- 09.29.2020 The Rise of Philosopher-Athletes
I first learned of Ken Ravizza when I read an article about the Cal State Fullerton baseball team’s amazing 2004 season. Here is an excerpt from my book for youth athletes, Elevating Your Game: Becoming a Triple-Impact Competitor®, which Ken influenced in many ways:
A Championship Turn-Around
Having the right mindset about mistakes can make a huge difference on the scoreboard. Midway through the 2004 season, with the Cal State Fullerton Titans baseball team’s record at 15–16, the coach brought in sports psychology consultant Ken Ravizza to work with the team.
Ken installed a coin bank in the form of a toilet in the dugout (the handle made the sound of a toilet flushing). Players began flushing their bad plays down the toilet when they came in from the field. Ravizza also asked them to imagine they had a miniature toilet on their belts so they could flush bad plays before they got into the dugout.
The result was dramatic and immediate. The Titans were able to leave their bad plays behind, focus on the “next play,” and perform to their capabilities. After implementing the mistake ritual, the Titans went 32–5. They qualified for the NCAA College World Series and promptly lost their first game in the double-elimination tournament. They won their way back up through the loser’s bracket to play Texas in the championship game, needing to beat the Longhorns twice in a row, which they did. Cal State Fullerton used the power of a mistake ritual to help become national champions.
A mistake ritual doesn’t make a champion out of a mediocre team. But it allows teams to play up to their potential, which for the Titans was national championship caliber.
The article I read about the Titans noted that the players had called Ken up to join them in their celebration and specifically gave him credit for helping them play to their potential. I got ahold of Ken’s phone number and called to ask him if he would come up to Northern California and spend a day with me and other PCA staff so we could pick his brain about ways PCA could use sport psychology to help youth coaches and athletes.
Looking back on this, I realize this was an audacious request of someone of Ken’s stature who I had never met before. But, as I learned when I talked to him, Ken was as generous as he was brilliant. He agreed to come to PCA headquarters and spend a day with us, which was one of the most enjoyable and insightful days I can remember. He also “got” PCA right away and joined our National Advisory Board, becoming an invaluable resource for the PCA Movement.
Feeling Bad? — So What?!
Ken asked players if they are going to let the fact that they feel bad cause them to have a bad game. “Can you only play well when you are feeling great?” was his challenge to them.
Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t!
Ken worked with the UCLA Baseball Team when they won the 2013 NCAA Championship. He described the team as one that couldn’t hit but somehow they managed to score. They won games (and a championship) even though they weren’t a good hitting team. He told me that the Bruin players enjoyed shouting from the dugout whenever a call went against them, “We don’t need that call!” (i.e., We can win anyway!). I think of this whenever I hear about youth coaches complaining about official calls because one of the byproducts of such complaining is that you give your players an excuse to not keep trying hard (“How can we win when the officials are against us?”).
The Largely Uninhabited Zone.
Ken told me that the greatest athletes in the world were in the zone at most 15% of the time. “Where are they the rest of the time?” They’re having a “crummy” day (PCA’s translation of the exact word Ken used!). If you are having a crummy day, maybe you can’t get into the zone, but can you make it a good crummy day? “Good players play well even when they are having a bad day,” Ken noted.
What’s Your Plan B?
Ken advised players to have a backup plan because your A-Game is not always going to be clicking for you. Figure out your Plan B (and even Plan C) before you go into a game so you can quickly adapt when your A-Game isn’t showing up.
Winning is hard!
Ken liked to give parents and coaches a dose of reality. He would snort at people who would say that a team won a championship because they set the goal to win: “Didn’t all the other teams also set the goal to win?” You can do everything exactly right and still not win.
Standing naked before the gods!
When I asked him for advice to a sports mom whose husband was hypercritical of their son, Ken said, “It takes courage to be a performer! As the ancient Greeks would say, ‘You have to stand naked before the gods, fully exposed. As the ancient Greeks would say, ‘You have to stand naked before the Gods, fully exposed and your actions count.’” I think this single idea may be among the most important one we can give parents—recognize your child’s courage at even being willing to compete. Give her or him some space, lighten up, reinforce her or him for the courage being demonstrated!
100% of what?
When people say, “You got to give 100% every time,” Ken responds, “Yes, but how much do they have that day? Can they give 100% of what they have?” Ken mentioned that in the last game in the 2016 World Series between the Cubs and the Indians no one on the Cubs had 100% of their ability available after such a long, hard, grinding season. “But they gave 100% of what they had!” I was so pleased to see two teams of players mentored by two pioneering practitioners in mental skills training (and big PCA supporters!), Ken with the Cubs and Charlie Maher with the Indians, meet in the World Series.
Ken’s book, Heads Up Baseball: Playing the Game One Pitch at a Time (recently updated—see below), is a terrific resource for any coach in any sport. I especially loved how he encouraged players to acknowledge their emotions and then refocus. Ken encouraged players to find a spot in the ballpark to be their refocus point. After you make a bad play, feel a bad feeling (or good feeling if something good just happened), and then look to your refocus point to get focused on the next play. He also had players use their caps as a refocusing tool. After something happens, good or bad, take your cap off and for 3-5 seconds feel the way you feel about it. Then as you put your cap back on, feel yourself coming back into focusing on the next play.
In the new version, Heads Up Baseball 2.0, with a new subtitle: 5 Skills for Competing One Pitch at a Time, Ken acknowledged how the world has changed since the first edition with a word, “simplexity,” a combination of simplicity and complexity. It’s always been hard to focus on one thing, but it’s even harder today.
I did two podcast interviews with Ken, one some years ago and one shortly after the Cubs’ 2016 World Series win. Re-listening to them now is a moving experience, hearing the timeless wisdom of Ken Ravizza when he is no longer in the flesh with us. I encourage everyone to take a listen. I have no doubt you will be as enchanted as I was interviewing him.
Ken leaves behind a legacy with PCA and the entire sports world due to his dedication to sport psychology and the generous person he was.
He is missed.