Why Were Numbers Down at the Senior Bowl?

I call the Senior Bowl “Disney World for people in the football world.” If you’re in the business, you just have to be there. But I noticed something funny about my trip to Mobile this week. No one was there.

OK, some people were there. Plenty of people. Teams still sent scouts, and several GMs and head coaches, but not nearly as many as I’ve seen in the past. I was looking around on Tuesday, the first day of practices (and quite a cold day), and the sparse nature of the stands was unmistakeable. In fact, the shaded side of the field had barely any scouts at all, which many attributed to the temperatures (a friend told me the press box was quite crowded). All of that is understandable.

I tried to find out if registration was down this year, and I didn’t have any luck, so I just have to go off what I saw and what others said. One Senior Bowl veteran called it “uncharacteristic” of the usual numbers, and another agreed that this week it “definitely felt like it was lacking numbers.” I spoke to several scouts who agreed that there were fewer people in town than usual.

It’s odd, because the news on the fan side seems better than ever; the game is poised to move to a new venue in 2021, and ticket sales for this year appear to be robust. Still, presuming my eyes (and the eyes of so many others) weren’t playing tricks on me, here are five reasons why crowds might have been down.

  • One thing that was unmistakeable was the lack of assistant coaches. In past years, teams have sent their entire coaching staffs, lock, stock and barrel, to Alabama. Maybe this has become a net negative. Scouts often lament spending four months developing a complete picture of a player, only to see the board changed in February after vocal coaches spend three days watching practices in Mobile.
  • Could this be attributed to a coming work stoppage? Maybe. I don’t recall a similar dip in advance of the 2011 CBA negotiations, but it’s certainly not unusual for teams to tighten their belts in anticipation of a work stoppage. It seems like scouts are always the first group looked at when it comes to cuts.
  • There’s no denying that analytics are becoming a bigger part of the game, and teams are having to look at their budgets to see how they allocate funds to traditional scouting vs. newer numbers-driven methods.
  • The Patriots model (which requires less opinion-forming and more numbers-gathering from its scouts) has become undeniably prevalent among teams. However, in the past, even teams that share the Pats’ scouting philosophy still sent their staffers to the game.
  • Scouting numbers seemed to be down at other all-star games, as well, during this cycle. Maybe this reflects a new philosophy as the GM-head coach model flips and head coaches put less emphasis on evaluators.
  • The AFCA conference has continued to grow, and has eclipsed the Senior Bowl as the primary place to get a new job. Over the past several weeks, we’ve heard of many college head coaches declining to go to Nashville simply because they have staff openings and know the conference will be one unending solicitation.

There were other reasons some people I spoke to gave, from bad weather to staff vacancies. In so many other areas, the game has incredible momentum, and the future seems bright. Here’s hoping this is a fluke and not a trend.

For more on this topic and others related to the business of football, make sure to sign up for our weekly newsletter, the Friday Wrap. You can do that here.

Crunch Time: A Look at the Mental Side of Last Weekend’s Playoff Winners

The NFL’s divisional playoff round featured some great defensive performances and one stunning defensive collapse in Kansas City. Let’s unpack the action and see how mental performance impacted the games.

With insights from Lawrence Barnett (defensive back trainer at Traction AP and Eclipse DB Training), aka ‘LB,’ we’ll filter through the aftermath to look at how defensive backs got things right and wrong last weekend – and how their play impacted playoff storylines.

  • The Texans couldn’t keep up and weren’t able to adjust

Let’s start with the track meet in Kansas City. After going up 24-0 via a few weird plays (a blocked punt and a Tyreek Hill fumble on his second punt return of the season), the Texans proceeded to get decimated by Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes and company, giving up seven straight touchdown drives.

What happened? One major factor was that they weren’t able to hold up for the length of time they needed to in coverage.

Usually, defensive backs have to cover for 3-4 seconds before the pass rush gets home. With mobile quarterbacks, though, that time can be significantly increased. (Deshaun Watson and Mahomes both averaged 2.82 seconds time to throw this year, an above-league-average mark that highlights their tendency to extend plays). On longer plays, the Texans, especially, suffered.

Take a look at what happened on Travis Kelce’s second touchdown of the day. As Mahomes rolls out to extend the play, Kareem Jackson is forced to chase Kelce for close to five seconds. Kelce uses the extra time to settle into a window, leaving Jackson in the dust for an easy catch.

It’s a big task for any defense to keep up with the Chiefs, but it was clear in Kansas City that the Texans weren’t able to lock in for long enough – and they weren’t able to adjust to that reality.

  • The Titans had belief in their fundamentals

The Titans may have put on the weekend’s most impressive defensive showing in Baltimore, where they held presumed MVP Lamar Jackson to one late touchdown in a dominating performance.

The key was that their secondary was able to fill the dual roles of pass coverage and run defense that are needed to contend with Jackson. Watch these highlights and you’ll see an example of DC Adoree Jackson holding up in man coverage and DC Logan Ryan securing the edge to keep Jackson from getting loose on an option.

Plays like these were the story of the game. Over and over, the Titans DBs held the edge. And over and over, they made big plays on balls in the air, totaling an impressive eight pass breakups. The Titans had belief in their fundamentals and their mental performance never wavered over the course of the game. The end result was a four-quarter clinic.

  • Richard Sherman showcased his knowledge of the game

Finally, there may not be a better corner to watch (or a better corner, period) than the 49ers’ Richard Sherman. He proved it again against the Vikings.

Take a look at his game-changing interception in man coverage against Adam Thielen. Thielen’s been a top-tier receiver, but Sherman is at another level. He stymies him at the line, runs the route for him, and ends up with the ball against his chest. He’s done things like this every week he’s been on the field for nearly a decade.

How does he do it? Sherman’s the perfect example of an elite mental performer at the cornerback position: he’s able to be hyped up and calmly intelligent at once.

From a scientific perspective, he’s tapping into the kind of functioning that allows Navy SEALS to perform at elite levels. This is only possible when the amygdala (the part of the brain that controls fight or flight) and the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that controls rational decision-making) are activated simultaneously. In the vast majority of the population, when the amygdala gets activated, the prefrontal cortex shuts down and you fight or flee. You don’t think.

Elite warriors, though, are different; they’re able to use the increased intensity while also thinking analytically. Sherman is doing the same thing. After the game, he described how he diagnosed the route to make the pick, making it sound like he was calmly picking up a tell in a poker game. Even in his press conferences, he operates at a high level of intensity while simultaneously making rational, thought-through arguments.

It’s how the best corners function. It’s impressive and it’s fun to watch.

  • Defense wins championships; mental performance makes champions

High-level skill and high-level mental performance make great defensive players. I help athletes maximize the mental side of their games, and I’m honored to work with consultants like LB, who’s a nationally recognized expert at teaching tactical skills.

The combination is what makes championship-level performance possible. It’s what Sherman put on display last weekend – and what will likely impact who advances to the Superbowl this week.

This week’s post is the latest in a series of guest columns by Donovan Martin, who heads Ft. Wayne, Ind.-based Donovan Mental Performance. Donovan and his team are doing exciting things to help athletes bring their very best to the court, diamond or gridiron. We introduced Donovan in November on our Friday Wrap, and he’s addressed topics like the mental side of being a kicker, how two great teams prepare for a showdownwhy some teams always win and others always lose and the pros and cons of perfectionism in this space. 

2020 NFL All-Star Cycle: Thoughts from the Road

For a number of reasons, January is my favorite month, because it takes me to “my people,” the agents, scouts, administrators, game volunteers and officials, wealth managers, players, coaches and even parents who make up the game. I never learn more about the business of the game than I do the first 31 days of the year. There’s just no substitute for being there.

Here are a few thoughts and observations from my first week on the road.

  • I think negotiating is something that most people find exciting. However, it’s important to understand when you have no leverage. Players in all-star games that are not the Senior Bowl do not have a lot of leverage. They need every practice — shoot, every rep — they can get to prove they are worthy of a UDFA deal. Unfortunately, too many players aren’t getting this message. That’s why it was so satisfying to get this text Wednesday, the last day of workouts at the College Gridiron Showcase: “Loved seeing your post about guys that are advised to sit out the last day. I actually had two teams text me about one of my guys today after he had a great day!” Lots of kids missed an opportunity Wednesday.
  • It’s always fascinating to me the quarterbacks the Packers have carried on their training camp rosters, but ultimately cut or shipped off. They include Taysom Hill, Mark Brunell, and, of course, Kurt Warner. But how is it the team continually finds out-of-the-way passers who have NFL ability? I was told this week that the team has a rule: whenever a scout comes across a four-year starter, he automatically “writes him,” i.e., evaluates the player with a formal report. In a league that is increasingly driven by stats and hard numbers, simply being a good quarterback sometimes gets lost in the shuffle by some. But not Green Bay.
  • It’s no surprise that Cleveland-based Klutch Sports Group is having an immediate impact in its first year as a football agency. No. 1, of course, is the work of Damarious Bilbo, one of the 4-5 best recruiters in the business. However, I think you can also credit Klutch’s success to the players the firm is recruiting: big-name athletes from big-name programs (Ohio State and others). More and more, the modern player sees himself not just as an athlete but as a major media figure, almost from the moment he becomes draft-eligible (and in some cases, from the moment he is recruited). It only makes sense that such a player would seek out representation from a company headed by someone he aspires to be.
  • On a related topic, the runaway new must-have feature for all NFL agencies recruiting top-100 prospects is a crackerjack graphic designer. I touched on the impact graphics professionals are having in the college game earlier this fall. This is the first year that the phenomenon has fully evolved into the college-to-pro arena.

I’ll be in Daytona Beach (Tropical Bowl) and St. Petersburg (Shrine Bowl) this weekend and next week as I complete my Florida leg of the trip. More to come. Don’t forget to subscribe to our Friday Wrap, which comes out this evening at 6:30 p.m. CST. Do that here.

The Broken Modern NFL Agent Model in Three Texts

This week, we take a break from the series by guest blogger Donovan Martin of Donovan Mental Performance to look at the changing industry. I can boil it down to three texts I’ve received in the last seven days, all from veteran agents who’ve represented big-name players and who know the industry top to bottom.

I’ll provide their texts and then a little context and perspective.

  • “I’ll never forget one of my first clients, a PFA-type kid from Coastal Carolina, got in a car accident a month before the draft and my firm repped him on the soft tissue bodily injury case. We made more money off a minor, run-of-the-mill fender bender with that kid than we ever did in football with him.”

I provide this really more for comedy relief than anything else. This text comes from one of the most devoted contract advisors certified in the last five years. He’s smart, driven, and has resources, but in today’s system, often, that’s not enough.

  • “A player called me about representation. He asked about training – told him no. He called back and asked me if there are places that will arrange a loan for training and housing.”

This text gives you insight into the perception of so many players, especially fringe prospects, that combine prep can turn them into overnight first-rounders. Desperation is part of being young sometimes, but for a young man to take on a $20,000 to $30,000 loan on a million-to-one shot is a failure of so many people close to him who should know better. This misperception is almost solely social media-driven.

  • “This rookie business sucks as is…really from the top down. First-rounders, you have to damn near pay them what you are going to make off of them. Then you have Day 3 guys have the nerve to request stipends. The day I pay a Day 3 guy a salary for 4 months to sign with me is the day hell freezes over.”

In its zeal to make life better for players, the NFLPA has stayed largely out of the fray as the signing chase has become an arms race. I get it; it’s a volatile sport, so let players take advantage of the market. At the same time, this has taken a dramatic and tragic toll on the “middle class” of veteran agents who are extremely connected and knowledgeable, but don’t have endless resources. At the end of the day, signing should be about sound counsel, not cash. In my opinion, it’s a pretty short-sighted position that the Players Association has taken.

If you aspire to be an agent, consider these texts and make sure you’ve read previous posts here about the state of the business. If you’re a coach or work for a college team, make sure you’re providing your players with mature counsel. If it’s your son who’s trying to get to the league, make sure you’re thinking about the best for your son, and don’t be afraid to tell him some hard truths.

If you’re part of any of these groups, and you need to know more, or need help communicating these lessons to a prospect, please reach out to us.

 

How Michael Thomas Merges Skill, Focus and Mental Strength To Be Great

Saints WO Michael Thomas was the sixth receiver selected (second round, 47th selection overall) in the 2016 NFL draft. Coming out of Ohio State, he didn’t get much hype; he went in the second round after guys like Baylor’s Corey Coleman (1/15, Browns) and Mississippi’s Laquon Treadwell (1/23, Vikings).

Last Sunday, Thomas set the NFL record for most receptions in a single season, surpassing Indianapolis’ Marvin Harrison, who had 143 in 2002. Thomas has 145. And there’s still one game left.

How did Thomas go from a mid-level prospect to arguably the best receiver in the game? The short answer: skill, mental performance and focus.

Thomas has elite receiving skill: Obviously, Thomas is an elite athlete, but he’s a better football player. At six-foot-three and 212 pounds, he has good size, but his measurables at the NFL level are average to above-average. At the combine, his 40 time was 4.57; Notre Dame’s Will Fuller, for example — taken by the Texans 26 spots before Thomas — ran a 4.32.

Skill, more than athleticism, is what makes Thomas great.

“My hands,” said Thomas when asked what sets him apart. “The way I know how to create separation.”

“[It’s] attention to detail,” said Keyshawn Johnson who, in addition to being a Pro-Bowl receiver in the 90s, is also Thomas’s uncle. “When you’re running the right routes and you’re doing everything the right way, you’ll be difficult to guard.”

Thomas has clearly committed himself to doing everything the right way. It’s paid off in high-level skills that allow him to produce at a record-setting pace. He’s not a track star. He’s a receiver.

Thomas is a strong mental performer: The most obvious component of Thomas’ mental game is his unwavering belief in himself.

“I just love his mindset,” says his quarterback, Drew Brees. “He is going to look you dead in the eye and say, ‘I am going to get open.’ And you believe him.”

Thomas is clearly confident –- and, just as important, he has reason to be. His intense focus on improvement gives him an edge. He knows the work he puts in and his own desire to be great, so he knows he’ll win his matchups.

“I don’t care who’s in front of me,” says Thomas. “I just gotta make my plays and play my game.”

Thomas is laser-focused on improvement: This point could fall under the umbrella of mental performance, but it’s worth noting because of its importance: Thomas is laser-focused on improvement. It shows up, for instance, in practice.

“He’s an extremely hard practice player,” said Saints head coach Sean Payton.

“Here’s the thing: If you saw the guy work and you saw the guy prepare, it’s just what we see every day in practice, honestly,” Brees said.

The best players practice the hardest.

It’s also worth noting that Thomas has seemingly eliminated distractions from his processes. He got a big contract before this season; other than that, you’ve probably never read about anything he’s done off the field. It’s because he’s so focused toward what he does on it.

Skill and mental performance cause greatness: I help athletes maximize their mental performance. It’s a needed component of elite athletic performance, but high-level skill is crucial, too. That’s why I partner with DeAundre Muhammad at Traction Athletic Performance. Dre (who played at Indiana University and with the Raiders) is a nationally recognized wide receiver consultant who helps athletes with skill development to reach next-level performance.

The bottom line: taken together, elite skill and mental performance create greatness. As his 145 receptions clearly show, Thomas has both.

This week’s post is the latest in a series of guest columns by Donovan Martin, who heads Ft. Wayne, Ind.-based Donovan Mental Performance. Donovan and his team are doing exciting things to help athletes bring their very best to the court, diamond or gridiron. We introduced Donovan in November on our Friday Wrap, and he’s addressed topics like the mental side of being a kicker, how two great teams prepare for a showdownwhy some teams always win and others always lose and the pros and cons of perfectionism in this space. 

TESTED: A Short Film About Some Long Years for Trainer Kevin Dunn

About a week ago, my longtime friend, Kevin Dunn of TEST Football Academy, sent me a link. It led to a 30-minute video posted on YouTube, and I was blown away after watching the first five minutes, but quickly got distracted and didn’t get to finish it.

Kevin persisted, however, and asked this week if I’d ever finished it. I felt guilty about it, and immediately went home and watched it in its entirety. I’m really glad I did. Kevin and I have known each other for the better part of 20 years, but I didn’t really know him until I watched his story, which is called TESTED.

It tells the story of Kevin’s challenges raising two children with significant medical needs, as well as as his brother, who was part of the TEST team before his tragic death a few years ago. It’s a movie about family and, of course, football, but also something that should appeal to anyone who aspires to do something great in this arena and the serious obstacles you might face.

I encourage you to watch the video. In the meantime, I asked Kevin a few questions about the film and the story it tells. My questions and his answers are below.

Had you known what your next 20 years would look like, would you have started TEST?

“When you take on a project as large as this, you commit your life to something that will hopefully be thriving long after you leave this earth. The legacy we are creating here is a special one. The 20-year journey was well worth the ride knowing the players and families we helped along the way and the long-term generational impact obtaining a career in the NFL would have on them.”

How did your experience with your children’s medical situations help you deal with the problems your brother faced? Or did those experiences help at all?

“It’s hard to believe in miracles until that’s the only option you have. I found myself on a rollercoaster of emotions going through all of the medical emergencies with my kids which ultimately led to the point of actually mourning the loss of my son who was non-verbal, autistic and had severe hydrocephalus.  The dreams you have of how life was supposed to be all of the sudden disappeared. Hearing ‘Dada’ or ‘I love you,’ making friends, girlfriends, sports, proms, college, marriage and grandkids, all became things that Kurtis would never get to experience. That was a hard pill to swallow. There were definitely several years where I became angry and resentful, but my children solidified the necessity of faith in my life and have ultimately given me the best, most compassionate perspective to want to help kids that can’t help themselves.

“Because I walked through that battlefield early on, it literally felt like I was in a war and by nature, became numb to bad news.  It kept me calm and patient during a very difficult year for our family as we tried to help my brother.  I’m proud of the man he was becoming and how amazing he was with my kids. The camping trips, the Santa suits, and all of the time he spent with them was truly a blessing. We choose to remember the positives he brought to our world and are reminded that there are no guarantees in life.”

Dealing with aspiring NFL players can be grueling for a lot of reasons. How did your daily challenges raising your kids help you in your work with young athletes?

“Winners make things happen, losers let things happen. The only way you can make a good decision is to know all the variables.  I was making life-and-death decisions for my kids since I was 27 years old. I didn’t have time to wait for paper-pushers at insurance companies to determine whether or not it was appropriate for Kurt to get his surgery in NYC with the best heart surgeon for the job. After being denied three times, I finally won that battle, and it is one of the reasons Kurtis is with us today.

“I approach my business decisions with the same level of intensity.  Getting into the NFL is truly a life-or-death situation for some kids.  I will fight until my very last breath to help athletes save themselves.”

Viewers are treated to you singing at the end of Tested. Do you ever sing for your guys around the facility? Maybe throw in a little rap?

“I did have one moment in time at the (NFL Combine) when the room we had came with a mic and I broke out a beat-box session. It’s some serious comic relief.  But in all seriousness, in the film, I sang that song at my dad’s funeral. We all have special gifts to give that are more valuable than money, and that was one that money couldn’t buy.

“I hope this film is a blessing to people that are going through storms in their lives. I hope it encourages them to keep fighting and being teachable in moments of struggle. The storm will eventually subside along with the emotions that surrounds it. This journey has opened my eyes to so many incredible things that most of us take for granted.  I will live forever by my dad’s quote on the wall, ‘if you start the game, finish it at 100 percent.'”

 

‘Haunted’ by 29 for 30: What Brees’ Big Day Can Teach Athletes

Monday night, Saints QB Drew Brees completed 29-of-30 passes as New Orleans dominated the Colts, 34-7.

His completion percentage of 96.7 set the NFL single-game mark for quarterbacks with more than 25 attempts. He also happened to set the all-time NFL passing touchdown record, moving ahead of Peyton Manning into first place with 541. It was an incredible performance.

After the game, though, Brees’ mind was on his incompletion.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he told ESPN, “you always think about the one that you missed. If I just set my darn feet and throw it to the running back, it’s 30 for 30, so that one may haunt me for a little while.”

Brees’ focus on the negative is a sign of his intense perfectionism. It’s a trait that can set high achievers apart. But it can also bring them down. Here’s how obsessing over perfection can impact athletes, both positively and negatively – and what athletes should do about it.

An obsession with perfection can lead to high achievement: Athletes obsessed with perfection tend to get closer to it. They’re focused on improvement. They’re motivated. They will grind and work to be the best – to be perfect.

These are the characteristics most athletes associate with perfectionism, which is why it tends to be painted in a favorable light.

An obsession with perfection can lead to mental health problems: Michael Phelps’ story is instructive. Regarded by many as the all-time greatest Olympian (and certainly worth of inclusion in the greatest-athlete-ever debate), Phelps achieved incredible things because he was obsessed with perfection.

When he retired, though, he couldn’t fulfill his obsession – and he became depressed to the point of becoming suicidal. (He’s since become a spokesman for mental health.) Athletes who are compulsively perfectionistic in sports performance will struggle when sports performance can’t be their central role.

An obsession with perfection can impede performance: On the other hand, an obsession with perfection can hinder athletes during performance.

Perfectionism involves a compulsive focus on what can be improved. This means dwelling on past mistakes. Athletes who obsess over perfection, but who aren’t mentally equipped to deal with mistakes, will be derailed when things go wrong. Great performances will unravel quickly.

So what should high achievers do?

High achievers tend to be perfectionistic; the danger is in obsession. Here are some things they can do to combat this.

Recognize compulsion. Most athletes don’t understand that when they need perfection, it becomes a harmful compulsion. The first step in combatting this harm is to recognize it.

Set limits. Reflecting on mistakes is natural, but it has to be capped. Former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith famously instructed Michael Jordan to set a time limit for dwelling on the negatives of a performance in order to maintain his productivity and health.

Focus on process over results. At its core, an obsession with perfection is an obsession with results. Athletes should focus on the elements of performance they can control. The process ultimately gives the most satisfaction.

Mental training can help, too. I can help athletes to manage perfectionistic tendencies with clinically proven techniques. With training, athletes can use their desire to be great to their benefit and minimize its harmful tendencies.

It’s what Drew Brees has done; after throwing his first incompletion in the first half, he immediately settled back in to complete 22 passes in a row. It wasn’t perfection. But that will only bother him for a little while.

This week’s post is the latest in a series of guest columns by Donovan Martin, who heads Ft. Wayne, Ind.-based Donovan Mental Performance. Donovan and his team are doing exciting things to help athletes bring their very best to the court, diamond or gridiron. We introduced Donovan in November on our Friday Wrap, and he’s addressed topics like the mental side of being a kicker, how two great teams prepare for a showdown and why some teams always win and others always lose in this space. 

Culture: Why the Patriots Usually Win and Browns Usually Lose

This week, we’ve turned our blog over to Donovan Martin of Ft. Wayne, Ind.-based Donovan Mental Performance. Donovan and his team are doing exciting things to help athletes bring their very best to the court, diamond or gridiron. We introduced Donovan in November on our Friday Wrap, and he’s addressed topics like the mental side of being a kicker and how two great teams prepare for a showdown in this space. 

For the second consecutive Sunday, the Patriots lost. In the aftermath, national sports outlets are buzzing about the team’s decline. Is the dynasty crumbling? Is the offense irreparably broken? Is Tom Brady finally done?

It’s an outsized reaction to a two-game streak. Still, it’s understandable, because since 2001 (Brady’s first year starting) the Patriots have only experienced back-to-back losses nine times. They’ve won 230 times. When you almost never lose, losing becomes news.

The Browns, on the other hand, won on Sunday, notching only their 98th win since 2001. Two years ago, they didn’t win a single game. But thanks to an influx of talent (including the acquisition of WO Odell Beckham Jr.) in the offseason, they entered 2019 with national pundits on their bandwagon and their sights set on the Super Bowl.

When you almost never win, the chance of winning becomes news. Now, after seven losses, they have a 4% chance to make the playoffs. Why do the Patriots consistently win while the Browns consistently struggle? It’s not talent; arguably, the Browns are more talented this year.

It’s culture. Poor cultures impede high performance. Strong cultures cultivate high performance.

Here’s how.

Strong cultures encourage humility: Winning teams don’t have ego issues. Ego issues represent distractions. Strong cultures don’t tolerate distractions, which means that humility is mandatory.

Brady, for example, has famously taken team-friendly contracts, prioritizing the team’s success over his immediate finances. As a whole, the Patriots are known for merging big personalities seamlessly into their team environment (think WO Randy Moss in 2007) while moving on quickly from players who don’t conform.

Humility leads to limited distractions and team success.

Strong cultures align individuals to a purpose: The Patriots are purposed to win football games. It’s why Bill Belichick never answers questions about anything other than football (and why he barely spends any time answering questions at all). It’s why the team gets accused of running up the score on bad teams (because they’re continuing to strive for improvement).

Yes, ostensibly, all teams are purposed to win. But weak cultures create contexts where players are quick to break ranks – to go for big plays, to focus on stats, etc.

As for the Browns, Beckham’s rumored to be asking opposing coaches to “come get me [out of Cleveland]” after games. Quarterback Baker Mayfield has laid the blame for Beckham’s frustration on the team’s training staff.

In team sports, alignment is crucial.

Strong cultures build leaders: Finally, in strong cultures, leaders create leaders.

The Patriots are known for making nobodies into winners despite constantly picking at the bottom of the draft. Julian Edelman was a quarterback at Kent State who was taken in the seventh round and converted to receiver. Former Patriots receiver Wes Welker went undrafted. Even former linebacker Tedy Bruschi was taken in the third round. And of course, Brady went in the sixth. Each turned into a star.

The team simply has a culture that builds people into higher performers and better leaders.

How to build strong culture: The idea isn’t to hate on the Browns or to idolize the Patriots. The truth is that every team wants to build a strong culture. It’s simply not easy to do.

But mental training can help. I work with teams to develop and refine strong cultures using proven techniques, including mantra identification, visualization, and goal-setting. These tactics help to build a culture of unity and strength that, in the long run, must be set by leadership and carried by players.

That’s why it helps to have a coach like Belichick – even if he’s lost two straight games.

 

How the Ravens and 49ers Put On A Show of Peak Performance

This week, we’ve once again turned our blog over to Donovan Martin of Ft. Wayne, Ind.-based Donovan Mental Performance. Donovan and his team are doing exciting things to help athletes bring their very best to the court, diamond or gridiron. We introduced Donovan in last week’s Friday Wrap

The Ravens beat the 49ers on Sunday in a showdown between, arguably, the NFL’s best two teams. There’s no arguing that these were two red-hot teams performing at peak levels.

In a steady rain, both teams traded blows, playing out a heavyweight matchup nearly to a draw until Justin Tucker drilled a 49-yard field goal as time expired to give the Ravens the win.

After the game, both teams were upbeat. They’d been tested. They’d delivered. Each team’s belief – and drive – were unshaken. Mentally, both were champions: two elite teams maintaining high levels of performance.

Let’s break down how they did it.

Pre-game: Excited, not intimidated

Poor mental performance coincides with anxiety or doubt. But when you’re performing at a high mental level, challenges don’t intimidate you. They excite you. That’s where both of these teams were prior to Sunday’s game.

“Anybody can be stopped,” 49ers defensive lineman DeForest Buckner said before Sunday’s game when asked whether he was worried about Ravens QB Lamar Jackson. No intimidation there, despite going against the league’s MVP front-runner.

On the other side, Ravens players welcomed the challenge. “We respect the heck out of them, because, shoot, they’re 10-1,” said wideout Willie Snead IV. “It’s going to be a huge challenge for us, and we’re looking forward to it.”

Peak mental performance means getting excited about challenges.

Game time: Locked in, not distracted

The highest level of mental performance happens in “the zone” – a state where distractions aren’t recognized, challenges are embraced, and peak performance happens effortlessly. Throughout Sunday’s game, even as they traded momentum-setting highlights, both teams were consistently in the zone.

Take Jackson’s big fumble in the third quarter. He kept the ball on a third-and-one and went streaking 20 yards around the left edge when he had the ball poked out via a spinning tackle. The 49ers recovered it in what seemed to be a game-shifting play.

However, Jackson didn’t let the miscue take him out of the zone. He jumped up, patted himself on the chest as if to say, “my bad,” and immediately got set to go back to work. He didn’t let it become a distraction. Eventually, he led the game-winning drive.

He was locked in.

Post-game: Focused on the process, not the result

Finally, high-level mental performance requires a focus on what’s controllable: the process of improvement. Results are secondary. After the game, both teams’ demeanors were proof of their peak mental performances.

Fans might’ve expected Jackson to be happy with the win, but the QB was actually focused on what he wanted to improve. “Horrible,” Jackson said when asked how he felt about his passing performance. “Oh, man. I was throwing passes behind receivers. . . it was ticking me off.”

The 49ers were focused on improvement, too. “Yeah, I thought it was a real good football game,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said in the post-game presser. “We knew it was going to be a very physical dogfight . . . I liked how our defense played. There’s still things they can do better.”

A focus on improvement, win or lose, is a sign of peak mental performance.

Mental Training Empowers Peak Performance

Reaching the levels that the Ravens and 49ers did on Sunday isn’t easy. Mental training can help athletes get there. Donovan Martin can teach individuals and teams how to embrace challenges, eliminate distractions, and stay in the zone with clinically proven techniques.

And, as both teams showed on Sunday, those things pay off.

For more on peak performance in the business of college and pro football, make sure to register for our free Friday Wrap.

What Could Joey Slye Have Done Differently?

Panthers’ rookie Joey Slye has made 19 field goals in 2019.

He hasn’t missed from between 30-39 yards. He’s made six kicks from beyond 50 yards, tying him with Graham Gano for the most 50+ makes in a single Panthers’ season. After last Sunday’s 34-31 loss to division rival New Orleans, however, he may be out of a job.

Slye missed two extra points and a field goal with two minutes left, all wide to the right. The Panthers lost by three to the Saints, an outcome that essentially ended the team’s playoff hopes. Slye confessed he “felt terrible” about the result, and while teammates were supportive of the rookie, the Panthers announced on Monday that they’ll be holding kicking tryouts – a sign the team’s coaching staff doesn’t have much patience for his struggles.

What could Slye have done differently? And is there anything he can do to recover? We asked Donovan Martin of Ft. Wayne, Ind.-based Traction Athletic Performance what he would recommend to a placekicker struggling with in-game anxiety.

Here’s how kickers can maintain focus, enter the zone, and nail kicks.

  • Don’t focus on results

Kicking is as much about regulating anxiety as it is about nailing mechanics. If you focus on the results, your head will start spinning with the gravity of the situation and your anxiety will throw your mechanics for a loop. It’s like rock climbing or walking a high wire; you don’t look down and you don’t think about what will happen if you make a mistake. You focus on the next step or the hold in front of you.

Envision a perfectly executed process and control what you can control.

  • Don’t overanalyze

Slye’s mind was on his mechanics after the game. “If I’m pushing right, it usually means I’m planting too deep,” Slye said, according to the Panthers’ official website. “My heel was past the ball, that’s going to leave my hips open to miss right.”

He’s right, but the knowledge didn’t help. Actually, Slye was probably too worried about mechanics when he lined up for that final field goal.

You drill mechanics every day. Trust them. Fixing them in-game is nearly impossible because it introduces thinking into a process that should be automatic, leaving room for doubt and anxiety. Envision nailing the process. Don’t pick apart your mechanics.

  • Know how to enter ‘the zone’

The best way to regulate the zone is through routine.

Like golfers or free-throw shooters, kickers need to make what they do repeatable. You should have a sequence of events leading up to the kick that allows you to lock in. And you need to have the focus to not let that routine be disturbed by any distractions –- even a previous missed kick.

Entering the zone can also be facilitated by practicing mindfulness or meditation. These practices can help to mitigate distractions (something kickers must excel at), allowing your unconscious mind to regulate the kick.

  • Mental training helps

As Slye revealed on Sunday, performing under pressure is difficult. Mental toughness is a necessity. For Slye (and maybe for you), the good news is that it can be improved.

Donovan Martin can teach you how to practice and apply the focus required to set up a sequence, turn off the anxiety and doubt, and enter the zone to confidently execute every kick with peak performance.