Tom George story
 

U-M professor coaches mental patience
Tom George helps athletes use their brains
By ROB HOFFMAN
News Sports Reporter

Ann Arbor News
Sept. 2, 2004
     If only Tom George the minor league baseball player had met Tom George, the University of Michigan professor.
     Perhaps he wouldn't have been known as a good-field, no-hit shortstop during his three seasons in Class A ball.
     Perhaps he wouldn't have experienced that woeful July during his first season as a Philadelphia Phillies farmhand, a period where George didn't bang out a single hit.  "I struck myself out in the on-deck circle so many times," said George, 43, who played minor league baseball from 1981-83. "I could have been a more consistent hitter if I knew what was happening with me."
    No, as anyone could probably guess, George never became the next Ozzie Smith or Barry Larkin. But he found a niche in life that still keeps him in the dugout.
    And at the pool. And in the gymnasium. And at the track.
    An assistant professor in U-M's Division of Kinesiology since 1992, George teaches the psychology and sociology of sport. When he's not in the classroom, he's often working as a psychological consultant to more than a half-dozen teams at Michigan.
    The U-M golfer who suddenly eliminates her struggles with the putting yips? The gymnast who vastly improves his vault scores? The tennis player who serves more consistently? Chances are, they all benefited from one of several preseason talks George delivers to U-M athletes each year on how their brain is just as important an athletic tool as their hands and feet.
    "What I wind up trying to be is a mental coach," said George, who became interested in the specialty after a sports psychologist visited the Phillies training camp one spring. "I try to educate them about how different psychological factors influence performance."
    Though the factors vary from sport to sport, George said as a general rule athletes don't do as well when they overthink their tasks, whether they're attempting a penalty shot or swinging at a breaking ball.
    "I've always thought ignorance is bliss," he said. "If you can get athletes to stop thinking, many of them would be much better off."
    University of Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins can testify to that. Back in 1997, the Wolverines suffered what could have been a devastating blow when All-American pitcher Sara Griffin broke her arm midway through the season. Seeking to get her shocked players back on track, Hutchins asked George to inject more confidence into the team with several special talks.
    The result: Behind Kelly Holmes, who would become Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, Michigan made its third consecutive trip to the NCAA Women's College World Series.
    "He gave us exactly what we needed," she said. "I really thought Tom helped us tremendously. He connects with what the real issues are. He understands what is needed to get the kids' confidence where it needs to be."
    But college athletics doesn't completely define George. His other specialty is youth sports - specifically how adults, whether they are coaches or parents, can better influence children on their chosen playing fields.
    Again, for him, simpler is better. For an example, he cites the vanishing phenomena of the unsupervised pick-up baseball game in a school yard. In those games, pitchers are expected to throw the ball so that the batter can hit it. And blowouts are avoided by realigning teams in the middle of the game.
    "Kids want a lot of action, they want close scores and they want to get involved," said George, who was one of the co-editors of "When adults take control, they try to annihilate the competition."
     That's just one way that George believes sports in this country are off track. On the youth level, too much emphasis is placed on winning and not enough is placed on having fun. On the college level, sports have become a big business in every sense except for the lack of paid athletes.
     "Some of my students get taken aback by my views of sports," he said. "I'm definitely not a 'rah rah" kind of guy. I'm really not thrilled with what it has become."
      How can the system be fixed? Like so many others, George doesn't have any answers. But he's doing his small part to improve the situation by coaching the baseball and soccer teams that his children - Abby, 10, and Ryan, 9 - belong to. The bottom line is that adults should encourage children to become involved in sports to encourage a lifelong love affair with physical activity, not to land college scholarships or multi-million dollar contracts.
     "Parents lose sight about of what it should be about," he said. "They get caught up in the winning and losing."
Rob Hoffman can be reached at (734) 994-6814 or rhoffman@annarbornews.com