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Sports Psychology - Mental Game versus Physical Game

When we think of professional athletes, we often think of the physical challenges they face. Equally important and often overlooked is the mental challenge they face when competing on such a high level. To help athletes gain a mental edge, many teams now have a sports psychologist on staff including Dr. Charles Maher with Baseball's Cleveland Indians.

With soaring million-dollar salaries and ever-growing popularity, sports stars in America face a very daunting task every time they "play" their sport. Their sport proves not only to be a physically daunting task but also a very challenging task mentally. Sports fans have long heard expressions like "mental edge" - or "mental toughness" - and today these words prove to be much more than a catch phrase; they are an exact science and it is called Sports Psychology. Dr. Charles Maher discussed theories and practices that could be applied to their ailments.

It was way back in the 1920's that Ty Cobb stated something to the effect of: "the most important part of a great ballplayer's body is above his shoulders." Decades later, however amusing it may sound, Yogi Berra added his now famous phrase, "90% of the game is half mental." However you phrase it, the mental well being of an athlete has long been important, but really only diagnosed and discussed in the last dozen years or so.

What is a Sports Psychologist, and how important are they to improving a player's performance? Renowned Sports Psychologist, Doctor Charles Maher talked to us in today's Early Show.

When he is not serving as a tenured professor at Rutgers University, Dr. Maher is in a number of professional locker rooms across the country. Having worked with the Chicago White Sox and Michael Jordan when he was playing minor-league baseball, the NY Jets, the Cleveland Browns, Indians and Cavaliers, Dennis Rodman and even astronauts from NASA, Maher brings a ton of experience to the table when it comes to solving a performance-related problem. He calls himself a``Mental Skills Coach.''

Maher is no longer working with any other baseball team, and has worked exclusively with the Cleveland Indians. There are 160 players in the Indians Minor League system. Only 12 of them will make it to the Major Leagues. That is not an opinion. That is not a prediction. That's fact. Or at least as close to fact as history, percentages, and statistics can tell us.

"Generally," says Indians farm director Mark Shapiro, "about eight percent of an organization's Minor League players make it to the bigs. We're a little better than that." "For us, the most important thing for a Minor League player is that he be a great player not only physically, but also mentally," Shapiro said. "The bottom line is we want a guy who can perform under pressure. We're not running a widget factory here. Our assets are human." And the biggest "people" person in the Tribe's Minor League system is Dr. Charles Maher, whose title is Sport Psychologist, but whom Shairo refers to as the organization's "mental skills coach."

Maher makes regular visits to all the Tribe's Minor League cities, talking with players and trying to minimize the stress. "Charlie helps us pinpoint problems and develop plans to correct them," Shapiro said. "He's not just a troubleshooter who will go in to meet with a particular kid who is having a problem. He's also a performance enhancement resource who can work proactively to help a player maximize the mental side of his development."

Maher does much of his work with pitchers. Spring Training for the Tribe included Charlie spending three days with the elite 14 minor league pitchers, followed later with work with the rest of the players. His first lecture was on motivation and the willingness to compete. He threw out a term none of his students had ever heard before: "Learned helplessness." The psychologist described the condition -- a pitcher in deep trouble, as unable to focus on anything specific, his eyes dating from the screen to the scoreboard to the stands; his mood impatient and irritable and panicky. Presumably, it can be overcome only when it is recognized. It is assumed by management that someday one of these kid pitchers will get out of a jam because he remembered the lecture. He won't solve a situation; he will figure out himself. Maher also gave the 14 top prospects personality tests designed to measure their competitiveness and he will discuss the results with each one individually. The Indians are leaving nothing to chance. No other franchise has a program even remotely resembling this.

Maher has also worked extensively with a high profile slugger named Manny Ramirez. Ramirez is certainly one of the most feared sluggers in all the league, but he wasn't always a complete player. Enter Dr. Maher. To improve his concentration on the bases and in right field, Ramirez spent a lot of time with team psychologist Dr. Maher in 1997 and 1998. The result: He stole five bases, scored a career-high 108 runs and avoided mental errors the follow season. Defensively, he conquered his fear of the wall, making several fine catches against it. He showed a strong and accurate arm, consistently hitting the cutoff man. He goes to the line to catch liners and flyballs as well as anyone. He's hit a few bumps along the way and is still "a work in progress."

Dr. Maher says Ramirez's problem is shyness, not ADD. Whatever the team shrink is doing, it appears to be working; the blatant errors are coming less frequently. Ramirez gave his team Most Valuable Player trophy from the 1998 season to Maher for helping him to focus, to concentrate.

"I've been at this for 15 years," says Dr. Maher. "Long before it was ever called Sports Psychology. It was really not until the early 1990's that Sports Psychology was demystified. There is a direct correlation between a player's mental state and his on field performance. No doubt about it. A player who is not sound mentaly is not going to consistently perform at his highest level. I've worked with quarterbacks who couldn't throw a 10 yard pass, I've worked with Javelin throwers who totally lost it and couldn't throw it 5 feet, I've seen it in soccer players, baseball players up and down the line"

"It is very easy for a player to loose focus and let his mind play tricks on him. Right before he is about to perform a routine play, he will think not only about the play but also the consequences if he fails. Immediately his muscles will tense up, his breathing will change or become erratic, his sense of balance and touch will be altered with the resulting "routine" play becoming anything but routine."

What do you say to people who say 'come on, all this is over-thought, I'd don't believe in this "stuff" - it all sounds crazy."

"I'd say 2 things. One, what do you mean by crazy. Two what do you mean by stuff. This is a real science. I am anything but a charlatan. There have been countless scientific studies done that prove this correlation between mental and physical health. All studies aside, I just know my clinical experience and know what dozens of players have told me throughout the years. It works for them. They believe in it and obviously I do as well."

"The toughest part of the job is trust. It is totally a one way street in the beginning. Most players think you are a spy for the front office and also think that you are some square doctor who doesn't know the first thing about sports. Unfortunately the trust is very easy to lose"

"The most important thing to working with someone is simple. There has to be a willingness and readiness to accept a certain type of service. The player must have - or adopt a positive attitude and become more realistic. Accept set backs as set backs and move on. ... How does a player deal with failure? How do they deal with adversity? What is their outlook on life? Very simple questions, but many million dollar athletes hae never had to think about these things."

"The first exercise I do with players is goal setting. The second process may be visualization which works great for many people. It is practiced widely in all sports especially in baseball and basketball. The third exercise is called centering. It comes from the martial arts - Akido. it is all about getting balance and maintaining it. I mean balance both literally and physically. Akido helps people center the energy and their body on one goal or object. For a hitter it maybe balancing - or centering - on the release point of a pitchers motion. Another exercise is widely practiced and very simple: deep breathing. There are not only physiological benefits to taking in oxygen deeply and a steady pace, but there are just as many mental benefits to deep breathing. Look how many pitchers you see take a deep breath before each pitch. Some of them might not even be doing it on purpose, it has just become part of their mental routine."

"For years ago maybe only 20 % of Major League Baseball clubs worked with a Sports Psychologist, but today that number is at least 70% ... I think the first reason for this is that many clubs have come to realize just how beneficial and important this is. Some of our best work is done with the coaching staff. Coaches have the most direct impact on a player's mental health maybe more than their wives in some cases. It makes my job so much easier when we handle things in a proactive way rather than a reactive way. I think in the next few years, you'll see every team - in every league - using a Sports Psychologist."

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