September 21, 2011

If sports are supposed to teach discipline, self-control, and leadership, why do so many athletes seem to be leading troubled lives? And what can be done about it?

Pro leagues are obviously aware of the problem and have developed detailed policies to counteract negative behavior. For example, before a rookie ever steps onto an NFL field, he is inundated with all the do's and don'ts of becoming a professional football player. Just recently, Herman Edwards's address to NFL rookies went viral. He preached about how the players are supposed to behave and what to look out for in their private lives.

What Edwards and the pro leagues are overlooking, however, is that addressing or judging the behavior of these young men will not have a long-term positive impact. In fact, as we are witnessing, this type of counseling will actually ramp up errant thinking and actions.

Why? Because when a person is judged, or told how to act or what to do, the lesson will ultimately clash with the individual's instincts or inherent functioning and thwart his intuitive ability to make productive choices. On or of the field, no one is capable of making proper choices when his free will, and thus, his level of awareness is compromised.

An athlete's experiences do not create his mind-set; his mind-set creates his experiences.

The time is now for the psychological experts hired by the NFL, NHL, NBA, and Major League Baseball to stop providing temporary relief and start explaining the true source of athletes' dysfunction. Currently, the leagues' policies clearly show that their experts have the cause-and-effect relationship backward. These experts believe that an athlete's circumstances (life in the NHL, for instance) has the ability to determine his state of mind. In truth, one's state of mind will always determine his perception of his circumstances.

To illustrate, I once worked with an NHL defenseman who was convinced, because his coach wouldn't stop leaning on him, that a trade was in his best interest. No matter how hard he tried, this player could not let go of his thoughts about his coach and it was driving him crazy. His team psychiatrist's answer to this dilemma was anti-anxiety medication. Yet, as soon as I stepped in and indicated the real source of the player's dejected thinking -- his own low mood in the moment; not his coach -- the player's ability to move through his circumstances grew significantly. In fact, he reported the next day that his coach had been quite respectful to him during practice that morning.

Had the coach miraculously transformed over night? No, the player's state of mind had risen (without meds or behavioral treatment) and so, too, did his perception of his coach.

What I am saying is that in order to prevent additional strife and heartbreak, players need to realize that all forms of delinquent behavior -- from speeding to suicide -- are symptoms of the exact same lack of understanding. This is what pro athletes must learn as soon as possible: All human beings live in a continuum of psychological functioning or moods. Like an elevator in a hotel, this level of functioning constantly fluctuates between the basement and the penthouse -- independent of the circumstances of our lives. Because we don't see life clearly when the elevator stops near the basement floor, if we act from this low place trouble will come our way 100 percent of the time.

In other words, if the leagues' counselors would stop analyzing and trying to fix dysfunctional behavior and start teaching players the warning signs of dysfunctional states of mind -- anxious, insecure, egotistical, or boxed-in feelings -- their behavior will improve dramatically.

Think about it: we are all aware that, from time to time, we make bad choices. What we fail to see, however, is that these mistakes are the direct result of our low mind-set in the moment and never the situation that we are confronted with.

Experts: stop encouraging pro athletes to fix or alter their negative thoughts, and start teaching them to distrust the thoughts that occur when their mood is negative.

There is one more crucial point to consider: When an athlete finds himself in a low place, it is completely ineffective (as the leagues are doing) to provide him with psychological strategies to prevent delinquent behavior. A discontented person is not capable, at that moment, of absorbing a coping mechanism no matter how logical it might be. Instead, when fortified with the understanding of what truly created his low thoughts in the first place (his passing and innocent low state of mind), the athlete will realize that it is far better to distrust any thoughts that occur when his mood trends downward.

Again, if a player wants a trade, feels the need to disagree with his coach, or is compelled to take a pill, this decision will always lead to trouble if it's made from the blurred vision of a low mood. To the contrary, if he avoids stepping on the gas pedal when his tires are stuck in the mud, and allows his mood to rise, whatever the player decides will be productive.

The bottom line is that, immediately, professional sports must stop relying on counseling programs that focus on behavior. What more proof do we need that dictating a code of conduct, and then providing quick fixes when a player's behavior runs afoul of that code, is simply not working? Like the rest of us, athletes, coaches, general managers, and officials must understand that we create our view of life from the inside out -- thus, answers will only be found in a person's mind-set; never in trying to fix his behavior.

Yes, I realize that pro athletes live in a culture where they are taught to use whatever external fix (from drugs to mental techniques) necessary to get back on the field immediately, but as I've indicated, it's time we examine that self-defeating policy, too.

Garret Kramer is the founder and managing partner of Inner Sports, and the author of the new book Stillpower: The Inner Source of Athletic Excellence; forward by NHL and U.S. Olympic star Zach Parise of the New Jersey Devils. Kramer has provided consulting and/or crisis management services to hundreds of athletes and coaches; from well known professionals, Olympians, and teams, to high school and collegiate players across a multitude of sports. He often lectures on topics related to the states of mind that lead to success on and off the playing field. He has been featured on ESPN, WFAN, WOR, FOX, CTV, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, and other nationally syndicated sports programs and magazines.

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