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Sports column by Andy Kirkaldy: Ultimately, gray matter makes the difference

So, what is the most important part of the body for an athlete?
The torso, for core strength?
The hands, so vital in virtually every sport except soccer?
The legs, critical for mobility, balance and speed?
Well, no, the answer is pretty obvious: the brain.
Sure, without generous helpings of strength, hand-to-eye coordination, quickness, agility, balance or some combination of a majority of those traits, an athlete will not excel.
But what really separates the best from the rest? Competitive spirit, willingness to work and listen to coaching, intelligence, and, in the case of team sports, those qualities that help a group become greater than the sum of its parts — leadership, unselfishness and cooperation, all of those things together that create what the Japanese call “wa,” harmony among a group that allows it to perform at its best.
If all those fall into place, so also does the relaxed confidence athletes need to perform at their best. The individual athlete excels when he or she is best prepared, knows he or she is well coached and physically fit, and is not distracted by peripheral issues, personal or professional.
The teammate who is supported by other teammates and is committed to his or her role — as well as being fit and well-coached — will be most confident and also perform at or near his or her peak.
A team full of players who fit that description, well, that’s how Rollie White, coach of the undefeated 1983 Middlebury Union High School basketball team described his Tigers to me for a recent story. The things White emphasized, other than talent, were they all understood and accepted their roles, and they were unusually loose and relaxed.
Events of recent months have illustrated how the mind can influence performance. This past weekend Tiger Woods finished 14 shots behind PGA Tournament winner Jason Dufner, extending his drought in golf’s so-called Majors (the PGA, U.S. and British Opens, and the Masters) to almost five years.
But Woods is the top golfer on the PGA tour this year, with four wins and the lowest scoring average, 68.654, the only average below 69. It is about a half-stroke better than Adam Scott, the next in line, and No. 3 Justin Rose.
Not exactly coincidentally, Scott and Rose have each won Majors this year, as has Phil Mickelson, No. 8 on the PGA scoring average list.
Woods remains technically the world’s best golfer, but lacks the confidence on the biggest stages, for whatever reason. The dissolution of his marriage and relationship with skier Lindsey Vonn are well documented, and who knows if those are the distractions or if there is self-imposed pressure to catch Jack Nicklaus for the all-time lead in Grand Slam tournaments won.
But it is clear whatever is holding Woods back is not from his neck down, but from between the ears.
On a happier note, the Boston Red Sox have surprised fans and experts by surging to the top of the American League East this summer, despite on paper not having markedly more talent than a year ago.
Certainly, better health has a lot to do with it. Although the Sox have had their share of injuries this season, notably to starter Clay Buchholz and a series of relief pitchers, in 2012 they lost for long stretches David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Andrew Bailey (no shock there), Will Middlebrooks and Carl Crawford.
Better pitching also has made a tremendous difference, including from some of the same people: Buchholz, Jon Lester to an extent, and Felix Doubront. Meanwhile, Jon Lackey has bounced back from surgery, Koji Uehara has excelled (no surprise to us fantasy baseball geeks), and enough young pitchers have stepped up to allow the Sox to survive the bullpen injuries.
And besides Uehara, a number of other offseason moves by the Sox have panned out despite being panned at the time: Shane Victorino has defended and hit well, Ryan Dempster has at least been serviceable as a No. 5 starter, Jonny Gomes and Mike Carp have provided timely hits off the bench.
And by all reports all are accountable professionals, more interested in winning than in ordering chicken and beer during games: Suddenly Boston’s clubhouse chemistry seems to have taken a turn for the better.
And manager John Farrell replaced passive-aggressive train wreck Bobby Valentine at the helm. Valentine called out his players in public, made everything about him, caused needless conflict and proved to be a divisive distraction. Farrell’s in-game decisions have not been perfect (Daniel Nava as a pinch-runner?), but he works hard, sets a no-nonsense tone, and players and coaches are on the same page.
So, yes, Boston’s pitching is much better and the offense is more productive. Why? The Red Sox are confident, focused, supportive and together.
Their heads are in the right place, and in sports that can matter the most.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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