Magazine article Insight on the News

Masters of Mind Games

Magazine article Insight on the News

Masters of Mind Games

Article excerpt

Coaches employ a variety of methods to bring out the best in players, but the best still depend on force of personality rather than stunts to motivate their teams during the long seasons.

Upon delivering the New York Giants to the doorstep of Super Bowl XXXV, coach Jim Fassel was hailed as a master of motivation for boldly guaranteeing at midseason that his then-struggling team would make the playoffs. This "brought the team together," or "took the pressure off the players," the pundits and armchair psychologists (often one and the same) noted.

Not to be outplayed in mind games, Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick stepped off the plane in Tampa, Fla., and promptly scolded the media for hounding linebacker Ray Lewis about that double murder in Atlanta a year ago. Many understood Billick's intent. With the Ravens cast in the unfamiliar role of favorite (they were underdogs in both their previous playoff games), Billick needed to maintain the "Us vs. Them" mentality that had carried his team.

Wagons appropriately circled, the Ravens went out and massacred the Giants 34-7. Billick's ploy had trumped Fassel's, or so it seemed. Yet the Giants were the same highly motivated, psyched-up outfit that had dominated Philadelphia and Minnesota in, the playoffs. Was the difference Billick's machinations or simply the Ravens' defense -- one of the best in National Football League history?

Motivational ploys have always been part of sport, and coaches have attempted to pry the best out of their players using a variety of methods. The fire-and-brimstone orations of Knute Rockne and Vince Lombardi are well-known, but few remember the approach of Jackie Sherrill, who made his Mississippi State football team watch the castration of a bull before a game against Texas. Sherrill's lads won the game. But college athletes are more impressionable than professionals.

"Players can see through the gimmicks," says Danny Ainge, who played for three National Basketball Association (NBA) teams during a 14-year career and later coached the Phoenix Suns to a 136-90 record in three-plus seasons. "Brian Billick's approach wouldn't have been as effective -- and I think it was very effective -- had he not practiced what he preached."

Context, says Ainge, is everything. "Sometimes the exact same quote can be awesome for one group of guys and fraudulent to another group. It depends on what else is going on behind the scenes. `Does Fassel believe in us, or is he trying to motivate us?' If it's not part of a coach's personality -- if a guy is yelling and screaming and negative and then he tells me right before tip-off how great I am -- I'm not buying it."

Take, for example, former New York Jets coach Al Groh, who broke out flashlights in response to Keyshawn Johnson's boast that he was a "star" compared to former Jets teammate Wayne Chrebet, who was a "flashlight." Groh darkened a meeting room, handed out flashlights and had the players turn them on until the room was illuminated. Duly inspired, the Jets lost their next game to Pittsburgh and ultimately failed to make the playoffs. Amid whispers of a lack of respect among some players, Groh resigned and replaced George Welsh at the University of Virginia.

Groh's predecessor, Bill Parcells, had a different presence altogether, which partly explains why his teams went to three Super Bowls, winning two, and why his name appeared on this year's Hall of Fame ballot. Yet Parcells was a stuntmeister in his own right. While coaching the Jets in 1998, he pulled his entire staff -- assistants, trainers, everybody -- off the practice field in disgust before a game against favored New England. The Jets went on to pull a 24-14 upset.

Parcells, who also coached the Giants and Patriots, was a stickler for organization, but perhaps more than any coach since Lombardi, he motivated through fear. "Coach would dish out some threats during the course of the week," former Giants linebacker Pepper Johnson said a few years ago. …

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