Michigan State football has had a rough year. High preseason expectations have fallen victim to a series of bad bounces and tough defeats that leave the Spartans scrambling just to make a bowl game. They have lost four games in the closing 10 seconds, none more gut-wrenching than a 28-24 loss to Nebraska on Nov. 3 in which the Cornhuskers scored the go-ahead touchdown with five seconds left after a questionable pass interference call moved them into position. In the wake of that defeat, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio had the team on the couch: “We talked to our sports psychologist a lot.”
The Spartans are far from alone. Over the past several decades, the practice of sports psychology has morphed from a luxury for superstars into a staple of most every major sport. Even youth sports now turn to psychologists to help players process the thoughts and emotions of winning and losing. According to the American Psychological Association, which recognizes sports psychology as a distinct discipline, 10 graduate level programs currently offer degrees in the field. And sports psychologist Jennifer E. Carter, past president of the APA’s exercise and sport division, expects that number to continue climbing: “You can’t call yourself a sport psychologist just because you’re a licensed psychologist who reads Sports Illustrated,” she said. “We want to provide a path to becoming competent as a sport psychologist.”
By all accounts, Coleman Griffith was America’s first sports psychologist, developing the field at the University of Illinois before taking a job in 1938 with a team predictably in need of a little counseling—the Chicago Cubs. Griffith suggested Cubs owner Phillip Wrigley develop a full-service psychology clinic for his players and coaches.
Most professional and college teams today have effectively taken that advice. Athletes are trained in techniques such as imagery, performance routines, and self talk to prepare themselves for high-pressure moments. More than 300 professional golfers work with a sports psychologist, and Phil Jackson, among the most successful coaches in NBA history, famously leveraged mental game coaching en route to winning 11 championships.
Jackson developed a close friendship with mental-health consultant George Mumford, often calling on him to help ready players for big games. But preparing for success and dealing with failure are two different things. And in the pain of tough losses, sometimes psychology isn’t enough. For Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell, making sense of bad beats requires a higher plane: “Being a Christian, I believe that God truly does have a plan—this is part of it.”
With 14 seconds remaining in a Sunday Night Football game on Nov. 4, Falcons kicker Matt Bryant booted what appeared to many a near meaningless field goal. The kick merely extended the Falcons’ lead over the Cowboys to 19-13, which would remain the final score.
But those extra three points proved eminently consequential, eliciting a collective groan from sports books throughout Las Vegas. The kick pushed Atlanta over the 4.5 point spread, the eighth time that day that a favored team covered the spread. That meant payouts on parlay bets with as much as 800-to-1 odds. Combined with shaky results from Saturday’s college games, the weekend produced losses of $6 million to $8 million, the worst regular season outcome of the past three decades for American football bookmakers.
Of course, such losses aren’t likely to slow a sports gambling market worth $350 billion to $400 billion annually. In fact, the day now being dubbed black Sunday may prove a big winner in the long run. When books lose, bettors win. And big winners typically keep coming back long after their house money has run out. —M.B.