Why it’s not good for a coach to go all Braveheart in the dressing room

Al Pacino’s “Inches” speech in Any Given Sunday may make the hairs stand on the back of your neck, says Dr Ed Coughlan. But does it work? Consistently? And if so, for how long? Or is it just for effect?

“Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to the internal experiences occurring in the present moment” — Manu Bazzano

Twenty years ago this week marked one of the most infamous acts in sporting history. Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield faced off for the second time in what was billed as The Sound and the Fury. Following Holyfield’s impressive TKO win the previous November, to upset the odds, both camps agreed on a rematch that would be ignominiously remembered as The Bite Fight.

Late in round three, Tyson, in a close-in clinch, chose to bite off part of Holyfield’s right ear.

Astonishingly, the fight continued into the next round where a second bite attempt, this time on the left ear, left experienced referee Mills Lane no other option but to disqualify Tyson and end the contest, much to the annoyance of a packed MGM Grand arena in Las Vegas.

To people who knew Mike Tyson as a tough kid growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, this shameful act was not surprising. He was a kid who was arrested dozens of times for petty crimes and misdemeanours before he was even a teenager.

He was, however, thrown a lifeline at 16 when, following the death of his mother, Cus D’Amato came into his life.

A calm appeared to enter the turbulent life of a young Mike Tyson. Under the watchful eye of D’Amato, Tyson managed to find an outlet through boxing for the fury that raged within.

Remembered by Tyson as the happiest years of his life, his time with D’Amato gave him a purpose greater than himself. D’Amato diverted Tyson’s energy towards one of control and quiet confidence to match the shy character that endured bullying and taunting as a boy for how he spoke.

Their relationship put Tyson on a path to glory culminating in his WBC heavyweight championship win over Trevor Berbick in November 1986, making him the youngest heavyweight boxing world champion ever — a record that still stands to this day.

The momentous achievement was diluted by that fact that D’Amato had died almost exactly a year earlier, in November 1985.

Many observers at the time questioned how long Tyson could remain on the straight and narrow without the spiritual compass of D’Amato to guide him through the rollercoaster industry of professional boxing. The trappings of success soon became an intrusive part of Tyson’s life. Without the solace of D’Amato’s gym in the Catskills outside New York City to retreat to between fights, Tyson soon fell foul to the grip of celebrity and an entourage quickly assembled around him.

Evidence of the life-altering effect of the loss of D’Amato soon became apparent. To the outside viewer he now had more friends than ever before, but to those who knew him best, he longed for a quieter existence where the purpose each day was to become the greatest boxer of all time, not the biggest spender in town.

Ironically, in a sport that thrives on aggression, Mike Tyson appeared to be at his best when he had inner peace and calm.

This narrative is consistent across sport.

Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls needed the meditative calm of Phil Jackson to bind a group of mercenaries into a band of brothers. Players on the now legendary Bulls team of the 1990s speak of a calm dressing room before taking to the floor to compete. There was buy-in from everyone, even the flamboyant rebel Dennis Rodman who was brought in line as much by Jackson’s respectful and personable management, as he was seduced by the escape and freedom experienced from doing a pre-game meditation.

This serene setting is in stark contrast to the many loud, aggressive and mindless dressing room rants that athletes are exposed to before going out to compete. Al Pacino’s “Inches” speech in Any Given Sunday may make the hairs stand on the back of your neck, but does it work? Consistently? And if so, for how long? Or is it just for effect?

Indeed such emotional tirades may be glossing over cracks in the preparation process. The default mechanism for many a coach under pressure is to go all Braveheart on them. There is another way to get the best from athletes. A more measured and personal approach to enable each individual to find the right frame of mind for themselves.

Moreover, the timing of dressing room speeches to rev a player up fail the logistics test of common sense. The energy expended by an athlete who has been built up to a frenzy is wasted as it dissipates with every passing second to accommodate the litany of ceremonial activities that precede many sporting occasions nowadays.

Given the choice between an athlete psyched up to the eyeballs with the emotional energy to run through a wall or one of calm with the presence of mind to be in the moment, in control of their thoughts, ready to positively engage in whatever might unfold in the chaos of competitive sport — I know which one I would choose to go into battle with.

A mindful athlete is one with rational thoughts. A mindful athlete is present and free from external thoughts from their current situation. A mindful athlete does not speak in absolute terms about what will happen on the field of play, because there is only so much you can control out there. Your opponent will not follow a predictable path at all times, so you need to be able to adapt on-the-fly.

Psychologist Ellen Langer, a world-leading expert in mindfulness defines it best as, a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context.

That is a powerful state of mind for any athlete to be in before, during and after competition.

It enables a balance to be achieved and a perspective to be attained around results — good, bad, or indifferent.

More coaches are investing time informing themselves of the benefits of mindfulness for athlete preparation. As well as their own preparation. To clear the mind before speaking about the task at hand. To speak clearly and to the point. To ensure that points are not laboured and excessively repeated. To provide a platform from which the athletes can express themselves in the heat of competition and deliver on a game plan while also being able to adapt.

Such practitioners have been instrumental over the years in enabling athletes and coaches to perform to their potential.

They speak of providing athletes and coaches with processes, mechanisms, and strategies to cope with whatever comes their way before, during, and after competition. They rely on tried and tested methods that enable effective human behaviour to emerge when most people would crumble under the weight of expectation and the magnitude of the occasion.

It is essential to identify what works for an individual to ensure they reach a zone of optimal cognitive function.

Because we know that when the brain is calm, the body is ready.

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