Sports columnist John Moriello explains how the NYSSWA decides high school sports rankings each week Maggie Gilroy / Staff video
John Moriello, who has been an ardent follower and commentator on New York high school sports for decades, is writing a weekly column called “Best In Upstate,” which is designed to fly above all of the state sectional borders. You can reach John at firstname.lastname@example.org or @nysswa on Twitter. He oversees the New York State Sportswriters Association web page of high school rankings.
My brain went from zero to 60 in about 6.2 seconds, just like in the car commercials, after rolling out of bed on Friday morning.
I’ve got that dentist appointment at 12:20 this afternoon.
Double-check to see if I’m on the work schedule today.
Remember to pay bills.
Do any overnight emails require immediate attention?
Does Kathleen have anything going on today that requires my help?
Why’s our rabbit hanging out on the floor of the bedroom closet?
And, oh, yeah, I’ve got a column due before I leave for the dentist appointment.
So here I am, sitting in front of the laptop and trying to bat out 1,200 words — in between interruptions to go look at Nike/Colin Kaepernick memes on Facebook — about what I heard Dr. Jarrod Spencer discuss late last month at Victor High School in Ontario County. I have to do so without sounding like a complete moron and/or having my editor kick the column back to me with a terse note that says, “Try again.”
I can practically hear Spencer’s voice rattling around in the echo chamber currently being under-used by my brain:
“Under stress, we regress.”
“Clear mind, better performance.”
In that respect, I’m very much like the athletes Spencer was trying to reach that night in the high school auditorium. Athletes battle opponents and challenge themselves on the playing field. Reporters wrestle with deadlines and writers block.
So I felt a connection to Spencer’s presentation that concluded the annual preseason sports meeting at Victor, where teens and their parents first heard new athletic director Duane “Duey” Weimer lay out policies and expectations for behavior. It was Weimer’s idea to bring in Spencer, a Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, sports psychologist, to add an interesting wrinkle to the evening’s agenda.
I admit that I went in to Spencer’s talk wondering how much of what he would say might channel Ty Webb, Chevy Chase’s character in Caddyshack:
“I’m going to give you a little advice. There’s a force in the universe that makes things happen. And all you have to do is get in touch with it, stop thinking, let things happen, and be the ball. … “
Spencer’s presentation was far more sophisticated than that. He hit his audience with some college-level course content, invoking the name of Sigmund Freud and the subtleties of the preconscious mind, where memories are stored that can easily be recalled while remaining outside of your immediate awareness.
Spencer likened the preconscious mind to the back burner on the kitchen stove. “You might cook the chicken on the front burner but on the back burner the rice is simmering,” he said, further explaining that “noise” rattling around in the preconscious mind is why drivers miss their exit on the expressway, etc.
“When a preconscious mind is clearer, your productivity is up, your energy is up, your mood is up,” he said. “People like you more. You’re a better version of yourself.”
The trouble is, there’s a difference between the not-a-care-in-the-world days of August practice on a 70-degree day and the second round of sectionals in 48 degrees and a steady drizzle.
“In August on a high school campus, the preconscious mind is clearer and we all tend to feel pretty good,” Spencer said. “But what happens about mid-October? How’s your preconscious mind then? It’s flooded.”
It can explain why the striker on the soccer team who routinely buried penalty kicks into the upper right corner of the net in preseason scrimmages suddenly is shanking the ball toward the concession stand on the hillside. The rest of the body may be intent upon converting the kick, but part of the mind is still rehashing a lazy pass from 10 minutes ago, the coach’s criticism after last week’s loss and the three wrong answers on Thursday’s trigonometry quiz, not to mention narrowing down ideas for mom’s birthday present next week.
(Note: This column will have a long life in Google searches, so fairness to Spencer dictates that I not give away details of a short video he used to drive home the point about distractions. Let it suffice to say that he had the audience so fixated on looking for something in the video that many of them missed an absurdity until they watched the replay.)
“When the preconscious mind gets flooded, ‘Under stress, we regress,'” Spencer said.
A good number of well-known athletes have consulted with sports psychologists as a path toward improving performance, and there may be particular value in individual sports. Golfers, swimmers, fencers and tennis players are among the athletes whose fortunes rest almost exclusively upon their own performance. There are no linebackers to bail you out after your missed tackle at the line of scrimmage or shortstops to turn your poorly aimed fastball into a double play, so being in the optimal frame of mind is an essential complement to physical talent.
The last third of Spencer’s presentation — and he averages about one a week to high school audiences — was dominated by two stories that may have carried the most weight with listeners. Both ran contrary to what people probably think about how successful performers reach that elite level.
In the first, Spencer showed a recent video made by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, whose career path has veered from college and pro football player to pro wrestler (there’s a long family history in that “sport”) to one of the most bankable actors in all of show business. He’s also been mentioned as a prospective candidate for elected office down the road.
In 1995, though, Johnson was a bit of a lost puppy. He’d just been cut by the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League in the aftermath of some other personal and family setbacks and wasn’t confident that he was in control of either his emotions or his future. He was trying to make important life decisions at a time when he was also battling depression that was clouding his mind.
Johnson made a pivotal choice later that summer by declining the offer when the Stampeders’ coaching staff invited him to return. Instead, he wanted to get into the wrestling business, a decision his father couldn’t fathom.
“He said, ‘You are throwing it all away. It is the worst mistake you will ever make, you are ruining your career,'” Johnson recalled in the video. “I said maybe I am, but I feel like in my heart I have to do this and I either need you to train me or to not train me. My dad rose to the occasion and trained me and it turned out to be one of the greatest chapters of my life.”
Said Spencer, who was raised in a town near where Johnson grew up: “It’s great that DJ can come forward and say it’s OK to talk about this stuff. It’s OK for you, too.”
Spencer spoke from experience. He was a three-sport star athlete in high school — being recruited by Division I colleges in two of them — and got good grades, had a wonderful family and circle of friends and was his class president.
And yet he wondered if he was about to crack.
“On the outside it looked like I had it all together,” he said. “But on the inside I just couldn’t handle the pressure of performing at the very highest level. I needed a break — it was a sign all of this stuff was too much.”
With the help of his mother, Spencer opted to drop of the track and field team to lessen the load. It ended up costing him some friends who thought he was letting the team down. But it gave him the room to recharge physically and mentally before the start of football in the fall.
“My preconscious mind got better, my defenses got stronger, my strength was coming back,” he said. “By the time preseason football rolled around, i was ready to thrive.”
Some would characterize it as quitting if an athlete made a similar choice today, and that’s unfair. Teens’ lives in the 21st century are indisputably more complicated than what their parents faced 25 years ago or their grandparents did 50 years ago.
There’s no shame in their sitting down with mom and dad and exploring options. Their choices may not be popular and might mean taking a step back from goals that once seemed both important and attainable. But there is usually more than one path to success.
“I want you to thrive. I want you to get yours — you’ve worked too hard to not get yours,” Spencer said. “But the way you do that is you’ve got to let the intelligence and creativity and the love inside of you come forward. It’s in you. It’s always been in you. The problem is that when the preconscious mind gets flooded it gets blocked. But when you’re more relaxed the stuff passes through you.”