Category: THE BLOG

Psychology of the NBA Playoffs: One Round at a Time!

Rewind

This is what all the fuss is about.

This is what all the fuss is about.

Last year, during the NBA Final Series between the San Antonio Spurs and the then LeBronified Miami Heat, I wanted to write about some of the more mental aspects of the game that came up.

I tried to pick out an interesting story or highlight from each game, something that I thought related back to the “Psychology of the Finals” and wrote a short blog post on that topic. For example, after the air conditioning in American Airlines Arena broke in Game 1, I wrote about the need to take control of the environment, rather than letting the environment give you cramp so bad you have to be carried off the court.

I wrote about the need to focus on What’s Important Now! after both teams seemed to spend the whole of Game 2 arguing with the refs. I wrote about the need for Short Memory Shooting, being completely prepared whether you’re a starter or the last guy off the bench, and a whole host of other areas of psychology that I thought characterised the Finals.

I taped each game (Sky+/Tivo for those of you born after 2000 who have no idea what a tape is), watched it the next morning, and wrote a blog while I was watching the game. To be honest, while I really enjoyed writing about the psychology

Decisions, Decisions! How the Seahawks Lost Superbowl XLIX.

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The Seattle Seahawks could have won their second straight Superbowl. They should have won their second straight. They should have beaten the New England Patriots in Feb, 2015, but instead they had to walk off the field, close, but cigar-less. They could have won, but for a decision that had pretty much everyone who was watching saying “what the… wait… why would you… but you have… just… oh my goodness what have you done!?”

Some context might be good right about now. I’ll be honest, I pretty much fell asleep about two minutes after the opening kick off, but I did wake up just in time to see Russell Wilson throw an unlikely touchdown pass to Seahawks rookie receiver Chris Matthews; unlikely because the play came with 0.06 left in the first half. It was a gamble.

Most coaches would probably have gone for the field goal and the (almost) guaranteed points, rather than risk not scoring and not having enough time to get another play off.

Anyway, that tied the game at 14-14, Katy Perry attempted to sing some songs atop a genuinely quite impressive giant lion (or a genuinely shit tiger, I’m not sure), Channel 4 desperately tried to fill time, and then the second half got under way. The Seahawks scored twice in the 3rd quarter, putting them up by 10, then Tom Brady threw two touchdown passes for the Patriots in the 4th, the second with only 2.06 left in the game. Patriots ahead 28-24.

“You put the ball in the hands of the guy named “BEAST MODE” and let him go all… well… beast modey. You definitely don’t throw on second down right?”

What happened next was… ridiculous. The Seahawks had the ball on their own 20 yard line with just over two minutes to go, and all three of their time-outs left. On first down, Wilson threw to running back, Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch (more on that nickname later), for 31 yards.

A couple of plays and another first down later, Wilson threw long to Jermaine Kearse. The pass was tipped by rookie corner, Malcolm Butler, who I don’t think could have done any better with it, but Kearse somehow kept hold of the ball, giving the Seahawks possession at the Patriots’ 5 yard line. One running play later (Lynch for 4 yards) and the Hawks had 2nd and Goal at the 1 yard line, with 26 seconds remaining and one timeout left.

BEAST MODE

BEAST MODE

Beast Mode

Now, back to Beast Mode. I think this video probably says all that needs to be said about that. Lynch was arguably the best running back in the game at the time and was virtually unstoppable in the very situation Seattle found themselves in. So you’re on the 1 yard line. You run the ball, yeah? You put the ball in the hands of the guy named “BEAST MODE” and let him go all… well… beast modey. You definitely don’t throw on second down right? Right? Uh… what the… wait… why would you… but you have… just… oh my goodness what have you done!?

Pete Carroll, the Seahawks head coach had called a pass play. Russell Wilson passed on 2nd down, and the ball was intercepted by Malcolm Butler. Patriots win. And the watching world wonders what the hell just happened.

Fans, critics, sports writers, all over the world were quick to decry this as the worst coaching decision in Football history, and in hindsight, they were right. The Seahawks lost and you can’t really argue with that.

Hindsight is 20/20

But just hold on a sec. Let’s say the Seahawks did run on 2nd down and didn’t get in. They have to call time-out to stop the clock (or spike the ball leaving them with only 4th down to score). Probably not enough time for another run on 3rd down and a reset, so you have to throw on 3rd down. And New England know you have to throw.

If you throw on 2nd down (like they did) and it’s incomplete, the clock stops, and you still have your time-out to stop the clock after a 3rd down run attempt if you don’t score from it, or you could take another shot in the air (if you fancied it). From Carrolls’ comments, “we were playing for 3rd and 4th down,” it seems likely that this was the thinking behind the decision to throw on 2nd and Goal. Now unfortunately, if your pass on 2nd down is intercepted, then you’re screwed.

Game Winner

Game Winner

So what happened? Coaching under pressure? Decision-making under pressure? Quarterbacking under pressure? Was this a case of over-thinking the situation, over-thinking all of the potential outcomes when really, putting the ball in the hands of the league’s best running back might have just gotten you the win?

Doing what you do best and not worrying about what the other team is doing (lining up to defend the run) might have won it for you? Possibly, possibly not. It’s impossible for anyone to know.

Pete Carroll is a great coach. I love his coaching philosophy, I love the way he relates to his players, and for a coach who is fully on board with mindfulness practices, staying in the moment, focusing “on what’s right in front of us,” it’s likely that he was doing just that. Focusing on what was right in front of him. Just like at the end of the first half when most people would have taken three points rather than risk coming away with nothing. And as Carroll said after the game, “you never think you’ll throw an interception there, just as you don’t think you would fumble.”(read full article here).

But here’s a story that doesn’t seem to be being told. Undrafted rookie cornerback, Malcolm Butler, made a spectacular defensive play that essentially won the Superbowl for the Patriots. Spectacular not only because of the speed and athleticism and the strength involved, spectacular not only because it involved a tremendous read on the play, but spectacular also because it came a few seconds after the disappointment of getting his hands on the ball but still giving up the pass that got the Seahawks into a winning position.

Again, I don’t think he could have played it better, but that’s the sort of thing that plays on your mind. “If only I’d have tipped it further, if only, I’d have broken up the play… we wouldn’t be in this position, with the Seahawks about to score, and us about to lose the Superbowl.” Admit it. How many of you would find it hard not to be thinking about all that stuff?

But how about staying in the moment! Not worrying about the past, or the future, but staying purely in the moment, reacting to what’s in front of you, and responding in the right way. That’s what Butler was able to do. Something I’m sure Pete Carroll would admire.

Butler saw it coming all the way, reacted, and made a fantastic play

Butler saw it coming all the way, reacted, and made a game-winning play.

We could argue all day about whether the Hawks should have passed or not, whether it was the right call or not. What’s important is that it happened the way it happened. That was the play that was called, the play that was run, and Malcolm Butler, fully in the moment, fully present, reacted. The Seattle Seahawks didn’t lose the Superbowl. Malcolm Butler won it.

What’s your take on the last 2 minutes of Superbowl XLIX? What affects your decision-making under pressure? Do you over-think? Do you under-think? How good are you at staying in the moment, and focusing on what’s in front of you? Leave a comment below!

‘Banter’ is a poison

Banter.

Banter.

Where to start?

In August, 2014, ex-Cardiff City FC manager, Malky Mackay was been in the news for allegedly engaging in racist, sexist, and homophobic text message conversations with former Sporting Director at Crystal Palace, Iain Moody. I won’t link to the articles describing the alleged texts; you can find them easily enough with a quick google search!

Kick it Out, football’s equality and inclusion organisation, released a statement on the matter, which you can read here, but for me, the important part was right at the end:

“This familiar scenario acts as a challenge to the leadership of football that cannot be shirked again. The governing bodies and the clubs must denounce such attitudes prevalent in the game, and take the appropriate action.”

However, rather than denouncing such attitudes, the League Manager’s Association (LMA) released a statement which seems to dismiss entirely unacceptable behaviour as ‘banter’. We have been here before… several times in fact. And this culture of using ‘banter’ as an excuse for being an absolute arsehole has to come to an end.

Here’s the LMA statement in full, with some thoughts as to why I feel it’s entirely insufficient, ill-conceived, and damaging.

“In the course of a search by the Club in early 2014 of 10,000 private text messages sent to and from another member of staff during Mr Mackay’s employment at Cardiff…”

Presumably the fact that they were “private” somehow diminishes the fact that the content was terrifically racist. As long as we’re racist behind closed doors, it’s ok?

“…in relation to other matters, it emerged that Malky had, it seems, sent a couple of one line texts that were, with the benefit of hindsight, very regrettable and disrespectful of other cultures.”

The fact that they’re referred to as “a couple of one line texts” is again entirely dismissive of the issue. It was only a couple of texts. They were only one liners. What’s the problem? But do you really need hindsight to see that what you’re typing is racist? Do you need a few weeks to realise that writing about “Fkn chinkys” might be a tad bit controversial? I guess it’s not obvious at the time, right?

“These were two text messages sent in private at a time Malky felt under great pressure and when he was letting off steam to a friend during some friendly text message banter.”

I don’t even know where to start with this. First, I’ve done a fair bit of work in the area of stress and pressure. I’ve written a few papers on coaches who work in extremely high-pressured environments, and their responses to stress have never included making racial slurs via text. Malky was under pressure, so the racist (and allegedly homophobic and misogynistic) texts were justified? Second, it was just some “friendly text message banter.”

This is, I think, where I have the biggest problem. The culture of ‘banter’ is a sickening poison, and those who use ‘banter’ as an excuse, are essentially saying “whatever you’re upset about, you shouldn’t be, because it’s only a couple of blokes (and yes it is usually men) having a laugh. Stop being offended and get over it.”

More banter.

More banter.

“That said, Malky believes he could and should have conducted himself better on these two isolated occasions. The precise details need to remain private for the time being until any FA process is complete. 

“The LMA does not condone in any way any potential breach of equal opportunities laws but would also point out that out of over 10,000 text messages and 70,000 documents produced over a long period of time it may not be a complete surprise that some inappropriate comments can sometimes be made by employees, like Malky, working under great pressure in highly charged situations.

“If Malky has caused any offence by these two isolated matters he would, however, wish to sincerely apologise.”

Seriously? Out of 10,000 texts, it’s hardly surprising that a few of them are racist? You’ve genuinely written and published that as an official statement? That’s what you’re going with? Really? Well, I suppose when you’re under pressure, you just can’t help being racist. It’s only banter though. You know, letting off some steam.

“Malky finds it strange that these matters were only raised with the FA and in the media now, eight months after his employment ended and the day before he was reported as being offered the opportunity to become manager of Crystal Palace FC. Malky is also very concerned about seriously inaccurate and misleading reports of his alleged involvement in these matters in the media.

“It has never been alleged that he wrote any homophobic or sexist messages and he has confirmed that he did not do so. Further, there are incorrect and damaging suggestions that he sent a whole host of offensive and unpleasant messages that are simply not true and which give a grossly distorted and unfair view of Malky’s involvement in this matter.”

Is the amount of racism really the appropriate focus here? Plus, if we’re passing off racist remarks as ‘banter’, I’m not sure we’re in the best position to say what constitutes sexist or homophobic content, now are we?

“Malky looks forward to matters being put straight in due course, following any investigation of this matter. Malky cannot of course comment on the nature of any conduct or communications alleged to have been made by others. Malky has said that he will be fully co-operating with any FA investigation and that he looks forward to putting the record straight thereafter.”

So that’s it. That’s the LMA’s official statement on the matter. The “it’s just banter” excuse – and that’s exactly what it is, a tired excuse – is not tackling discrimination, it’s ignoring it. And that’s just not good enough.

Were you satisfied with the LMA’s statement? Do you think it missed the mark? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, so leave a comment below if you like.

UPDATE:

Shortly after this post was first published, the LMA has issued another statement, apologising for their previous statement (Monty Python anyone?). Anyway, here’s their apology:

“The LMA apologises for some of its wording, in its release yesterday, which was inappropriate and has been perceived to trivialise matters of a racist, sexist or homophobic nature. That was certainly not our intention. It is beyond argument that any comments that are discriminatory, even used in private, are totally unacceptable. The LMA remains absolutely aware of our responsibility to the game and to promote and uphold the highest standards of behaviour.”

While this apology is a step in the right direction, I just wonder why you would write a statement if you think that the wording was inappropriate and could be perceived to trivialise some of the issues involved. Maybe they could only see that with the benefit of hindsight. Maybe they were under a lot of pressure. Maybe it was just banter.

Psychology of the NBA Finals: Game 4

Team-first basketball has given the Spurs a 3-1 series lead.

Team-first basketball has given the Spurs a 3-1 series lead.

San Antonio took Game 3 in dramatic fashion to lead the series 2-1. They hit 19 of their first 21 shots, they scored 41 in the 1st quarter, and they had 71 by half-time! It was always an uphill struggle for the Heat, but the Spurs won by being aggressive and doing their thing, especially Kawhi Leonard who had an outstanding game (career high 29 points) after a relatively quite Game 1 and Game 2.

So, how did the Heat make adjustments? Did Mario Chalmers decide to do something… anything? I predicted that the Heat would respond with a BIG game, that they would be the more aggressive team in Game 4, and that they would do their thing to get back into the series: Swarming defence, steals, fast break points… I could not have been more wrong.

Psychology of the NBA Finals: Game 3

The series was tied 1-1 going into Game 3 in Miami. The Spurs had managed to do a better job of not being distracted by the literally uncontrollable temperature in Game 1, and Danny Green came through with some Short Memory Shooting in the 4th quarter. In Game 2, another uncontrollable factor, the referees, left both teams struggling to find their rhythm early on and it was the Heat this time, that did the better job of refocusing quickly after bad calls. So what were the key themes of Game 3?

Psychology of the NBA Finals: Game 2

Everyone loves these guys!

Everyone loves these guys!

Keeping Cool

If the theme of Game 1 was ‘beating the heat’, the theme of Game 2 was definitely ‘keeping cool’.  But this time, it wasn’t a broken air conditioning system that was causing players’ temperatures to rise. It was another one of those damn uncontrollables – the refs.

Every player knows that the refs won’t call two games in exactly the same way. No matter what the sport, while referees aim for consistency, you just know that some days you’re gonna get calls, some days you’re not. It was clear from the start that the referees had made an adjustment from Game 1 and were allowing much more contact in Game 2.

Psychology of the NBA Finals: One game at a time.

I Love This Game!

I Love This Game!

It’s been a while since my last post on here. I’ve been largely trying to avoid the internet while the NBA Playoffs have been happening. People seem unable to resist posting results on social media sites and, since I can no longer stay up until 5am and function adequately the next day, I’ve been recording games to watch when I get home from work the following day.

Even though I’m not watching the games live, I can still obviously influence the result by shouting at the TV, so knowing the results essentially ruins watching sports… and spending a whole day in a Sports Department and NOT finding out sporting results is not easy.

Anyway, that’s why I’ve been “off the internet” for a while, but I’m back now, and what an NBA Final Series we have this year! I’m not a Spurs fan as such, but I’m a fan of the way they play basketball… the right way. They were literally inches from winning the Finals last year, so I was really pleased to see them make their way back there this year, and loved the way their unselfish, team basketball, got them past the one-on-one, never-going-to-be-successful, even-Jordan-passed-the-ball-sometimes, nightmare that is the OKC Thunder.

Burnout in youth sport: Part 3 – Prevention is better than cure

How do we keep all of our young matches lit? ... That doesn't really work as a metaphor.

How do we keep all of our young matches lit? … That doesn’t really work as a metaphor.

In part one of this series of three blog posts, we looked at the characteristics of burnout. In part two, we explored various explanations for burnout, including stress, feeling trapped, lack of motivation, and the culture of performance sport. Here in part three, we’ll think about what we can do to reduce the chances of our young athletes burning out and maybe leaving sport behind.

Burnout in youth sport: Part 2 – Here comes the science part.

Quitting sport isn't the same as burnout, but it's a potential consequence!

Quitting sport isn’t the same as burnout, but it’s a potential consequence!

In part one of this three-part post on burnout in youth sport, we talked about what exactly burnout is. Essentially, long lasting feelings of emotional and physical exhaustion, sport devaluation (not getting anything out it anymore) and reduced personal accomplishment (no sense of achievement). Here in part two, we’ll explore briefly explain some of the theories as to how and why burnout occurs.

Burnout in youth sport: Part 1 – What is burnout?

We’ve all had times when we’re feeling a bit tired and lacking motivation, when we don’t really feel like practicing or training, or when something we usually enjoy doing seems like a bit of a chore. More often than not, once we remind ourselves that we actually love what we do, or even take a few days off, we can get on with it and get back to enjoying our sport.

burnout_syndrom

What exactly is burnout? …Is this picture even relevant? …So many questions.

But sometimes that feeling can last a bit longer and feel that little bit more intense. I’m sure the coaches reading this can think of young athletes that display those characteristics. Maybe you’re the parent of a kid who’s lost interest in sport. Perhaps they’re experiencing burnout, but what exactly is burnout? What causes it? And what can we do to stop our young athletes from burning out and quitting before they’ve even got going?

This three-part post is going to address those questions. I’ll try to answer the first one here, and then see about the others in part two and part three.

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