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Win The Day: Duck Psychology

Relationships count in football and therapy

Today the turbocharged Oregon Ducks make their first appearance in the college football national title game. What does this have to do with psychotherapy? I'm not sure yet. Let's see what I come up with.

I'm a proud product of the Beaver State (pronounced OREY-gun), having spent my formative years feeding giraffes at the Portland Zoo, walking through the heart at OMSI, eating fondue at Der Rhinelander and spending winter weekends of my latency stage terrorizing the slopes on Mt Bachelor. For college I went the small liberal arts route instead of the big state school. There's nothing I'd change about my time at Willamette, it was a great education on a wonderful campus (though I can't say much for Salem as a college town), but I missed out on big time college sports. To satisfy my need to affiliate with college athletics and maintain ties to my home state, I chose to cast my lot with the Ducks, the alma mater of many friends and family.

When I was a high school senior the in-state big college options were OSU (the hick school) and U of O (the hippie school - sometimes called UC Eugene). They differed politically but reached across the aisle to equally suck at football. Sure, both had some success in hoops and the Ducks had a rich history in track and field, thanks to Steve Prefontane and the Bowerman/Knight Nike legacy, but none of that transferred to football. In 1983 the big rivalry game known as the "Civil War" featured 11 fumbles, five interceptions and four missed field goals to end in a 0-0 tie, a game lovingly remembered as the "Toilet Bowl."

Twenty seven years, a few hundred games and a millions of dollars from Phil Knight later, Oregon finds itself undefeated and in the Natty. They're a small, fast, explosive group of guys (mostly from California and Texas, by the way) who successfully follow the guidance of New Hampshire native Chip Kelly, the national Coach of the Year known for his visor and economy of words.

The Ducks are full of talent, but at least a dozen other college teams (two in the Pac-10) have more talent player for player. Much has been made of the stream of money coming from Phil Knight and Nike, but Oregon still doesn't hold a candle to the tremendous financial backing found in more football friendly environs like the SEC and Big 10. So how did a small market, B+ talent team with a spotty gridiron history and questionable fashion sense make it onto college football's biggest stage?

Okay, here's the tie-in to psychotherapy.

It's the philosophy of the coach and his relationship with his players.

Kelly is energetic, enthusiastic, focused and unwaveringly positive. His quaint motivating slogans like "Win the Day" and "Water the bamboo" and "Everybody has 24 hours in a day, make the most of your 24 hours" trickle into the psyche of his players. To the chagrin of reporters looking for an angle, he stubbornly refuses to talk smack about other teams, focusing only on his team playing the best it can against "faceless opponents" every week. His philosophy is ripped from the journals of positive psychology, and for this melting pot of 20-year-old city kids a long way from home, it's working. Kelly loves winning, but asserts that "The fun part is being at practices and games and around our players."

The Visor is Wiser

This focus on relationship has paid off. They blast music and dance at their short, frenetically paced practices. Coaches and players laugh and joke with each other on the sidelines, but when they're on the field it's all business. Center Jordan Holmes says "He's a players' coach. He's here for us. When you get that kind of guy on your side, you want to give him your all. We play hard for each other, but we also play hard for Coach Kelly."

Linebacker Spencer Paysinger echos that sentiment: "I know I can go to his office whenever I want," he says. "His door is always open. He has an open ear for everything. He's not like other coaches, where he's a figurehead and lets other coaches coach. We know we can come to him with anything."

I'm not saying good therapy needs to have peppy soundbites or blast music in the waiting room, but the therapist's philosophy (the theoretical orientation or modality) needs to fit with the client and the quality of the relationship is essential.

A philosophy that fits and a caring relationship that motivates. Sounds like a game plan for great football as well as great therapy. Go Ducks! Win The Day!

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Addendum: The Ducks lost 22-19. Kelly's comments to his team: "I told them I love them and that one game doesn't define you as a person or as a program."

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