LeBron ReThink Sports Psychology

LeBron James’ Gets the Psych Right (Circa 2015)

UPDATE June 20, 2016: I am SO glad the Cavs won! Thrilled. Elated. Vindicated. Ecstatic. Relieved. Joyous. Shocked… not necessarily in that order. Maybe someday I will get to interview LeBron about the cycle of emotions he experienced and used to create this incredible historic victory!

UPDATE June 17, 2016: This time I stayed until the end – even though it was a school night and I am an “early to bed, early to rise” type. Clearly the Cavs worked through their disappointment and frustration of last Friday!

In doing so, they also made it clear how the Warriors did NO such thing after their fifth game loss. From looking flat right out of the gate to an uncharacteristic five fouls for Curry, they displayed their unprocessed frustration from buzzer to buzzer. I’d guess they couldn’t even believe that they had to be back in Believeland when they were supposed to win in no more than five games!

We call it momentum but in the brain and body, it’s emotion. Whoever wins that game – the one of feelings – will be this year’s NBA champs.

ORIGINAL BELOW FROM SATURDAY JUNE 11

At 5:34 in the 4th, I turned it off. I needn’t delay my sweet sleep one second longer when the choice was that or endure yet another Cleveland sports meltdown. Call me a fair-weather fan but you know as well as I do that I wasn’t alone. We’ve been here too many times. It seems as if an inexplicable curse hangs over Cleveland. We’ve seen this movie how many times now?

And then in a stellar example of adding the proverbial insult to injury, Coach Lue harangues the team with “If you don’t think we can win, don’t get on the plane.” Well hec, wouldn’t you have to be virtually bat-sh$t crazy to think you can win? First, there’s those stats telling you no team down 3-1 has ever won. Piled on top of that obstacle sits the value of home-court advantage, the embarrassing memories of getting walloped on that same court and finally, the ephemeral but tangible smell of the supposed curse. What sane person would think they can win in this situation?

The Old Sports Psychology

It sounds good. Be positive. Believe you can win. Take “Believeland” to heart. But actually, according to the latest brain and emotion science, it’s the EXACT wrong message. Just as the cutaway to the coach-cam mic somewhere around eight minutes let us hear another gem of misguided sports psychology dogma. You have to be mentally tough. Be mentally tough. Stay mentally tough. Lue said “mentally tough” three or four times in a row and then promptly sat helpless while his team couldn’t buy a basket in the face of eight straight points by the Curry gang.

To be fair, Lue’s message only echoes conventional sports psychology wisdom. He’s only preaching what he has been taught. The problem lies in that sports has yet to listen to the latest in emotion research.

What the Research Tells Us

What he should be saying now is something like “Man, it seems like we just can’t win. We all feel like crapola and don’t even want to get on the plane, right? Let’s just let ourselves be angry and sad this weekend because that’s the logical feeling. We first have to feel that if we want even a snowball’s chance in heaven of winning.”

See research from UCLA and other leading edge academics tells us that admitting one’s most negative feelings actually dilutes the influence of those feelings. In other words, the quickest route to the benefit of so-called mental toughness is to fully experience one’s feelings of defeat and hopelessness in all their ugliness. Or, as I recently told a group of Olympic coaches “get positive results from negative feelings”.

Who Will Listen When You Say the Earth is Round?

But even if I could get through to the Cavs and Cleveland Sports power brokers this weekend, they wouldn’t do it. I could show them the research from Harvard and NYU that I’ve used to break the losing streaks of Wall Street traders but they still wouldn’t do it. The pressure to be positive looms large.

Worse however is our having  been mistaught how emotion really works.

Everyone is afraid that if they actually connect with their darkest feelings that they will drown in negativity. The anger and anguish of failing yet again will get a grip and never let go. The irony is that NOT feeling and talking about fear, frustration, despair and regret ensures their power to dictate the outcome. 

Unfelt fear really does move a shooting hand just a bit off the center of the basket. The body is connected to the mind which is connected to the heart in an unbreakable, reciprocal loop.

We accept feeling bad when it comes to grief. We expect, ask and allow people to feel bad when they lose someone they love. Why wouldn’t the human mind work the same way with any disappointment? Does the brain have some sort of pain threshold by which the best strategy for one’s mental state changes from be positive to let yourself feel bad? Or to put it another way, admitting to negative feelings mirrors martial arts strategies. Use the enemy’s power against him.

Seriously, What Do Cleveland Sports Have to Lose?

What have the CAVS got to lose? Nothing else has worked. Lue and James need to leverage the bleeding edge of brain research to bust through this emotional curse. A new approach to sports psychology could indeed bring rain to end the drought in my beloved Cleveberg. Does anyone know the number to the Indians?