The Miami Dolphins as “Rosebud” in the Movie Citizen Cane – by John F Murray, PhD –
Palm Beach, Florida – December 18, 2017 – I love my career as a clinical and sports psychologist. I get to do what is natural for me in watching and loving sports with the added benefit of being a part of the game in getting players and teams ready for competition with specific mental training and also psychological counseling. It was the perfect career for me with a background of playing most sports growing up, and coaching tennis worldwide in my 20s after getting a bachelor’s degree in psychology. When I saw the light, I went back to graduate school at age 30 to become a sports psychologist and the rest is history.
Today I coach people and teams to develop their mental skills for success, but there was an additional extra spice of excitement that had nothing to do with me and everything to do with pure luck. At the age of 9, right when I first became aware of this spectator sport called NFL football, my father took me to my first game when the Dolphins played the Saints at the Orange Bowl. It was the week after Tom Dempsey kicked the longest field goal in history – a 63-yard blast with only half a foot. I was hooked after that game. The Dolphins had a new young genius coach named Don Shula and every year from 1970 to 1974 the team just got better.
It was a dream for a young kid to watch this team improve every year from age 9 to 14, impressionable years that instilled in this young fan the idea that there was a right way to coach and play sports that was the best in the world. It was an idealism backed by reality. Shula’s insight and this team’s hard work would lead to three consecutive Super Bowls, two titles, and a perfect 17-0 season. It wasn’t until that infamous “Sea of Hands” game against the Raiders in late 1974 when Jack Clancy caught the wounded duck thrown by Kenny Stabler in between two Miami defenders that all my hopes and young dreams were dashed in one cruel instant. The impossible happened. My beloved team that had only gotten better and better finally lost. The last Super Bowl title in 1974 would be their last true glory and that was now 43 years ago.
Can you imagine? In 43 years the Dolphins have never done it again. At age 14, I thought the dream would simply never end and that by today the team would have amassed 20 Super Bowl titles. New England back then was a third-rate group of lousy scrubs. Those were the days! The impact of those early years as a kid growing up in South Florida, however, were profoundly significant. That team was my childhood “rosebud.” Remember that rosebud was the name of the sled in the academy-winning movie Citizen Cane that represented all that was good and innocent about life before the reality of life sets in for a publishing tycoon.
My early love of sports was propelled by this amazing experience following the Dolphins’ every move in the early 1970s. In some ways, I am always trying to re-discover those years of success with every client I work with today, even if the success of that team had nothing to do with me except to give me hope. Back then sports psychology did not even exist, but today it is just another vital part of comprehensive training for the smart athlete and team, and hope is a critical component. While I had zero to do with that early fun, the lessons learned over 5 years of rising dominance, watching every play and dissecting every article I could find on Shula or the team, showed me at a young age what a team can and should be, what a coach can and should be, and how winning should look.
After going to college, traveling the world many times with a tennis racket, completing graduate school, and acquiring the tools to take my coaching to a whole different mental dimension, I finally in 1999 got the chance to begin my career and actually help athletes and teams to win. I’ve been at it almost 20 years now and love every minute of this exciting career.
What is really ironic is that early in my career in the early 2000s, I actually got the chance to be a paid consultant to the Miami Dolphins, helping several players with the support of the head coach and other staff. I was brought in to work with individual players including the starting quarterback, and the success was real and tangible. The truth is that mental coaching works and is very much needed, and part of the reason it works so well is that there are so few qualified sports psychologists today. Athletes do not receive this training properly. While I was able to help these Dolphins players early in my practice, and have helped many more since then, my attempts to build an actual sports psychology program for the team from day one of training camp has not seen the light of day. For whatever reason – perhaps stigmas about psychology or perhaps just not finding the right coach – it has not happened. I am confident that in the future all teams will have this service and will do it comprehensively year-round.
But let’s keep our focus on the Miami Dolphins after their 1970s glory days. While you might be thinking of the Dan Marion era of the 1980s and 90s and the two Super Bowl appearances that were fun, they did not win it all, so in my mind the 1970s were much better. There have been 43 Dolphins teams that have not won the Super Bowl since that magic last win in January of 1974. While many will argue that Miami has not had the talent of those early teams, I watched it very closely and will assert very confidently that this is not at all the case.
Back in the early 70s, the Dolphins were a ragtag bunch brought together by Shula as no-names literally, and nobody really expected them to win. I vividly remember a column written by LA Times reporter Jim Murray (no relation) with the heading “Who are the Dolphins?” prior to a Miami vs. LA Rams game. To sum it up, Miami did not have extraordinary talent in those days, but they had the best coaching in the world, they made few mistakes, and they worked very hard for it. Shula might not have had a sports psychologist, but I have talked with several players who played for him and it seems that he was doing many of the same things good sports psychologists do. It is not surprising that he is still the winningest coach of all time!
In today’s age of specialized training, media, huge salaries, agents, and frequent coach turnover, there are more distractions than ever, so good coaching takes on even more importance. The teams that win are the teams who manage distractions best. The Patriots epitomize this approach and I am confident that they are taking the mental game very seriously. After Tom Brady won the Super Bowl last year, he attributed very much of his success in post-game discussions to sports psychology! What more evidence do you need?
Whether my services will soon be used by the Dolphins in the future or not, I cannot control this or worry about it. I would love to help the team, but the people in charge need to understand the value, and to make consultant hiring decisions more based on meritocratic thinking than hiring their friends from high school or thinking that big named celebrity speakers are the same as sports psychology. Sports psychology is a profession and a science and the same scrutiny used in finding top players in the draft should be used in finding the best professionals out there to help in any other area including the mental department. I cannot speak for internal politics of poor decision making by coaches or administrators, but I clearly see the product on the field in terms of performance.
When a team has nearly the most penalties in the league in 2017 and constantly shoots itself in the foot with careless turnovers, personal fouls, and poor focus, I can confidently assert that they are either not getting the right thing in terms of sports psychology, or that they are not doing it long enough or on a consistent basis. What I witnessed this year in terms of shoddiness and poor consistency was hard to watch at times. I do believe that Adam Gase is a brilliant young mind, and a superior tactician. He has a proven track record in particular with quarterbacks, and maybe he got the best he could get out of Jay Cutler this season, but no matter how good Adam Gase is, he is not a sports psychologist. He is a coach and teams need great coaches like him. But Mr. Gase did not get two masters degrees and a PhD after 7 years of serious study in sports psychology, and he never wanted to. He is an elite head coach, but without a first-class team sports psychology program in place, his team will never reach their potential.
Let me give you a vision. A great sports psychology program would be year-round. It would be overseen and directed by a professional with a license to practice psychology as well as extensive academic training and experience in all aspects of sports psychology. It would involve regular office hours to work with players individually. It would also involve comprehensive mental coaching evaluations on every player long before the season so that the sports psychologist as well as the coaches would know how to treat each player best to get the most out of them. The sports psychologist would be an accepted and integral staff member, like the head of any department in a company, and would sit in on meetings and provide input as needed. Each player would have a specific and clear profile of mental needs and there would be a concerted effort by each and every coach to enhance each player’s mental skills every week in the areas identified as needing most help.
I am not trolling for a job the way I might have in 1997 as a graduate student. I have a great practice in Palm Beach and work with a variety of athletes in all sports out of the office, by phone or at client locations. But I do know that even in the year 2017, the majority of the NFL teams, and I might dare add the Miami Dolphins, are not taking sports psychology nearly as seriously as they should. Talent is vastly over-rated. In addition to talent, great trained technique, strength programs, and solid nutrition, every player also needs to be on the top of the world in their mental training.
From the looks of this 2017 Miami Dolphins team, there is no way this is happening. The mistakes have been rampant, horrible, and costly. The lost opportunities have been numerous and devastating. The dreams of thousands of South Florida fans have just been dashed again after the loss to Buffalo. The phrase “no playoffs” has a very nasty ring to it but its back again. We cannot simply blame it on the loss of Ryan Tannehill. Winning organizations find a way to prevail. This 6-8 team has grossly underperformed. The win over the Patriots was exciting, but it was a shallow and insignificant night of success that means nothing in the long-run. It might help Jay Cutler in the broadcast booth to say he beat Tom Brady one night, but what does that do for South Florida or the team?
I am now 56-years old, but since I love my profession so much I still feel like I am in my 30s. I still have that sparkle in my eye and glimmer of innocent hope that maybe someday this Dolphins team will return to the glory days that became a permanent place in my psyche from 1970 to 1974. Of course, that was the 12-year old Dr. John F Murray, but it that same childlike hope and insane optimism that all athletes in all sports need and that I need to be able to instill in my clients. What used to be the excitement of a young fan is now a very serious confidence based on my understanding of the mental game and my realization that the vast majority of athletes and teams are still not coming close to their potential mentally.
Most NFL teams and players are starving mentally. I know it. And it goes beyond football to all others sports too. Like Martin Luther King, I also have a dream. I have a dream that some day all teams and athletes will realize what they have been missing and will be focused on training their mental games just as intensively as they train physically. The teams that figure it out first will have an advantage that might be hard to quantify, but trust me, I have seen it hundreds and hundreds of times in my private practice. When something that is significant is missing, and then it is added properly, performance and success soars.
The Miami Dolphins, like that iconic sled rosebud in the movie Citizen Cane, will probably always be that safe, exciting and innocent place that knows no limitations in my mind. But if the real Miami Dolphins never wake up from their long deep slumber, I am just as happy to keep the impact of those early magical years as inspiration to help other future NFL, NHL, NBA, or MLB teams, and the clients that I work with one on one, to win championships with sports psychology done right.
Hope you have enjoyed this article from the world of sports psychology.