Since reading Graydon’s piece on the current psychology of the Spurs, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.Â Graydon laments the transformation of the Spurs, and uses a psychological springboard to discuss between the Spurs’ losses in this series compared to series’ past.Â One passage in particular stuck with me:
Speculating on the psychological state of players is always a reckless endeavor. A quick examination of their pre- and post-game quotes wonâ€™t reveal a body of evidence on which we can base our assertions; all we come across is an echo chamber of cliches. We gotta take it one game at a time. We gotta treat every game like itâ€™s game seven. We gotta have a short memory. The homogenization of rhetoric in the NBA is a tremendous disappointment, given the highly expressive nature of the game itself.
For years cliche found its redemption in the Spurs. For most teams there seems to be little connection between the language they use during interviews and the performance they give on the court. From the day they enter the league players are taught to overwhelm the press with banality. But for the Spurs, on-court execution seemed to grant all the truisms a level of authenticity. Our particular brand of bland was always interpreted as a sign of professionalism.
Delving into the minds of athletes is what writers do, and I doubt that will ever change.Â It’s not even something that can be remedied with an hour-long exclusive interview; spending time with these athletes will teach you how they act, but they won’t teach you how they think.Â Regardless, we tag some players as cerebral, some as instinctive.Â Some as emotionally immature, and others as stone cold killers.Â We assign psychological traits to players retroactively, and tailor them as their stories unfold.Â Psychological assessment in sport doesn’t determine causes so much as it determines symptoms.
Is there any ground for this type of diagnosis?Â Well duh, there’s all the tape of playoff implosions, game-winners, and clutch plays.Â We’re able to cherry-pick our evidence and play amateur psychologist, because getting into the heads of these players is rolling out a red carpet to the one exclusive area to which we will never be allowed.Â Former players will write books with tales of battles in practice, outrageous coaches, and marathon film sessions.Â Beat writers will describe locker room antics, team rapport, and anything else we generally dump into the “chemistry” bin.Â We can pick apart play after play using DVR and YouTube as our aid.Â All of this information is laid out for us, and it isn’t enough.Â We want to know what makes players tick, what they’re thinking, and how they’re thinking it.
And as a result, we use a combination of all the evidence we have to fill that void.
Team psychology is an even stranger beast.Â We juxtapose a variety of psychological profiles into some sort of cohesive whole, but these assessments are even more guilty of skewing in favor of the results.Â Teams that don’t give up leads have killer instinct because we have no other way to make sense of it.Â Teams that crumble under pressure must be mentally fragile, because well, that’s what teams that are mentally fragile do.Â Sometimes this works out fine, analysis-wise, but using the symptom to define the cause can only take you so far.
The Spurs are a strange case because of their roster turnover, but a rotation of the supporting cast is practically a San Antonio staple.Â Role players funnel in and out of SanAn, earning legitimacy with work on a championship-caliber team.Â But in spite of all the departures and acquisitions, Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich helped the team to maintain a mental edge that few other squads could match.Â They were as mentally tough as anyone in the league, and yet the same Spurs, with the same formula, are losing in completely uncharacteristic ways.Â Without Manu, there’s certainly an issue of talent, but the psychology of that team is certainly different.Â If anything, the sudden mental transformation of the Spurs at once confirms the dynamic nature of player psychology and the notion that the diagnosis is bred simply by results.
Part of the problem is that most of these terms we use to describe player psychology are so overused and ambiguous that they’ve been nearly deprived of their meaning entirely.Â Somewhere along the line, ‘choker’ and ‘soft’ and a laundry list of cliches all became an inbred cess pool describing one vague, amorphous visage of a player that fails to live up to our warrior-god ideal.Â But at best, these determinations are cyclical.Â The best teams execute better in crunch time, and their players produce more consistently.Â Singular talent can trump roster inadequacy, but there’s an obvious disadvantage in not receiving that perfect inbounds pass, running off a well-set screen, or having the benefit of an extra offensive rebound.
So basically, we’re using ambiguous terms to describe a constantly shifting psychological state that may or may not simply be a rationalization for the events unfolding before our eyes to compensate for what we can never know.Â But there is no grandiose solution.Â I have no alternative that will change sportswriting forever.Â Just a moment’s consideration about what we really know about these players, and how little we really know about what they’re thinking.
So please, Mr. Duncan, lay down on the couch.Â Tell me about your mother.