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.


This Is Water

This clip captures some of the important aspects of mindfulness, awareness, and how small changes in perspective can have a huge impact on life. That change in perspective is connected to learning to think in a way that is beneficial, not hurtful. I welcome comments because discussion can add meaning and power to the message.

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


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.


Self-Talk: All Athletes Are Doing It


I played professional soccer in Ireland, albeit very brief, following my career at Millersville University. My time playing soccer Millersville was when I, without a doubt, played my best soccer and had the most fun on the field. What happened? How did I go from having a lot of fun and scoring 18 goals my senior year at Millersville to being miserable on the field and struggling to score any goals? I was still in great physical shape and there is no way my my athletic ability could have deteriorated significantly. Negative self-talk happened

These are some of the thoughts and self-statements I experienced when I was playing in Ireland:

-I don’t belong here

-These other guys are way better than me

-I’m going to confirm to my teammates that Americans suck at soccer

-I don’t want to mess up

-I hope my missed shot doesn’t cost us the game

-I just wish the game was over

-I want to go home

All athletes are constantly experiencing a steady stream of self-talk and oftentimes it is out of one’s awareness. Most athletes and people in general blindly accept that thoughts are what they are and there is nothing that can be done about them. However, I strongly believe a huge advantage goes to athletes who learn to manage their negative thoughts and increase their positive thoughts regarding their performance. At the root of Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Mindfulness is the management of troublesome thoughts. For example, people with high levels of anxiety tend to experience frequent thoughts of a negative or worrisome future. This occurs with athletes when they begin to project too far in the future how a past mistake will negatively impact the outcome. One common example is when a soccer player misses an easy goal in the first few minutes of the game. This player is likely to experience negative self-talk such as “I suck, my coach is going to bench me, my teammates are going to be pissed off at me, just don’t pass me the ball because I’m going to mess up again…” As a result the player progresses through the negative cycle of:

1) A mistake is made

2) Anxiety slightly increases

3) Negative self-talk increases

4) Anxiety significantly increases

5) The player begins to flee from the game in fear of making another mistake.

6) The uninvolved players’ confidence drops.

7) Anxiety spins out of control

8) Performance drops

9) Return to step 1 and repeat

A good metaphor for this process is a snowball being pushed down a hill and on its way down it gathers speed and size to the point where it is out of control and destructive. I imagine the original mistake on the field as the beginning of a snow fall. Mistakes are inevitable; it is part of being an athlete who chooses to play a sport: snow fall is inevitable. The negative self talk is comparable to when a person chooses to make a snowball and push it down the hill.  In the snowball metaphor it is obvious that the person has control over whether they make the snowball and push it down the hill. However in sports, most athletes struggle with realizing they can control those performance hindering thoughts.

The first step in thought control, decreasing negative self-talk, and increasing positive self-talk is awareness. Most of the time athletes are unaware of self-talk. In cognitive behavioral terms these are called automatic thoughts. They are so ingrained and habitual that they take place outside of our awareness.  The second step is to develop an increased awareness of the purpose of these thoughts and negative self-statements. Some athletes believe the negative thoughts motivate them, whereas others think “If I say bad things about myself, when someone else actually says the same thing it won’t hurt as much.” The third step is to challenge these thoughts when you determine that they are hurting your performance. This is often done through replacing the negative thoughts with positive ones. Once an athlete is able to decrease negative thoughts while increasing positive ones, the final step is to maintain this pattern. Another helpful metaphor with the process of challenging/changing thoughts by comparing it to a person attempting to break a habit. Athletes who first begin the process of managing their thoughts is like to a life-long smoker trying to quit. An athlete is trying to change a life-long habit of the mind when changing negative thoughts to positive thoughts.

Research from the following article shows:

The Effects of Motivational Versus Instructional Self-Talk on Improving Motor Performance. (2000), Theodorakis, Y.,  Weinberg, R., Natsis, P, Douma, I., & Patagiotis, K. The Sport Psychologist (14), 253-272.

•Athletes use self-talk to:

-Enhance motivation

-Build confidence

-Improve cues for physical performance.

•Positive self-talk helps a player stay present, while not spending much needed energy and focus dwelling on mistakes of the past or projecting too far into the future.

•Motivational vs. Instructional positive self-talk

•Motivational Talk

-Enhances confidence

-Inspires greater effort/energy expenditure

-Creates a positive mood

-Can reduce anxiety

-Can enhance performance

•Instructional Talk

-Triggers desired actions and techniques through narrowly focusing attention

The results of this particular study:

-Instructional self-talk helps with tasks of accuracy, precision, and fine motor coordination such as an accurate pass in soccer or a serve in badminton.

-Both motivational and instructional self-talk help with strength tasks

-Participants of the study consistently reported their assigned motivational and instructional self statements to be helpful