a muscular Saints team play an emotional and disciplined game. It is difficult to imagine them playing better, while the Patriots seemed anything but inspired. But when a defense with two players who haven't played in a year can shut down a muscular offense, Belichick must be asking himself whether his approach is too tired on the one side, and too intricate on the other.

The Saints played a flawless game.  Teams play best when their plans are in the sweet spot between simple and sophistication with the intelligence to adjust.  Watch out if they remain there.

Category: NFL
Posted on: April 15, 2009 12:39 am

A Storm is Brewing

Kentucky just hired John Calipari.  The contract makes Calipari the highest paid college basketball coach by a hefty margin.  It's quite a coup for a man who's resume does not include a national championship and only one Final Four.  But he does garner some optimism for a Kentucky program that has struggled for the last few years, and a dynasty that is threatening to slip through their fingers.  Calipari brings a couple of bold marks on his resume.  First, he has somehow attracted the attention of World Wide Wes, who has an almost unnatural affect on superlative high school players who are looking for a safe haven for a year before moving on to the NBA.  He's also a consummate salesman, and there's no doubt that Kentucky fans and boosters demand an ego capable of assuaging their endless appetites.  Finally, while the final story on his coaching capabilities may need to wait for future years, he certainly has already displayed a knack for utilizing players talents and putting them in positions to win.

To enhance the story further, it appears at least a couple Kentucky players will be transferring from the program to make way for some of Calipari's Memphis recruits.  Clearly Calipari means to make an immediate impact.  There's a good chance that at least one of Kentucky's stars, Meeks or Aldrich, will choose to delay jumping to the NBA for another year.  If almost any combination of Memphis recruits and Kentucky stars form the 2010 team, Calipari will have vaunted the team from NIT competitor to top 25 in one fell swoop.   

Meanwhile, the move has inspired a flurry of activity by other top college programs.  Recruits who had previously signed with Memphis are now being courted all over the country.  Kansas is transferring two scholarship players out this spring, presumably to make way for Xavier Henry and his brother CJ.  Self is not sitting on his hands, especially after winning his first NC only a year ago.  It now looks like his star players, Collins and Aldrich, have decided to give up the vagaries of an NBA bench and a $1M signing bonus in exchange for a chance to play full time in college and chase a national championship.  Riches can come later, but right now there's the fun of college.  You only live once after all.  And Tyler Hansbrough and his team mates just showed the nation how sweet it all can be to stay and win a national championship.

But is the real catalyst in this all this movement still sitting off in the wings?  UNC has just won 2 national championships and gone to a Final Four in the last 5 years.  To add a more threatening note, they are reloading again.  Certainly another Final Four next year is not out of their grasp.  Surely every Kentucky booster must be aware that UNC is now only 4 wins away from being the winningest team in history, and within 2 national championships of their historic achievements.  There's nothing like a little success by the competition to spur other programs on to the next level.  One wonders if Kentucky would be quite so desperate if Kansas and UNC were not showing signs of breaking out of the pack into multiple national championships in the next 10 years.

The recruiting musical chairs are not over.  There are a few top 10 recruits who have not yet landed.  Which school they eventually choose has the potential to determine the next Final Four and eventual national champion.  Ironically, in a bid to rebuild Kentucky and compete against UNC and Kansas, Calipari may have just pushed Wall to UNC and a second national championship in a row.  The teams and players are just that tight.  As my mother used to say, it's strange how the cookie crumbles.
I will be watching with unusual attentiveness as the coaches play out a recruiting chess game that could easily define top program momentums and dynasties for years to come.

Posted on: February 17, 2009 12:26 pm
Edited on: February 17, 2009 1:21 pm

The Media and Sports

Scientists know that an observer affects the outcome of an experiment.  The media has a profound effect on sports in much the same manner.  Golf is a fine example since tournament structure and coverage often resembles a celebrity event more than a sports competition.

The media affects salary structure:   Pervasive national marketing and exposure tends to make the pinnacle of any sport top heavy.  Media focus on big league baseball provides more dollars to the top while robbing farm leagues of viewers and attendees.  In baseball Double 'A' games go unattended while potential fans watch the Yankees on TV.  The resulting salary disparity between a Triple 'A' player and even a mediocre Big League player is enormous and growing.  National coverage is the reason.  Big media demands national stars that dominate public patronage.

The media affects how the game is played and officiated:   It can be argued that headlines encourage extravagant behavior both on and off the court.  The monetary reward is high.  Sports celebrities realize they make more money when they get their name in lights just like Paris Hilton and Madonna.  The quest for headlines nurtures the natural fascination in everyone to witness a train wreck and turns.  The NBA is often ridiculed for allowing superstars to travel and foul.  Many basketball fans hate the NBA because its one-on-one exhibition of superstars is not the team game they know and love.  Certainly a team sport dominated by superstars does not advance the sport.  Recent American performance in the Olympics proves it.

Perhaps the effect on officiating is best seen in college basketball.  It varies hugely from game to game and at its extreme benefits one team much more than the other.  The fascinating trend is how often swings in officiating seem eerily sympathetic to requests from media commentators before the game.  Unfortunately one team ends up struggling to adjust to the style of play the officials allow.  Perhaps inconsistency is the largest hurdle.  But no one believes that officiating is a sole result of the referees on the court or the coaches on the sidelines.

The media affects what we learn about sports:  We are not being inundated with TV segments on the development of stellar team play.  We're not going to hear much about a great basketball defender with morals.  TV coverage of the elements of great teams is almost non-existent.  The relationship between individual character and successful teams is less explored today than it was twenty years ago.  We are definitely not learning how team sports contribute to character development from sports coverage.

Conclusion: It is impossible to erase the effect of national media on sports any more than we will erase the scientist's effect on their experiments.  But scientists have a systemic incentive to minimize their involvement in affecting outcomes.  The media has an almost immediate monetary reward when it shapes how sports are played.  It would do well for the caretakers of sports to consciously and verbally shape that effect.  The constructive character development of children, teams, and the sport itself depends on it.

Category: World Sports
Tags: Media, Sports, Team
Posted on: February 16, 2009 6:47 pm
Edited on: February 19, 2009 10:46 pm

Are the Heels tough enough to Win the NC?

In another blog post on Toughness we talked about the kind of thinking that makes teams difficult to beat.  This blog has also mentioned that winning is a state of mind, and that psychological preparation , especially visualization, plays an outlandish role in winning.  It is very difficult to win, however that is defined, if the team is not convinced it can be done and the unconscious mind has not been given a chance to dwell on it. The 1993 Tarheel National Championship team developed a lot of toughness over the season.  There are two facts here that are germaine to the 2009 Tarheels .

First, the role of positive imagery must be emphasized.  In 1993 Dean Smith doctored a 1982 picture that said, 'Congratulations North Carolina, 1982 national champions' showing on the scoreboard at the end of the game.  Smith says, "It dawned on me, let's put that in everybody's locker. We won't tell anybody, just our team. We changed the 1982 to 1993 and marked out Georgetown's name so the opponent wasn't visible and the players had that waiting for them when practice started."  Those pictures were in each player's locker all season long.  While many of the 2009 Tarheels have a very negative loss to Kansas to spur them on this year, I hope they have a very positive image which they have been working with throughout this year.  A team's mental prowess does not recover lightly from such a loss.

Second, the 1993 team had to grow into its toughness, especially Donald Williams.  The team was not beset by All Stars or future NBA players eptimomized by the Michigan team.  The good news was their team play.  Scoring was fairly balanced and they benefited from both post and perimeter threats although Donald Williams could not seem to shake his streaky shooting.  They did overcome a 19 point deficit to FSU to win in the Dean Dome but immediately came up flat and lost 2 games in a row.  And while they won the regular season quite handily, Williams shot 4-of-18 in the ACC championship game that year, and 3-of-12 from beyond the three-point line, enroute to a loss to Georgia Tech that surprised everyone.

But the team soldiered on through the tournament.  Each game they stepped up their already steady play.  Perhaps it was really Reese and Lynch who best marked a team that did more than just produce more points than normal on any given night.  They began rebounding and playing defense at key moments when the team really needed it.  And Williams' shot became ever more dependable.

The Tarheels were on fire by the time it met Michigan in the finals.  They did all the little things that make a team tough.  But they also did the big things.  And Williams had become a player oblivious to pressure.  Time after time Williams sunk his shot when he was open.  And there is no doubt in my mind that given the Webber technical or not the game was going to the Tarheels.  They were mentally prepared and would not be denied.

In the Miami vs. UNC game here in 2009 we saw the same kind of toughness developing in this UNC team.  While Hansbrough has always had it, Green just showed up as a tough player this year.  He owes us an explanation on how that occurred.  But on the perimeter it has been Lawson , not Ellington , that is complimenting Green when we most need the 3 pointer.  Like Williams in '93, Lawson's perimeter shot has become more consistent as the year progresses.  And sooner or later every team needs outside pressure, especially when opponents double and triple team Hansbrough.  Last year, shutting down Hansbrough might have beat UNC.  This year Lawson and Green make that strategy a weak one.  And it is Ellington and Frazor and Thompson who are picking up errant rebounds, getting put-backs, and making the extra pass that are rounding out a team that finally trusts each other to step it up when it counts.

The 2009 Tarheels have come a long way this year.  Hopefully their mental progress is positive enough to carry them all the way to the NC.  They had the talent to do it last year but were not mentally ready.  The Miami game shows that at least three of them are ready now.

Posted on: January 24, 2009 3:20 pm

Inconsistency in College basketball

Part of what makes college basketball so fun to watch is the difficulty in choosing winners.   Inevitably, top 10 teams lose to teams with mediocre records at best.  March Madness structure feeds this excitement.  There are arguably many factors:

  1. PLAYER INCONSISTENCY: most college players' games vary widely in quality.
  2. NATIONAL ATTENTION: it's difficult not to allow the lights to affect your play at this age.
  3. HOME COURT ADVANTAGE: some courts are very difficult to play in on any given night.
  4. FAULTY GAME PLANS GO UNALTERED: coaches sometimes make plans that don't work; even fewer of them alter them during the game.
  5. TEAM CULTURE AND PRE-GAME PREPARATION: some teams perennially have less confidence than others, and under-perform in pressure situations.

There are undoubtedly others.

The interesting thing is that there are mainly two categories of issues in the above list; player psychology, and the coach's affect on the team. At this level of play, rarely do we see that a lack of physical preparedness hurts a team.  Most have training, nutrition, and even tutors to ensure physical fitness.

What is interesting is that the most important muscle, the brain, still gets relatively little attention.  Two quick stories; our high school basketball team ran an experiment; half our players shot 100 foul shots a night, while half of us visualized foul shots for 15 minutes every night before practice.  Guess who's foul shot percentage was best during the games. This experiment mirrors a much more famous one that showed mental visualization as important as physical practice in determining FS and FG percentages. 

Team and self-visualization has the potential to make a hugely significant difference in affecting numbers 1, 2, 3 and to some extent 5 above.  Why is it not given more attention?

My favorite example comes from my alma mater: the UNC Tarheels.  Wayne Ellington is a notoriously streaky shooter.  His struggles with his shot have daunted him every one of his 3 years at Chapel Hill.  His stats confirm that he most often goes cold in high pressure games, although every interestingly, he nearly always as huge success against Clemson.  Perhaps there is something about the team, or his memories of past successes, that give him a secure feeling.  The interesting thing about Ellington is that he never has an issue shooting during practice; his team mates affirm that his play during practice is nothing short of awe inspiring, and he is perhaps the best pure shooter they have ever seen.  What then, is the issue during the game?

Ellington represents the perfect example of someone who would benefit from very specific and enduring mental exercises that research and resolve in-game success.  Timing is also important.  Visualizations can be performed before sleep, before practice, and maybe most importantly, just before game time.  After 3 years, there are probably a number of mental images impeding his success.  All of them must be addressed, success substituted, and impediments resolved.

The significant variable in team consistency is obviously coaching.  Coaches affect confidence as much or more in non-verbal ways (e.g, demeanor, unspoken messsages, body posture, honesty, etc.) as they do in laying out game plans and one-on-one talks.  When teams have 'bad' games in pressure situations, or come up cold, we must look to the coach not only for solutions, but the seeds of the problem in the first place.  'Soft' teams are a reflection of their coaches.  It may be too much expect coaches to learn how to change their game plans in real time (although a strategic assistant would be a good addition in these instances), but they can do much to ensure that their players enter each game mentally and attitudinally prepared to play.

Great sports is as much between the ears as it is in being physically prepared.  As Yogi Bera once said, "Baseball is 90% mental.  The other half is physical."  Players and coaches would do well to spend much more time on improving team psychological well being and toughness.

It works.

Posted on: January 24, 2009 2:22 pm

Give West Virginia some Love

There is no doubt that college basketball polls are sticky.  Some teams are harder to get off the board, and some teams find it more difficult to get on it.  Call it national expectation, an unconscious sense of team confidence, historical performance elasticity, group think, or whatever you wish, but some teams with arguable records perennially have a tough time in the polls.  Coincidentally, many of these same teams have issues with TV ratings, and confidence.  But which factor is causal?

West Virgina is a great example.  With its dressing down of Georgetown on Thursday, one wonders why they haven't made the top 25 bubble.  The team is strong, it's schedule hasn't been nearly as weak as some top 25 teams, and none of their losses have shamed them.  Arguably a top 25 team shouldn't lose to Davidson, or even, for that matter, Kentucky.  But then, everyone in college basketball loses unexpectedly sometime.  It's part of what makes college hoops so fun to watch; we're not really sure who is going to show up, and we can count on our fingers the number of college coaches who can turn their teams around in real time when they are having a bad night.  Most are spectators to their own losses.

While we could also argue that Georgetown is one of those perennially favored teams, we sure didn't watch an imploding Georgetown get soundly beaten on Thursday.  We saw two good teams trying to play well, and one was better.  Detractors might still say it's West Virginia's first quality win.

Regardless of perspective, the whole nation will get a much better gauge of West Virginia when they play Pittsburgh on Sunday.  Win or lose, West Virginia's strength and defense will make believers of the rest of the nation, and give Pittsburgh a run for their money, something they have rarely faced given the tendency for so many Big East teams to implode this year. Think Syracuse, St. John's, and Georgetown.

Watch out for West Virginia.  They are for real.

Posted on: January 23, 2009 11:39 am

The case of Ryan Clark

The great Don Cherry, past coach of the Boston Bruins and said to be the best color commentator in all of sports, made the argument that hockey would be much safer if they recalled the mandatory helmet rule.  Before helmets, players who got their sticks up above the shoulders could count on heavy physical harrassment on and off the ice from opposing players, and derision from their own team members.  Having played ice hockey for 25 years, with and without a helmet, I can say there is an undeniable truth to Mr. Cherry's argument.  We all have certain responsibilities to control our own behavior, on and off the sports field. 

But back to football.  My heart came up into my throat on Sunday, as I watched Willis McGahee lying on the field during the waning minutes of the AFC Championship.  No one is saying that Ryan Clark's brutal hit was illegal, even though it easily could have ended in paralysis for either player.  Similarly, neither was his hit on Wes Walker earlier in the year.  It is possible to argue though, that he wouldn't have made such a flying, shoulder high 'tackle' if he wasn't wearing a helmet, effectively turning his body into a battering ram.  After all, you don't see such hits in professional rugby.

To the argument that such physicality is in the nature of football, let me assure you as a hockey player that I fully understand.  For instance, the no contact rule made in many cities for youngsters playing either hockey or football is in my estimation a bad one, both for the kids' development and maturation.  And we are not about to once again make helmets in either sport voluntary.

But it is already illegal for helmet to helmet contact in those instances where a player can not be expected to see the oncoming charge, or is otherwise 'defenseless.'  Obviously the league is worried about the dire consequences of such hits.  And given those consequences, and the impenetrable psychology inspired by helmets,  it is at least worthwhile to investigate and debate the practicality of making ALL instances of helmet to helmet contact illegal.

Please share your thoughts.

Category: NFL
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or