When the Steelers and Penguins flop, should you flip?

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – February 3, 2019 – Gene Collier – Clearly — clearly! — the better team doesn’t always win. But skill and coaching aren’t the only factors at play. This past week came the re-emergence of that wicked sports phenomenon we’ve come to consider uniquely Pittsburgh, never mind that it isn’t — the beloved black and gold losing to a team it clearly — clearly! — should have beaten. And handily.

The Penguins were at home against the New Jersey Dreadfuls, who had not won back-to-back season series against Pittsburgh in 14 years, who had not scored six goals in a game in the Steel City in the same 14 years, and who were about to check both boxes with a 6-3 victory that repulsed the audience toward apoplexy.

It was not exactly unprecedented that the Penguins flopped in front of a last-place team. My colleague Jason Mackey, in fact, helpfully pointed out that last place teams were 7-1-1 against the Penguins this season, which is a problem with but one obvious solution:

Fire Mike Tomlin.

Yes, because the head coach of the Steelers, known for many things including never having had a losing season and never having seen Antonio Brown taking a liberty he couldn’t rationalize, recently completed a season in which his hyper-powered club failed to win at Cleveland, at Denver and at Oakland, three places where the NFL teams finished a combined 17-30-1.

The same virus that currently has the Penguins hagridden is something of a Tomlin trademark, albeit of dubious merit in this view. Attributing any team’s performance or underperformance exclusively to the head coach is a chronic ’Burghian oversimplification, one perhaps best countered by a not-so-famous quote from Jeff Van Gundy that I came across only this past week.

Van Gundy, former head coach of noted basketball enterprises such as the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets, once offered this scenario to illustrate the fluidity of coach perception:

“Biggest game of the year. Final seconds. You’re down one. You get a good shot. The ball goes in the air. It hangs there. Good coach or bad coach? Good coach or bad coach?”

That’s from a book titled “This is Your Brain on Sports,” by Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers, which examines both the wonders and pratfalls of sports psychology, group psychology, and fan psychology, all of which are inextricably entwined in results described as “Geez that’s a game they should have won!”

Losing to so-called inferior teams — often called “playing down to the competition,” or “coming out flat” (as opposed to with great topography, I guess) — is something I’ve always considered endemic to the games, most especially at the professional level. If the so-called inferior teams can’t beat you, why are we watching in the first place?

But this I’ll allow: When the Steelers succumb to the Raiders or the Penguins flail about helplessly on the pond against the Devils or the Kings or the Blackhawks or the Senators, there is as much psychological failure as physical, if not more.

“Not overlooking teams on your schedule, that is huge, and as in anything, some teams are gonna do it and some teams are not gonna do it,” Murray was telling me this past week (not Penguins goalie Matt Murray, but rather Dr. John F. Murray, renowned sports psychologist and the man sometimes called the Freud of Football). “So I think the fan maybe expects a little too much. In their eagerness, they would like their team to be always dominant and they maybe make some kind of a mental assumption that is not valid — we should always beat this team. Well, not necessarily. Not unless you bring it 100 percent and even then you can’t really control how well the other team performs. You may have a great performance and the other team out-performs you.”

Occasionally, in fact, good teams are actually at a psychological disadvantage against lousy teams, if I am understanding Dr. Scott Goldman correctly on the topic of pattern recognition.

“What’s interesting is that high octane teams that are playing at a very fast pace, practicing at a fast pace, in some ways an underdog team can have a competitive advantage against them because the underdog team may be doing things poorly and that becomes a little foreign to the high-octane team when it comes to pattern recognition,” Goldman said on the phone from Michigan. “The best example I can give is in soccer, you’ll see this sometimes, where a more advanced move that would pull an advanced player out of position, a less advanced player would just stand there, and that’s where you see the advanced player maybe collide with him, or if he tried to nutmeg a player, kick it between their legs, the less advanced player doesn’t take a stab at the ball, which prevents him from opening up his legs.”

Goldman is a clinical psychologist currently under contract to two NFL teams, neither of which is the Steelers, so he couldn’t comment specifically on any psychological issue currently at work in this hair-raising Steelers offseason.

He did, however, mention this in another context.

“Steve Kerr just said something on a podcast that resonated,” Goldman said about the Golden State Warriors coach’s appearance on a podcast called “Finding Mastery” with (psychologist) Michael Gervais. “‘The secret to [team] culture is when the head coach’s value aligns with the best player. He said for him, his value is joy, and Steph Curry is a very playful guy by nature, so culture was created.’

“We are social creatures, social animals. We’re not sharks.”

No, but some of us dress up as singing hippos on TV, which might have been Antonio Brown’s attempt to spread joy, which doesn’t appear to be Mike Tomlin’s main value at the moment. The result is that fans, analysts and even former players are pointing to a ruptured culture within the Steelers. A flawed culture is not itself a pathology, but it can have a negative impact on a team’s collective psychology, and thus, inescapably, on performance.

I asked Dr. Murray, who has four degrees in this field, if it was true that teams own a collective psychology.

“Most definitely,” he said. “I wrote a book called the ‘Mental Performance Index’ in 2011 and revised it in 2013. I studied every play in Super Bowl history and came up with a way to quantify statistically what we would otherwise call mental performance. So I looked at things like reduction of mental errors, reduction of penalties, turnovers, sloppy play vs. more efficient play, better execution. It wasn’t purely subjective. I tried to make it something everyone could agree upon. When I quantified that statistic and then ran the statistics on how important that factor was across the first 46 or 47 Super Bowls, that factor that I actually invented, or I would say discovered, accounted for much more impact than anything else. The next best statistic would have been turnovers.

“If you know anything about correlations, turnovers were about a .45 correlation with winning the game and this statistic, Mental Performance Index, had a .80 correlation.”

Often when the Penguins lose a game they clearly — clearly! — should have won, they cop to being outworked, as Patric Hornqvist did after Monday’s incident.

“Everyone can’t have their best game every single night,” Hornqvist said, “but we can control our effort, attitude, and work ethic.”

We’ve always accepted that last part as scripture, but is it true? Can we always control how hard we work? I have zero psychology degrees (full disclosure: took one course in college, got a ‘C’), but I tend to doubt it. Psychological factors can mitigate against effort, I think, but I should probably defer to the educated.

“When people over-think or complicate things or verbalize too much, they get out of the instinctual manner of performance that you want,” Dr. Murray said. “That is the hallmark of anxiety, of fear. I tell them what I’d tell anybody. Focus only on what you can control. You can control your effort. You can control how hard you work. You can control what time you get to bed. You can control what you put in your mouth. I tell my clients, ‘I’ll never ask you to do something that you can’t control. For example, I’ll never ask you to win.’ No one can win. You can perform and you give great effort.”

All of which, as we’ve come to note, guarantees nothing. That must be why we watch.

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