Wednesday, November 29, 2023
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Just sad

Last night the playoff-bound Sparks lost to the Atlanta Dream – the team with the worst record in the league. It was a deserved loss, too, as the Sparks played like crap. It was webcast and on NBAtv, so many fans have already seen the total lack of offense on LA’s part, and the coinciding absence of defense. While the Sparks struggled and worked for every point they got, the Dream seemed to throw in shots easily, after effortless transitions.

I’m not going to rag on individual players like a lot of people are doing today, as there is plenty of blame to go around in last night’s game. I’m not going to pretend to know what the problem is with the team’s record; fans have been trying to figure that one out since the slump began in June. And I’m not going to lay out a plan for what “should” be done now; that’s up to the owners.

I’m just a bit down today.

It’s not that I had humongous expectations for the Sparks, as so many did. Both fans and non-fans were projecting the Sparks to win the WNBA title this year. I wasn’t sure if they could go that far, but I did think they’d do better than they have. That’s the core of my disappointment. I feel that for whatever reason, the Sparks have underachieved this year. And for someone raised on track and field, that’s one of the worst things that could happen in sports.

The art of middle- and long-distance races is to go out hard, but not too hard. You want to save some for the end and not die in the final stretch, but you don’t want to have too much left over, either. If you do, you’re left with a stinking pile of “what could have been”s. That’s how I feel about the Sparks this year.

There have been flashes of brilliance this season. We have seen them play like a championship team a few times, with all cylinders clicking and things running 100 percent smoothly. They have the capability to be a championship game team, but it’s not happening. That just kills me. It also doesn’t help that I really like this group of women, and that three Tennessee Volunteers who I really care about are on this team.

I didn’t have a good feeling before last night’s game, and my instincts are always right about such things. I just didn’t think that by three minutes to go in the fourth quarter, I’d be slunk down in my seat at Staples Center, head in my hand and pressed against the back of the chair, hardly able to watch the Sparks self-destruct.

If I could figure out why teams with talent sometimes can’t pull it together, I would be living in a Hollywood Hills mansion. The Dream didn’t look like a bad team at all last night, and on paper, they should be much better than they are. What happens in these cases? It’s no doubt a unique set of circumstances in each case that come together correctly, for bad results.

On the upside, it was good to see the Dream’s Betty Lennox have a good game last night. Girl deserves it.

Sparks open practice

The drive out to Corona is a long but pretty one. I love looking at desert mountains. But just when I thought I wasn’t ever going to get there last night, I found my exit.

The gym at Centennial High School was packed with people at 4:45 – 15 minutes before the practice was to begin. The Spark players and staff had arrived earlier than they’d planned, so they were already on the court warming up when I walked in. Not long after that my girl “Rhapsody,” aka youtube, arrived and found me.

So, Margo Dydek. The Sparks picked her up almost two weeks ago, but visa issues had kept her from arriving in the US until this past weekend. Spark players finally met their new teammate Sunday, after they arrived back in LA from the Texas road trip. This was literally our first look at the 7’2″ Polish center, who has played professional ball for 10 years, as a Spark.

She’s just so damned tall. You can see it on TV, but you it’s hard to appreciate the largeness of her every dimension until you see her in person. When they were all stretching with one leg up, Dydek’s upper leg was almost as long as 5’2″ Shannon Bobbitt’s entire leg. Sitting down, her knees ride way above everyone else’s because her lower leg is so long. Dydek makes our forwards look like runts; she is a head taller than Candace Parker and Lisa Leslie. It’s really something to behold.

Of course, Rhapsody and I were waiting for Bobbitt and Dydek to stand together. It finally came when they circled around Coach Michael Cooper after warmups. Though they were a few feet apart, Bobbitt stood in front of Dydek with her arms crossed. The top of Bobbitt’s head reaches Dydek’s stomach, just below her breasts. Rhapsody and I giggled. We have both the shortest and tallest players in the league. Gotta love it.

After stretching, players worked on a three-team shooting drill and then a three-woman weave. Typical stuff. As they finished up from that, Bobbitt started some sort of hopping dancing thing, showing why her teammates called her the silliest one on the team a few weeks ago. Delisha Milton-Jones, who needs barely anything to be egged on, joined her.

Some players flipped their jerseys, and the starters took the floor to run the offense alone, while the rest of the players and the coaches stood at the half-court line. They ran it allright a few times. Shannon made a great shot and CP picked her up from behind, bringing her friend all the way up to her chest. Shannon tucked up her legs a little and smiled real big. The effect was funny. CP also was clowning with Milton-Jones, calling “ball ball ball!” exaggeratedly when M-J was trying to pass it.

The second team then got on, which included Dydek. So yes, she will be used as a key reserve. Just making sure.

This is when the “arguing” started. One of the teams would run through the play and then stop and come back and seem to argue with the other players and/or Cooper. CP even pretended to push him at one point. It was all a joking vibe, like a lighter-hearted version of street ball. I finally turned to Rhapsody and said, “what’s going on?” She didn’t know. And I guess no one else did either, because when CP was at the edge of the court, someone in the front row asked her a question.

“We’re messin up,” she said to the girl, shrugging.


I guess they finally worked it out, because pretty soon both teams were actually running a play or two, with all the possible options. And there was an option for all five players on the floor, which I liked.

Some guy with a microphone periodically interrupted to tell people to quiet down “so the players can hear instructions from their coaches,” because “this is a real practice for them.”

With all due respect to the Centennial Huskies, no way. The Sparks practice from 9-noon daily, and this jokefest was in no way a real practice. If this was Cooper’s idea of an actual practice, he would have been fired a long time ago. But it was cute that school officials tried to pretend it was legit.

They worked on shots some more, and since I’ve already seen the other Sparks do that ad nauseum, I watched our new Spark. Dydek had a nice mid-range jumper that always went in, but technically it wasn’t a jumper because her feet hardly left the floor. When two balls became stuck in the basket net, Dydek didn’t come forward to help; CP jumped up and got them out. I know Dydek just had a baby. Maybe she’s just going to put her arms up and block.

After this, the “practice” further degenerated into silliness, to the audience’s delight. Players made a circle and put Dydek in it, shouting, “Go Margo! Go Margo!” She did bust a little dance move for a second, and then giggled; they laughed with her. This was good to see, because I was wondering how she’d fit into such a close-knit team.

There was more silliness. Leslie was in the middle for a moment, and shook her shoulders. Coop laid down in the middle, and Bobbitt sat on top of him for a second, drawing lots of laughter. She and M-J danced some more, from their sides of the circle. The Centennial High basketball coaches were put in the middle. Then Sparks players started taking half-court shots. CP kept trying to throw it backwards.

I’ve also noticed that Bobbitt and CP seem to have a standing joke from college, where CP goes to take a shot and Bobbitt boxes her out in an exaggerated way. They do it over and over, exactly the same every time. You’d have to see it to understand how funny it is to watch them do it, and they did it again last night.

The Mayor of Corona then presented Cooper with a proclamation from the city in honor of that day, that the Sparks were there. I was surprised. These people were serious!

I had met the Centennial Booster Club President, Gretchen Beard, before the practice. and she told me the story of how this event came together. She knows Sparks Account Executive Pati Freund, and they were talking earlier in the summer about how to increase interest in the team in the Inland Empire, and the idea for the open practice was hatched.

Booster Club members sold almost 1000 tickets to the event, which included a ticket to Sunday’s Sparks game against the Seattle Storm. They were also selling T-shirts at the door and raffling off items, so they could make some money themselves.

Anyway, the Corona Mayor also gave proclamations to the three Olympians on the team. M-J and Leslie were more subdued about theirs; after all, they’ve had their share of such awards over the years. But CP took hers and went back to her seat with Shannon, and they giggled while they looked at it. So funny.

The Q and A session began, which can largely be seen on Rhapsody’s home video:

After this, a young lady asked the tall players where they got their jeans. Lisa Leslie named a few places, but said was the best. I didn’t know that, probably because I’m not 6’5″. A younger girl asked what she could do to be as good as them, and CP said “grow the baby hair” before answering more seriously.

Cooper got tired of all the questions being directed towards CP and Leslie, so he started asking questions and going down the line of players. Education came up, of course. Everyone extolled the virtues of staying in school, but Bobbitt might have been funniest when she said that in high school she “tried to stay out of the lunch room where people were playing cards and go to class.”

They were asked to each give one word that keeps them going. When they got to Sidney Spencer, she said “Jesus.” Bobbitt, sitting next to her, said “believe,” and next CP said “character.” Leslie, next, also said Jesus, then pray and then Jesus again.

Her little girl Lauren was toddling around this entire time, and good lord is she cute. She doesn’t seem to be shy, either. And she’s going to be ridiculously tall.

The players were then excused by their coach. Bobbitt walked off in her socks, carrying her shoes. Later, when they came back out for a half-court throwing encore, Dydek stood in the hallway and shadowed the doorway…….literally. Her body framed the side of the doorway, and she had to bend her head to see inside the top of it. The woman can never hide.

I’m glad I had a preview before Thursday’s game against the Atlanta Dream. No surprises for me.


I don’t know who that team was that showed up last night in San Antonio saying they were the Sparks. But tonight the real team descended on Houston and systematically took the Comets apart. As a result, we’re in the playoffs!

I’ve not seen a more balanced team effort in quite some time. Everyone scored, and everyone contributed. No one person really stood out from the others; they really were, as forward Delisha Milton-Jones said in the post-game interview, “working as one.”

The Sparks kept their turnovers down, and mysteriously enough, the team scored 21 points in each quarter, for a total of 84. Dig it:

Point Guard Shannon Bobbitt tied her personal assists record, equaling the 10 she garnered in the July 27 game at Target Center in Minneapolis. The Sparks shot 52.5 percent. I’ll take that any day of the week.

The placings will be decided within the next week, as the regular season winds down. The first and fourth-place holders in each conference then face each other in the first round, as do the second and third-place teams.

I would be interested in anyone’s opinions on how the rounds will go, and who they think will make it to the finals. I have my ideas, but I want to hear from others.


This week was my first week back to school and meeting my new students, which is why the entries here have been a little short. But I am back in my work groove, and I have some cool stuff coming up. For one thing, I had an interesting interview yesterday with a Tennessee staffer who is a semi-celebrity in her own right. I will be posting on that soon, as I will write about the Sparks’ open practice on Monday, Sept. 8. I’m also doing preliminary college scouting for the fall.

Blog ideas are always welcome, so don’t be shy. And also, feel free to start a comment-fest and/or a basketball dialogue. This is a year-round sport now, after all.

Some great pics of our ex-Vols

Lots of nice photos of Nikki Anosike in this gallery by Sports Page Magazine. Nikki is a class act:

The same folks put together a great gallery of Shannon Bobbitt, too. Pictures 7-12 show Bobbitt’s infamous crossover moves, ala Rucker Park. She did that in both the Saturday and Monday games this past weekend, to the point where the crowd went “OOO!” Dig it:

I also like picture number 2, which I call “sit down,” and picture 13, where Bobbitt is calling the play.

The photographers for this organization do good work, and I appreciate it.

The wild, wild West


Sparks beat first-place San Antonio Saturday, and second-place Seattle lost Sunday. Sparks beat Minnesota last night, putting them solidly in third place in the Western Conference. Now, the Liberty just beat Houston in OT (fun game to watch, too), which puts them another game back and out of the playoff race for now.

In the meantime, New York and Detroit are neck and neck in the East. Only Connecticut has a playoff berth so far. The next week and a half will be a tangled fight for several teams. Yum! I love playoff time.

The Sparks looked real good last night. Spencer was lookin like the old Sid. I hope she and Bobbitt are getting their confidence back, as it appears to us fans. Sparks were puttin on a defensive show, and Leslie was havin a block party. Parker was the one who really dazzled, though. The girl is ridiculous.

Like Neo, she is The One.

Back from cloud 99

What a night last night. I was truly overstimulated by the time I walked out of Staples Center around 11 p.m. I couldn’t even look at the Internet, much less write about everything that transpired. That’s what happens when some of the things you love most in the world all converge at the same time. But today I can process it all.

The evening started at the sports bar, where I met people from both the Summitt board and the rebkell board. Many of the Tennessee folks, including Summitter Larry from Nashville, had got off the plane and come directly to Staples Center. Larry said about 80 percent of his plane was wearing orange. They began to show up shortly to the bar, and outside to claim their tickets. It was truly exciting to see the place fill up with Tennessee orange. Larry said it was beginning to look like Knoxville, and I liked that.

It was truly great meeting people I’ve known only from the message boards; it’s always great to be able to put the screen name with a real name and a face. We talked Vols, Pat Summitt and particular Tennessee games for a long time. It seems we all pretty much like and dislike the same players in the WNBA and in colleges, which isn’t surprising.

I went around to talk to some of the other orange-wearing people at the other tables, and that was fun. I got a few inquiries about my orange CP3-style Adidas – people wanted them too. So I told them where I got them.

We got our tickets and found that everyone was seated in three different sections in the arena. So we went our separate ways for a bit. I went back to my regular seat, which I love anyway, since it’s right by the tunnel where the Spark players come in from their locker room.

Larry and I watched warmups until all the Sparks had left the floor. Then I went up to the concourse. At least I tried to. I kept getting stopped and stopping myself to talk to some other Tennessee fans. Heck, even New York Liberty player Loree Moore’s mother was in the house (Loree is a Narbonne High School and Tennessee graduate).

Players from both teams came in for warm-ups, and with about eight minutes before game time, in strolls Her Greatness, Pat Summitt. I saw her the minute she walked in from the tunnel opposite me. She stood there for a bit, watching and talking to her assistant coach Holly Warlick, whom I didn’t know was coming too. I was so excited to see Pat; it literally gave me an adrenaline rush, and I went to talk to two of my new friends just because of that.

The game started out slowly, and the first quarter ended in a painful 16-11, San Antonio. Things brightened a bit in the second quarter, with the Sparks outscoring the Stars 14-7. But LA got cold in the third quarter, going five minutes without scoring. It felt like someone had let the energy out of the entire arena, as the Sparks kept taking stupid outside shots and couldn’t hit one of them to save their lives. I was getting a little sad, because I’d been so high before the game. I was thinking, how are we going to party after this?

But the fourth quarter – usually the Sparks’ worst – became their best last night. And who else was leading the charge but my girl Shannon Bobbitt. She scored on a reverse layup off a baseline drive, with 2:17 to go. Right after that, she shot a three, and cut the Stars’ lead to one. Lisa Leslie made two free throws and one shot, and Candace Parker and Bobbitt each made a free throw to give LA the victory, 58-53. It was an exciting finish, and the crowd came alive and got loud.

Pat Summitt? She sat to the left of the Sparks’ owners, Carla Christofferson and Kathy Goodman. Warlick and former assistant and new UCLA basketball Coach Nikki Caldwell were on Summitt’s other side. Summitt spent most of the game leaning forward to watch, and she kept turning to her left to say something to Warlick and Caldwell. Some of the Summitteers and I were hanging out today, and we all wish we knew what she was saying.

But Summitt was gracious when introduced last night, of course. The announcer also recognized all the Tennessee fans in the audience, having them stand for applause. It was a very pretty sight to see all that orange in Staples.

The UCLA women’s basketball team was also introduced at center court during a timeout, and an ad on the big screen encouraged the audience to become Bruin season ticket holders. So are the Sparks supporting UCLA hoops now? I don’t know if that was special for last night, or something they’ll continue to do. I’ll have to ask Goodman and Christofferson.

Parker did the post-game interview, and delighted the crowd by singing “Rocky Top.” Immediately after that was over, all of us in orange rushed upstairs for the UT Night thang. It was quick to get started, which was a pleasant surprise.

At SEC Night last month, fans stood around for 45 minutes waiting for players. Last night I went to the restroom about as quickly as a person could, and when I came out, Summitt was standing by herself in front of the podium, with a small line formed to talk to her. I jumped in the line where my friends already were standing.

When I first met Summitt last December after Tennessee played UCLA, I was freaking out and starstruck for the first time in my life. Last night there was none of that; I was cooler than the North Pole. I had her sign my “Got Summitt?” shirt, and while she was doing so I asked, “how are you?” She looked up and smiled and said, “good, how are you?” I said I had met her in December and it was nice to see her again. She was nice about that too. I love Summitt. She’s got a great big heart.

Right after I went through, they called off the line (whew). Summitt did kind of an intro to the evening, and then Goodman and Christofferson each said a few words. They are nice women, and I love that they own the team. Goodman joked that her mother claimed she drafted Sidney Spencer and Bobbitt, but that she “gave them Candace.” Goodman also said that she had told Summitt during the game, “keep making them and we’ll keep taking them.” That was awesome on so many levels.

Summitt served as the questioner as she introduced all three of her former players. The questions were from fans, and all three “interviews” are on youtube, below. Thank god for that, too, because I could never remember it all. The UT President, Caldwell, Warlick, and former Vol and Caldwell’s assistant Tasha Butts were also introduced. It was a family reunion.

All players, former and present, were presented with special embroidered bags that are now being sold at UT, apparently. They were pretty, and every recipient loved them.

All three players then went to their separate corners for autographs. I talked to two of them, as well as Caldwell and Butts, who remembered meeting me in the restroom at a Sparks game earlier this summer. They were delighted that my Sparks seatmate and I have become Bruin season ticket holders, and Butts promised to slap my hand since we’ll be behind their bench. I’m not sure if she’ll actually do that, but that facxt that she even thought of it is so cute.

Bobbitt’s parents were also there, and I said hi to them. The ever-present Shelden Williams sat at a table next to CP, talking to friends while she signed autographs. It was just all about the love.

And I mean that in a grander sense, too. Vol fans really do seem like one big family. We are all over the country (note the guy in the section next to mine wearing a Tennessee Hawaiian shirt – “we live in Hawaii now”). We travel well. And when we do get together – well, I just wish the world could be that nice all the time.

I’ll say the same of the coaches and UT staff. It’s like when you get good customer service for a change, and you’re surprised. I am always floored by the friendliness and grace of those from the University of Tennessee.

And once again, I’m grateful that in my favorite sport, I am able to enjoy them as up close and personal as I do. It is one of the best things about being a women’s basketball fan.

Video of Shannon:



I think they’re back

Even though they off to a bit of a slow start last night, it was obvious from the get-go to many of us there that the Sparks are a different team than they were before the break. I asked quite a few other people what they noticed, and all said defense. Some also said offense. I noticed both.

The Sparks were playing the defense I knew they were capable of playing. Stops were being made, and blocks were being thrown down. Shannon Bobbitt got a particularly good stop late in the game that earned her a round of applause, because it seemed to represent the vigorous effort the whole team was putting forth.

The LA Times reporter said in his story today that “several on the team were noticeably thinner” since before the break. I thought that was strange. I didn’t notice anything like that, but what I did notice was the hustle on both ends of the floor. Players weren’t standing around on offense; they were screening, setting picks, rotating. There were only two times where Bobbitt and Temeka Johnson had to take matters into their own hands and drive, but that was mostly because the Monarchs were playing their own stifling defense at that moment. Bobbitt yelled at her teammates a few times, doing her PG thang. But it was a great move to start Kiesha Brown at the 2 and Bobbitt at the 1. I hate to say I told you so, but I’ve been saying they should do that 1-2 combo all season.

In the same Times story today, the reporter commented that though the Sparks still let points slip by them in the fourth quarter, as they have been, that they still kept it under control. Cooper was quoted as saying that before the break, the game last night would have gone into overtime. I agree with that one. They obviously worked on all the right things over the break, because they are tighter as a unit, and some who have lacked energy in past games had it last night. I was also expecting jetlag from our Olympians, but it was nowhere in sight.

The Sparks are solidly in third place at this moment, which is so dope!! I am encouraged. I really need this team to go to the playoffs.

Tonight, Connecticut beat Atlanta and became the first team to clinch a playoff berth. We better beat San Antonio tomorrow night so they aren’t the second team to do it.

Another thing I was pleased about last night was a couple new musical selections that were played. I have long said that the Sparks need to hire me to do their music. I have so very very many songs in my collection, and all are on my iPod. I could handle it; I am portable. And some of that cracker jack music they play has got to go.

But last night, they played a very brief snippet of Jay-Z’s song “Encore,” when the Sparks were being slow to move the ball on a possession – the line that goes, “what are you waiting for?”


And then later on, when Sacramento got called for traveling, they played one line from Missing Person’s 1982 hit, “Walking in LA” : “Nobody walks in LA.”

Oh, did I love that. The fact that someone up there has a sense of humor. They need to to it again and show that it wasn’t just a fluke. (And they still need to hire me as musical consultant. I could really get that place rolly-roll-rollin’!)

I met some of the Tennessee fans last night who are coming in from there and other parts of the country for this weekend’s games. Oh my lord, what nice people. Being a part of the nationwide “Vol family” is truly special. Time and time again, I’ve asked for help on “The Summitt” message board, and several people come forward and then go above and beyond to help me, just like they do with other Vol fans. Anytime I’ve seen an orange Tennessee shirt like mine at a Sparks game, we wave and smile, at the very least; usually we talk for a bit.

Last night I met kbhersh and navahovol from the message board, along with their respective possees. It’s always nice to put a face to a name. Tomorrow, the rest of the Tennessee faithful are comin in from good ol’ Rocky Top.

They are coming for UT Alumni Night tomorrow, which is a production of the University of Tennessee and the Sparks. Some fans are coming for the football game Monday, too (UCLA vs. Tennessee), so the organizations decided to work it.

Us basketball fans are meeting up tomorrow evening at the sports bar in Staples, before the pre-game meet and greet. Then after the game is the event. When I found out Pat Summitt would be there, I thought my head would explode. Hell, it probably will. I’m meeting all these great people, all of our Sparks/Tennessee players will be at the event, and so will Coach Summitt and Coaches Nikki Caldwell and Tasha Butts. Good lord!! I will be giddy.

I will also be head to toe orange. I can’t wait.

Game on

When the WNBA resumes play tomorrow, the dogfight for playoff spots will resume in earnest after a month-long pause.
The hottest two races are in the Western Conference, between the 1 (San Antonio, 18-9) and 2 (Seattle, 17-9) spots; and number 3 Sacramento and 4-spot Los Angeles, both with a 15-12 record. No time will be wasted determining placements, as the Monarchs and Sparks face off at 7:30 p.m. PDT Thursday night in Los Angeles.
Unlike the Monarchs, the Sparks began the season with high expectations, due largely to the pairing of number-one draft pick Candace Parker and returning Center Lisa Leslie. For a while, Los Angeles was ranked first in the West, but a couple of long losing streaks caused them to tumble. If they had lost their last game before the Olympic break, they would have been fifth place in the Western Conference, and not in playoff contention.
Before the season began, Sparks radio commentator Larry Burnett remarked that this was the most talented Sparks roster he had seen in his 11 years with the team. Interviewed recently, Burnett said talent is not the problem right now.
“I don’t think this team has the chemistry of past championship teams,” he said. “I’m not sure they’ve figured out how to play with each other yet, and that surprises me. I thought they would have a great inside-to-outside game, but it’s not there yet.”
This year’s Sparks are an especially close bunch – something that Burnett has noticed as well as fans. He said that in the early days of the Sparks, team members used to interact on the bus during road trips, but then players began retreating into what he called “iPod mode.”
“Past teams used to sing, talk and play games, and that’s back this year,” he said. “I sit in the front of the bus and laugh at what goes on behind me.”
But Burnett said team closeness isn’t always a formula for success. He sited a few Major League Baseball teams where team members would fight bitterly before games, but then go out on the field to thrash opponents.
“I know (Head Coach Michael) Cooper stays up all night trying to figure it out,” Burnett said. “You can have the best game plan in the world, but if the team doesn’t execute it, it’s not going to work.”
Burnett said the thing that concerns him most about this year’s Sparks is their seeming lack of fundamentals – especially defense, getting rebounds and shooting free throws. Nevertheless, he sees Los Angeles making the playoffs this year.
“Their first three games back will be huge in showing how they’ll go into the playoffs,” Burnett said. “If they struggle, they will continue to see challenges.”
Another unpredictable was thrown into the Sparks’ mix yesterday, as 7’2″ WNBA veteran Margo Dydek was signed. Who could have predicted that?
The Seattle Storm may be in trouble in the last half of the season, as all-star Lauren Jackson announced last week that she would have surgery on her knee after the Olympics. She may miss the rest of the season. Forward Swin Cash is also iffy as she contemplates surgery for a herniated disc in her back.
In the Eastern Conference, Connecticut (16-10) is in first place and New York (15-10) and Detroit (16-11) are tied for second. Over the Olympic break, the Shock traded with the Washington Mystics to acquire veteran center Taj McWilliams-Franklin. Detroit hopes she will fill the void left by Cheryl Ford, who tore her ACL in the July 22 game against Los Angeles.
I predict a lot of predictions over the next few days as to who will end up in what place by season’s end. But with this close of a race, and so many intangibles, I dare not even try. I only say this: let the games begin. It’s been a long, long break. Too long.

Mental training taking its place in athletics

Depending upon whom you ask, the “mental” aspect of competition determines anywhere from 50-95 percent of the outcome.
All theories and athletes aside, mental preparedness and toughness is an important part of competition, and is increasingly being recognized as such. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the athletic departments of three of the nation’s top colleges, where there are staff members specifically assembled to address mental training with athletes.
One of the oldest and most prestigious programs is at West Point Military Academy. The Center for Enhanced Performance began as a small pilot program for the football team in 1989, and four years later, services were made available to all cadets.
Dr. Nate Zinsser heads a staff that includes four civilian psychologists, and has an audio/video production studio that helps aid their instruction. Zinsser said a full spectrum of services are available to athletes who want them.
“We provide training, educating, mentoring and skill development in every area that effects sports performance,” Zinsser said.
This can mean confidence-building, comprehensive goal-setting, attention control, stress/energy management, imaging and visualization, or a combination of many or all of these strategies, according to Zinsser.
“Developing all of those skills comes out of an understanding of the psychology of performance – about understanding how you think, act and feel when you’re at your best,” Zinsser said.
The Center uses its video equipment to film athletes for hand-eye coordination work, and uses biofeedback to teach self-regulation skills. The department does not counsel students in personal matters, however.
The Center and its staff are introduced to all cadets when they enter the academy, but participation, as at all colleges, is voluntary. Zinsser said he and his colleagues see about 300 athletes per year, or about 25 percent of the student athlete population.
An athlete’s participation in mental training development, to an extent, depends upon the coach of the team he or she is on. Zinsser said some coaches put more stock in sports psychology than others, and there are a few instances at West Point where almost the entire team will work with the Center.
Zinsser said the number one issue he deals with in athletes is when they are afraid to “go all out in competition for the win.”
“The athlete will play tentatively and cautiously because they are afraid they’re going to mess up,” he said.
To address that problem, Zinsser begins by having athletes complete a structured assessment so he can find out what they think the problem is, and what they want to accomplish.
Zinsser makes a crucial distinction between the psychology of training and the psychology of playing, which he likens to the difference between opening a cookbook and preparing a meal.
“When training, you’re trying to acquire an ability and expertise,” he said. “When playing, you’re trying to release what you’ve acquired.
“The process of being analytical and critical of your own performance – you’ve got to let that go, because that interferes with what you want to do.”
The University of Tennessee’s Mental Training Department arose from the arrival of Dr. Craig Wrisberg – a professor who came to head an academic program in sports psychology about 30 years ago. One Tennessee coach took Wrisberg’s classes and begun teaching the techniques to his athletes. Athletes, in turn, began catching on, and soon Wrisberg was working with the Athletic Department. He was made part of the staff in the late 1980’s.
Today, Dr. Joe Whitney heads the Mental Training Department, which also includes a couple graduate assisstants. They see 25-30 percent of UT athletes every year, on a voluntary basis.
“We help athletes learn to use their minds to work for them rather than against them,” Whitney said. “They train their minds like they would train in the weight room.”
Whitney said athletes usually fall into one of two categories: those who are struggling with some aspect of their mental game and/or emotions, or outstanding performers who want to take their game to the next level.
“Everybody has a mental game,” Whitney said. “We help them find their strengths, and teach them how to build on that.”
This may include visualizing a particular arena and anticipating distractions, as Whitney explained that “image and visualization are rehearsal.” By re-training their thought processes, Whitney said athletes build more self-confidence.
“It has to be something that the athlete takes responsibility for,” he said.
One of the best things about what Whitney and his staff teaches is that it is transferable.
“The things we talk about and teach them are things they can use in the rest of their lives,” he said. “We often hear from athletes later on, telling us that.”
DaveYukelson is the lone sports psychologist at Pennsylvania State University, but he carries a large reputation. Unlike his West Point and Tennessee colleagues, Yukelson works with the counseling center at Penn State to help student athletes transition to college in their first year.
“First we help them transition to being everything in high school to being a smaller fish in a big pond,” he said. “Once we get them past that, then we work on their performance, aspects of playing their sport, imagery, emotion and energy.”
Yukelson also asks athletes to tell him what happens when they perform, and what they’d like to work on. He said how athletes talk to themselves is a crucial part of development, and he teaches them what they can do to control negative talk.
“Some of the more common things I help athletes work on are preparation skills, focus skills, mental toughness skills, how to sustain concentration, and how to let go when you make a mistake,” he said.
As an athlete who was a nervous wreck before competitions in high school, I’m really glad to see the rise of sports psychology as a legitimate practice and part of athletics programs. I just wish it had happened sooner.

Reigning gold, everywhere

The fact that yesterday’s game turned into a blowout isn’t really a surprise, I suppose. The US has an incredibly deep team – basically two WNBA starter-quality teams on one squad. Who can compete with that? The closest anyone came was Russia, whom we beat by 15 points. Everyone else got their butts kicked by much, much more.

Seeing Team USA so happy was heart-warming, and there were pictures released afterwards of them behind-the-scenes. The 6’8″ Anne Donovan even danced! I wish we’d have seen that. They hustled them off the floor immediately after the game, as opposed to 2004, when everyone lingered.

Sue Bird said this was the most fun team she’s ever been on, because everyone was silly and having fun together. This didn’t surprise me at all. I’m so glad they were able to have that experience.

What did surprise me was the way some people on various message boards immediately started griping and complaining about various aspects of the game and the team. For example, Candace Parker is a loser for having missed the dunk at the end of the game; Lisa Leslie is Satan for dancing on the podium during the anthem and wearing her four medals; Diana Taurasi is un-American for not singing the anthem with everyone else.

I’m wondering when everyone in America was suddenly appointed as a courtroom judge, because we sure see a lot of the judging and proclaiming of others going on these days. I have a theory, though: since the media pries into people’s lives and puts out every little detail about celebrities, Americans feel like they know celebrities as if they were personal friends. And if you know someone, you can make proclamations about them. But in truth, we can only guess why Taurasi didn’t sing. Maybe she was tired, for god sakes.

Another part of it is the crabs-in-the-bucket syndrome, which is when someone is successful, some people like to try to pull them down to make themselves feel better. The third element is that there are a heck of a lot of people that just like to find something to whine and complain about. Like, all the time.

I’m not letting any of that dampen my Olympic spirit – especially after last night when the USA women’s and men’s mile relay teams won the gold in track and field. The true Redeem Teams.

Though it will be kind of nice to get my life back again, I wish we didn’t have to wait four long years for the next Olympics. Thank you for the memories, Beijing. It’s been a great ride these last two weeks.

The WNBA starts back up in four days! Hallelujah. It’s been a very long break.