Taking a psychological approach to end slump
CLEMSON -- Kyle Parker's dive into the end zone against Wake Forest earlier this season might have been a slump-shattering play. The touchdown sparked a decisive victory and a six-game win streak.
After the score, Parker and Dabo Swinney exchanged words and then grins. It was the same play run incorrectly and hesitantly by Parker in practice leading up the game, which led to an argument between Billy Napier and Swinney. An argument that had some alleging there was a power struggle as Clemson limped to a 2-3 start.
To Swinney, the play was the product of a strategy -- returning to fundamentals and high-intensity practices after reaching a low point at Maryland.
The Tigers have reached another valley as they prepare for the Music City Bowl, a two-game losing streak to South Carolina and Georgia Tech. By ending the skid and a three-game bowl losing streak, Swinney can prove he has a talent for course-altering.
"The funny thing about slumps is they can change in a play, in a moment in football," said Joe Fish, a sports psychologist who works with the Clemson basketball team and professional teams like the Philadelphia Flyers. "To me, when you have a plan to address something like a slump you have a better chance to feel like you are more in control. You feel more confident: 'We can get out of this thing.' "
Swinney has instituted a similar post-Maryland strategy during bowl practice, including some "humdinger" workouts.
He believes explaining performance is as much physical as mental, seeking the counsel of sports psychologist Milt Lowder, who works with Clemson athletic programs. Lowder has met more frequently with the staff and players this season.
"It's at least 50 percent (mental), I think it is more," Swinney said. "So why not work on it?"
Fish has a three-step plan for dealing with slumps.
"With certain athletes it's just a matter of teaching them how to relax in pressure situations," Fish said. "The ball is at the 2-yard line, how do you learn to keep emotion in check? Not too high or too low. I think team leaders become important ... (and) which players need support, which players need more challenge? Then look at coaching staff. Are they creating the best environment for the makeup of their team?"
Clemson's first slump was blamed on offense: play calling, running woes and an inexperienced quarterback.
To Parker his touchdown dive was just the beginning of an ascent to the season's peak at Miami.
"The biggest thing looking back was putting up a lot of points against Miami," Parker said. "It helped the morale of our guys."
Tigers defensive coordinator Kevin Steele is looking for a similar morale spike.
The current slump has been mostly blamed on the Clemson run defensive, allowing nearly 600 combined rushing yards to Georgia Tech and South Carolina, though defending the Georgia Tech triple option has little similarities to most other running schemes.
Steele said the defense needed to recapture the "psychological edge" it had earlier this season.
In accordance to the Swinney doctrine, Steele has simplified several defensive "applications" and has had extensive repetition in bowl practice.
"When all is said and done we are not dealing machines," Fish said. "We are not dealing with robots. That's the beauty of sports."