Press Enterprise

Jun 9, 2005 – Jim Alexander – The most important talisman of Cal State Fullerton’s run to the 2004 College World Series championship may have been the toilet.

You probably saw it if you watched any of ESPN’s coverage last June. It was a tiny porcelain replica, perched on a shelf in the dugout whenever the Titans played. The object wasn’t to take a bat to it after a particularly aggravating strikeout, but to use it as a reminder to flush away a bad at-bat or a bad pitch — to focus on the task at hand and not be distracted by previous failures.

The powerful reminder was the work of Ken Ravizza, a professor in the school’s Division of Kinesiology and Health Science. The success that followed was another boon to the growing, maturing relationship between sport and psychology.

“Mental skills training,” it’s called. Athletes spend a lot of time on strengthening their bodies and honing their mechanics, but there’s also an increasing emphasis on the way the brain affects performance.

Yes, it may be too new age in some quarters, where the macho, I-can-fix-my-own-problems attitude still applies and some coaches and managers feel threatened by outside advice.

Still, when the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez recently acknowledged that he was undergoing therapy to deal with personal issues, it may have busted some more barriers.

“I think it’s definitely becoming more and more accepted, simply because of the influence that the mental side has on performance,” said John F. Murray, a sports psychologist in Palm Beach, Fla., in a telephone interview. “Often, the difference between winning and losing, or between performing well and not performing well, is how you manage the enormous amount of potential distractions.”

Fullerton’s baseball team, which continues defense of its national title in an NCAA super regional at home against Arizona State beginning Friday, seems a classic example of what happens when you tend to the mind as well as the body.

Flash back to early April 2004. Ravizza, who teaches courses in sport philosophy, applied sport psychology and stress management at Fullerton, received a call from Titans coach George Horton seeking help. Nothing else was working: CSUF was 15-16 and out of the national Top 25, and Horton was out of ideas and out of patience.

Ravizza’s first words to the team: “I don’t know why you are feeling so sorry for yourselves. You have the chance to make the biggest comeback in Cal State Fullerton history.”

In individual and group sessions, Ravizza worked on players’ confidence, focus and sense of team, while providing methods to cope with pressure and stress. He started the momentum and the team took it the rest of the way, winning 32 of its last 38 games and the school’s fourth national championship.

“I saw guys who were insecure, who had lost their confidence,” Ravizza said in an interview with Athletic Management magazine. “I saw guys who couldn’t focus. Mostly, I saw guys who were trying too hard and not getting results. And the harder they tried, the worse it got. And as it got worse, they had no strategies except to try even harder. And ‘try harder’ never works. You have to have something else to go to.”

Ravizza has worked with the Angels, the Nebraska and Arizona State football programs, UCLA’s softball team and a number of U. S. Olympic teams in different sports. And he’s pulled off the neat trick of advising both Fullerton and its baseball arch-rival, Long Beach State.

“He’s really wonderful at rolling up his sleeves and digging up the dirt with the guys,” said Sue Ziegler, a sports psychologist at Cleveland State University, in a phone interview. “He’s a guy’s guy. He’s very effective in terms of communicating, giving you quick and easy strategies that you can implement right off the bat.”

The lessons continue with the 2005 Titans. During last weekend’s regional tournament at Fullerton, Titans outfielder Sergio Pedroza was asked about dealing with a recent hitting slump and whether his approach changed.

“I did the same thing,” he told reporters. “I stuck with the process. I wasn’t getting rewarded. Sometimes it happens in hitting. I talked to Ken Ravizza and he told me it (slump’s end) was going to happen eventually as long as you don’t let it get to you.”

The field of sports psychology, or at least the study of the mind’s effects on performance, goes back as far as the early 1900s, when Indiana University psychologist Norman Triplett determined that cyclists rode faster in groups or pairs than they did when alone. Coleman Griffith of the University of Illinois began more expansive research on sports in the 1920s, and actually did some consulting for the Chicago Cubs for a time in the late 1930s.

But sports psychology didn’t take off until the 1970s, after Eastern Bloc success in the Olympic Games prompted people in this country to take a closer look at the techniques the other side was using.

Today, athletic departments such as Penn State and Oklahoma employ full-time sports psychologists. Most other schools — such as Fullerton, with Ravizza, or UC Riverside, which borrows Bob Corb from the school’s Counseling Center — will use a sports psychologist on an occasional or as-needed basis. Some professional organizations retain psychologists as consultants, and a greater number of individual sport athletes have sought help.

“(Golfer) Brad Faxon said that in 1984 if you worked with a sports psychologist, people thought you were weird,” Murray said. “Now if you don’t work with a sports psychologist, people think you’re weird.”

After all, the most important muscle is often the one between the ears.

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.