Sunday, March 12, 2006

Yogi Berra was 100 percent wrong.*

If I hear one more sportscaster tell me that "success in [pitching, hitting, football, ice-skating, tiddlywinks, serial killing] is 90 percent mental," I'm going to "go mental" myself. I heard it ad nauseam this weekend: from Philadelphia Phillies' broadcaster Larry Anderson, commenting on a Phils' pitching prospect; from former Dodger star Eric Karros during his narration of the World Baseball Classic; from somebody doing color on an NBA game I happened upon as I was looking for something to watch. (You can't even escape this crap when you're innocently toggling back and forth between channels!)

Let's get things straight here and now: Mental is physical. They are one and the same, or at least, I defy anyone to show me compelling scientific evidence to the contrary.

(NOTE: I could litter this post with links and parenthetical documentation if I so chose. But really, this is a case where it's best for you to do your own research, and if you feel you can refute what I'm saying here, as Mr. Bush likes to say, bring it on...)

Here's a newsflash: The brain is part of the body. Nonetheless, this belief in the "mental game" of sports tends to be strongest among people who argue for a quasi-spiritual, almost magical component to thought and human awareness. It feeds into that whole Empowerment subtext about how the body responds to the will--that nothing is unachievable to people who "truly believe."

In truth, based on all current knowledge, the effect of thought on physical performance, and vice versa, appears to be a straight-line function of what transpires automatically among the 100 billion or so neurons in the average brain that trade electro-chemical impulses back and forth at 200mph. A typical neuron communicates with as many 10,000 other neurons, muscle cells, etc., over various synaptical media. These processes hum along to their own inscrutable rhythms (and totally beneath the "user's" radar: When was the last time you felt a little something on the left side of your head and thought, "Hmmmm, feels like a bit of a hang-up at Synapse No. 64,558..."?) We don't want to get too deep into matters of determinism here; we'll tackle that extensively at some future point. For now, suffice it to say that each new advance in neurological science points increasingly to the biochemical inevitability of any given brain impulse...which is to say, things "up there" happen in a predictable** way, following each given brain's own wiring diagram and programming, if you will. Ergo, the brain is self-governing. It makes its own decisions on its own clock. As is the case with the physical reflexes doctors check for with that little mallet, there are specific neurons that, when "poked," produce an inevitable reflex. (This is literally true: By poking certain areas of the brain, neurological researchers have succeeded at causing subjects to talk in babble, kick their legs, and even get erections. No further comment there.)

Which means that the thoughts and feelings you have are, in all likelihood, the result of a purely physical process over which you have zero control.

So yes, I "know what people mean" when they talk about the "mental game," and no, I'm not trying to be a nitpicker or a sophist. It's just that the people who talk about such things are wrong in a way that could not be more fundamental to human existence. The distinction they're drawing is invalid.

And yet that fallacious belief has important, all-pervading implications. For one thing, it implies that the so-called "mental game" of sports is far more malleable than the physical game. That, in turn, implies blame: i.e., "Hey, with your physical tools, you shouldn't let your head get in the way of your performance!" But if you don't have the proper mental outlook, you don't have the physical tools. A player who has been labeled a "head case" has a physical problem that manifests itself in erratic behavior and/or performance. A player who "chokes" is doing it in response to a physical breakdown somewhere in his head. Physiologically speaking, there is no difference between the pitcher who can't throw hard enough to get batters out and the pitcher who throws 95 mph but "lacks confidence" in his fastball and therefore can't get batters out. A lack of confidence is a physical problem relating to something in brain circuitry/chemistry. Hence, both pitchers have physical problems; they just manifest themselves in different ways.

This does not mean that all is hopeless (the comeback I usually hear when I make this case). Just as muscles can be trained to perform better, the mind can be trained to perform better(though we are not yet anywhere near as good at understanding the mechanism of that process as we are in dealing with muscle conditioning). Sometimes the mind can "decide on its own" that it's time to change--once those neurons and impulses make that event unavoidable.

So, Larry, Eric and Yogi, baseball--any sport; every sport--is 100 percent physical. That's all there is to it.

* Arguably Mr. Malaprop's most famous saying: "Baseball is 90 percent mental; the other half is physical."
** predictable within the closed system of the brain itself, that is; not always consciously predictable to you, the "owner."


mrnonel said...


In your Yogi Berra post, aren't you arguing what Anthony Robbins has been teaching all this time? Robbins' Neuro-associative Conditioning (NAC) states to change one's mental attitudes and beliefs, he or she must change one's physiology. NAC is just Robbins' trademark for Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP). Although the NLP founders may have been premature in taking their concepts to the mass market, they anticipated the latest findings in neurology and cognitive science. There is a similarity between NLP teachings and your recent post.

Maybe you are onto a new empowering concept "The Mind is Matter." So I suggest you better hit the self-help seminar circuit before somebody beats you to it. I would pay money to attend your trainings. It wouldn't be a sham.


P.S. It's the middle of March 2006 and thanks to your book I have not attended a self-improvement seminar so far this year.

Steve Salerno said...

Mark, first of all, congrats on staying "SHAM-free" to this point in the year. If this were AA, we'd be throwing you a party (without the booze, of course).

You raise some very good points in your comment, points that are really too delving--and touch upon subjects that are far too complex--for me to blow them off in the quick, snappy style that tends to characterize my comments in this section of the blog. But inasmuch as my answer would have a lot to do with determinism anyway, I hope you'll forgive me for deferring my reply till I get that post ready (the one to which I've alluded in several recent posts). I've been quite busy, and it's going to take me a while to get it "just right."

Much thanks for joining in. And remember--when you feel that impulse rise up from deep within, the one that cries out for you to attend a self-help seminar, I'd urge you to take a drink instead; it may well be healthier and less expensive in the end.

Cal said...


I want to again reiterate that I truly believe that Self-Help is a SHAM, but I can't help but disagree or maybe not disagree, but question a little what you call sportsthink. While watching basketball game after basketball game this weekend and thinking about the tournament, I started to wonder just how some of these teams that don't do anything even close to earth shattering in the regualr season go on to win their conference or possibly later on the entire tournament. You may be guessing what team stands out of late and that is Syracuse. This team does nothing in the Big East all year and then goes on to win the toughest conference in the college basketball nation. Is it possible that confidence or something mental affected the way they played and ultimately won game after game. Again, I am not saying they watched Dr. Phil before the game or TR (Tony Robbins not Teddy Roosevelt)came into the locker room to get them "pumped," but something, I say confidence, helped -- and I emphasize help -- them win those games. I know that talent alone is the underlying factor in competition that sets individuals and teams apart, but the right amount of confidence, and not too much, I think, can elevate a team or an individual enough to make a difference. Can I prove this? NO! But there are too many instances where a team or an individual on the brink of a breakout does just that, has a breakout performance.

Steve Salerno said...

Cal, ol' buddy, I'm not completely disagreeing with you! In your current comment as well as in previous ones, you seem to be assuming that I'm ruling out the effect of positive thinking. Believe me, I'm not. Especially in the business world, there's a certain self-fulfilling aspect to confidence, because people often will judge us based on whether or not we seem to be "confident" and "positive thinkers." So yes, in a purely pragmatic sense, "having a good attitude" will pay dividends. But in sports? Well, to put this in a very streamlined way, I'm simply saying two things: 1. that attitude will take you only so far--and sometimes may even be counterproductive (like, say, the pitcher who's too pumped, so he loses his control), and 2. that mental attitude, based on everything science tells us thus far, is a largely (if not entirely) physical process anyway. That's all I'm saying.

It's funny, I just re-read this comment and saw the irresistible irony: that "sportsthink" may have more to do with success in business than it does in sports!

Rodger Johnson said...

The mind/brain phenomena -- whether they are one in the same or separate -- has preplexed psychologists. I tend to believe that they are both -- separate and connected at the same time. It's a contradiction, I know.

It also seems plausible that this separate yet connected phenomena could answer why certain chemical reactions between neurons affect certain behavior, but rarely affect beliefs -- at least with our current understanding of biochemical reactions in the brain.

So, say I want to change someone's belief, the question of whether that can be measured in a chemical change has not been answered as far as I know. But, measuring someone's behavior change is possible. Does that mean beliefs that affect our behavior are metaphysical -- so far -- yes.

The self-help movement -- although they are attempting to use NLP -- employ it only in part. Whether that's strategic or not, I cannot tell.

In public relations, we understand that separate yet connected mind/brain phenomena as just that, understanding that behavior and beliefs are influenced and change based on some metaphysical principles and not others.

Yet, to the self-help "snake-oil" rhetoric, the reasoning and arguments are usually circular, over-generalized, and typically either/or statements that beg the question.