The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

April 19, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN - Body language, not potty language

MORGANTOWN — When Rich Rodriguez was coaching at West Virginia, language became a source of concern, his practices so X-rated that they could make a sailor blush.

When Bill Stewart replaced him, the language around practice at times seemed to be something right out of “Gomer Pyle, USMC,” “Golllllll-y, Andy.”

Now, with the torch ready to be passed again next year to Dana Holgorsen, language has moved front and center, but it is a silent language that Holgorsen seems obsessed with — body language.

Over and over in this, his first spring here, Holgorsen has referred to his players’ needs to improve their “body language,” as he did in discussing where quarterback Geno Smith stood at the moment.

“He’s very competitive, his attitude is good, his body language is good, he’s learning, and the more he learns mentally the better it is going to look for him,” he said.

The body language, it would seem, is as important as his attitude and competitiveness.

This is not something you hear talked about often in sports, a relatively new concept in evaluating a player’s performance, yet it is a philosophy growing rapidly in popularity.

“We figured this out last year,” said Holgorsen, who was at Oklahoma State then. “It’s the difference between vivacious and lethargic. Lethargic is ...”

Holgorsen searched for a word momentarily, before letting out a sound like “urrrrrrgh.”

“That’s not what you’re looking for,” he continued. “You want guys with bounce, that have energy, that line up quickly, are anxious and alert and are ready to go out there and make a play.”

Certainly, it makes sense and is really nothing new at all.

Body language has always meant something in as primitive a sport as there is — boxing. How many contenders were beaten just by Mike Tyson’s glare as they stood silently in the center of the ring receiving their instructions?

But it didn’t really matter which sport. Anyone who ever stepped into the batter’s box and looked out at Bob Gibson standing their glaring at you on the mound understands the power of body language. Anyone who ever stood on the mound and watched Willie Stargell waving his bat in ominous circles as he dared the pitcher to throw a fastball got the message.

You research it online and come across some interesting thoughts.

“Of the several forms of nonverbal communication, body language is perhaps the most obvious means through which humans express thoughts and emotions and so make representations of their experience visible to others. It involves gestures, facial expressions, eye movements, breathing patterns, skin color changes, muscle tone, interpersonal distance and, perhaps most interestingly for analysts of sports, posture. Some analysts, such as Susan Quilliam, in her Body Language Secrets series of publications, argue that the total impact of any message is as much as 55 percent nonverbal (1996),” says one site.

“A football player may traipse languidly across the field, shoulders drooping, head inclined downwards. The body language signals an acceptance of defeat. A tennis player may stride impatiently to her baseline ahead of her opponent, repeatedly tapping her racket head against her leg and staring intently ahead. She is alert, enthusiastic and eager to compete; her arousal level is high,” it continues.

“A baseball hitter fidgets, his eyes darting, as he waits for the pitcher to settle. His actions betray his lack of composure. During a competition, every athlete expresses aspects of him or herself, sometimes intentionally but more usually unintentionally: body language often reveals a representation at odds with the athlete’s express intentions.

“No competitor wishes to communicate anxiety, resignation, fear or any other form of negativity; yet they are frequently incapable of suppressing the nonverbal cues that communicate exactly these.”

It’s about gaining an advantage simply through confidence that exudes from the way one carries himself or herself.

In a team setting it is about leadership. Patti Wood, a body language expert who taught at Florida State, talked about “isopraxism,” a rather long, scientific-sounding term for why we follow a leader.

“It actually explains why when the person we’re with steps off the curb, we follow him or her into the crosswalk; or why at the dance, nobody wants to go on the dance floor when there’s nobody out there, but as soon as it gets crowded everybody wants to go,” Wood wrote.

“In team sports it explains how one person, especially the leader, if he gets discouraged or gets upset or feels defeated, the entire group is affected really quickly. In fact, the research says the more powerful the person in terms of status and admiration, the faster whatever they’re doing nonverbally transfers to the rest of the group.”

And that is why Holgorsen stressed body language to his team and especially to his quarterback, Smith, who has to understand that no one is going to be out there dancing until he takes to the floor.

Email Bob Hertzel at

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