Jeff Capel surveyed the dire straits facing his basketball team. Oklahoma had starters in foul trouble, shots that were missing and a deficit that was growing. Worse, it wasn’t even close to halftime at Texas A&M.
"Is this going to spiral?” the Sooner coach thought standing on the sideline Tuesday. There would be no blowout. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Sooners rallied and even had a last-second chance to win that fell just short. The reason the Sooners didn’t spiral? Willie Warren and his body language. "He held us together,” Capel said. "How he was at halftime and coming out in the second half, he held it together.” Body language made a difference. Then again, it always does. Matt Holliday used it to ease the transition after a mid-season trade to St. Louis. Desmond Mason stayed positive because of it when the Thunder was struggling last season. Zac Robinson separated himself from the pack with it to become the starting quarterback at Oklahoma State. But while good body language can work wonders, the bad variety can spell disaster. Capel has made a point of talking about his team’s poor body language this season. He has criticized players going through the motions or breaking apart when they face adversity. The worst offender has been Warren, his recent turnaround notwithstanding. "I’m tired of trying to figure him out,” Capel said in late December. Even though body language has been cussed and discussed more than usual this basketball season, that non-verbal form of communication is a constant in sports. It is always on display. It is always having an effect. What is bad body language? No doubt you’ve seen it. Slumped shoulders. Rolled eyes. Drooped head. Good body language? Head is up. Shoulders are high. Just like jump shots and touchdowns, home runs and rebounds, how athletes and coaches carry themselves impacts the outcome of games. "I would suggest that effective body language is sort of a fundamental athletic skill,” said sports psychologist Nicki Moore, who heads up Psychological Resources for OU Student-Athletes. "It is a skill that happens every moment of every competition.” No wonder coaches take it so seriously. Kurt Budke has worked on Oklahoma State point guard Andrea Riley’s body language for the better part of four years. The Cowgirl coach remembers how poor it was when Riley was a freshman. Her shoulders would slump. Her head would fall. Her expression would sour. "The rest of her teammates could see that,” Budke said. "If you had seniors out there, they’d try to pick it up and get it going, but your leader out there has to stay positive at all times and show energy at all times.” Budke believes Riley, now as senior, has much better body language. "It definitely can be taught,” he said. His OU counterpart thinks so, too. Sherri Coale recognizes that some players are born confident. That’s how they’re wired, that’s what they bring to the court, but having better body language is something she works on with every player. "With different kids, it’s different,” the Sooner coach said.