By Scott A. Rowan
Before the confetti had stopped falling from the rafters after the Los Angeles Lakers won the 2010 NBA championship, forward Ron Artest (who later changed his name to Metta World Peace), turned to ABC reporter Doris Burke and gushed for all the world to hear: “I’d like to thank my psychiatrist, Dr. Santhi. She really helped me relax.”
And there it was for the world to hear: sports psychology works. Truth be told, sports psychology has been a secret weapon among elite athletes in every sport for years—and one of the pioneers of the field did his best to share his expertise with the Chicago Cubs.
The use of sports psychology may be widespread today, but during the 1930s, the notion that athletes, managers, coaches, or executives could benefit from psychological improvement methods seemed preposterous to nearly everyone in sports. So when Cubs owner Phillip Wrigley hired Coleman Griffith, the father of sports psychology, to examine the mental makeup of his team and see if there was any way it could be improved, it was chalked up by nearly everyone in baseball as just another one of Wrigley’s strange ideas. Cubs manager Charlie Grimm openly detested Coleman, despite the fact that he might have been able to use his help—Grimm allegedly fell into a deep depression after his team failed to make the playoffs in 1937.39 Grimm’s opinion of “headshrinkers,” as he called Coleman and other psychologists, was negative, resentful, and mocking.
Grimm’s opinion of Coleman (which reflected the feelings of most athletes and sports executives toward psychology at the time) was the focus of a key scene in the classic 1984 baseball film The Natural, which starred Robert Redford.
During a scene set in the locker room of the fictitious Knights (based in many ways on the Cubs), a tiny man with an even tinier voice blandly urges the players to success with a speech delivered in a monotone. The psychologist, based on Coleman, tells the team:
What is losing? Losing is a disease as contagious as polio. Losing is a disease as contagious as syphilis. Losing is a disease as contagious as the bubonic plague. Attacking one, but infecting all. But curable. Now I want you to imagine you are on a ship at sea. . . .
As soon as the bow-tied psychologist begins to use this visualization method, Redford’s character rolls his eyes and leaves the locker room in disgust. Such was the attitude of nearly everyone in the athletic world during the 1930s—except for Wrigley.
Unfortunately, having Wrigley as a supporter may have actually hindered the advancement of sports psychology more than it helped it. The world of baseball considered the idiosyncratic Cubs owner to be something of a kook. So if Wrigley supported the idea, how good could it be? At least that was the general opinion held by players, coaches, and managers at the time. Add to that Griffith’s frail physical stature, eyeglasses, and mustache, and you have a picture of the type of man most professional athletes were loath to associate with in any way. Yet their reluctance to benefit from his guidance only hurt the Cubs players and coaches in the long run.
History is a peculiar teacher. Nearly everyone in professional sports mocked sports psychology at its inception, but Wrigley and Griffith were actually innovators in a field that would one day become ubiquitous. Founded in 1986, the Association for Applied Sports Psychology now boasts a membership of renowned psychologists around the world who work with athletes to help them overcome their anxiety and stress—something that often reveals itself when an athlete “chokes.” The keynote speech at the association’s annual conference is named after Coleman Griffith, a man reviled in his time and now honored as the father of sports psychology.
Dr. Christopher D. Green, a professor of psychology at Toronto’s York University, wrote a detailed paper about Griffith for the American Psychology Association’s Monitor on Psychology publication that detailed Griffith’s contributions to the world. In 1925 at the University of Illinois, Griffith opened the nation’s first research lab focused solely on athletics and psychology. Unfortunately for Griffith, the lab lasted only six years, in large part because Fighting Illini football coach Robert Zupke, much like Grimm years later, didn’t want Griffith around his team. The lab was closed and Griffith was doomed to an administrative job until Wrigley asked him to apply his findings to the Cubs following the team’s late-season collapse in 1937.
Griffith joined the Cubs at spring training on Catalina Island in 1938 and was with the team throughout the season, filing 16 reports with Wrigley that revealed increasing levels of frustration. Griffith used his own psychological ploys to try to convince Grimm of the benefit of working on his players’ mental approach, but the manager refused to take Griffith seriously.
By midseason, Griffith was making specific recommendations to Wrigley that seem almost laughingly obvious by today’s standards: for example, Griffith suggested that the Cubs players and coaches weren’t taking practice seriously, and that they should approach every practice as if it was a game in order to reduce their stress in real game situations. “Practice makes perfect” is a common aphorism today that all coaches and players accept as if it were a direct message from the Sports Gods. Griffith’s 1938 reports to Wrigley echoed this truism, noting that: “[Athletes] should make [the will to win] a necessary feature of every practice period and of every game he plays. He must reduce it to a habit.” (Of course, “Practice makes perfect” is a bit more succinct.)
The Cubs ignored Griffith’s work. Even Wrigley, the man who had hired Griffith in the first place, failed to employ any of Griffith’s suggestions. To make matters more complicated, Wrigley fired Grimm in July 1938 with the team in fourth place and promoted catcher Gabby Hartnett to player/coach. Despite Griffith’s assessment that Hartnett “was not at all a smart man” and did not “have the ability to adapt himself to any other style of training and coaching but that with which he had been familiar throughout his playing career,” Hartnett led the Cubs to the postseason thanks to his raw power, most notably evidenced by his famous “Homer in the Gloamin’,” now an indelible part of Cubs lore. Hartnett’s old-school approach to baseball—see the ball, hit the ball, keep your worries to yourself, and just take the field—resonated with his team because they, too, had been trained that way.
Griffith knew Hartnett and Wrigley were ignoring him. Wrigley reduced Griffith’s position to part-time in 1939. He filed only four reports that season, and only one the next. By 1941, Griffith was no longer associated with the Cubs. Wrote Professor Green:
Most baseball managers saw the project as a failure, and the idea was not picked up by other teams for a long while to come. Griffith returned to the University of Illinois, where he rose to the level of provost. He retired in 1962 and died in 1966, just a year before the founding of the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity. In 1970, University of Massachusetts professors Walter Kroll and Guy Lewis rediscovered Griffith’s work and declared him “America’s First Sport Psychologist.”
For those athletes who cannot afford to work with a sports psychologist, an article in Outside magazine in January 2013 offered some simple approaches to the mental aspect of sports training. Michael Gervais, one of the foremost sports psychologists in the country, outlined five core mental skills that he has taught the U.S. Olympic team, NFL and MLB players, and many extreme sport athletes:
- visualization (see yourself being successful)
- self-talk (tell yourself positive messages, not negative)
- arousal control (learn to calm your inner mind against outside stimuli)
- goal setting (map out your goals and a plan to get there)
- preperformance routines (often confused with superstitions, these are specific actions and thoughts athletes use to prepare mentally for competition)
Practice does make perfect. The Cubs proved this, but in the reverse. While the organization reached the 1938 and 1945 World Series, they lost both; and in the 30-year span from 1937 to 1966 they had 24 seasons with a .500 record or worse. The failures of the Cubs—despite their access to psychological help that was years ahead of its time—are a testament to the notion that players become the products of their daily routine. Instead of practicing to be perfect, the Cubs perfected their ability to perpetuate mediocrity.
Dr. Christopher D. Green, “America’s first sport psychologist,” Monitor on Psychology, April 2012, Vol. 43, No. 4.
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