Wednesday morning I had the opportunity to sit down with Brian Baxter, a sports psychologist from Sports Psychology Institute Northwest (SPINw) [check them out at www.spinw.com]. We talked at length about the Timbers. Brian is a Portland Timbers season ticket holder, a soccer coach, holds soccer camps every summer [see www.baxtersports.com for more information] and played soccer at the college level. It was a great conversation and both of us offered up pet theories as to why the Timbers are having trouble closing out games.
Since our conversation was not recorded a lot of the quotes I will be attributing to him are paraphrased to the best of my ability to keep his voice.
My conversation with Brian came about because of a statistic posted by "tevisthe4th."
In Portland's 19 home games they have conceded 11 goals after the 80th minute.
This stat begs the question: Does the TA singing the slow songs at the 80th and 85th minute affect the Timbers play? Brian admitted that at some level it could but it is not something that would be easily quantifiable. We then discussed DemonJuice's excel sheet posted on twitter which matches all the goals scored at JWF with the Chant/Song the Timbers were singing at the time.
Looking at that chart again, which you can find here, you see that of the 11 goals only 2 of them are scored while the TA is singing "You are my sunshine" or "Wise Men". Which offers neither support for or against the hypothesis that the slow songs affect the product on the field at that particular point in the game.
With that unresolved we brought up a quote John Spencer had after one of those late game collapses where he talked about how the team was not physically tired but mentally tired. If the Timbers were mentally tired how does one become mentally awake/tough? Answering that question is exactly what Brian deals with as a sports psychologist.
Sports media, coaches and players are always glorifying "mental toughness" and how it is needed to succeed in the sports world. Despite the nearly universal usage of the phrase most youngsters are never taught how to develop that toughness and are expected to learn it on their own. However some coaches/managers realize they need some help and this is when a sports psychologist is called in.
Brian described being mentally tough as the ability to focus only on the internal and not the external. He went on to explain this means only focusing on things you can control. Like how you warm-up, your diet, your exercise routine, your execution of a play, and similar controllable factors. On the other hand "not being mentally tough" is allowing things you can't control to distract you. For example, fans, referees, weather or playing surface.
You can definitely see this may be the case with some of the younger players. Kalif Alhassan especially feeds off the crowd. Sometimes Sal Zizzo lets the roar of the crowd fuel his energy as he races down the wing. However, for the most part the TA influence seems to be positive rather than negative. Which shoots down the hypothesis that slow songs are affecting the Timbers and thus are part of the cause for the late game collapses.
So Brian and I are back to square one. It is at this point I remembered John Spencer's most recent post game conference and a comment he made about why the Timbers bunkered at the end of the RSL game. Spencer said they lacked field leadership and thus they sat too deep.
This little reference also struck a chord with Brian as we delved into the nature of leadership. We discussed John Spencer and what kind of coach he is. We both agreed that after a player scores Spencer is the one who sometimes receives a player's immediate attention. Is he so fiery and such a motivator that they are looking to the sidelines for motivation rather than someone on the field? Brian states this fact: "A leader is someone people are looking to follow and for motivation. Some leaders motivate by focusing on external pressures while others get people to focus on internal motivation."
Brian goes on to say, "In soccer you need a leader who echoes the coach but has their own leadership abilities. The Timbers need a leader who isn't exactly like Spencer but can step up and hold other players accountable. When the pressure is on a leader helps to be a unifying force, someone the players can look to for on-field motivation and guidance."
We discussed how tactically the Timbers did not have a leader at the end, one who pushed the CM's away and up the field from the CB's. Which would then push the Forwards back up the pitch and give Portland more shape. Instead they bunkered and played not to lose rather than to win. As my father always says, "Once you play not to lose you are destined to lose."
Brian had this to add, "In Soccer once you become reactive instead of proactive you are dead. Good teams can salt the game away but it is not by sitting back and bunkering. It is by possessing the ball and passing it around."
Those of us who are Blazers fans know this is true from the last few years. Coach Nate MacMillian would have Brandon Roy sit and hold the ball for almost all of the 24 second clock in the fourth quarter when they had a single digit lead. This inevitably lead to the other team closing within a few points and all too often ended in a loss. There is also the saying in the NFL when the team has a lead. It is "prevent to win" as a team goes into the prevent defense and allows a team to slowly nickle and dime the defense to death as they move down the field for a game winning score..
Bottom line is the Timbers lack an on-field motivational leader. Most of us have experienced playing team sports and have seen a lot of different types of players and by extension various leadership styles. For instance, you have Kalif who is the flair, Chara who is full of energy, Jewsbury who is usually a settling force (this is debatable this year) and Brunner who is usually the rock in the back. Other players bring other attributes to the team but none of them bring motivation to the entire team.
The conversation inevitably went to questioning the choice of the man with the captain's armband. Is Jewsbury the motivational captain Portland needs? Or is Jewsbury a solid player moving closer to the end of his career who leads by example but lacks that instinct as a leader to motivate and hold people accountable? Can he become the motivational leader?
As Brian put it, "Leadership is in most people but it is a conscious thing. It takes a coach to pull that out because a lot of people don't like to yell at people. When you get on someone they immediately get defensive, especially men who in the back of their head know you are right but they want to show you up for calling them out."
So in the end the onus to find the on-field motivational and tactical leader falls on John Spencer and the FO. If the needed leader is already on the team then somebody better tell that player they need to step up and get it together. If not the management needs to find one by any means possible.