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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Sports and psychology roundup

First, congratulations to the Carolina Hurricanes, and especially all their deserving veterans: Rod Brind’Amour, Glen Wesley, Doug Weight, Bret Hedican, Mark Recchi, Ray Whitney, and goal-scorers Aaron Ward, Frantisek Kaberle, and Justin Williams.  Also special extra bonus cheers to rookie Cam Ward, winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP, and Erik Cole, for coming back from a mother-lovin’ broken neck to play the final two games of the series.  Meanwhile, much love and respect to the Oilers of Edmonton, who rallied admirably behind a backup goaltender when no one gave them a chance to win.  “No one,” by the way, includes me: after Dwayne Roloson went down in game one, and Jussi Markkanen Ty Conklin (sorry, Jussi!) misplayed a puck with 30 seconds left in that game to give Carolina a highly improbable comeback win (down 3-0 with 23 minutes left), and then the Oilers came out like an already-beaten team in game two and got thrashed 5-0, I advised my friends in North Carolina to watch games three and four on their tele-vision sets, because the series (I assured them, with a great assurance) would not be returning to their hot and humid region.

So I was wrong.

But I hope some of you were watching game seven, because it was thrilling from start to finish.  Really!  Even the opening faceoff was fun!  The Hurricanes got many props from announcers Emrick and Davidson for coming out hitting, and they did indeed come out hitting; more important, however (and I still don’t understand why I haven’t been picked up as a freelance color commentator), they came out shooting.  In game five, they came out for the third period with the score tied 3-3 . . . and put all of two shots on net. In the overtime, they managed two fewer shots than that.  In game six, they passed many pucks around the perimeter many times, and wound up with seven shots after two periods.  (At one point they were being outshot 21-3.  It was embarrassing.) Last night, they opened with four quick shots, one of which went in.  Lo!  Sometimes that happens when you shoot the puck on the net.  About every tenth or eleventh time, on average.

I could recap the entire game, but you don’t want me to do that, and besides, there’s something else I want to ask about.

Let’s go back for a moment to the final hour of the U.S. Open on Sunday.  Much has been made of Phil Mickelson’s epochal collapse on the final hole; on this very blog, for instance, commenter Gary remarks,

the Vandeveldian drama was so sweet.  I can’t possibly be the only person who truly, deeply enjoyed seeing that stupid, self-satisfied grin wiped from Phil Mickelson’s fleshy face as he hit terrible shot after terrible shot on the 18th hole Sunday.  Really, considering Mickelson’s status and the situation (trying to win a third straight major), his meltdown is much, much worse than Jean Van de Velde’s.

Gary is right about the scale of that meltdown, and while I harbor no animus toward the self-satisfied grin on Mickelson’s fleshy face (I found the final 15 minutes of the tournament excruciating to watch, as if we were intruding on someone’s intense personal grief), I do resent the fact that the sports press basically awarded him the U.S. Open the moment Kenneth Ferrie bogeyed his final hole . . . on Saturday.  And anyone who takes a driver on 18, leading by one in the world’s toughest tournament, after hitting only two of thirteen fairways all day well deserves his spot in the Hubris Hall of Fame.  Add to that the fact that Phil hit his drive beyond the first tier of bad (the 3-1/2 inch rough), beyond the second tier of bad (the 5-1/2 inch rough), beyond the third tier (the long grass trampled down by thousands of spectators, which is often and unfairly preferable to the second tier), into a whole new dimension of badness, bouncing the thing off the corporate tent!  I ask you, how is a shot that awful not out of bounds?  And if it hadn’t flooped off the tent and back into Bad Tier Three, where Phil was overtaken by the insane idea that he could strike the ball cleanly onto the green in two, who knows but that it would have flown into the parking lot and onto I-95?  Anyone who hits that shot on the 72nd hole should not be allowed to win the Open.  The lanky kid who chipped in on 17 and survived two lousy, lousy breaks on 18 to tough out a par—he gets to win the Open.

But Phil, despite his meltdown, is not the point.  Instead, I spent much of yesterday thinking about poor Monty, 0-for-42 in major championships.  Here’s the deal.  He comes down the stretch, very much in contention and well aware that he’s the sport’s most famous runner-up, and he plays 15 and 16 so perfectly that he gives himself eminently makeable 12-footers for birdie . . . and misses them both.  Then he skulls his drive on 17 into the third tier of bad, plays a miraculous cut shot onto the green, and, oh my God, drains a 75-foot putt that almost brings him to tears.  He then steps up to 18 with thousands of pounds of pressure per square inch on his shoulders, and, unlike Mickelson, threads a perfect drive to a perfect location where he has a mere 172 yards to a pin placement that just happens to favor his swing.

And then what does he do?  He takes out a 6-iron, sets up, starts thinking (he later said he figured he would overhit the 6 with all that adrenaline), puts away the 6, takes out a 7, and hits a shot that your average weekend duffer could have hit: 20 yards short and in the deep, ugly stuff.  He winds up with a double bogey, taking five strokes over those last 172 yards: a terribly chunked approach, a vexing chip out of greenside Brillo, and a nervous three-putt to cap it all off.  He winds up one stroke back, just like Phil.

Now, I admit that watching golf isn’t much fun.  It’s a curious sport that way: both in TV land and on the course (where you can find over 50,000 people on the final day of a major—ask me sometime about my day in the gallery during the final round of the 1999 PGA Championship), the entire fan base is made up of people who play the game themselves.  Everyone else, I believe, hates it and wishes it into the furthest reaches of the cornfield.  But one of the distinctive things about golf is that although you see these men and women play a superhuman version of the game you play, launching 350-yard drives that hit landing areas 30 yards wide and getting up and down from terrain like that of the Amazon rainforest, you also know that at any moment, the golf gods might curse them, and then a truly horrible thing will happen.  Something so horrible, indeed, as to make one of the world’s best players look like an ordinary person who never quite learned what to do with a loft wedge.

And that’s what happened to poor Colin Montgomerie on that approach shot, I think.  He realized he had a decent shot at birdieing the unbirdieable 18th, and first he second-guessed himself, and then he . . . well, the technical term is “choked.” He froze up.  So did Phil on that 18th tee, blocking his shot out to the left just like any schmo who doesn’t complete his turn on the downswing.  It’s understandable (hell, I’ve played in only one tournament in my life, the 1977 Junior Publinx in Queens, NY, and I couldn’t get past the second round), especially in a game ninety percent of which is half mental, but still.  It’s a horrible thing.

So I was thinking about Monty and Phil, and then I was thinking about the Carolina Hurricanes getting so badly beaten in game six in Edmonton.  Last night, the cliché came to life: the Hurricanes were a different team altogether.  Now, I can understand how people freeze and choke in an individual sport.  The pressure simply gets too intense for the human nervous system, and you double-clutch, or you hesitate for a millisecond and all is lost, or all the strength leaves your limbs.  Horrible, but understandable.  What I don’t understand, even though I play a team sport, is how entire teams can experience collective psychological phenomena.  Even hockey turns out to be ninety percent half mental!  Now, as you know, I can’t stand sports commentators blathering on about momentum and how the assistant coach gave the players motivational medallions and how the team leader fired them up in the locker room, so I tend not to take seriously that aspect of team sports.  But it’s there, all the same.  An entire team suddenly becomes hesitant, or self-doubting, and then one guy makes an errant pass, and another guy commits a rare turnover, or a call goes the wrong way and the whole team becomes querulous and petulant.  I saw it happen to the St. Louis Blues in 2001 after Roman Turek began letting in goals that any decent goaltender (from the junior level on up) could have stopped.  To a man, they all began mishandling the puck terribly, almost as if to say, I don’t want this thing—you know, it could wind up in our net at any moment. But how does that work?

Two caveats: one, I know that Carolina played game six away and game seven at home, and I am aware that this makes a bit of difference, for both psychological (yay team!) and technical (right of final player change) reasons.  (In the 14 game sevens in Stanley Cup Final history, the home team has now won 12.) But still.  How in the world could the Hurricanes have come out so flat on Saturday, and so sharp on Monday?  It wasn’t like they were saving themselves for a game seven, you know.  They were just plain terrible in Alberta, that’s all.  And then they were good again! Mirabile dictu!  And now they have the Cup!

Two, I believe that contact sports are qualitatively different from non-contact sports in this respect.  In contact sports you have something to do with all that adrenaline, whereas in golf (say) you have to wait five or six minutes between shots, wondering (if you’re Colin Montgomerie) if your adrenal system is going to affect your shot selection.  Surely, if Montgomerie could simply have thrown a crushing body check to his playing partner, he would have chilled out a little on that approach shot, no?

Anyone with any insight into how entire teams of a dozen or two dozen people can have wild mood swings from day to day is invited to step up.  Extra special bonus thanks will go to anyone who has insight into the psychological turmoil of the Dallas-Miami series or the World Cup.

Speaking of the World Cup: people keep appearing in comments and reminding me that the rest of the world cares about this thing.  Well, I visited the rest of the world once, and it turns out you’re right!  People watch this “soccer” like it was football or something!  Two years ago, I was in France during Euro Cup 2004, and when I returned to Les États-Unis I filed this report:

I have long thought that soccer—known in some parts of the world, namely, everywhere but here, as “football”—is almost the perfect sport.  It involves intense, explosive large- muscle-group strength, incredible cardiovascular stamina, and stunning small-muscle-group finesse and coordination.  It also has nearly-ideal combinations of individual virtuosity with team effort, skill with chance, and synoptic strategy with sudden bursts of impromptu brilliance.  But unfortunately, the sport has deep structural flaws, the most notorious of which is its “offsides” rule, which prevents players from sprinting behind defenses.  And don’t even try to defend the inane “shootout” as a means of deciding games: at the very least, the players should run in from midfield and/or shoot from outside the penalty area.  Shooting from 11m out is a joke.  The main problem, though, is that the scale of soccer is too big.  The way I figure it, if soccer would just reduce the size of its field, reduce the number of players on the field, make the ball smaller and harder and flatten it on both ends, make the goal smaller, put up boards and glass around the boundaries, cover the field in ice, and give everybody sticks, then you’d have the perfect sport.

But in the course of watching Euro 2004 each night, I learned that (or I should say, Janet pointed out that) “football” does have an indisputable advantage over ice hockey in one key area: soccer players are far more handsome than hockey players—in some cases, astonishingly so.  When France tied Croatia 2-2 two weeks ago, you could have told me that the Louis Vuitton house squad was playing the Dolce and Gabbana office team, and I’d have believed you.  The next night, Italy played Sweden in the rain, which meant that players had to keep sweeping their hands through their hair (and let’s not forget that the international soccer gesture for “I can’t believe I missed” is the hands-through-the-hair, as well), and I’ll be damned if the game didn’t look like a two-hour-long Versace ad.

Ah, well, yes, ahem, I did pay attention to the outcomes of the games, even if Janet had her mind on other matters.  For those of you following the tournament in other English- speaking nations, there’s no question, England was robbed in that game against Portugal.  But then, what do you expect from a sport with such severe structural flaws?

And that’s pretty much all I can say about soccer. 

You know, part of the sublime fun of last night’s third period, after Edmonton’s Fernando Pisani had scored to make it 2-1 with 18 minutes left, lay in knowing that according to the laws of physics, Edmonton would almost surely have another five or six great scoring chances before the end of the game.  And they did!  Let me know when soccer gets that exciting.  In the meantime, I’m going to suggest that the rest of the world start watching hockey.  It’s not just for the frozen north any more!

Posted by Michael on 06/20 at 11:40 AM
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