The Mental Disconnect – Adapting to the NFL

A few weeks after the NFL draft, the NFL holds their annual “Rookie Symposium.” The NFL has called it an introduction to “life in the NFL.” Former and current players and coaches will come in and speak to the 254 drafted players and explain to them the ins and outs of living an NFL life. Herm Edwards’ gave a well-known speech at the symposium where he tells the incoming rookies that, “you only need 1 of everything.” (You can see the speech here, with the quote around the 13-minute mark.)

The NFL Rookie Symposium is a fantastic resource for a group of young men with an average age of about 21 years old. Even if the message of the symposium gets through to only a few of the young men it’s well worth the money that the NFL puts into it.

But there’s a problem. The symposium does a terrific job of offering men advice that will help them to adjust to the lifestyle off the field. The problem is that so many of these young men will not understand the biggest obstacle that they will face in their battle with the NFL is completely mental, and one they’ll have to fight with themselves.

The Set-Up

NFL players are the best of the best. These are some of the biggest, strongest, and most athletic men in the world. The NFL is a competitive arena that functions via Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and Natural Selection. Either you adapt or you’ll face an early exit from this life.

Talent is a God-given gift. Predominantly, in the NFL, these players have always been the best and most talented players on their teams and in their leagues. From young ages, in Pop Warner leagues, these guys have excelled and everyone has told them how terrific they are. The same happens in middle school and high school.

Then the colleges come calling. Recruiting has basically turned into a flirting session where flattery can turn into flat out begging by universities. Players are promised the world if they’ll come and play football for numerous colleges.

These players’ egos have been pampered and heads have been inflated with adulation from the moment they stepped onto the field. Life seems to come to them without any effort. These young men live in a distorted sense of reality from an extremely young age.  Grades are taken care of, practices are easy for them, and the rewards are praise and commendation.

The Realization

The superbly talented players are accustomed to getting by on talent alone. They’ve never had to focus on fundamentals because their talent and instincts have always led them to success between the lines. That talent has allowed that player to take a false step or make a wrong move and then recover and still be able to make a play. The player’s talent covers up mistakes both on the field and off the field.

The exceptionally talented players actually learn what they can get away with and what they can’t. It becomes in the playing style of that player. Guys like Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford could get away with risky throws and shoddy mechanics in college because they were so much more talented than anyone else around them. They could throw off their back foot, or heave one up sidearmed, because the windows were bigger and the defenders weren’t as talented, and still complete the pass.

In the NFL, that talent advantage disappears. The transition is tough for rookies because everyone else gets better, except for the rookie. Now, all of a sudden, that risky throw turns into an interception instead of a completion. Players are no longer able to recover from a false step. In fact, the opposing team is trying to get a player to take that false step, preying on it, knowing that a player in this league can’t recover fast enough from that mistake.

The house of cards that a player’s ego was built on from Pop Warner until the NFL, now comes crashing down. At the first taste of failure some players collapse. They’ve never had to deal with not being the best. This is a tough realization to face for some. What once was easy is now something that they have to work at.  Just this week, Chargers’ wide receiver Keenan Allen discussed how he was ready to quit because he wasn’t seeing the field enough.

This is the toughest issue that a player will face on the field in the NFL – understanding that he is no longer better than the people around him. To be great in the NFL, a player must work to improve and get better every week. Players can’t skate by on talent alone. Talent alone is not enough.

Some Never Get It

If talent is all that is necessary to succeed in the NFL, then the most talented players would always perform the best. The problem is that it’s not just a physical game. It’s a mental game as much as it is physical.

Nick Foles doesn’t have the strongest arm in the league. He’s certainly not the most athletic. Yet somehow, Nick Foles has compiled statistics that exceed all but Peyton Manning’s this year. Where both players win, Foles and Manning, is that both excel mentally.

“The cause for success cannot be physical, else the most perfect men physically, would be the most successful. The difference, therefore, must be mental.” – Wallace Wattles

Intelligent but physically limited players in the NFL succeed all the time. One example is Patriots’ defensive end Rob Ninkovich. He doesn’t exactly possess a body and frame that instills fear in the hearts of his opponents. He isn’t particularly strong, fast, or quick. Instead, he uses leverage, technique, and savviness to disarm opponents on his way to the football.  Ninkovich is now in his 5th year on a Patriot team that has been to the playoffs every year since he joined the club in 2009 – including 1 Super Bowl appearance and 2 Conference Championship games. The Patriots are a talented team yet they just signed Ninkovich to a 3-year extension this season more because of his mental prowess than his physical dominance.

In stark opposition stands Lions’ quarterback Matthew Stafford. Stafford is one of the most physically gifted passers in the history of the NFL. He possesses a howitzer for an arm and at times it appears he could knock the wings off a gnat from 30 yards away with his accuracy. He’s athletic and mobile for his position and decent pocket awareness. The problem with Stafford is his mental approach to the game of football. He often takes risks that are unnecessary and his unwillingness to fix mechanical issues has left him highly inconsistent over his short career. Today, in response to a question about hiring a personal quarterback coach in the offseason, Stafford replied, “It’s not my style and it’s not something that I feel would be beneficial to me.”

Stafford has survived in this league on his talent, but will never be great if he doesn’t “get it” mentally. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, arguably the 2 best quarterbacks in the history of the NFL and certainly of our generation, still have personal quarterbacks coaches at ages 36 and 37, respectively. They understand that they can’t win on talent alone, especially at this stage in their careers. But what else could they have to learn?

“I had a great level of comfort with Tom [Martinez] over the years,” Brady said of his late QB coach. “He was always someone I could call on to rely on him. I know he’s watching down with every throw and I hear his voice in the back of my head after every throw. Throwing the football is about mechanics. There’s nothing special. It’s just a matter of doing it the right way. The better mechanically you are, the more accurate you’re going to be able to throw the football.”

Peyton on his personal QB coach, David Cutcliffe: “He used to always talk about, ‘On first-and-10 there’s a completion out there somewhere, there’s a completion out there somewhere,’ ” Peyton said. “I still write that down on my notes and I still go into a game on a play-call on first-and-10 and second down saying, ‘Hey, there’s a completion out here somewhere, let’s find it.’”

Some players get it and some don’t. Hiring a personal QB coach may not help Stafford at all, but for a quarterback whose biggest criticism has been about fundamentals and mechanics, it certainly can’t hurt, and for him to deny it because “it’s not his style” is utterly asinine. It’s really the immediate dismissal that tells the story of Stafford. It gives an air of, “I’ve already got it figured out. I’m good enough.” Or even, “I’m not interested in getting better because it’s uncomfortable for me to admit I need help.” That may not be what he thinks or feels at all, but that’s how I perceived it.

Internalizing It

Aristotle once said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.” Renowned defensive line coach for the Cowboys, Rod Marinelli, writes a maxim on his meeting room whiteboard: “You become what you repeatedly do.”

Will Smith maintains that he isn’t particularly talented, but where he excels is in his worth ethic. He identifies that talent and skill are two separate entities and that skill can be developed.

These are all ideas that players can learn from. It’s the whole basis for success in the NFL. “No matter how talented you are, your talent is going to fail you if you’re not skilled,” Smith says.  “You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, but if we get on a treadmill together, there’s 2 things: you’re getting off first, or I’m going to die.”

This is the idea that separates players. Talent plays a part and gives an advantage, but those that believe that talent will give them success are the players who end up being labeled “busts.” By taking this idea and internalizing it, making it part of a player’s core – by making it a habit – it will help propel a player to success.

The best players in the game understand that practice and effort are needed to be great and maintain success. Rookies coming into the league may be a “gym rat” or have a “good work ethic,” as many scouting reports can reveal, but that was in college. When football becomes an occupation, the connotation and realization of what “hard work” means is a brutal battle they’ll fight internally.

If incoming prospects can identify this idea and understand it, they’ll increase their odds of finding success in this league. If NFL teams can identify this issue, they’ll have a much better chance at avoiding busts in their draft picks. The solution of this problem is mutually beneficial for both parties.

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