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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A lesson on "Mental Toughness"

   Okay, I admit it.  I am a die-hard New England Patriots fan.  So those of you who aren't will be quick to go on to your next blog, but I URGE you stay and read on the rest of the article as this article is not one of the "gloat in your face" type sports articles but instead is a "What can I learn from this and use in my life" type of article.
   I was watching the post-game interviews and one phrase kept popping up in several of the interviews of the Patriots team.  That phrase was: MENTAL TOUGHNESS.  Given that so many of the team members used it, it became obvious to me that it was because it was a concept ingrained in the team members brains. 

   So just what is "Mental Toughness"  and what is its importance it in getting a team to the Super Bowl.    From my view, mental toughness can simply be defined as:

Keeping focus on a goal despite what happens or what others say about you or your team
   What I mean by "what happens or what other people say about you" does not only mean "bad things" or "negativity".   It can equally mean good times and good things being said about you or to you as both can derail you from your ultimate goal.   We sometimes think only bad events can do this, but often people derail themselves when they make progress and get good vibes from their friends, family or other sources.   In some ways these factors can actually be more divisive than negative ones as we don't necessary recognize them for what they can do to us.  We don't see that we take our eyes off of our long-range goal to take in our short-term-feel-good-at-the-moment-strokes.   Instead of practicing and training we spend more of our time reading about how good we are or how good we played during the last game etc..   We begin to think that we are invincible and that our skills and talents will carry us through any future adversity we meet.  I call this the "Apollo Creed
Problem" for just as the character Apollo Creed in the movie "Rocky" did not prepare for his fight with Rocky because he thought himself to be so much better than this low-life-fighter-from-no-where that he spent more time with his investors than in the gym.   Negative events are more easily spotted and often force us to address them than positive events.    I believe it's for this reason that so often the Patriots team give such lack-luster interviews after their wins.   Coach Belichick is notorious for this and sports writers hate this as he gives them so little to write about.  His after-game interviews almost all go the same.  "It was a good win. We are happy for it, but we need to get ready for next week".  It's a valed effort to prevent them from becoming to cocky and reminding themselves of what really matters.  That "this game they just played" will be forgotten by next week and all that matters is the long range goal of reaching the Super Bowl. 

I see that Mental Toughness is required on 3 levels: 

Level 1: Long Term Mental Toughness (LTMT)

    The first 4 games of a season are vital to NFL teams.  It's an early indicator as to how the season may end up.  The first 4 can show trends on how the teams are fairing over all.   All the teams would love to be 4 and 0 but that can't happen.  Some will be 0 and 4 others, 1-3,2-2,3-1.    At the beginning of the 2014 season, the Patriots were a mere 2 wins and 2 losses.  For some teams that might be a good start, but not for the Patriots or their fans.  They expect to be 4 and 0 and nothing else will do.     Their last game against the Kansas City Chiefs was horrible.  They lost badly to them and Brady's effort was lackluster to say the least.  Sports writers were all saying that maybe Tom Brady should retire this year and that he just didn't seem to have the fire in the belly as in the past.   With 12
games left in the season it was do or die and the next game for them was against Cincinnati who were 4 and 0 and looking to be a contender this year.    But something happened that week and a totally different team emerged the following week against the Bengals and they won in a decisive way and ended all the speculation on Brady's career being over with.   Was all fixed?  Was the Super Bowl now in plane site?  No.  They still have 11 more games to go and they would have to face even tougher challengers along the way.  But LTMT would have to prevail and they would have to go after each game as if they were still 2 and 2.

     To end the discussion on LTMT here would be to only explore half of the problem.  For it's not just the 2-2 or 1-3 or the 0-4 teams that must deal with it, but also the 4-0 and 3-1 teams that need to use it as well.  As I mentioned before, they have an even harder problem as they are the teams on the top.  They are winning their games.  The sports writers and talk shows are highlighting all the things they are doing right and how they are all looking like contenders.  LTMT means that you have to always see yourself for who you really are: just another team/person contending for a title/trophy.  Too often the teams on the top stop seeing this and begin to think that their own talent or skill will carry them through.  Maybe they don't pay as close attention to the scouting reports or game films.  Maybe they forget that it only takes a few key players to be injured to change their fate. 

    Where does LTMT play a role in your life?   One example was in my own life.  In grade school I
was mostly a B student.  My brother, who was 4 years older than me graduated from high school with honors and I was going into high school the next year.  I remember telling myself that if Jim could do that I could do it as well.  I made a goal for myself to be a straight A student and to prove I could do it I made a goal of getting straight A's my first semester of my freshmen year.  I reasoned that if I could do it for 1 semester I could do it for 8 semesters. I accomplished my initial goal and was on my way ... one semester at a time.  Another great example is Steve Jobs.  He was fired from his own company, Apple, after he could not make the transition from entrepreneur to CEO.   He went on to start his own company Next and was re-hired by Apple years later having learned from his mistakes.  LTMT is needed to take a "dream" and make it reality by not giving up and making intermediate goals to get you there.

Level 2: Short Term Mental Toughness (STMT)

    For the NFL, this takes place on the day of the game.  Like LTMT, teams have their ups and downs during the game.  Plays that work and plays that don't.  You can be up by 7 and then down by 7.  On both sides of the field STMT requires players and coaches to stay focused and in the game.   But as the game wears on, fatigue sets in  and it becomes harder to do.  Maybe you are up or down by 20 points and its nearing the end of the 3rd quarter.   Either its looking really good for you or really bad.  Regardless of the situation STMT says to stay on focus and stay on the march for the full game and not give up.   We have all seen plenty of games where that is not the case.  For example, just in the prior game where Seattle played Green Bay.  By all rights Green Bay should have won that game but they lost focus and allowed Seattle to not only score a touchdown but also an extra 2 points on a lobbed pass high in the air with no one trying to bat it down.    STMT means you keep trying despite what the scoreboard says or what happened during the last play.   During the Super Bowl when Seattle was up by 10 points, I happened to notice Pete Carroll and Wilson having a what looked like a casual conversation during a timeout when there was just 5 minutes left in the game rather than a intense conversation of a team still in the heat of battle.  Did they think they had this one in the bag?  Was the pressure off now? 

    To illustrate this, look at the last couple of plays during the Super Bowl.  When Wilson completed an incredible pass down at the 5 yard line that was bobbled but eventually caught,  Pete Carroll threw off his headphones and ran out onto the field fist pumping and congratulating his team.  On the other side, the Patriots coach, Bill Belichick rolled his eyes but went back to work looking at what he needed to do next.   Carroll lost precious seconds with his cheerleading that he could have used to prepare his team for what they needed to do next and with only 60 seconds left in the game those seconds mattered.  Belichick could have gone on a tirade and yelled at his players for letting that happen but he didn't.  What's past is past and he needed to plan for the future. STMT requires this.  You need to forget what has happened whether good or bad and keep focused on what you need to do next because time is of the essence and you are running out of it. 

     Another example happened just 40 seconds later when Carroll called in a pass play that ultimately was intercepted by the Patriots at the 1 yard line.  Carroll ripped off his headphones and put his head between his knees for several seconds while Belichick only gave a few fist pumps into the air and then back to work.  These few seconds mattered.   What should have Carroll been doing?  Well for one, all was not lost.  He had the Patriots on the one place on the field you could want them to be with 20 seconds left: the 1 yard line.  It would have been the 2 yard line but an early celebration by the Patriots cost them 1 yard in penalties (this was a example of a failure in the Patriots mental toughness). Carroll still had 1 timeout left as well.  The Patriots could not take a knee as that would be a safety in the end-zone which would be 2 points for Seattle and the ball back.  They had to run at least 1 play to get away from the end-zone.  The Seattle defense went out on field and rather than be prepared by their coach to remain cool and not jump off sides they lined up so close on the ball it was almost encroachment before the ball was even hiked.  STMT would have allowed Carroll to stay focused on the game and not be destroyed by 1 bad play.  

    STMT is needed in regular life as well.  We get sidetracked in life by what happens to us.  It might be a relationship (good or bad).  It might be a death in the family or a job loss.  It might be a promotion you didn't get (or do get).  It might be even as something simple like a flat tire on your way to work or something someone said to you in a meeting.   STMT allows us to put the past behind us and focus on what is right in front of us.  STMT allows us to not be "defined" by bad events or even by our own bad actions.  We still need to own up to it.  It doesn't mean we become emotionless robots either.  We just need to find a way PAST the event. 

Level 3: In The Moment Mental Toughness (ITMMT)

    This was best shown on the play of Brady standing in the end-zone when the team was on the 1 yard line.   The Patriots remained motionless waiting for Tom to give the hard count.  No one moved until a player from Seattle stepped across the line.   ITMMT means you don't let your emotions or adrenaline make your decisions for you.   You could see it on the field.  The Seattle players were huddled close to the ball and were as jumpy as a bunch of wild horses waiting in the stall.  You could
see what was going to happen even before it does.   This costs them dearly as the penalty moves the ball from the 1 yard line to the 6 yard line and plenty of room for them to take a knee.   But even after that play Seattle lost their ITMMT when they chose to initiate a fight with the Patriots.  This not only cost them a key player (ejected) but also a precious timeout that they could have used to give them 2 tries at causing a mistake by the Patriots on their kneel-down. 

    ITMMT is often the most difficult to work on for anyone.  We are fighting our own bodies and emotions in these cases and run on a more primitive area of our brains.  Also, these events don't happen everyday and so it's very hard to practice what to do in these cases.  Teams try to simulate these scenarios during practices but nothing every really comes close as being on the 1 yard line with 60 seconds left in the Super Bowl.    

    In our own loves ITMMT is needed when your boss or co-worker puts down your presentation or your ideas in a meeting you have been planning for a long time.   You have to restrain yourself from calling them out as a F***ing A**hole or showing them what your middle finger looks like.  ITMMT is needed when a person knowingly cuts you off in traffic and almost causes an accident.  Yes you need to beep your horn, but you don't need to run them down and ride their tail.   ITMMT is important when your wife makes plans to visit her family without asking if you want to or not.  ITMMT is needed when sales clerk won't let you get your money back on your item.  (Looking at the state of affairs on the internet I would say that ITMMT is in less and less supply these days).