Detroit, Michigan native Rex R. (24-years-old) asks: Is there something psychological about mediocrity? If so, how can the Sox get out of it? Would hiring a sport psychologist help?
Rex, that is a great question, and I am currently unaware of any research on the topic of mediocrity. It is likely that this has been somewhat ignored by scientists in the field due to an extreme difficulty in defining the term "mediocrity" (although the Sox seemed determined to do so last year with their 81-81 record). However, my best guess about mediocrity (and losing records, for that matter) is related to learned helplessness and leadership. As many fans have observed, clubhouse dismay tends to rear its ugly head much more often with those teams who are not meeting expectations. With all of the offensive firepower at Comiskey last year, there were high expectations.
Those expectations did not take into account, however, that the Sox entered the season with only one proven starter (who was still relatively inexperienced) and a #2 starter (Ritchie) who had reasonable numbers and experience but was to encounter a slew of new hitters by changing to the American League. Frustration usually begets frustration, and the Sox had a whole lot of it last year. By the middle of the season, this frustration of the day-to-day players (learned helplessness due to the sub-par pitching) may have bled into a lowered expectation of winning from week to week – hence the mediocrity. Anytime a team becomes fairly accustomed to losing, it is easier to view bad events during a game as reasons to lose instead of hurdles to overcome. This habituation toward losing can also deteriorate a team's attitude in the late innings, which could explain the inability of the Sox to come back from deficits like they did in 2000.
Although hiring a sport psychologist would likely help (they may already have one) maintain an expectation to win, I think that the best medicine for mediocrity on the South Side is to acquire and maintain a great core of high achievers (notice I did not use the term "talented performers," which the Sox obviously have) for a couple of years. I believe that the moves that Ken Williams has made this off-season puts a new level of expectation and responsibility on the Sox, and will likely allow them to break out of their mediocre blues. Additionally, as achievement rises, expectations rise (You don't see the Yankees' fans talking about merely winning the AL East, do you?), which is why maintaining a core of high achievers for a number of years is so important.
Corey M. (20-years-old) of Orlando, Florida asks: How is a place kicker able to block out the pressure when attempting the game-winning kick in the Super Bowl?
Well, Corey, this is a baseball column, so I'll answer your question in baseball-oriented terms. From a psychological standpoint, I think that the closest thing to a Vinitieri-esque performance would be trying to close out a game in the World Series after getting worked to a 3-2 count. Both performances are relatively self-paced and self-contained -- although the snap and hold in football can be an adventure -- in that the athlete is in primary control of the performance. This situation doesn't relate as well to a hitter in a tight situation, since the hitter does not control the timing, speed, location and break of the incoming pitch. The principles of blocking out pressure are similar for both performers, though.
One technique that can aid pitchers in this situation is labeled by researchers as a "pre-shot" (or pre-pitch, in this case) routine. This includes all of the seemingly identical behaviors that happen between pitches, especially those thoughts and behaviors that immediately precede the delivery of the ball. This routine, once established, allows pitchers to focus on the mechanics, speed and location of the pitch as opposed to the inning, score and pitch count. A strong pre-pitch routine can, in itself, relieve anxiety and serve as a "safe place" for pitchers to mentally retreat to in tight situations. Positive self-talk (thoughts and silent dialogue inside one's mind) is also a powerful weapon against anxiety and poor performance in stressful situations in that it encourages concentration on the physical performance as opposed to thoughts related to anxiety. For example, a pitcher who is continually rehearsing the phrase "hit the glove" is theoretically more likely to make a good pitch than a pitcher who is anxiously repeating "just don't walk him," since the imagery that comes to mind related to the latter statement is a ball traveling just outside of the strike zone. If you are unsure of this, have a friend read the following phrase to you aloud:
Don't think of a big, white, fuzzy, polar bear.
If you actually did not see some image of our most lovable predator from a Discovery Channel episode or Coca-Cola commercial in your head, you are definitely in the minority.
A final stress-relief tactic that a pitcher might use would be to ask himself challenging questions to debunk the perceived uniqueness of the situation. No matter what the score, inning, count or opposing batter, the pitcher's job remains the same…deliver the pitch to the catcher's mitt. A sequence of questions that may help normalize those all-important save opportunities might go like this: 1) Is there anything different about the mound? 2) Is there anything different about the ball? 3) Is there anything different about the catcher's mitt? Although strike zones may change with different umpires and lighting and mound footing may differ between ballparks, the answer to the aforementioned questions will likely be "no" or "not much." This normalization may have a calming effect on a pitcher and allow him to realize that his job remains the same regardless of the situation, and he cannot control for the possibility that the hitter may guess the pitch and time his swing correctly. There are many other anxiety management techniques, but these are a few of my favorites.
Tim (38-years-old) of ElPaso, Illinois requests: Explain to me the psychology of slumps. Why do they happen? How does a player get out of one?
Boy, Tim, that is a tall order. First, let me just alert you that slumps and streaks tend to be a bit over-emphasized according to research. Each player tends to have an average level of performance in any given year and slumps and streaks may be just a matter of the timeframe that is being measured. Even the most consistent performers have 4 for 4 and 0 for 4 games, but these fluctuations tend to settle around an average. This is even perceived when people play random games such as Yahtzee! when one player is "hot" and seems like he/she can not lose. Therefore, the most accurate explanation for a slump would likely be a player's performance simply regressing to the average and accounting for prior streaks. It is possible, however, that variables such as climate, lighting, off-the-field events, and changes in practice/play routines could also contribute to slumps. If human performance was as consistent as we tend to expect it to be, Joe Dimaggio's record of 56 games would have been broken a long time ago by a .250 hitter who went 1 for 4 all season long.
However, regardless of the scientific data (which is, admittedly, incomplete), the perception of slumps and streaks exists in players, fans, managers, coaches and owners. This perception alone may influence decisions, fan support, team morale, and player performance. There is really no manualized treatment for "slump-busting." My suggestions for a slumping player would likely include: 1) reviewing practice/play routines to see if any changes have been made that might relate to the slumping (if so, revert back to routines that have worked before; if not, subtle, purposeful changes may help); 2) an evaluation of recent off-the-field stressors (e.g., Frank's divorce didn't seem to help him much) and possible supportive counseling; and 3) concentration practices that encourage positive self-esteem, appropriate focus, and adequate levels of physiological / psychological activation (getting "pumped up" or "psyched up" for the game, or calming to a moderate level if activation is too high).