As the Oklahoma City Thunder close out the final week of the season, a few things are certain: the Thunder won't make the playoffs, will finish well below the .500 mark and will have taken both a physical and emotional beating this season.
Nicki Moore, who holds a doctorate, knows a thing or two about winning and losing from the inside out " literally. The former college athlete is the University of Oklahoma's sports psychologist. She said what happens between the lines starts between the ears. And it was no different this year for the Thunder.
"From a mental performance standpoint, your brain controls the whole system. A lot of times you hear the term muscle memory, but it's a falsity because your muscles don't have memory," Moore said. "Your brain has memory for motor programs. If you're not tuning your mind and utilizing your mind in ways that aren't effective, then performance is going to be suboptimal. It's very interconnected and it's something we tend to overlook."
Judging from their record, there were a lot of things the Thunder overlooked this inaugural season. The Thunder were weak early " worst in the league for a while " and as losses piled up so did the psychological toll on the team.
"It can be devastating. I've certainly seen it meet the diagnostic criteria of a depressive disorder," Moore said. "More often than not for the majority of athletes, losing and continuing to lose has more of a dulling effect than a depressive effect. Most athletes are pretty resilient and have fairly highly developed coping skills, but it takes a toll on team dynamics, it takes a toll on coach-athlete relationships and often times will bleed into family lives and their relationships outside.
"At the professional level, your identity is very much wrapped up in being an athlete. When that identity is shaken by this constant failure, it really can start to color the rest of life."
Moore has an official title of assistant athletic director of psychological resources and strategic planning at OU. In college, she was a heptathlete, pole vaulter as well as a middle- and long-distance runner for the University of Missouri.
Today, she still counsels professional athletes who come to her, which gives her an up-close look at the pro psyche.
Moore said momentum can change on a dime. While the Thunder may have stunk it up early " reeling off 14 straight losses " the stretch run was even more memorable for the opposite reason. Just hours before the calendar turned from March to April, the Thunder pulled an early April Fools' joke on San Antonio, beating the Spurs 96-95 in San Antonio.
The Spurs " winners of three of the last six NBA titles " dropped two games to the Thunder in the span of two weeks, posing some interesting playoff scenarios and boosting OKC's ego in the process.That win was No. 7 for the Thunder in March " a feat the team had only accomplished one other time.
"Both winning and losing can have an effect (psychologically)," Moore said. "Having an outcome focus as an athlete tends to not promote excellent performance. If you're focused on winning or focused on losing, you're probably not going to see improvements in performance because performance is very present focused. The best performers are focused on the present moment and not getting too far ahead or not getting too far behind."
Those same weaknesses have now turned to strengths. By all accounts, forward Kevin Durant's ears are all but dry, with the rookie carrying a 25 points and 6.5 rebounds average into April.
And all those cellar dweller jokes seem to be drying up, too.
As a former athlete and now an insider of both the professional and amateur sporting world, Moore said what shows up in the box score isn't always the full picture.
"You do wonder and sometimes make observations and make hypotheses about what may be going on," she said. "But I've also learned that making assumptions about what is or what is not happening with a team or with an individual athlete is a mistake. "¦ Until you have that access to understand what's going on, a lot of times those observations can be more like judgments and more often than not are inaccurate." "Dean Anderson