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Optimum Performance: A little psychological gris-gris to help New Orleans Saints break through on the road

Football on field

“I think it is obvious, there’s something about us on the road that has to be addressed, and fixed,” said Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief after the humiliating 27-16 loss to the Rams. The road woes are not a myth or media creation. Now the Saints (10-4) are tied with their next road opponent, the Carolina Panthers, atop the NFC South.

With a home record of 7-0 versus 3-4 on the road, it may be time to call in an exorcist or a voodoo expert to rid the Saints of those road demons. “We come out here with a lot a stake,” said Saints coach Sean Payton after the loss to the Rams. “We can’t line up and kick a field goal, we can’t get the run stopped, we turn the ball over.”

With a win Sunday at Carolina, the Saints can clinch the division title and a first-round bye in the playoffs. The Panthers need to win the next two games to be in the Saints’ position.

In recent columns, I have sought the advice of two U.S. Army Ranger heroes, along with one of my clients — No. 1-ranked WTA champion Serena Williams — for ways the Saints could pull victory from the arms of defeat. It hasn’t worked.

It’s time to call in psychology experts to put the entire Saints team on the proverbial couch to help relieve its frustrations and any phobias it might possess relative to playing away from the warm, friendly confines of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, a phobia is an uncontrollable, irrational and persistent fear of a specific object, situation or activity. The Saints’ phobia might be situational, like playing outdoors on the road. Three of the Saints’ four road losses have been in open-air stadiums.

“Once you start fearing or doubting (your actions),” says Val Lovisa, a licensed professional counselor in Metairie, “you move into an apprehensive, cautious mode, where you are more concerned about how you are doing versus doing it.”

Colleen Hacker, Ph.D., a mental skills coach to Olympic and professional athletes, says, “athletes need to answer the question — what’s my job? — my positional responsibility, with emphasis on controlling the controllables.”

Within the scope of our control are “attention, focus, work rate and effort,” according to Hacker. And, each athlete should have an answer as to what their positional responsibility encompasses — like stopping the run on defense, holding on to the ball or keeping your head down and focusing on ball placement if you are the kicker.

Here are a few of Hacker and Lovisa’s mental notes the Saints might consider:

  1. Regain your physiological composure to get rid of the “fight or flight mentality.”
  2. Move out of the fear mode and deal with each play. Every play is the first play.
  3. Play the game each down — fresh and fluid.
  4. Quit defining yourself by your past history.
  5. Practice competitive amnesia — put a mistake behind you.
  6. Attributes, reasons people give to explain success or failure, need to be success oriented.
  7. Know your positional responsibility.
  8. Build a team culture around controlling the controllables.

The Saints have been pushed to the ledge. It’s time they take a lesson from the 300 Spartans and draw a line that defines their entire existence. Fight to the end to defend what they have trained and prepared to do — at home and away.

Mackie Shilstone, a regular contributor to NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune, has been involved in the wellness sports performance industry for nearly 40 years. He is currently the fitness coach for Serena Williams and has trained numerous other professional athletes and consulted a litany of professional sports franchises. He’s the Executive Director of the Fitness Principle with Mackie Shilstone at East Jefferson General Hospital. Contact him at mackieshilstone.com