November 9, 2008

High school team adds sports psychologist

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The football players at St. John Bosco (Bellflower, Calif.) High aren't all Tampa Bay Rays fans, but they probably enjoyed the baseball Cinderellas more than most Californians.

And it's not only because Rays rookie third baseman Evan Longoria is a Braves alum. No, the bond is Dr. Ken Ravizza, a noted sports psychologist, Cal State Fullerton professor and athletics miracle worker.

Name a sport, and Ravizza's got a story. He's guided gymnasts and speedskaters. He worked with the Cal State Fullerton baseball team that won the 2004 College World Series. He spent a couple years with the Dodgers and 16 with the Angels.

Joe Maddon, the Rays' manager, coached in Anaheim for 12 years. He worked with Ravizza then, and he enlisted the guru's services when he took the Tampa Bay gig in 2005.

It was around that time that Bosco coach Kiki Mendoza made Ravizza's acquaintance. The Braves slumped to a 12-17 record the next three years, but this season, the doctor's touch is finally being felt.

Bosco is 6-1, has a pair of impressive wins over Loyola (Los Angeles) and Santa Margarita, and its lone loss came against state-powerhouse Orange Lutheran. Led by Washington-bound quarterback Keith Price, the Braves are playing with the confidence the Rays showed during their run to the World Series.

"And really, there's no way having Ken hasn't helped us get here," Mendoza said. "The things he's helped us do are just unbelievable. He's the type of guy every high school program should be able to work with."

Bosco almost didn't have the chance. Braves defensive line coach Paul Diaz took one of Ravizza's graduate school classes a few years ago and began using his theories during practices. Diaz told Mendoza he should get in touch with Ravizza.

But Mendoza was busy. Coaching a football team in the Trinity League − one of the strongest leagues in California − doesn't allow much time for shrinks. In Mendoza's 10 years as Bosco's coach, he'd won just 51 games.

Turns out Ravizza was just the boost the Braves needed.

When Ravizza headed to Bosco for the first time to watch a practice, he and Mendoza meshed immediately.

Ravizza started suggesting little things, like pre-practice Gatorades to motivate the team.

Sometimes, if players look sloppy, Ravizza pushed a back-to-the-basics breakdown.

"When you're coaching, you can get so entrenched in the game," Mendoza said. "It's good to have some eyes outside of everything, bringing you back to center."

Recently, Ravizza's students have been the ones monitoring the team. With his busy schedule − teaching classes, helping the Rays and conducting sports psychology workshops − Ravizza struggles to find time during the week to get to Braves practices.

Instead, Ravizza chooses one student per season from Fullerton's psychology program to serve as an intern/liaison between him and Bosco. Matt Niapas, a 24-year-old who played football at Claremont McKenna College, has worked with the Braves since last summer.

At first, he said it was awkward jumping into a new environment and preaching someone else's ideals. Citing his football playing days, Niapas said he thought he'd struggle offering advice without becoming too much of a fan.

His fears vanished when he realized how quickly the players bought in. Niapas remembers a player telling him how, of all things, his advice improved his baseball swing.

"The kid was like, 'I tried that visualization exercise we were doing the night before my game because I wanted take a pitcher to right field,' " Niapas said. "Sure enough, he said he took the guy to right field the next day.

"I think the players and coaches are usually receptive because they know Dr. Ravizza. They know he's got a great background."

Indeed, Ravizza has done more than just tag along in the majors and sit in on Nebraska and Arizona State football practices. He's hosted more than 100 clinics nationally and internationally. He co-authored a book, Heads-Up Baseball, and he sits on the editorial boards of The Sports Psychologist and Quest journals.

So what's the first thing Ravizza asks athletes? Why do they do what they do?

If an athlete doesn't know his goal, he won't succeed, Ravizza said. It doesn't matter if it's a 12-year-old figure skater, a high school quarterback or a pitcher in the major leagues – like the Rays' Matt Garza, whom Ravizza worked with this season.

"Every athlete will tell you they like doing their sport, but the key is finding out why," Ravizza said. "You want to get the players to know why they're enjoying themselves."

Ravizza also asks his athletes to have short memories.

Look at Bosco, which opened 2007 losing four of its first six games. The Braves forgot those losses and opened 2008 outscoring opponents by 157 points.

Or look at the Rays. In its previous 10 years of existence, Tampa Bay had never won more than 70 games in a season. This year the Rays won 97 games in the regular season and advanced all the way to the World Series.

When he worked with the Cornhuskers, Ravizza remembers every player "giving lip service" to taking things one play at a time. Sure, it's a tired cliché, but it works, Ravizza said. That's why Ravizza forces athletes to learn when a play starts, and, more important, when it ends.

Braves two-star safety Will Shamburger, who has committed to Boise State, said he knows each play is its own entity. It starts when the ball is hiked and ends when the ball is downed – no matter the outcome.

"You need to know how to separate things like that," Ravizza said. "It's not just learning the play, it's knowing how to get through the plays and eventually get over them."

For their part, the players say Ravizza and his interns are felt more than seen. Shamburger, the Braves' ace defender, said he's mostly worked with Niapas and Ravizza after practices.

"It doesn't feel like they're always doing a lot with us, but they definitely help us focus," Shamburger said. "We feel comfortable with them. Maybe that's part of us doing well. If anything, we know we really learned that we can't let our guards down this year."

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