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The Moneyball of the Mind

Is sport psychology the new market inefficiency?
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The truth about Moneyball, the Michael Lewis book about Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, is that many people missed the point. The story, which tracked how the small-market A's contended with bigger, richer franchises, focused on Beane's use of statistics such as on-base percentage and WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) that went beyond more traditional metrics like batting average and ERA. The book helped launch a data-driven revolution—first in baseball and later in other sports—that continues today.

But Moneyball isn't about those advanced stats. They are merely a means to an end. Beane's real epiphany was to focus on finding and exploiting overlooked areas in every aspect of the game. At the time, on-base percentage worked because other Major League teams didn't understand the correlation between OBP and victories. As a result, they undervalued some players, which allowed Beane and his staff to acquire them cheaply (or, at least, more cheaply than they should have been). But eventually the league adjusted and those players became properly—and even over-—valued. Moneyball moved on to other metrics.

In a professional sporting landscape where brilliant mathematical minds pour over every bit of quantifiable data, it grows increasingly difficult to find those unknown or unseen advantages. When they are discovered, the benefits are smaller and opposing teams adapt quicker. The window slams shut faster and faster. Additionally, we are getting to a point where professional athletes approach the limits of human physique. They can only get so much faster and so much stronger.

Thinking about this while watching a recent edition of SportsCenter made me wonder if the next revolution isn't going to be in body but rather in the mind, a much less explored area in how it relates to athletic achievement. I wanted to find out, so I called up Dave Hurley, a friend of mine, but more importantly a Ph.D. candidate in sport psychology at Boston University and a faculty fellow at Stonehill College.

We are not told from an early age that we need to be mentally strong, beyond useless platitudes and generalities about "doing our best" and "trying hard." The psychology of sport is perceived to be less important than the physical aspects of the game.

“TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, strength and conditioning, athletic training, and sport psychology were essentially in the same place,” said Hurley. “The first two took off and sport psychology hasn't exploded in the same way."

Sport psychology didn't take off like athletic training did, Hurley maintains, for three specific reasons. The first is that there's a stigma against mental health in the United States and sport psych is closely associated with it. "The perception is that if you see a sport psychologist,” Hurley said, “there's something wrong with you, which could then be a reason for a coach not to play you or to cut you, or for teammates to look down on you." Secondly, sport psych is less quantifiable on an observational and numerical basis than more physical aspects of athletics. Squats will lead to stronger legs for everyone; a sport psych exercise that works for one person might not work for another. That leads to the third issue, which is the difficulty of researching sport psych. It's difficult to do large trials because everyone's mind is different, which makes standardization harder.

The perception is slowly changing on all levels of sports. Examples are everywhere. Super agent Scott Boras retained services of Harvey Dorfman—who, perhaps not surprisingly, got his start with the Oakland A's—for 10 years. The sport psychologist worked with hitters such as Alex Rodriguez, Mark McGwire, and Jose Canseco, and pitchers including Roy Halladay and Greg Maddux. More recently, Matt Garza credited sport psychologist and California State University-Fullerton professor Dr. Ken Ravizza with helping him. (Garza's manager Joe Maddon suggested his charge work with his friend Ravizza, who also worked with the Los Angeles Angels.) The University of Alabama's dominant football team uses a "mental conditioning coach." Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Mark Verstegen, president and founder of Athletes’ Performance and Core Performance and director of performance for the NFL Players Association, have recently said that they think sport psychology is the next big thing. (There's also the strange tale of The Inner Game, a book nominally about tennis that has been used by coaches including Pete Carroll to help with the mental side of sports.)

When he talks to people in the sports world, Hurley said, roughly two out of 10 tell him that they don’t think sport psychology is particularly helpful, but the majority believe it has benefits and that percentage increases every year. It is, if nothing else, an area where many athletes, coaches, executives, and others who seek an edge are ready to experiment.

Since each person is different, there is not one set of exercises to improve an individual's mental muscle, but there are general concepts. An example from Hurley:

One of the best ways to improve confidence is to have done something before, so even something as simple as having an athlete think about a time when he or she was most confident and talking about or writing it down will help to create self-awareness around what makes them look and feel confident. Once this awareness is gained, the next step is to practice being confident. So they know that confidence means they stand up tall and think about keeping their shoulders back. Now they have to practice doing it during games/competitions. They may begin to receive positive feedback about it, or notice others viewing them as more confident. They may also start to notice that they tell themselves "I am confident."  All of this starts the positive spiral of confidence (which by the way does not inherently have to be linked to success or winning), and creates more examples of being confident to draw from.

Money is flowing into research as well, which—combined with a growing understanding of the brain—could trigger some significant breakthroughs in terms of developing quantitative metrics, baselines, and other statistics that can be manipulated. Data is still currently holding back the field. While Bill James, the godfather of advanced baseball metrics, didn't need access to the players to create his formulas, sport psychology isn't there yet. There is no equivalent to Scott Hatteberg’s batting, but numbers and data are increasingly a focus.

"The field is trying to come up with ways to measure and quantify psychological and emotional processes, such as anxiety, by measuring physiological processes that are associated with anxiety. For example, when anxious, heart rate, sweating, and cortisol levels all increase; body temperature generally decreases. If we can measure these using biofeedback equipment, and help athletes to learn to regulate them, they can learn ways to deal with the psychological process of anxiety, by changing their physiological processes," Hurley said, citing an Adidas performance shirt as an example.

Sport psychology also, by definition, requires more care and subtlety than number crunching. We are talking about psyches, in some cases remarkably fragile ones. The best way to gain information is through questions and dialogue, which is inherently subjective at best and can be downright misleading or nefarious at worst. "We, as a country and especially in the hyper-masculine world of sports, don't want to talk about emotions," said Hurley. "An athlete can lie and say he is confident, for example, and it can be hard to tell if he's lying. Plus many athletes don’t want to possibly risk coming off as ‘weak’ by letting on that they aren’t actually as confident as they appear."

Another issue sport psychology needs to overcome before it can gain further traction is the battle for credibility. Consider this: Athletes at all levels do bicep curls, even though having large biceps rarely translates directly, or even indirectly, into positive athletic performance. But we are raised to equate muscles with success, so we hit the gym. Furthermore, large biceps are obvious and lead to positive feedback from our peers. We are not told from an early age that we need to be mentally strong, beyond useless platitudes and generalities about "doing our best" and "trying hard." The psychology of sport is perceived to be less important than the physical aspects of the game.

And, to be perfectly honest, it almost certainly is. But that's different than saying it's not important. In a world where the tiniest advantages can make the difference between winning and losing, un- or under-explored areas of performance should be given priority. In that light, the growth of sport psychology is almost inevitable.

SUCCESS BEGETS SUCCESS, AND Hurley believes that we will start seeing massive changes in the perception and persuasiveness of sport psychology when more professional teams start using some of the techniques, talking about them, and—here's the key—winning with them. After all, Moneyball is only a thing people care about if it works.

In a recent column by Bill Simmons, the Sports Guy wrote an aside, which I found interesting: "Someone told me once that MJ and Magic always tried to stack the Dream Team practices so they were on one team and Robinson, Karl Malone and Clyde Drexler were on the other. If they got those three on the other team, they always knew they would win."

The reason that trio—three of the best players to play the game—always lost wasn't physical. It was mental. They had a hang-up about winning or the lack of a killer instinct or some other very real cliché that prevented them from succeeding at the highest level. In 1992, sport psychology wasn't widely available or accepted enough to help. Fast forward three decades, however, and we're getting closer to a place where it might be. Maybe the biggest reason Malone didn't win a championship wasn't because he couldn't beat Jordan, but because he was born too early to have access to someone who could help him not beat himself.