In the 2013 NFL Draft, sheer athletic talent will seduce several professional football coaches, general managers and owners into making a terribly expensive error as they completely forget that Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf came into the NFL with almost identical physical skill sets (and we won't even mention JaMarcus Russell). While the chances of costing one's franchise a decade of competitive viability are lower in these post-Lockout days, $25-$30 million for a rookie bust is more than a hiccup on the way to a dynasty. Despite a league-wide history of epic miscalculations, the guys with the stopwatches and measuring tapes still get stars in their eyes over impressive physical specimens.
The difference between Olympic medalists and their closest competitors is not physical; it is mental (Kerri Strug anyone?). Is there a links-lover anywhere who thinks that Tiger Woods became the best golfer in the world by virtue of a magical swing? A swing that he has completely overhauled about ten times? At the highest level of competition in any sport, athletic skill is not enough.
Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent ... Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
Football, that toughest and most physical of all sports, acknowledges in a somewhat anecdotal way that mental preparedness can provide the winning edge. Players and teams with "swagger" can carry the day over opponents generally viewed to be superior in ability. Just ask the New York Giants.
An article in Athletic Insight maintains "there appears to be a shift away from seeing work in this domain as mainly problem focused and towards it being opportunity focused." So why have only a handful of colleges incorporated professionally led mental conditioning into their programs? Athletes' Performance Vice President of Mindset Programs, Trevor Moawad, presents this scenario:
You're a top college football coach. You go into your Athletic Director's office to solicit the funds for adding a formal mental conditioning component to your multi-million dollar program. You tell the Director that this will help improve focus, team Gestalt, coachablity and life management skills, leading to improved performance on the field, in the classroom and in life. And the Athletic Director looks right back at you and says, "Isn't that your job?"
Dr. Lowell Wightman, adjunct professor at Colorado State University's School of Education and author of the Master Coaching curriculum, is dedicated to increasing the collegiate supporters. He believes that the future of college football demands "closing the gap between coach and educator."
Mental conditioning can increase graduation percentages in addition to winning percentages as improved communication skills and the ability to increase psychological resiliency inform both on- and off-the-field performance. Wightman is launching a multi-year study designed to supply the hard numbers required by those in charge of university budgets.
For the moment, mindset training is more valued by agents and other professionals charged with shepherding NFL aspirants through the Draft gauntlet. Athletes' Performance is at the top of the food chain when it comes to preparing NFL prospects for the grueling January-April selection process.
Mental conditioning isn't bringing in a Navy Seal the night of the big game to motivate your team to greatness. While valuable and inspirational, those talks tend to have the memory lifespan of last Sunday's sermon. Mindset preparedness as a permanent part of athletic performance training involves exactly the same discipline, practice and reinforcement as position drills. Moawad maintains, "Your mind is an asset." Perhaps with the caveat: "If property trained."
Coaches at every level stress repetition: guide the athlete to finding the optimum way to start a sprint, run a route, execute a touch-pass, tackle a power back. Rinse and repeat. Again and again until their muscles fall naturally into the correct actions.
Part of mental conditioning is practicing a relentlessly positive mindset that focuses on believing in one's own competence. Believing that those endless physical reps have ensured that the body knows exactly what to do. How logical. Why does this seem easier to say than to do in the middle of Lucas Oil Field with every owner, coach and scout in the NFL universe staring at you, holding their clipboards and your future?
Nick Winkelman, the Director of Training Systems and Education at Athletes' Performance's Phoenix facility, has a mission to make his NFL hopefuls prepared for "the immensity of the moment." He and his colleagues employ training techniques based on Self Determination Theory. Developed by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan at the University of Rochester, SDT is a theory of motivation that emphasizes social connectedness with peers, a confidence in one's own autonomous capability and a system of self-advocacy based on reinforcing a sense of individual efficacy.
Mr. Moawad maintains that much of mindset training is "common sense." That habit defines you. That mental conditioning helps the young athletes to "identify successful habits in those they respect and copy them." That taking responsibility for one's own performance and becoming "consciously competent" is the foundation of success in the NFL Draft process and in an NFL career. All of which sounds like the kind of common sense that is "not so common."
Any young man who has made it to the level of legitimate NFL prospect is no stranger to athletic success. However, undisciplined thinking and negative "self-talk" can sabotage a career -- and a life. According to Moawad, it takes "ten positive experiences to counteract one negative thought." Mental conditioning can reinforce those positive experiences and retrain the inner dialogue that could derail success.
The mindset training component at Athletes' Performance runs through the program like a river of positive thinking. Coach Randall Coburn may be officially tasked with speed and movement training at AP's Florida branch, but he and colleague Anthony Hobgood experienced an exceptional level of success with their 2013 NFL Combine participants after instituting a recurring Saturday session based on the steps necessary to "leave behind selfish boyish ways and become a man." Coburn estimated that every day of Combine training included between five and ten elements of mindset work, though the athletes probably wouldn't have noticed or identified them as such.
The emphasis on giving their athletes Combine and Pro Day experiences that contain virtually no surprises is a central goal in AP's program: preparing the future draftees for the physical drills, the team interviews, the media presence and the mental challenges leads ideally to a comfort level that frees the athletes to showcase their best selves under the NFL microscope.
When asked by OT Terron Armstead for advice on which of the many available cleats to use for his first Combine day, Coburn responded with his own question, "Which pair makes you feel the most comfortable?" Armstead responded, "The ones with my two daughters' names on them."
That choice may or may not have been a defining factor, but young Mr. Armstead established a new offensive lineman record in the 40-yard dash, put up 31 reps on the bench press and sprang 122 inches on his broad jump. For those who weren't glued to the television during offensive linemen drills, Mr. Armstead weighs 306 pounds. That's an impressive number of airborne inches for someone that size.
Terron probably moved up at least one round in the April hiring event and has even started rumors that some teams may try him out at tight end. Armstead would probably agree that one can't overestimate the value of a comfort level based on both mind and body preparedness. According to Darin Gantt of NBCSports.com, "He's at least gotten himself noticed, making whatever he spent on combine prep well worth it for his agent."
Special thanks to those who gave their time to be interviewed and to Peggy Iralson of Athletes' Performance for her help.