Joe Flacco Being Comfortable With Himself: The Metamorphosis

Joe Flacco, Superbowl MVP. Why did it take until his 5th season for him to show he is the leader and physical specimen that was predicted when he was a senior coming out of the University of Delaware? He showed so much potential in his rookie year with the Ravens by becoming the first rookie QB to win two playoff games. But, despite making the playoffs every year since, he never made it to the Super Bowl. That is until this year when he marched the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory in near perfect fashion. In the playoffs he threw for 1,140 yards, 11 touchdowns (tied for the highest total with Montana and Warner), and ZERO interceptions. He finished with a QB rating of 117, very impressive.

The thing that interests me came from the mouths of the analysts. Many of the experts who had the opportunity interview Flacco in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl commented on his personality. They said he appeared more relaxed, more comfortable, more willing to show his “true self.” I hypothesize that this shift in public demeanor was due to Flacco’s confidence. Athletes who are comfortable in their cleats on the field are often comfortable in their own skin while being interviewed. Take a post-game press conference for example. Compare a player who has just won a big game versus a player who has just lost a big game. The winning player often has their chin up, elevated shoulders, puffed out chest, makes eye contact with the reporters, and seems to revel in the spot light. Whereas, the losing player might be covering their eyes with a hat or sunglasses, makes limited eye contact, has slumped shoulders, and provides short answers that scream, “Get me out of here!” Both of these visual images are on opposite ends of the confidence spectrum.

It would have been interesting to have shadowed Flacco throughout his five year career to determine what contributed to this metamorphosis. Did Flacco always project an uncomfortable public demeanor with less confidence? Did he need to make a determined shift to portray more confidence and comfort when being interviewed or did it happen naturally? One thing we will be able to find out is whether this shift is permanent or temporary with the upcoming season. And for those who are interested in this kind of thing, watch your teammates, business partners, coaches, classmates, or friends to determine their level confidence and how it correlates with success.

Mental Toughness and Colin Kaepernick

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.

Being Sensible When Players Get Injured

This first post regarding the 2013 NFL playoffs is a lengthy one and it will address Robert Griffin III and the decisions that were made regarding his knee injury. The Washington Redskins lost in an exciting wildcard game to the visiting Seattle Seahawks by a score of 24-14. Washington, led by rookie Robert Griffin III (RG3), began the game on fire. They built a 14 point first quarter lead, only to watch it collapse much like RG3’s knee. I’m pretty certain the psychological dilemma of whether to play an injured Griffin still weighs on the mind of Washington coach Mike Shanahan. First, we must consider the events leading up to this game because they are relevant to Shanahan’s decision. RG3 was drafted by the Redskins who traded away their first round pick, along with two future first round and a future second round pick to the St. Louis Rams. Basically, they put all of their eggs in the RG3 basket. Fortunately for the Redskins, the gamble seemed to pay off when Griffin became the powerful leader this team has lacked for ages and subsequently marched them to the playoffs. Second, it’s important to keep in mind that RG3 tore his ACL in 2009 while in college and he injured the same knee in a regular season game against the Ravens in early December. The poor state of the turf at FedEx field is another factor because it increased the probability of injury to an unstable knee. The last factor worth considering is Shanahan’s history. Before joining the Redskins he coached the Broncos to two Superbowl victories with hall of fame QB John Elway at the helm. Elway, known for his physical and mental toughness, was not known for missing many games due to injury. Interestingly enough, Elway, unlike Griffin, played without his ACL in one of his knees because of a high school injury and a lack of medical advancements at the time. All of this information is very important, because it both positively and negatively influenced the decision against the Seahawks.

Now onto the psychological spin related to RG3’s injury. Did Shanahan make the right call by keeping an obviously hobbled Griffin in the game? As a coach who has dealt with this issue at the collegiate level, part of me empathizes with Shanahan. I kind of feel bad for Shanahan as analysts and fans across the country crucify him for making what seemed to be the wrong decision. Others have said Shanahan should have put in rookie backup, Kirk Cousins. The same Cousins who contributed to an overtime loss in week five to the Falcons while throwing two interceptions late in the game. The same Cousins who threw a game winning touchdown against the Ravens in overtime in the game that Griffin initially hurt his knee. The same Cousins that led the Redskins to a win the following week against the Browns. I highlight Cousin’s ups and downs because they too had to factor into Shanahan’s decision that night. The question for Shanahan is simple: Do I play an injured Griffin who is struggling both with the run and passing game or do I put in Cousins? The question is simple; the answer is complex and contains multiple layers of decision making thoughts and feelings. The thoughts are more tangible and have been mulled over by anyone who has an interest in the situation. For example, people may assume Shanahan pondered, “I think an injured Griffin gives the team a better chance over a healthy Cousins” or “Griffin said on the sideline that he was healthy enough to help the team win; he was medically cleared from a team doctor during the game; and I should therefore leave him in the game.” These are just a small fraction of the thoughts that Shanahan has at his disposal. The feelings are something that cannot be accurately analyzed by the sport experts. Maybe Shanahan had a gut feeling that Griffin was going to be ok and triumphantly carry the team on this wounded knee. Maybe Shanahan had feelings spurred by visions of Isaiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons scoring 25 third quarter points on a sprained ankle in the 1988 NBA Finals against the Lakers. Maybe Shanahan forgot that the Pistons lost that game. The point is that everyone, regardless of the decision, uses a combination of thoughts and feelings when making a choice. This past season at Swarthmore College, I was on the winning end of a similar decision. I suggested we put one of our starting forwards into an early season game at the onset of overtime despite his poor performance throughout regulation. I trusted my gut feeling that he has the potential to score at any moment. As a result we won the game because of a goal he scored. Gut instinct is influenced by the multitude of past experiences. I felt that this proven goal scorer needed just one opportunity to win the game. I felt this because of my previous observations and interactions with him. Shanahan’s decision was different. I believe he was probably influenced by Griffin’s sideline comments that his knee was ok. I speculate that Shanahan’s decision was influenced by Griffin’s passion, the roar of the crowd, and the possible future emotions associated with potential playoff loss had he decided to bench Griffin.

As a coach or parent it is important to attempt to manage the in-the-moment emotion and make clear headed decisions that are right for the players and the team when injuries arise. Griffin has been spending the off season rehabbing injuries to his ACL and LCL. It is very easy as a coach or a parent who needs to be level headed in the decision making process to become influenced and overwhelmed by the lure of winning. It is easy to turn a blind eye to injuries that have potentially far reaching consequences. The recent buzz associated with concussions illustrates this point. Players and coaches are often caught in a catch-22. If a player admits that the injury is bad enough to require a benching, he/she runs the risk of being labeled “soft” and possibly losing a starting position, or losing the respect of teammates. If a coach demonstrates cautious discretion and sits a player who insists they are fine, the coach runs the risk of dealing with an irate player on the sideline, nasty phone calls from parents, and/or the entire team questioning his/her desire to win “at all costs.” My sophomore year at Millersville University created this exact situation. While playing Slippery Rock University in an important conference game, I collided heads with an opposing player. I never lost consciousness, but the vision in my right eye went blurry. After meeting with the trainer, she concluded I should not go back in the game. Shortly thereafter, my vision returned to normal and I was permitted to finish the game. Keep in mind this was in the mid 90’s when less was known about concussions and traumatic brain injuries. I was fortunate and avoided any permanent or long term consequences. But the whole experience was difficult. Being a younger player, I was still trying to prove my physical toughness and overall worth to the team. I would have lied about my vision had it not returned to normal. I would have lied because, like many athletes, I was egocentric and consumed with winning. I put too much stock into my reputation, the thought that I was hurting my chances to keep my starting position, and the possibility that being benched would hurt my team’s chances of winning. NFL players are no different. They compete with other alpha males who will do anything improve their standing on the team. Plus, they have the enormous pressure of their livelihoods and millions of dollars being on the line.

Shanahan risked the future of a player who was well on his way to becoming an elite QB in the NFL. Shanahan risked the future of the organization because of the massive investment made on this one player. But hindsight is always 20/20. Had the scenario unfolded differently and a wounded Griffin helped his team win, we might be praising Shanahan for his brilliant coaching decisions much as we did when he was coaching Elway to those Super Bowl victories. It is an interesting scenario for sports fans, analysis, coaches, and athletes to deliberate. I only scratched the surface in the preceding paragraphs. It is apparent there was a lot more that went into the finals decision to keep Griffin in the game. But I feel it is important for parents and coaches to work on the skills required to become a clear headed decision maker when it comes to sitting players with serious injuries.

Observations from the 2013 NFL Playoffs

The next couple of posts are based on observations of last year’s NFL playoffs, but, as usual the concepts are applicable to other sports, business, academics, arts, and any area of performance.

Based on the record TV ratings for this past Super Bowl, there is a good chance that a lot of you watched most, if not all, of the game. Many things contributed to the excitement of this game and playoff race from the perspective of sport psychology. Plus, I found myself watching more non-Eagles playoff games than ever this year. I attribute this to the fact that the Eagles were out of the playoff race in October. In past years when the Eagles did not make the playoffs, they were just on the bubble. For example, the Giants just edged the Eagles out for the NFC East championship last year and ultimately went on to win everything. In those years of near playoff misses and early playoff exits, I could not stomach watching another team go on to win because the sting of the Eagles losing was still fresh. Watching other teams make it to the big game was like pouring salt into a new wound. This year was different. I was able to put my Eagles bias aside and genuinely enjoy watching the playoffs unfold. I share this personal insight with you to illustrate the powerful influence sports can have over our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. I would like to explore four sport psychology topics that occurred in this post season that surrounded Robert Griffin III’s torn ACL, Colin Kaepernick’s potential introduction to superstardom, Joe Flacco’s recent comfort with being great, and communication on the field through body language. I’ve decided to break these topics into four separate segments to decrease the likelihood that you will ignore the posts because the length of all four combined.

 

Pregame Anxiety

Anxiety is a natural part of sports. However, anxiety before a big game or race can become detrimental in the form of pregame jitters, knots in the stomach, shaking hands, muscle tension, and even vomiting. What can be done to prevent anxiety from hurting performance and ruining a sport experience? The research shows exposure is a very effective way to treat general, non-sport anxiety. For example, someone with a debilitating fear of spiders might benefit from gradual exposure, in which they sequentially and over time imagine a spider, look at photos of spiders, watch a documentary on the life-cycle of tarantulas, go to the pet store to look at spiders, and ultimately hold a spider. Gradual exposure allows the person become more comfortable with fear and anxiety.

I am running in the Broad Street 10 miler this Sunday for the seventh time. Pregame nerves typically were not an issue for me as a competitive soccer player. However, I discovered that anxiety crept in during the Broad Street. Specifically I would feel anxious when I was riding the subway from the stadiums to the start line, while I was waiting at the start line, and throughout the first mile of the race. This anxiety caused me to push myself too hard in the beginning of the race, and therefore I would fade toward the end. Knowing that gradual exposure can treat anxiety, I tried a self-experiment. When training in the months leading up to the race, I would imagine or visualize myself in the subway, at the starting line, and beginning the race. While imagining these experiences, my anxiety would increase. However, over time, the anxiety diminished as I visualized race day events. Now when I run this race I am less anxious, I do not unnecessarily push myself too much in the first mile, and I enjoy the race more. (In the future I will write specifically about the benefits and correct way for athletes to visualize.)

I have recently questioned a long standing mindset associated with pregame anxiety. Athletes, myself included, are often taught to treat big games as an everyday game as to avoid the debilitating effects of anxiety. Now I’m torn because I partially agree with this notion. If you treat a championship like a normal game, your anxiety is likely to be less. However I’ve seen players attempt to do this, thus suppressing anxiety, which eventually comes out in some fashion. I wonder if it is helpful to identify pregame anxiety to become more comfortable with it. Please feel free to comment if you have any thoughts on this concept.

The Perception of Failure

6/27/12

I recently read some information pertaining to students’ academic performance and exposure to concepts of failure. I believe that the findings in study are applicable to sports as well. The study compared the academic performance of two groups of students. One group was taught that failure is a common part of learning, while the other group was not taught that failure is a part of learning. The results indicate that students who are taught that failure is normal, and even expected, performed significantly better on a working memory test than the other group.

I firmly believe that this data can cross over with athletes. In my experiences as a coach and working with athletes in therapy, I’ve encountered athletes who are perfectionists. These athletes often seem to experience higher levels of anxiety and inner turmoil when they fail, lose a game, and/or do not perform up to their expectations. If you read my previous blog regarding anxiety and negative self-talk, you might have a better understanding why anxiety often leads to more failure.

A form of therapy gaining popularity is called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. One component of this form of treatment is called self-forgiveness, which encourages clients to “cut them self a break” when they make mistakes. Think of it this way: when a close friend makes a mistake, be it social/interpersonal, academic, or sport-related, you would respond by offering support. You might normalize the mistake by sharing a similar experience and letting him/her know that it happens to everyone. You might try to diminish their emotional pain through minimizing the mistake by saying, “It’s not a big deal, this kind of thing happens all of the time.” However we, as humans, are our own harshest critics. We are so quick to comfort a friend and forgive them for a mistake, but we rarely use this strategy with ourselves.  Think about how much more confident and happy you might be on the field/track/court if you could make a mistake, forgive yourself, and move on. Unfortunately, most of us refuse self-forgive, resulting in negative self-talk, increased anxiety, less enjoyment on the field, and decreased performance.

I have yet to meet a perfect athlete and I know I never will. This statement is true because sports are full of failures. Eric Savage, a brilliant person (which is difficult for me to say) and former coach at Swarthmore College constantly said, “Soccer is a series of successes and failures, and the failures often outnumber the successes.” This comment is so true in all sports; however athletes, coaches, parents, and fans fail to accept it by demanding perfection. This is no truer than in the Philadelphia area. As a die-hard Eagles fan I (as well as the rest of the fan base) am quick to boo whenever a mistake is made. It is so easy to expect athletes to be perfect every time they perform. But in reality this is ludicrously unrealistic. I’ve recently been thinking about a possible connection with this concept and why the Flyers biggest problem over the past 20 years in the playoffs has been goal tending. It might have something to do with the likelihood of them becoming the scapegoat after one poor performance. I cannot imagine the negative mindset that could emerge for these goalies.

The point is that athletes need to work at forgiving or cutting themselves a break when they fail. This adds credence to the idea that the most successful athletes are the ones with the shortest memory.  When an athlete cannot accept that he/she will repeatedly fail they end up creating a detrimental sense of anxiety. Whereas, athletes who accept failure as a normal part of their athletic career tend to feel more confident and happier about playing, ultimately leading to better performances. If you have seen my presentation on mental toughness, you have probably seen this clip, which illustrates the main point of this blog.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45mMioJ5szc