After Tech's humbling loss to Virginia, Coach Johnson stated that after playing with fire three weeks in a row it was inevitable that you would eventually get burned. It should come as no surprise that what Tech fans saw happening on the field the last few weeks was not going unnoticed by those in charge. But now that the shocking reality of what we were fearing has come to pass we still have to make sense of it. To determine what category this loss falls into, whether it was a terrible loss, a good lesson learned, or just your standard loss by a team not as good as we had hoped, one must do the unthinkable and try to peer into the nether recesses of how the human psyche shapes reality.
Since what we believe about reality shapes our ability to cope with it let's review the psychological symptoms of what has been happening to our favorite football team the last few weeks. But first, let's keep in mind that no one holds a belief in isolation and that whether we know it or not, whether we believe it or not, we all participate in larger patterns of behavior determined by "emotional fields." To oversimplify, let's just put it this way. What the crowd in the stands is feeling can effect the players on the field. What the coaches are feeling can effect the players. And what the players are feeling can effect everybody, including national pollsters. Let's take the three main components of Tech's emotional field in ascending order starting with the fans and moving to the coaches and then the players.
FANS: Tech fans are currently exhibiting a little Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In our memory bank are stored the images of bad past experiences that are easily awakened. If Tech's offensive line is getting beaten we flash back to Iowa, or LSU or any other time in which cheering for our players began to feel like a futile effort in the face of what is happening on the field. Some form of blame placing usually kicks in at this moment. We blame the coach for the play calling, we blame the triple option for not having enough options, and finally, on some level, we blame ourselves for being Tech fans, believing narcissistically that no fans suffer the frustrations that we suffer. The worst of us begin to project our past traumas onto a larger screen of reality, believing that bad things always happen to us and that in the end we are doomed to repeat past patterns. The Reality: The frustration is real. When the play calling seems to become more one dimensional it is a fact that the other team has taken away some of our options. When our own players are not executing, for whatever reason, it is a fact that the coach has fewer weapons to pull out of his quiver. At these times there is little that coach or fan can do but hope that individual players will rise up and play inspired football. Fans will naturally groan when a team like Virginia seems to have nine players in the box daring the quarterback to throw over the top and we continue to run a quarterback follow behind the B back. Execution and fumbles are usually related to coaching and lack of focus by players. The prescription: First the fans should console themselves with a few basic facts. Given the competitive hurdles that any true academic institution faces Tech does pretty well for itself. Since Coach Johnson has been at Tech the football team has rarely been blown out and usually plays well enough to put itself in a position to win. As for obvious miscues by the team the fans should offer a firm and consistent response to these players. They are young. Adulation and hero worship should be avoided. Praise them when they perform well, do not act with frustration when they disappoint. Remind them, along with yourself, that they are not good yet and they are still learning. Never, never, never, tell them they should have won a game but they blew it. If that needs to be said only a coach knows the proper time and way to deliver that message. As a fan the right psychological tone for this team would be a reminder that the better team always wins on the field. Better teams do not make excuses. Better teams are identified by wins, nothing else. If the team simply isn't good enough to win a particular game, let that be what is repeated. You failed on this day because the better team won.
THE COACHES: If one is in a leadership position it is always a tough call as to how much "frustration" one should admit in front of subordinates and those who depend on you. The psychology of this varies from group to group, some needing to feel like they are equal partners in the performance outcome and some needing to feel the confidence of a "take charge" personality. On a football team young players especially need to believe that someone "bigger" than them sees things and understands things that they don't see or understand. If the plays which worked weeks earlier are now not working the coach needs to be able to explain why this is and how it is correctable. Frustration for a coach can set in when players seem to not understand that schemes and play calling do not work if the opposing players are playing harder or smarter. This frustration can spread like a contagion if the coach does not realistically recognize the limits of his players. The reality: No team will ever execute the perfect vision of its coaches 100% of the time. There are times when individual athletic ability and even luck will have to play a factor in the outcome. The current team has no real stars. Perhaps some players will grow into stars one day but for now this team will live and die based on executing the scheme and based on the level of competition. The prescription: Most people seem to either like Coach Johnson or dislike him. That comes with the territory with strong leaders. His commitment to his system can seem stubborn or even arrogant but as one commentator put it, "with this system you have to be all in or it will not work." The truth is this system has made Tech competitive at times it probably would not have been under Chan Gailey. When it fails, the coach is clear about the reasons -good players beat good schemes every time. I am betting that the desire of Paul Johnson to win will be enough to overcome any supposed blind spots he might have about his players or his system. If you listen to the audio of his comments about Marcus Wright leaving the team you heard the no-nonsense approach he has about doing the job as a coach.
THE PLAYERS: Did we not see the "love affair" that was developing between these players and Coach Johnson at the beginning of the year? Not that Coach Johnson would ever say anything bad about past teams but you sensed from reading between the lines that this team was such a relief from last year's team that he was positively giddy by Johnson standards. Those whom he recruited and others who have bought into the system have become his children. They are "a lot of fun to be around" and "they work hard" and they have "come together as a team" and one can "enjoy being around them." Since we are not privy to all of the conversations coaches have with players we do not know in what context players would have put a statement like, "This team has a chance to be something special." The fear is that the coach's fondness for this team may have over insulated them from the reality of their situation. The reality: The nature of sports is that we often project onto athletes idealized qualities and characteristics but these are just normal, flesh and blood human beings. Like any of the rest of us they do not always do the right things, don't always give their best effort and, like us, are subject to a host of external pressures, issues and distractions which may cause them to under perform. Add to this that they are kids. Biologically their mental states are in flux replete with under-developed reasoning capacity, faulty decision making tools, and, according to research, limited brain capacity for seeing clearly the consequences of actions. And, as hard-working as they might be, at their age and stage of development they are still instrumental hedonists. They will latch on to any statement that tells them they are great just the way they are or that seems to imply special treatment or favors. Though they will perhaps not be as egregious as last year's team which "thought they could just roll their helmets out on the field" and win, they still are need of some tough love. The prescription: The prescription is simple to say, hard to accomplish. The players need to hear that they are not special and that the special season which was once a tantalizing promise is no longer possible. They need to hear this without having their collective psyche crushed. They need to be told that the rest of the season is simply about two things -do you want to work hard and get better as a player, and do you want to do what it takes to beat the next team on the schedule? The time for making excuses about how poorly you played is over. Either quit making the mistakes or accept that you are not "all that and a bag of chips." Good teams prove it on the field, not in their idealized image of themselves.
So how should we understand last Saturday's loss? I would argue that it was not a terrible loss. Terrible would be if you got slaughtered by an inferior opponent and you never saw it coming. This loss has been in the pipeline for several weeks and many of us thought it was just a matter of time. Was it a good loss? That depends. Ordinarily a good loss is when you play your hearts out and lose a close game to a superior team. However, it is also possible to have a loss which acts as a galvanizing force for the team. Sometimes a loss can turn an entire season around. Of course that depends on how much potential the team had to begin with. Which leads to the third possibility which is that the loss to Virginia was simply a manifestation of a team not being as good as we all thought. For psychological purposes I am thinking this is the best interpretation for this team. Otherwise this team could fall into the trap of last year in which every week was going to be the week that they finally put together the complete game, falling deeper and deeper into their denial and the belief that "they could just roll their helmets onto the filed" and win.