Hurricanes, Marlins reap physical benefits from mental acuity
University of Miami junior running back Duke Johnson captured the nation’s attention by breaking tackles, scoring two touchdowns and tallying 286 total yards during Thursday night’s rout in Blacksburg, Virginia.
Johnson, already near the top of several program records, continues to cement his legacy as one of the best. But nearly a year ago, he found himself away from the gridiron after undergoing surgery on his broken ankle. Upon the recommendation of the Hurricanes, Johnson visited with sport psychologist Dr. Rob Seifer.
An injury can be demoralizing and terrifying. Self-assured athletes suddenly doubt whether they can make a return and produce the way they had done in the past.
Someone like Johnson, an All-ACC back with that kind of talent, could very well fall short of his goals because of a physical setback that turns into something more.
"The mental part of it is just getting right with yourself and understanding it’s one game at a time and it’s something the coaches try to get us to recognize," Johnson said. "Your mental state is a big part of it. You wouldn’t think it is, but once you sit back and see the studies that everyone does you figure that they’re right about something."
Seifer, who has been a presence around the athletic program for three seasons, began visiting the campus on a regular basis two years ago. He has also worked with the Miami Marlins for four seasons, responsible for the players in the big leagues as well as the minor-league affiliates.
On campus, Seifer meets with the coaches to figure out dynamics before presenting what he can offer the team. After a group meeting, interested student-athletes get in touch with him. At the start of spring training, Seifer gives a speech to the Marlins and puts his contact information out there for those who may see it as an advantage.
Though there can be differences among collegiate and professional athletes based on development, in both instances, Seifer tries to build a rapport. He makes himself available to anyone who seeks help. These athletes are already good at what they do, but replicating that success and finding out how to maintain it takes work.
"I facilitate the athletes’ greatness," Seifer said. "I’m not sport-specific, nor do I believe I need to be the top athlete in that field to be a sport psychologist. What I try to do is enhance that player to get him or her the tools mentally so that he or she can be successful more often."
That’s where Johnson fits in. Until his interactions with Seifer, he had no prior experience or knowledge of psychology. He did, however, know of its stigma.
"When you hear about it you think it’s for people who aren’t in their right mind, but he specializes in helping you understand your goals and how you can reach them mentally because you have all the physical attributes," Johnson said. "His part is helping you mentally."
Sport programs and organizations appear more open to working with psychologists, a trend that has evolved over the years.
"I think it’s going in the right direction," Seifer said. "For any sport psychologist the whole idea is the coach needs to believe in what it is you’re trying to get across. If your message is positive and healthy and helpful to athletes it’s digestible and seen in a positive light."
POSITIVITY BREEDS PRODUCTIVITY
One of the main tenets of sport psychology is the belief in positivity leading to an action being more likely to happen. There is literature on the subject supporting this concept.
With distractions ranging from family problems to a rigorous school schedule, Seifer helps athletes compartmentalize their lives. Once they reach the clubhouse or field, they push those other thoughts aside and "become that athlete."
Over the past month as Hurricanes fans have expressed their discontent on several platforms, players and coaches alike have stated their detachment from the noise.
But it can be easier said than done avoiding what is said and remaining mentally strong. It’s one thing to tell it to the media during an interview setting and another to follow through while surfing the Internet.
"Actually doing it is a lot tougher with social media nowadays when a fan can just get on you and say what they want and we can say something but a lot of times we don’t," Johnson said. "We just ignore them and let them talk because at the end of the day they’re not out there playing with us. We are. At the end of the day we all have to stay positive no matter what our record is, no matter who’s saying what. Stay positive because there’s always something brighter on the other side."
Marlins left-handed reliever Dan Jennings, who went back and forth between the big-league club and its Triple-A affiliate this season, at times found it difficult to stay positive.
The uncertainty of where his career was headed — with a wife and young daughter trying to follow him between Miami and New Orleans — tested his mental state; something he had been told was strong.
And then, in early August, a liner struck him in the temple. He sustained a concussion but luckily no further damage. One of the first texts came from Seifer, asking to see how he was doing.
Twenty-six days later, Jennings returned to the big-league mound and tossed a scoreless outing before closing out the season with a 0-2 record and 1.34 ERA.
"Throughout getting sent down a lot this year I was in contact with (Seifer) a lot," Jennings said. "He came out to New Orleans and we went out to lunch one time, wanted to get a feel for where I was at. I was just telling him that was a span where I was up four or five times over two weeks and I told him I was just mentally exhausted and trying to figure out what to do with my family and stuff. It was nice to have that outlet to talk to."
BELIEF IN ONE’S SELF
It’s hard to imagine athletes at the collegiate or professional levels doubting their abilities to produce. They got to where they are because of various factors — from their superior skill to ardent dedication to rigorous training.
And yet, it takes just one fumble, one pitch, one game for a mindset to change.
"The idea with confidence for any athlete is huge, and I’m a true believer in preparation and getting that preparation done correctly will equate to them becoming confident," Seifer said. "Any sport psychologist will be speaking about the power of positivity because if you can’t believe in yourself when you’re on the mound or running a route or shooting a basket you’re more likely to have a negative outcome."
Right-handed reliever Chris Hatcher began his professional career as a catcher but converted to a pitcher in 2011. Until this year, he tallied just 29 major-league appearances and a 7.91 ERA.
The 29-year-old was mainly a call-up in the latter months. Last offseason, Miami designated him for assignment, taking him off the 40-man roster. Hatcher received an invitation to spring training but didn’t earn a job. He pitched well with Triple-A New Orleans and rejoined a struggling Marlins bullpen.
Over 52 outings, Hatcher went 0-3 with a 3.38 ERA, solidifying himself as a reliable arm for manager Mike Redmond in the mid-to-late innings.
What was the difference? Hatcher trusted that his "stuff" — a high 90s fastball as well as a solid changeup and slider — was good enough to succeed in the majors.
"The last thought that goes through my head as I’m running out of the bullpen and before I get on the mound to throw my warmup pitches is ‘Trust, confidence and conviction,’" Hatcher said. "Those are the three things that’re going through my head. The catcher calls a certain pitch and I don’t have the conviction — I’m going to shake. It’s truly believing that you have the trust and confidence and conviction in what you’re doing. It makes you better even if you have to psych yourself out to do it. As long as you truly believe it it’ll play."
LEARNING TO ADAPT
There are many more tenets that sport psychology encompasses, including motivation and goal-setting.
Johnson, like many athletes, likes to visualize plays before they happen. By doing so, a situation that comes up in a game won’t be a surprise. These mental reps take place throughout the week. Watching film is one way to do so. This gets his mind ready to perform much like his body.
Hatcher follows his trust mantra and visualizes how his outing will go from the time the call comes into the bullpen announcing his turn to enter the game.
Adjustments are also vital. For a sport like baseball, results must be taken into perspective. A batter with a .300 average, someone going 3 for 10, is a Hall of Famer.
Still, that doesn’t mean making excuses for failure. Instead, gaining insight from it so it doesn’t happen again. Emotional detachment, ridding of the anger, fear or nervousness, must occur. Analysis of why it happened must take place.
"(Baseball) is a game of failure," Hatcher said. "You have to look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I failed today. What can I learn from it? Why did I fail? How did I fail? How can I be better?’ "
And then it comes time to move on.
University of Miami head coach Al Golden preaches a "next" mentality to the Hurricanes, something his players recite regularly in interviews.
Next play. Next man. Next game.
"You can’t live back in the past because that’s how you get hurt again or fumble the ball again," Johnson said. "Just go out there and play."
SENDING OVER THE TOP
Does the mental game help separate the good and elite athletes?
"I think the mental component is a huge part of the professional athlete," Seifer said. "It’s said a lot is between the ears that matters. These athletes — if they get it from a sport psychologist or a newspaper article on it or through literature or talking to a friend — any of that is helpful because it allows them to start thinking that athleticism, that level is more than just physical."
One common trend Seifer has noticed is that he ends up meeting with the best player on a team over the course of a year. The athlete, perhaps intrinsically motivated and seeking to achieve goals, realizes it’s a "way to enhance" himself or herself.
"There’s a lot of mental intangibles that you can’t figure out that sets players apart," Jennings said. "You can have all the talent in the world but if you don’t have it mentally you’re not going to be any good."