By: Dr. Doug Gardner (Juplimpton)
If you think school is difficult, the SAT is tough and the recruiting process daunting, imagine having your future employment potential dissected under a microscope, both physically and mentally over a four day period of time. At the annual NFL Combine, future NFL players must endure scrutiny and performance pressure in a very different environment than game day.
After spending a week at the NFL Combine, I came away with a greater appreciation for athletic performance under the most stressful of situations. Football players spend months preparing for their Combine performance. They are in the gym, honing their interview skills and preparing for the Wonderlic test.
Players endure 12-15 hour days, often starting at 5am and ending around midnight. Balancing interviews with 32 teams, physical examinations and psychological evaluations, players then have to step onto the field and maneuver themselves through rigorous drills that have to be performed to the highest degree, under the most difficult and stressful of circumstances.
One dropped ball, one missed cone, let alone a bad snap from a long-snapper, a missed field goal or a muffed punt leaves a lasting impression on the scouts and team officials sitting in the stands.
From a mental standpoint, I have not witnessed a more pressurized environment for athletes. We often think that competitions like the Olympics, the Super Bowl, the World Series and other must-win competitive environments would be filled with more pressure than running a 40-yard draft, kicking footballs, catching passes and other drills in front of a handful of people.
Making a mistake in front of 40 million viewers might be easier to deal with than shanking a kick in front of 32 future employers. I watched a long-snapper fire over 80 snaps to punters and field goal kickers. He was exhausted, sweating and he was the only long-snapper at the entire NFL Combine.
The long snapper position is one of the most pressurized positions in all of football. Remember the Monday Night Football Game this past season when the Raiders lost their long-snapper in the second quarter? Their back-up had not snapped a ball since high school and the game took a disastrous turn soon after.
Whenever watching athletes perform, I am not as focused on the mistakes they make as I am on their reactions to their mistakes and how they perform on the next play or opportunity. The long-snapper not only had the personal pressure of having to snap the ball perfectly every time, as his mistakes also effected the performance of the punters and field goal kickers.
I watched a few bad snaps, which resulted in a few missed kicks and bad punts. In this finely tuned process, long-snappers and kickers practice this exchange extensively, just as much as quarterbacks and receivers build chemistry on pass patterns. At the NFL Combine, players are working with each other for the first time and mistakes are due to happen. I was very impressed to see the long snapper fire the next snap perfectly after his few misfires.
Coincidently, he and I were on the same flight back to the West Coast, along with the Oakland Raiders Special teams coach. As the three of us discussed his experience at the Combine, the coach echoed the same thoughts I shared, in that he was very impressed with both the sheer endurance the long-snapper had, along with his accuracy and ability to focus on the next snap after the few bad one’s he had.
At the NFL Combine, there is money to be made and lost at every turn. The difference between a great and a poor performance is often the difference between buying a house and renting one. How an athlete handles the stress of being on the largest stage of their careers, performing in front of 32 potential employers instead of thousands or millions is very telling about their preparation and ability to deal with internal and external distractions.
Each of you reading this article have and will experience situations similar to the players at the NFL Combine. Try-outs for a travel program, varsity team or college recruiters take on the same importance. Your ability to focus on your execution and the things you control is just as critical as the players trying out for the NFL.
The question I have for you is simple, yet complex. How do you prepare, both mentally and physically to perform at your highest level when the pressure is at its greatest; when you are performing in front of one or a handful of individuals who hold your future employment in their hands?