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Athletes Are Human

Before I begin my newsletter, I would like to wish everyone a happy holiday season. I would also like to invite you to check out my revised, new website, www.winnersunlimited.com.
This past Saturday morning a terrible tragedy happened in Kansas City. Kansas City Chiefs linebacker, Javon Belcher murdered his girlfriend at their residence and then drove to the Chiefs training facility at Arrowhead Stadium and committed suicide. This murder/suicide left their three-month old daughter, an orphan and numerous questions about why and how this could happen. Unfortunately, murders and suicides happen at an alarmingly high rate in the United States, and all too often happen amongst young adults in their 20’s and 30’s. Over the past week, much has been speculated and written about why and how Belcher could have committed such a terrible act. Many peoples lives were affected, not only the families of both, but many in the world of sports. Although deaths like this occur way too often, this has been highly publicized because Belcher was a professional football player. Talk shows, blogs and the internet have been full of discussions about gun control, domestic violence and mental health. All of these topics are pertinent towards what happened. Apparently, Belcher and his girlfriend had been arguing frequently about their relationship and finances. The Chiefs had offered counseling for both, but according to statements made by Belcher, it wasn’t helping. Each month I write a newsletter that usually focuses on sport psychology. However, this month I want to focus a little deeper on psychology. As I have stated numerous times, I have loved sports all my life, as a participant, fan, parent, coach and as a sport psychologist. We have discussed the roles athletes, parents, coaches, fans and officials have in this newsletter for the past six years. But in the end, no matter how talented an athlete you may be, no matter how well you perform under pressure, no matter how motivated you are to succeed, you are still a human being with a wide array of emotions. I have frequently stated that you can have two athletes of equal physical skills, but the one with the stronger mind will usually come out on top. All too often, many athletes are able to skirt the rules because they are a good athlete. I have worked with many collegiate and professional athletes over the years who have been able to accomplish a lot because of their physical abilities, but mentally are far behind the norm. They have gotten by because they were good at sports. Coaches and teachers have commonly given them a free pass in class and in life because they were good at sports. In my opinion, when we let them get by because they are physically gifted, we may be cheating them by not teaching them life’s more important lessons, related to respect, honesty and an understanding of dealing with your emotions, positive or negative. An individual’s mental health is more important than any sports talent. It doesn’t matter what level you coach at, I believe working with an athlete on issues related to self confidence, self esteem, respect and balance in their life is more important than how physically gifted they are. We may never know the reasons why Belcher committed these acts. But, it reinforces to me that athletes may be in tremendous physical condition, but mentally they may be hurting and in trouble. Perhaps the best lesson that can be learned from this tragedy is to take the time and listen to the athletes you coach. Listen to signs of emotional pain and address them. Don’t ignore them because the young person can run fast, hit a ball a long way or shoot three pointers. Make sure the support is there to help them if they demonstrate that they need it.

How Important Should Sports Be?

This past week, Hurricane Sandy has devastated the eastern part of the United States. As of the writing of this newsletter, millions of people are still without power, thousands have either lost their homes or been forced to evacuate because of damage from the storm, much of the public transit system is still not running, including most of New York’s subway system, and more people are being found either dead or missing on a daily basis. My youngest son is a senior at New York University and has not been able to sleep in his dormitory since Saturday because there is no power in the building. His classes have been cancelled all week. Every night he has had to find somewhere else to sleep and shower with relatives or friends who have electricity. And he feels fortunate.

Yesterday, I heard the news that despite all of the tragedy that has occurred this past week and all of the problems that New York is facing, the famed New York City Marathon will still be held this Sunday. Why? The reasoning I heard was that the over 47,000 runners registered will bring in much needed money to New York and that it will be a much needed distraction to the residents of the city. To me, this is utter arrogance and stupidity. Having volunteered for years on Kansas City’s Hospital Hill half marathon race committee, I know the demands a race like this requires. Streets have to be closed for hours; hundreds of volunteers are needed as well as hundreds of police and paramedics. With the New York community suffering the crisis it has endured over the past week, I cannot understand the rationale behind this decision. Power crews and police and emergency personnel have been working nonstop all week, and now must also be available for a marathon that can take 6 to 7 hours for some to finish. Thousands of runners and their families need lodging, food and transportation to a city that has thousands of residents in crisis. To me this brings up the question I have discussed numerous times on my weekly radio show, just how important should sports be? If you have read my newsletter over the past several years, you know that I feel sports are the greatest discipline to find out about yourself and what you can achieve. Sports bring people, schools and communities together. It CAN be a good distraction from the stressors and issues we face in life on a daily basis. However, when your community is facing a crisis the magnitude that the New York City area is facing, an event like this should not go on. In my opinion, it should either be postponed or cancelled for this year. Sports are an important component of our society. It does bring people together. Over a million fans attended the victory parade this week for the San Francisco Giants after their World Series victory. But, when you still have millions without power, thousands displaced because their homes have either been destroyed or severely damaged, it makes no sense to run a 26.1 mile race through these streets. As I said, sports is important, but having an event like this occurring while the area is going through this crisis to me makes no sense. I would like to hear the rationale from the race organizers and race committee members regarding the reasoning for this decision. I am guessing for them, their motto is, “The games must go on.” Your thoughts.

Cheering an Injury

At a recent Kansas City Chiefs NFL game, an incident occurred that sparked a lot of national attention. The Chiefs starting quarterback, Matt Cassell, who has not played well this year was injured during a play against the Baltimore Ravens. Cassell was knocked hard to the ground and appeared to have a head injury, which was later diagnosed as a concussion. While on the ground, it appeared that numerous fans were cheering about his injury, hoping that the Chiefs would bring in backup quarterback, Brady Quinn, to take Cassell’s place. Quinn did replace Cassell, and after the game for several days the Chiefs fans were criticized for cheering his injury. Immediately after the game, Chiefs offensive tackle, Eric Winston, was interviewed, and stated that he was never more embarrassed to be in a game than to have the fans cheer for a player being injured. He said it was the lowest point of his career as a football player. A few days later, I was at a 13 year old youth soccer game and saw one player get injured on a play. Players on the other team yelled some insulting comments at him while he was down. One young man even made some degrading remarks about the injured player’s toughness. Both of these situations made me think about fans behavior at games and how this behavior is often modeled by younger athletes. Booing at sporting events has always been part of the game experience at the professional, collegiate and high school levels. Usually, it is in response to a penalty by the officials or a poor display of sportsmanship by a player. However, it seems to that not just booing, but showing a lack of respect is now becoming something fans at all games feel is acceptable behavior. I witnessed this watching my two sons, who are now in their early 20’s, play sports through high school and continue to see it get worse as I attend numerous youth sporting events. I believe the major issue comes down to a lack of RESPECT. Young people emulate their role models, usually their parents, older siblings, teachers, coaches and especially professional athletes. I have spoken many times over past newsletters about why I feel sportsmanship needs to be taught and should not only be a priority for the athletes, but for the coaches and parents. Obviously, when a fan pays money for a ticket at a sporting event, they feel they have the right to express themselves, whether by booing or cheering. However, cheering when a player is injured, in my opinion, shows a lack of respect, not just for the injured player but for you as well. I feel coaches at the youth sports level should not just encourage appropriate sportsmanship by their athletes, but by the parents and themselves. As part of their preseason meeting, I believe coaches should discuss the issue of respect, not just for your teammates, but for opponents and officials. Sports should be about the experience of having fun and pushing yourself to see what you can do. It is a much better experience when competitors and fans alike are able to show respect for the performances that are displayed.