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Blast from the past: COWBOYS FLOATING INTO THE 80'S

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    COWBOYS FLOATING INTO THE 80'S

    By MALCOLM MORAN, SPECIAL TO THE NEW YORK TIMES
    Published: May 18, 1981

    The clear plastic mats lead out of the locker room, past the blue and silver banner that says Cowboys, and into a smaller meeting room where the blackboard is clean. In this room, there is no need for X's and O's. The Dallas Cowboys who voluntarily enter the room climb into the team's new sensory deprivation tank, a white fiberglass box that is eight feet long, four feet wide and four feet high. One by one, they float on their backs in water for an hour at a time in a peaceful world where their minds can be cleared of mistakes and pressures, and then refilled with information that can help win football games.

    ''The think tank,'' said D.D. Lewis, the linebacker. The Dallas organization, given credit for bringing football into the computer age during the 1960's, is trying something new for the 80's. The Cowboys will experiment with a new teaching method that combines two ideas -closed-circuit television and a controlled environment.

    Some research has shown that the use of videotape on television screens can increase learning. And the controlled environment - a dark, enclosed, weightless, timeless space aided by a heavy salt solution warmed to body temperature - can isolate the player from the world, eliminate distractions and simplify learning.

    This environment is a long way from the traditional football classroom with its rows of chairs and reels of film. Soon after the film ''Altered States'' put the idea of floating into the national consciousness, the people who call themselves America's Team are talking more about reaching the alpha state than the end zone. Once the television screen is installed directly over the player's head as he floats on his back, the Cowboys will attempt to improve an athlete's rate of learning, and eventually his performance, through the use of edited information given on an individual basis.

    ''I think you will see in five to 10 years there will be a drastic change in the utilization of videotape by football teams, or sports teams,'' said Joe Bailey, the club's vice president for administration. ''If you assume that coaches are teachers, and if you look into the classrooms of today, they're probably a little bit different than the classrooms you were in. I think there's a brave new world out there as far as the education process is concerned.''

    Or, as Coach Tom Landry said, ''You just have to get an edge someplace.'' How the Cowboys look for their edge, and what they do to achieve it, has been debated. Steve DeVore, one of the creators of SyberVision, a California company that has researched the concept of improving physical performance through visual stimulation, was critical of the way the Cowboys plan to use videotape as a learning tool in the tank environment. ''It's a gimmick,'' Mr. DeVore said.

    Mr. DeVore said that one hour of training under the company's system, which does not involve the use of tanks, can have the same effect as 10 hours on a practice field. ''It's a powerful, powerful process,'' Mr. DeVore said of the use of videotapes as a learning tool to improve physical performance. ''If it's in the wrong hands, in an environment that cannot be controlled, it can be dangerous. It's like fire. It can warm you, but if it gets out of control, it can burn you.''

    Mr. DeVore accused Bob Ward, a Dallas assistant coach in charge of conditioning, with planning to use those ideas without any supervision. Ward listened to the ideas of both the company and researchers at Stanford University during a visit three months ago.

    ''They're not doing it scientifically at all,'' Mr. DeVore said. ''I'm very serious about my work. I don't like to be ripped off, and that's what's happening. I never thought that someone would try to rip it off. I thought it would be too stupid to do that.''

    He said that the possible adverse effects of the combination of the tank environment with the use of videotapes have not been determined, and added that similar experiments at Stanford must be approved by a human research board. ''People have had psychotic reactions that are like LSD-type experiences, and others have had very good reactions,'' he said. ''There have to be some standards set.''

    Ward disagreed with Mr. DeVore's charges. ''What he's doing and what we're doing are similar, but not identical,'' Ward said. ''I think he feels it's his domain, and no one has a domain over anything ... I think Steve, who is in the field to make money, feels a little affronted. I'm not stealing anything. Why should I pay him to make tapes for us when I can make them better? It wasn't my decision. Coach Landry felt the quality of the tape wasn't as good as the footage we could get ourselves.''

    Unlike the Cowboys or SyberVision, J. Brian Hennessy, a Stanford graduate student who is researching current theories in the use of neuropsychology on athletes, does not have a business interest. ''We're not talking about a subject that can be handled in any small manner,'' Hennessy said. ''A lot of people are going to be jumping on the bandwagon, and the problem is the athletes will be the ones abused.''

    When Hennessy spoke to Ward, the graduate student was concerned that the Cowboys were not using a scientific method. ''Ward is a bright man,'' Hennessy said. ''There's information that it could work. And there's information that it could be hazardous. I'm worried about the chances he's taking.''

    Although the Cowboys are the first team to install a television screen into a tank, they were not the first to use a tank. The Philadelphia Eagles had a tank installed last summer for players to have a place to relax. The Eagles are considering the addition of a television screen, but for now their tank is limited to sound. ''We have music, and sound tapes of nature,'' said Otho Davis, the Philadelphia trainer. ''Crickets, frogs, the wind blowing. We have a series on hypnosis for relaxation. And if a quarterback desires, he can listen to his game plan on tape.''

    The Dallas experiment has gone one step further. At first, Cowboy management was not pleased when its use of the tank became known. Now, Dallas officials talk about the thought of someday adding tanks as part of a ''learning center,'' and the possibility of installing television screens in meeting rooms to replace live coaching instruction with taped messages.

    Some Dallas players have called this concept ''programming.'' ''Programming is a good word,'' said Ward, who has been with the Cowboys since 1975. ''That's what it is.'' The Cowboys bought their tank from a Colorado-based firm, Float To Relax. The company sells the tank for $3,195, but added several new options for the Cowboys. Ken Wilson, who is in charge of research and medical sales for the company, will cut a hole in the top of the Cowboy tank that will allow the players to look at a screen as they float.

    Ward, who has a doctorate in physical education, sounds more like a behavioral scientist than his title of conditioning coach. ''Conditioning coach, the village shrink, anything that improves performance,'' he said, describing his role. ''Whether it's physical or psychological.''

    ''Supposedly,'' Ward said, ''you can concentrate on maximizing learning. If you can reinforce the good behavior -the good catch, the good throw, the good run - the mind supposedly doesn't know the difference between the physical performance and the mental reenactment. Supposedly.''

    ''It's like you're floating in outer space,'' Lewis said. ''Your ears are under water. You can hear yourself breathe. You can imagine anything you want. I imagined I was in a space suit, with a helmet on. The only time I was brought back to reality was when the cold water came down and dripped on my chest.''

    ''This alpha state,'' said John Fitzgerald, a center, ''is very good for a person who feels like he's overloaded with material. If he could relax, maybe he could absorb the information.''

    ''The concept is good,'' said Danny White, the quarterback, who had not experienced the effects of the tank. ''I try to isolate myself at home, and relax. I need that.''

    It has been suggested that there are easier, drier, and less salty ways to rest. ''If you lay down for an hour,'' Pat Donovan, an offensive lineman, told Ward, ''you'll be relaxed anyway.''

    The difference inside the tank, in the Cowboys' plan, is that someone else is able to control what a player sees, hears, and feels. ''Dallas feels they have an infallible organization,'' said Pat Toomay, a former Cowboy, ''except for one thing -the players. If they could play without the players, they could win every game. Playing there, that's the feeling you get. Landry does not ever make a wrong call. They make no mistakes in personnel. I guess they're saying the players are dumb, so they have to maximize these guys' potential.

    ''Landry has to be in control,'' Toomay added. ''We used to laugh at the way he butchered the language. It's a source of constant amusement. It's one of the few things you can laugh about. They can edit that all out. It would be totally humorless. He could coach after he's dead.''

    Landry said he was not involved with the idea for the experiment, except to give his approval. He had not yet gone inside the tank. ''You create your mind in an alpha beta state,'' he said, and laughed at his mistake in football's newest terminology. ''I'm not that smart to know all those things.''

    As the experiment evolves, the coach's voice may not be necessary. Ward said he could picture a time when a quarterback could see the same view of a defense on the screen that he would have as he looks over the center.

    If successful, the Cowboys' experiment could take advantage of the athletes' reaction to all stimuli, and their responses could be fed into a computer, as the players' conditioning programs are today. ''You're laying back in the tank and looking at the best catch you've made as a receiver,'' Ward said, ''and you also have the sound of the crowd to reinforce that, to make you want to do it again.

    ''I can imagine putting together a file on running backs, the best running backs that have ever played in the N.F.L., and just have a guy sit back in a tank and see how a guy moves. They may not move the same way, but it's the principles of movement ....''

    ''The ultimate would be - this is down the road - when you have electrodes on. And when you're on the proper wavelength level, the thing turns on, and when you're not, it doesn't. That may never come, but I think it has the potential.''

    Which raises another question: Could getting up for a game be accomplished one day with the twist of a voltage meter? Richard Grimmett laughed at the thought. He is an offensive lineman, trying to make the team again after knee problems kept him on the injured reserve list for two years.

    ''I'd hate to see that come to pass, when you have 45 tanks in a practice field, and everybody trying to get up for a game,'' he said. ''It would be more like programming. It would take the spontaneity out of the game. People prepare for a game in different ways. It would be too scientific.''

    Ward said the success of the project would be determined by dollars and cents, and victories and losses. Is it cost-effective? Does it significantly improve learning?

    ''It's not 21st century,'' the Cowboys' Joe Bailey said. ''It's what all teachers are trying to do. You're trying to get total concentration.''

    Davis, the Philadelphia trainer, pointed out one problem: ''When you're sitting there watching a TV screen, you can't ask any questions. That TV screen isn't going to give any answers.''

    But there is at least one advantage for players. Lewis smiled at an idea that computers cannot change. ''If you said you wanted to take a nap during practice, they'd say you're lazy,'' he said. ''Now, you can say, 'I need to go in the tank.' ''

    The clear plastic mats lead out of the locker room, past the blue and silver banner that says Cowboys, and into a smaller meeting room where the blackboard is clean. In this room, there is no need for X's and O's. The Dallas Cowboys who voluntarily enter the room climb into the team's new sensory deprivation tank, a white fiberglass box that is eight feet long, four feet wide and four feet high. One by one, they float on their backs in water for an hour at a time in a peaceful world where their minds can be cleared of mistakes and pressures, and then refilled with information that can help win football games.

    ''The think tank,'' said D.D. Lewis, the linebacker. The Dallas organization, given credit for bringing football into the computer age during the 1960's, is trying something new for the 80's. The Cowboys will experiment with a new teaching method that combines two ideas -closed-circuit television and a controlled environment.

    Some research has shown that the use of videotape on television screens can increase learning. And the controlled environment - a dark, enclosed, weightless, timeless space aided by a heavy salt solution warmed to body temperature - can isolate the player from the world, eliminate distractions and simplify learning.

    This environment is a long way from the traditional football classroom with its rows of chairs and reels of film. Soon after the film ''Altered States'' put the idea of floating into the national consciousness, the people who call themselves America's Team are talking more about reaching the alpha state than the end zone. Once the television screen is installed directly over the player's head as he floats on his back, the Cowboys will attempt to improve an athlete's rate of learning, and eventually his performance, through the use of edited information given on an individual basis.

    ''I think you will see in five to 10 years there will be a drastic change in the utilization of videotape by football teams, or sports teams,'' said Joe Bailey, the club's vice president for administration. ''If you assume that coaches are teachers, and if you look into the classrooms of today, they're probably a little bit different than the classrooms you were in. I think there's a brave new world out there as far as the education process is concerned.''

    Or, as Coach Tom Landry said, ''You just have to get an edge someplace.'' How the Cowboys look for their edge, and what they do to achieve it, has been debated. Steve DeVore, one of the creators of SyberVision, a California company that has researched the concept of improving physical performance through visual stimulation, was critical of the way the Cowboys plan to use videotape as a learning tool in the tank environment. ''It's a gimmick,'' Mr. DeVore said.

    Mr. DeVore said that one hour of training under the company's system, which does not involve the use of tanks, can have the same effect as 10 hours on a practice field. ''It's a powerful, powerful process,'' Mr. DeVore said of the use of videotapes as a learning tool to improve physical performance. ''If it's in the wrong hands, in an environment that cannot be controlled, it can be dangerous. It's like fire. It can warm you, but if it gets out of control, it can burn you.''

    Mr. DeVore accused Bob Ward, a Dallas assistant coach in charge of conditioning, with planning to use those ideas without any supervision. Ward listened to the ideas of both the company and researchers at Stanford University during a visit three months ago.

    ''They're not doing it scientifically at all,'' Mr. DeVore said. ''I'm very serious about my work. I don't like to be ripped off, and that's what's happening. I never thought that someone would try to rip it off. I thought it would be too stupid to do that.''

    He said that the possible adverse effects of the combination of the tank environment with the use of videotapes have not been determined, and added that similar experiments at Stanford must be approved by a human research board. ''People have had psychotic reactions that are like LSD-type experiences, and others have had very good reactions,'' he said. ''There have to be some standards set.''

    Ward disagreed with Mr. DeVore's charges. ''What he's doing and what we're doing are similar, but not identical,'' Ward said. ''I think he feels it's his domain, and no one has a domain over anything ... I think Steve, who is in the field to make money, feels a little affronted. I'm not stealing anything. Why should I pay him to make tapes for us when I can make them better? It wasn't my decision. Coach Landry felt the quality of the tape wasn't as good as the footage we could get ourselves.''

    Unlike the Cowboys or SyberVision, J. Brian Hennessy, a Stanford graduate student who is researching current theories in the use of neuropsychology on athletes, does not have a business interest. ''We're not talking about a subject that can be handled in any small manner,'' Hennessy said. ''A lot of people are going to be jumping on the bandwagon, and the problem is the athletes will be the ones abused.''

    When Hennessy spoke to Ward, the graduate student was concerned that the Cowboys were not using a scientific method. ''Ward is a bright man,'' Hennessy said. ''There's information that it could work. And there's information that it could be hazardous. I'm worried about the chances he's taking.''

    Although the Cowboys are the first team to install a television screen into a tank, they were not the first to use a tank. The Philadelphia Eagles had a tank installed last summer for players to have a place to relax. The Eagles are considering the addition of a television screen, but for now their tank is limited to sound. ''We have music, and sound tapes of nature,'' said Otho Davis, the Philadelphia trainer. ''Crickets, frogs, the wind blowing. We have a series on hypnosis for relaxation. And if a quarterback desires, he can listen to his game plan on tape.''

    The Dallas experiment has gone one step further. At first, Cowboy management was not pleased when its use of the tank became known. Now, Dallas officials talk about the thought of someday adding tanks as part of a ''learning center,'' and the possibility of installing television screens in meeting rooms to replace live coaching instruction with taped messages.

    Some Dallas players have called this concept ''programming.'' ''Programming is a good word,'' said Ward, who has been with the Cowboys since 1975. ''That's what it is.'' The Cowboys bought their tank from a Colorado-based firm, Float To Relax. The company sells the tank for $3,195, but added several new options for the Cowboys. Ken Wilson, who is in charge of research and medical sales for the company, will cut a hole in the top of the Cowboy tank that will allow the players to look at a screen as they float.

    Ward, who has a doctorate in physical education, sounds more like a behavioral scientist than his title of conditioning coach. ''Conditioning coach, the village shrink, anything that improves performance,'' he said, describing his role. ''Whether it's physical or psychological.''

    ''Supposedly,'' Ward said, ''you can concentrate on maximizing learning. If you can reinforce the good behavior -the good catch, the good throw, the good run - the mind supposedly doesn't know the difference between the physical performance and the mental reenactment. Supposedly.''

    ''It's like you're floating in outer space,'' Lewis said. ''Your ears are under water. You can hear yourself breathe. You can imagine anything you want. I imagined I was in a space suit, with a helmet on. The only time I was brought back to reality was when the cold water came down and dripped on my chest.''

    ''This alpha state,'' said John Fitzgerald, a center, ''is very good for a person who feels like he's overloaded with material. If he could relax, maybe he could absorb the information.''

    ''The concept is good,'' said Danny White, the quarterback, who had not experienced the effects of the tank. ''I try to isolate myself at home, and relax. I need that.''

    It has been suggested that there are easier, drier, and less salty ways to rest. ''If you lay down for an hour,'' Pat Donovan, an offensive lineman, told Ward, ''you'll be relaxed anyway.''

    The difference inside the tank, in the Cowboys' plan, is that someone else is able to control what a player sees, hears, and feels. ''Dallas feels they have an infallible organization,'' said Pat Toomay, a former Cowboy, ''except for one thing -the players. If they could play without the players, they could win every game. Playing there, that's the feeling you get. Landry does not ever make a wrong call. They make no mistakes in personnel. I guess they're saying the players are dumb, so they have to maximize these guys' potential.

    ''Landry has to be in control,'' Toomay added. ''We used to laugh at the way he butchered the language. It's a source of constant amusement. It's one of the few things you can laugh about. They can edit that all out. It would be totally humorless. He could coach after he's dead.''

    Landry said he was not involved with the idea for the experiment, except to give his approval. He had not yet gone inside the tank. ''You create your mind in an alpha beta state,'' he said, and laughed at his mistake in football's newest terminology. ''I'm not that smart to know all those things.''

    As the experiment evolves, the coach's voice may not be necessary. Ward said he could picture a time when a quarterback could see the same view of a defense on the screen that he would have as he looks over the center.

    If successful, the Cowboys' experiment could take advantage of the athletes' reaction to all stimuli, and their responses could be fed into a computer, as the players' conditioning programs are today. ''You're laying back in the tank and looking at the best catch you've made as a receiver,'' Ward said, ''and you also have the sound of the crowd to reinforce that, to make you want to do it again.

    ''I can imagine putting together a file on running backs, the best running backs that have ever played in the N.F.L., and just have a guy sit back in a tank and see how a guy moves. They may not move the same way, but it's the principles of movement ....''

    ''The ultimate would be - this is down the road - when you have electrodes on. And when you're on the proper wavelength level, the thing turns on, and when you're not, it doesn't. That may never come, but I think it has the potential.''

    Which raises another question: Could getting up for a game be accomplished one day with the twist of a voltage meter? Richard Grimmett laughed at the thought. He is an offensive lineman, trying to make the team again after knee problems kept him on the injured reserve list for two years.

    ''I'd hate to see that come to pass, when you have 45 tanks in a practice field, and everybody trying to get up for a game,'' he said. ''It would be more like programming. It would take the spontaneity out of the game. People prepare for a game in different ways. It would be too scientific.''

    Ward said the success of the project would be determined by dollars and cents, and victories and losses. Is it cost-effective? Does it significantly improve learning?

    ''It's not 21st century,'' the Cowboys' Joe Bailey said. ''It's what all teachers are trying to do. You're trying to get total concentration.''

    Davis, the Philadelphia trainer, pointed out one problem: ''When you're sitting there watching a TV screen, you can't ask any questions. That TV screen isn't going to give any answers.''

    But there is at least one advantage for players. Lewis smiled at an idea that computers cannot change. ''If you said you wanted to take a nap during practice, they'd say you're lazy,'' he said. ''Now, you can say, 'I need to go in the tank.' ''

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