Wednesday, August 22, 2007


Sometimes I can be a little bit...dense? As in, it takes me a while to see the forest amid all those tall leafy green things.

Now that football season is sprouting ubiquitously around us on college campuses and pro practice fields, everyone—from the ESPN analyst to the hometown sportscaster to the fan himself—is using the sport as a clear-cut example of motivation's fundamental place in the alchemy of winning. Beat writers covering their respective teams write about how the defense seems "really juiced"* or "amped up"; fans licking their chops over their favorite picks in fantasy leagues blog about how a given player is "motivated like never before!" to have a great season.

I've heard such talk for years from people trying to counter my own skepticism about Sportsthink and the role "a killer mentality" plays in athletic success (often broadened to success of any kind). I hear it from my own son. "Oh come on, Dad," he'll growl, "face it! How can you say that being confident and pumped up doesn't make a huge difference in football! All you gotta do is look at the players when they're playing!" I have to admit, I've never had a very persuasive comeback. Because—your host says sheepishly—it always seemed—well—kind of self-evident to me, too. You could see the determination, the anger in players' eyes. You didn't need to be Jo-Ellen Dimitrius to read the body language as dominant NFLers broke from a huddle or high-fived each other after a game-changing tackle. (You could see all this even without today's extreme close-up camera angles, which place you halfway up the quarterback's nostrils as he reads the defense from over center.)

Then something finally clicked this morning as I watched ESPN's coverage of NFL training camps.

It finally sank in that I'm wrong. But that's because I'm actually right.

You see, if your sport is called "work yourself up into a mindless, adrenaline-soaked competitive frenzy so that you can knock the guy in front of you on his ass"—otherwise known as football**—then yes, I can see where it would be helpful to work yourself up into a mindless, adrenaline-soaked competitive frenzy so that you can knock the guy in front of you on his ass. That's an overly cute way of saying that it's intellectually dishonest to pick out the one sport where motivation-gone-wild is the very MO—the sine qua non of high-level performance—and use it an example of how that same "mentality" applies across the board in all sports (and, God help us, in life). The trench warfare of football is unlike other sports that depend on finely tuned bodily movements and a certain degree of brainpower. (The battle between pitcher and hitter in baseball comes to mind; there's a reason why broadcasters sometimes refer to it as a "chess match.") Even in football itself, not everyone on the field can just abandon himself to the pure physical rush. Quarterbacks, for example. They have to keep their emotions in check. They can't just bull their way up and down the field. They probably shouldn't get too up or too down. They have to keep their cool. I could be wrong, but I'd think that an overly juiced QB is likely a very poor QB indeed. Throwing a football 30 or 40 yards downfield to a moving target is a finesse activity that depends on precision and a calm demeanor, all the more so when you're being pursued by angry men with the general size and strength of Kodiak bears. An extreme degree of "upness" plays havoc with that. A high degree of self-confidence (i.e. that same "I-can't-be-beat"mindset) also can lead to some very bad tactical decisions, especially in the absence of the physical skills to carry it off.

[See under: Brett Favre, recent vintage.]

* not intended as even a veiled reference to steroids—though I'm quite sure that when the dust settles, many football players at various levels will be shown to have been on some form of designer 'roid that's undetectable in tests available today.
** or at least major elements of it.

1 comment:

Cal said...

That is one reason why I like the fact that Tony Dungy was the coach of a Super Bowl winner. He doesn't strike me as a fire and brimstone coach. Neither does his friend and coach of the Bears, Lovie Smith. I know that the truth was that Dungy came into a great situation with the Colts having Peyton Manning as the quarterback and Dungy had to do no tinkering with the offense. But Dungy had already turned Tampa Bay around before that. Unfortunately, Dungy has gotten into the motivational and Sportsthink game himself with his new book. But I guess it was inevitable because of his life story. The offers from publishers were probably too big to turn down.