Body language, facial expressions, and nonverbal communication are under-explored on the playing field. I think about times, as a coach, when I’ve told my players to attack a particular opponent because I recognized something in his nonverbal language indicated the opponent was struggling and therefore revealed psychological weakness worth exploiting. I think basic attention to nonverbal communication can shed light on the reality that Tom Brady, Ray Lewis, Steven Gerard, and Kevin Durant as superior leaders. But I’m stating the obvious. However, I must mention that nonverbal communication is not always accurate. Let me explain. I dislike Eli Manning as a quarterback, partially because he plays for the Giants, but more so because of his body language. He typically casts an image on the field with his mouth partially open, shoulders slumped, and when he makes a mistake, his body and face often seem to be saying, “Aw shucks.” I’ve had to admit, albeit painful, he is a great quarterback. But I feel he could be even better if he just worked of his nonverbal communication. Imagine the energy his teammates would feed upon if he exuded confidence, much like his brother? Another player in the NFL that falls in the category of leaderless body language is Jay Cutler, the Quarterback for the Chicago Bears. I recently read on a survey conducted by Comcast.net that Cutler was number 4 in a list of the most disliked athletes. He was topped by Lance Armstrong, Manti Te’o, and Tiger Woods, all of who have made poor decisions warranting their placement on this list. How unappealing is your nonverbal communication and general demeanor in order get lumped in with one of the biggest cheaters in cycling and sports history, one of the most gullible athletes ever, and an adulterer?
I also think Donovan McNabb could have had more success had he developed better nonverbal communication. Two examples come to mind. First, he always seemed to be smiling, even when he made a mistake. Yes, it is important to have fun on the field. You are more likely to play your best when you’re having fun. But as the leader and someone whose passion for the team’s success should trump all, it is important to show that you are pissed off from time to time when things go poorly. I believe McNabb’s perpetual smile sent a message to his teammates and the unforgiving Philly fans that he did not care deep down about the failed passes on third down that fell to the ankles of a target. A momentary slap of the hands or a pointing finger to his chest would go a long way to indicate that he assumes blame and is not ok with these types of mistakes. The reality is that McNabb probably was very passionate about his performance. However, a shift in body language may have solidified his place in Philly sport history as the best QB ever, rather than someone that a lot of fans were happy to see leave. The other example is an isolated incident, but it really screamed volumes as to why McNabb was never fully embraced by the critical fans of this city (See the youtube clip below.)
In a 2009 wild card game between the Eagles and Cowboys in a brand new stadium in Dallas, McNabb performed a very bizarre air guitar solo followed by a two hand slap of the plexi-glass that separates players from fans. The whole sequence was strange and not what you would expect from the leader of your team. Was it was planned? If so, what was the motivation and expected outcome? Was it an impulsive act to counter some internal anxiety? Unfortunately, this was the first step in a series of blunders that led to a 34-14 Eagles loss. One might expect stoic focus from the team leader in this pressure-filled situation. I struggle with visualizing Joe Montana behaving in this manner.
To conclude this series of blog posts, I hope you pay closer attention to the nonverbal language of athletes in future games. It will be interesting to see if Flacco’s transformation to a more confident personality, as described by the analysts, carries over into next year or if he will revert back to that player with all of the potential who is lacking the last piece of a true leader. I also wonder if Kaepernick’s explosive start to his career is an anomaly or if he is the real deal? Finally, will Griffin be able to recover from a devastating injury and become the player that was briefly on display this past year?