Colin Kaepernick provided football fans across the country with an amazing story. Kaepernick had a successful college career at the University of Nevada where he is the only Division I FBS player to pass for over 10,000 yards and rush for over 4,000 yards in one season. He was selected in the second round (45th overall) by the 49ers in the 2011 NFL draft. In 2011 Kaepernick was Alex Smith’s back up, which continued until week 10 of the past season. He led the 49ers to the Super Bowl, only to lose to the Ravens.
The thing I find most fascinating about this young player is his ability to persevere in the face of adversity and failure. This is one of the few mental attributes that separates the superstars from average athletes. The tendency to move on from mistakes was apparent when he proved his worth as a backup filling in for a starter. Some players have difficulty showing their utmost potential in these pressure filled situations because one mistake leads to a downward spiral of negative thinking. The game in which he came in for an injured Smith, Kaepernick struggled and the Niners tied the floundering St. Loius Rams who were 3-6 at the time. Coach Jim Harbaugh gave him another chance the following Monday night against a vaunted Chicago Bears (7-2) defense. Kaepernick went 16 for 32, passed for 246 yards, threw two touchdowns and no interceptions, and the Niners beat the Bears 32-7. That is pretty impressive for a player who is basically a rookie, or is it? Athletes, coaches, and sport analysts tend to believe that with experience comes mental toughness and the ability to handle high pressure situations. I believe this to be true, to an extent. The more exposure someone has to a specific type of situation, the more adept he/she becomes at properly dealing with it. But keep in mind, some people are naturally good at dealing with pressure: Tom Brady, Mariano Rivera, and, of course, Michael Jordan.
Kaepernick further proved he has the ability to remain focused, calm, and determined when faced with difficult odds. Despite being down twice against the Packers, Kaepernick threw for 263 yards and two touchdowns, while running for a playoff record 181 yards as a quarterback. In a microcosm of his ability to work through adversity, he threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown on the Niners’ first offensive possession. Undeterred, Kapernick led his team to the NFC Championship game on the road against Atlanta, which provided the backdrop for him to further prove his mental toughness and ability to not let mistakes bring him down. To start the game, the Niners went down by a score of 17-0, but Kaepernick eventually prevailed. Finally, in the Super Bowl, the ultimate platform for pressure, Kaepernick, once again displayed his resiliency. The Niners were down 28-6 in the third quarter, came back on the arm of Kaepernick, but unfortunately they fell short when they lost 34-31.
Yes, football is a team sport and the whole Niner team, along with the coaching staff contributed to these incredible comebacks. But it is the quarterback that stands in the brightest and most critical spotlight. They tend to bear the burden of pressure, while reaping most of the glory when things end in their favor. Kaepernick seems to have the right mindset for someone who encounters a lot of pressure. He demonstrated the ability to learn from and not dwell on past mistakes. He seems to be the type of athlete who has that advantageous “short term” memory that can make or break a career. I compare him to the forward in a soccer game who manages to score a hat trick after missing two breakaways or the goal keeper who makes three saves in a shootout after letting in two easy goals during regulation. Dwelling on past mistakes crushes confidence, lowers drive and motivation, takes the fun out of the game, and eventually hurts overall performance. I’m not proclaiming that athletes should ignore mistakes; I’m saying they should learn from mistakes and move on. Athletes tend to be perfectionists who struggle with accepting failure, but as I’ve repeated over and over again, the failures in sports are often far greater than the successes. Kaepernick seems to have the understanding that dwelling on mistakes lead to more mistakes. As athletes we try to trick ourselves into believing that if we dwell on a mistake, we will come up with a better solution and the mistake is less likely to happen again. However dwelling on past mistakes during a game is often a big enough distraction and more mistakes are sure to pile up. It would be fascinating to sit down with Kaepernick and explore the thoughts and emotions he experienced shortly after he threw the interception returned for a touchdown by Sam Shields of the Green Bay Packers or when his team was trailing by 22 to the Ravens. Mental toughness may be something that comes naturally to Kapernick or maybe he worked with a professional to develop this attribute. Either way, is it fun to watch unfold. We will have to wait to see if he is going to become a Montana-like winner or a flash in the pan.