Lessons learned from the NFL Combine

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?

Freddy Garcia has the “Grip.”

— Juplimpton

Freddy Garcia has the “Grip”.  The “grip” is that dreaded feeling of having no idea where the ball is going to go when you throw it.

He is at 83-84, afraid to pitch.  You can see the mechanical breakdown happen before your eyes.  His mental tension creates physical tension, which creates mechanical breakdown.  It is all over his face and his eyes tell all.

The “grip” is devastating.  It is a career ender.  Dontrelle Willis is the latest victim of this difficult to cure disease.  It ends the careers of many players, at many levels, and there are plenty of examples from Mackey Sasser to now, Freddy Garcia.

Teams have placed players on the Disabled List for this problem.  They label it anxiety.  Players have tried medication, hypnotherapy, singing songs and visualizing something totally unrelated to throwing, yet once a player gets the “grip”, they do not ever rid themselves from its clenches.

It happens for many reasons.  No matter why, the “grip” is all powerful.  Something that you have taken for granted, all of your life, is now a chore, a mystery and a stressor because you have no idea why it has happened.

Why can’t I throw a baseball anymore?

When that doubt is created, a player grips the ball tighter.  They begin to notice things like the runner coming up the line, the facial expressions of those they are throwing to and they worry about their release point.

All of a sudden, the timing, fluidity and transfer of energy a pitcher or thrower needs, is thrown off kilter.  Feet begin to stop moving, which leads to the loss of lower body movement, momentum, direction and power.

When a thrower loses their legs, especially the feeling of using their legs, the pitcher/thrower now must use their upper body to generate power, while also trying to perform complex fine motor skills, such as pitch location and movement.

Once the upper body tries to make-up for power, fine motor skills become compromised.  When taken to an extreme, the “grip” can be triggered by any single event that does cause a person to think about the consequences of not being able to throw the ball where you want to anymore.

Watching Freddy Garcia pitch against the Red Sox today in the 1st inning, I immediately saw the tell tale signs of the “grip.”  Five wild pitches in his first game, significantly lower velocity, physical tension, aiming the ball and not trusting his secondary pitches are all indications that he has caught the virus.

I do not write this to speak ill of Freddy Garcia.  What these and other athletes do are amazing feats that the average individual appreciates but does not truly understand.

How would your throwing change in front of 50,000 people?

Personally, I suffered from the “Grip” when I played High School Baseball.  I tore my rotator cuff, tried to throw through it, couldn’t, and in compensating, I lost all confidence in throwing a baseball.

We called it Gardneritis.

I had no self-awareness at the time of what I was thinking and doing.  After surgery, I studied how this happened to me, learned practical ways to deal with it and have had to continue to work at throwing correctly whenever I pick up a ball.

I have worked with several individuals who have suffered from the “Grip.”  I wish I could say that everyone I have worked with has learned how to deal with it and continue to play.  Some have, but most have not.

But, I do know that there are practical ways for pitchers and position players to deal with the “grip.”  Ultimately, it is up to each individual to develop and enhance their attention-to-detail, focus on the “little things” and choose to work on their throwing like they were rehabbing a major physical injury.

See, the fact is that once you get it, you never truly get rid of it.  Players have to learn how to re-throw.  The “grip” is the mental equivalent of a torn ACL or having Tommy John surgery.  One cannot just all of a sudden get over it.

Learning how to throw again takes time.  It is a process that most players never pay attention to in the first place.

Who think about throwing?

So, when the “grip” happens, it becomes the first time that a person really starts to think about throwing.  Negative outcomes create negative thoughts and, with no history of thinking about throwing, the only memories are the short-term ones that involve the “grip” and thoughts and feelings associated with the total loss of control.

I feel bad for Freddy Garcia.  I know how stressed he is.  He is trying to hide his affliction.  Nobody will talk with him about it because nobody knows what to say and they do not want to think too much about their own throwing and pitching.

It is really a fine line.  Throwing can be so effortless and easy.  Yet, once someone loses that feeling, it can be lost forever.

Ivy League Resurgence?

With Harvard clinching its first bid to the Big Dance since 1946, one has to consider if this is a glimpse into a back-to-the-future scenario.  Can Ivy League sports see a return to the national prominence they once possessed in the first part of the 20th Century?

While I do not believe Ivy League Football programs will be competing with the SEC anytime soon, I do not see any reasons why athletic programs that do not offer athletic scholarships, cannot compete on a national level with other major collegiate athletic programs.

It is no coincidence that a graduate of Duke chose to coach at Harvard.  Tommy Amaker knows that for every athlete-student and one-and-doner, there is an equally talented student-athlete whose academic commitment compliments their athletic achievements.

Just ask Ben Howland if his integrity is now more important than the potential of what his win/loss record could have been with all of the talent he amassed over the past five years.

One of the positive by-products in the development of the modern day student-athlete has been an increased number of individuals who excel at both academics and athletics.  The second by-product of the youth professionalization model is measured in the sheer number of individuals participating in all sports that lead to college playing opportunities.

The bottom line is that there are more individuals who are academically gifted who also throw 92-96, are 6’11” and can dunk hard, or are the equivalent in another college sport.  With the path already paved by previous generations, new migration patterns created by current and future generations of student-athletes will shift the balance of power to more academically inclined schools, similar to migration patterns to cities occurred during the American Industrial Revolution.

History is a great teacher.  In difficult and changing times, people go to where there is opportunity.  Why would this be any different for student-athletes entering college, when going to college is only more difficult, expensive, and competitive than ever before?

Over the past twenty years, the realities of sport and society have drifted apart.  Social change outside of sport has clearly outpaced social change within sport.  Sport sells itself on individual freedom and expression, yet conformity is now the norm, as it is more important to keep sponsors happy rather than take a stand on social issues.

Like the Arab Spring, I believe collegiate sport is on the verge of experiencing its own march towards truly recognizing the “student” in student-athlete.  This will not be accomplished by another NCAA mandate or rule change, but will be a by-product and reflection of student-athlete choice for balance beyond sport.

I believe this trend will not only continue, but will shift talent away from schools who emphasize sport over academics.  There is a perfect storm forming for future generations of student-athletes, as there are large increases in the numbers of individuals pursuing athletic scholarships, yet the number of available scholarships remains relatively constant.

With the realization that athletic scholarships are not all they are cracked up to be, student-athletes are becoming savvy in seeking a balance between athletic and academic opportunities.   For every athletic scholarship, there are 10 academic scholarships, most of which go unused.

It will also be interesting to see how Ivy League Schools and other academically-oriented programs get caught up in Linsanity and the rapid realignment, expansion and change among major college athletic conferences.

There are millions of economic reasons at stake.  The only difference is that individual, long-term economic self-interest will carry equal, if not more weight, than the economic interests of the NCAA.

Is “Shirts and Skins” Outdated?

As my eight year old daughter and I walked into the gym the other night for her basketball practice, we were both confronted with a first.

My daughter had never seen a group of boys playing full-court basketball, with one team not wearing any shirts.  I had not seen a group of young boys playing “shirts on skins” in some time, myself, and it was the first time since the Sandusky and Fine sex abuse scandals.

We both were hesitant to walk in the gym.  Naturally, my daughter was embarrassed to see a bunch of 4th and 5th grade boys running around in nothing but their shorts and shoes.

Seeing the kids instantly brought back uncomfortable memories for me, too, as I always hated being a skin. While very athletic, I did not like my skinny pre adolescent body and I did not like taking off my shirt to play sports.

As my daughter and I peered through the little windows of the gym door, debating if we should or should not walk in, I noticed that many of these kids looked just like me.

Uncomfortable.

Stuck in the small gym lobby, I started thinking to myself, is playing “shirts and skins” appropriate anymore?

In light of the events over the past few months, I wondered if such a commonplace norm in men’s sports, especially in unstructured sport, was appropriate for youth and adolescent participants in 2012.

As a kid of the Cold War era, shirts and skins was a standard practice.  There was no choice, you were either a shirt or a skin, no questions asked.  In 2012, I am not so sure this is appropriate anymore in structured youth sport environments.

I am torn because, on one level, I hated being a skin and I know that there are generations of boys who would agree with me.  There is another side of me, the traditionalist, who says this is simply one aspect of sport that used to be commonplace and should continue as a right of passage from adolescents to manhood, something that is handed down from one generation to the next.

I know there are those out there saying “If you don’t have the confidence to play without your shirt, then you don’t have the ability to play out there anyway.”  This may be correct, yet the point of youth sport is not about how good you are, it is about participation, inclusion and providing an environment for kids to feel comfortable enough to learn about and engage in their sport.

At a societal level, I do not see a place for shirts and skins anymore with boys under the age of eighteen in structured and organized sporting events.   Don’t get me wrong.  I have nothing against getting a tan and staying cool while playing if you are outside, in hot and sunny weather.  I am not trying to advocate taking any fun out of a game of basketball.

Yet, I do have a difficult time accepting that it is ok for young boys to be running around, barely clothed, in structured and organized practices.

The Sandusky and Fine molestation cases force us to question and rethink any “old school” practices that place kids in vulnerable and uncomfortable circumstances.  I now find myself in daily quandaries, as I am now questioning many long standing traditions in sport.

Many of these traditions were innocently born in the unstructured environments of the playgrounds of the past, yet now it is our obligation to consider consequences and be vigilant about outdated practices that have now become questionable and debatable.

We can no longer assume innocence and claim ignorance when it comes to the motives of adults who coach, teach and mentor our youth.

If we do continue with this blind trust, one day we will read a story about a youth basketball coach, accused of molesting children, who loved to divide their team into shirts and skins.

Back to the Future: BBCOR bats are changing the mind-set in baseball

Back to the Future:  BBCOR Bats are changing the mind-set in baseball

Sporting federations and leagues dedicate enormous resources in regulating the impact of technology on the integrity of their respective sports.  For the first time that I am aware, baseball has joined this ever expanding group, with more restrictive regulations for bats being used in High School and College Baseball.

BBCOR bats are designed to act more like wood bats, as they are engineered to reduce the speed that a ball leaves the bat.  This nationwide movement to BBCOR bats was spurred, in part, by the near death of Marin Catholic pitcher, Gunnar Sandberg, last year after being struck in the head by a comebacker. 

While there are many voices for and against these changes, there is no doubt that the advent and implementation of these bat changes have taken baseball back to its roots.  No longer can a hitter get rewarded with an artificial hit just because his bat is made of some chemical compound.

A recent NCAA article lends some initial support to the effectiveness of BBCOR bats, as 2011 mid-season offensive statistics are below those of 2010.  The trend is expected to continue as long as bat standards continue to be compared to wood bats, not last year’s model.

“Small ball” is making a comeback because it has to.  BBCOR bats seem to be leveling the playing field and separating better players from average ones.  If this progression continues, position players in baseball will be forced to develop more all-around offensive abilities and develop a hitter’s “tool box” that includes different ways to get on base and score runs.

One of my core beliefs, is that inherent in sport is the need to adapt and adjust.  In earlier years, talent can carry someone a long way.  Yet, as talent gaps shrink, adversity increases and athletes reveal their ability or inability to cope with different, stressful and ever-changing circumstances. 

BBCOR bats are revealing weaknesses in hitters who benefited from the technological advantages provided in the pre-BBCOR era.  Hitters will now begin to experience difficulties earlier in their careers, as before BBCOR bats many baseball players eventually learned that their metal bat swing did not get it done when they moved to wood. 

Wood bats are simply the tool that separates good hitters from average hitters.  With BBCOR bats being made to react more like wood bats, this separation will begin to occur sooner in one’s career, rather than later.

From the psychological perspective, BBCOR bats will also reveal how hitters cope with and respond to the adversity created, either real or imaginary.   There are certain patterns I see with hitters, in both baseball and softball, no matter what bat they have in their hands. 

Hitters will show their frustration through swinging more or swinging less.  They will become indecisive and not be able to start their swings or they will swing at any pitch thrown.   Physical tension will show itself in a hitter’s forearms and grip of the bat.  Every hitter knows the feeling of what it is like to freeze on a pitch down the middle of the plate and not understand why they could not swing the bat.

Hitters will think they are thinking too much.  They will search for mechanical and technical quick-fixes, yet their performance may not improve.  In sports, especially baseball, the first thing athletes do is to try and fix something mechanical, when what plagues them is something else. 

This all occurred before BBCOR bats and it is my belief that more hitters are experiencing these roadblocks, frustrations and dips in their offensive production than ever before. 

This is also occurring to a generation of hitters who were used to certain expectations when they hit the ball, fair or unrealistic, and now they will have to not only adjust to the physical limitations but also the psychological ramifications of not having the same outcomes.

Individual players will now have to work harder and work smarter.  No longer can the average baseball player just take 100-200 swings a day.  BBCOR bats will challenge individual players to focus more on improvement, doing things correctly and becoming a complete and all around hitter.

The Power of Words

The Power of Words – Dr. Doug Gardner

Have you ever caught yourself wondering about the meaning of innocuous words and phrases of encouragement given by fans, teammates and coaches? 

Watch Bull Durham again or simply listen closely to the types of encouragement and instruction offered to athletes the next time you are at games.  After attending too many sporting events in my career, I am not surprised why young athletes tune out and ignore adults. 

What does it mean to get a good pitch, or your pitch to hit?  How can you just trust yourself and allow your talent to take over?  Is someone really capable of forgetting a bad play, an error or a strikeout?  What about my personal favorite:  Stop thinking and just play…. Just have fun.

Have fun?  You try it sometimes. 

Try forgetting about the run-scoring double the centerfielder took away your last at-bat.  What about the borderline strike-three call you didn’t get, only to give up a big hit on the next pitch?

Is it really that easy to stay positive and stop thinking at the same time?  Especially when you are mired in a 0-10 slump? 

Despite the positive intentions, athletes often become more distracted and frustrated by words of encouragement and instruction in pressure situations, after mistakes or when negative outcomes occur. 

The hitter knows she needs to get a hit before she steps into the batters box, the pitcher wants to get you out and the fielder wants to make sure he does not make an error.

When mistakes are made, athletes are usually harder on themselves than anyone else could be.  Athletes take it personally when mistakes are made and do not like to hear someone re-stating the obvious, telling them what they should have done and that they will be ok. 

Fans, parents and coaches often forget or have not experienced the empty and hollow feeling of making a mistake in front of teammates, coaches and those who want to see you succeed?  Now add in the aspect that half the fans at a game want to see you fail, and it makes for a very difficult mental balance for the average athlete. 

Athletes are the first to understand the magnitude of their mistake and want to do something to shift negative attention away from their gaffe. 

In these circumstances, athletes tend to “try” harder, so they can make up for poor performances or mistakes.  The pitcher tries to blow a fastball by the hitter, only to get hit harder.  The hitter tries to make up for three bad at-bats by placing more pressure on themselves to get a hit in their last.  The fielder worries more about trying not to make a mistake on the next ball hit to them. 

The unfortunate side of trying harder is often met by continued poor performance, as there is no correlation between trying harder and performing better. 

Usually, when athletes try, they tense.  They tense mentally, in that they cannot input, process and analyze strategic information into action.  They tense physically, as their indecision prohibits their body from acting on decisions that were not made in an athletic and instinctive manner.

The most classic response to tension is to tell someone to relax.  Once again, word choice becomes critical.  What does relax really mean?  How does one really relax in pressure situations?  Is relaxation really the correct goal?

While I cannot discount the importance of utilizing and practicing self-regulation skills, I believe it is incorrect to solely limit mental training to (1) relaxation and (2) not thinking as goals for achieving success. 

The tension/relaxation debate illustrates the larger issues this type of thinking creates: 

The Either/Or Syndrome. 

If I am tense, I should relax.  If I think too much, I should not think.  If I care too much, I should not care.  If I do not work hard enough, I need to work harder.  If I am not relaxed, I am tense. 

My concern is when athletes need everything to be perfect for them to perform well.  Once adversity strikes, many athletes do not possess the mental fortitude to make sense of their situation, define their reality, and make decisions and take actions, win or lose.

Once consequences enter into the equation, athlete decision-making strategies change in predictable and avoidable ways.  This mostly occurs because something was not “perfect” or did not go one’s way and now they are thinking out of emotion, not out of logic and rationality.

All of the positive thinking in the world will not guarantee athletic success.   More importantly, spending time trying to be positive takes away the mental energy needed to be strategic and problem solve. 

Problem solving is a strength that most student-athletes possess in the classroom and it is important to bring this attribute onto the athletic field.

At some point, we can either try to think about something positive, breathe out of our eyelids, or take a few moments to define the reality in front of us.  The choice is yours.

April Fools on New Year’s Day?

By:  Juplimpton

You wake up one morning in January and you are determined this is the year you will work harder, be better prepared and commit more to your sport. You start working out, maybe even eating better. You start to organize times to practice and train and you are highly motivated, as you begin a new year, full of hope and limitless possibilities.

You wake up earlier or stay up later, carving out more time to train. One day, something throws a wrench in your schedule and you do not accomplish what you wanted to do. Sure enough, another day like this occurs and your frustration builds because your plan for the day and the reality of your day do not mesh.

Days and weeks go by, inconsistency increases along with external responsibilities and the internal struggle rages in your mind, knowing that you wanted to work so hard and accomplish so much, yet by April 1st, there is a realization that you just did not get it done.

Life has a funny way of interfering with our best intentions and plans for improvement. Over time, the multiple demands that student-athletes face create obstacles for goal attainment, especially when goals are set with the best intentions but are established incorrectly.

A New Year’s resolution is simply another term for a goal, housed under the context of a different word, a “resolution.” If goals or resolutions are set up incorrectly, individuals and teams are unknowingly setting themselves up for failure, while thinking they are working diligently and with the best intentions.
Despite the attention placed on setting New Year’s Resolutions, most people are never taught how to establish goals in a realistic fashion. The “carrot” is extended to you in the form of what the outcome and end result will be, without discussing the commitment, hard work and the struggles endured to accomplish what we want.

One of the most important jobs of a Sport Psychology Professional is to teach athletes, coaches and parents the correct ways to establish, maintain and adjust personal goals on both the small and large scale.

 The first common mistake athletes make is not spending enough time thinking about what they truly want from participating in their sport. Instead, many athletes blurt out goals without much thought about personal ownership and the short and long-term aspects of what they are trying to accomplish.

To establish effective goals, an athlete must first ask themselves some pretty difficult, honest and direct questions. Why do I participate in my sport? What do I want from my sport? Where do I want to be in 2, 3 or 5 years?

If we cannot address these fundamental and basic questions, how can we truly set purposeful, specific and meaningful goals.

Before setting goals or making resolutions, it is first important to take inventory of yourself and be objective about where you currently are in your development, compared to where you want to be. Identify your current strengths and weaknesses in the technical, physical and mental aspects of your sport and your position.

It is much easier to set realistic goals if you first have an objective understanding of your own ability compared to the ability level you would like to achieve. It is natural to compare your ability to the ability of others, yet the challenge becomes comparing your current ability to your past and future ability.

Goal setting, done correctly, is all about controllability. Set goals that are challenging, not too easy or too difficult. Be specific about the smaller steps that add up to the end result and focus on improving each step within the process. Developing a sense of accomplishment, on a daily basis, is an important motivator to continue working on areas of your game that you consider weak or in need of improvement.

Most importantly, commitment to learning is critical throughout this process. Improvement does not occur without mistakes, frustration and set-backs. You have the choice to decide if you will judge these situations as good or bad or if you will view them as learning experiences to grow from.

Athletes who learn how to blend short-term experience with a long-term perspective will stay more emotionally level and will understand that mistakes are opportunities to learn more about themselves, their performance and their reactions in critical moments.

The reality of goal setting is that it is an everyday process. It is an unfair and unrealistic expectation to wake up one day and radically change everything you have been doing. What makes January 1st any different from any other day?

The real question to ask yourself is: When is your January?


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