Posts Tagged 'pressure'

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?

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Pressure Can Make Us

Elite levels of soccer are the perfect breeding ground for pressure. Players battle for spots on a roster or the starting line-up every time they come to training. Coaches demand a consistent high level of play from their players. There is often little room for error. This sport – like so many others – is so challenging and unpredictable at times that dealing with pressure becomes more the rule than the exception. It’s a mistake for players to believe you can snap your fingers and make the pressure go away. However, young players can learn how to feed off competitive pressure, improve focus, and raise their game to a higher level.

Which is why – at the start of the Women’s World Cup –  I love this new commercial from Nike:

Here are some suggestions for successfully dealing with competitive pressure before and during performance:

Begin to see pressure as a privilege. The pressure of consistently performing well is the price of playing at such an elite level. Too many athletes are simply afraid of pressure-packed situations in games or’ in training. The best players learn to view this pressure as their ally and not their enemy. They see pressure as a tool to push their play to a higher level.

Make pre-game butterflies fly in formation. A lot of players are affected by the pre-game jitters – the zooming heart rate, the butterflies in the gut, etc. This is the body’s natural physiological (fight or flight) reaction to stress. The brain’s job is to make meaning of these signals (which is usually, “you’re nervous”).

The trick to effectively dealing with this is to reinterpret what these physiological signals mean. This is your choice! Instead of thinking, “I’m nervous, I can’t be nervous” when feel the butterflies, change the meaning of this signal to something helpful, such as “I’m ready!”

Focus on the Controllables. The “uncontrollables” as the biggest mental trap athletes fall into in pressure-packed situations. The “uncontrollables” are quite simply all the things in a performance that are directly out of your control (e.g., dealing with a teammate’s mistakes, the play of your opponent, the crowd, the ref, etc). When a player focuses on the uncontrollables three things will consistently happen to him – First, he’ll start to get anxious and physically tight. Second, his confidence will start to slide. Third, his performance will begin to suffer. What are the things we can control? Simple: Effort, attitude, and focus.

Choose to trust what you got. At the heart of playing with confidence in the face of pressure is trusting one’s ability and performing/playing in the present moment. When pressure builds, our minds often become cluttered and we lose our focus. At that moment, we’re usually focused on what just happened or what might (or might not) happen.

The key to being “in the moment” is shifting your mind from “thinking” to “trusting”. Thinking too much can be a big problem – especially when spontaneous reactions allow you to perform your best.

“Don’t think! Just Play!” is usually the advice athletes get when faced with pressure. While such advice isn’t necessarily bad, many athletes struggle with simply cutting off their thoughts altogether. When you find yourself thinking too much, remember that the closest number to zero is one. If you can’t cut off your thoughts altogether, choose one word or a short phrase that directs your focus and instructs your actions.

Effective “cue words,” (such as “quick feet” for a goalkeeper defending a shot, or “first to the ball!” for a player defending a corner, or “what’s important now?” for the forward that just missed a golden opportunity to score) capture what you’re trying to accomplish and help you stay focused on the task at hand.

 


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