Wednesday, January 28, 2015

How to watch the Super Bowl: a crash course in motivation.

TO BACK UP a bit: My college football coach was the kind of guy Stanley Kubrik must have had in mind when he conceived the over-the-top drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. During one game midway in my sophomore year, my offensive-line cohorts and I were having trouble opening holes for our ball carriers. Coach pulled us aside at half-time and lined us up against a wall; he then walked the line and, from a distance of maybe two inches, screamed into each of our faces in turn, “I WANT YOU TO TELL ME NOW, ARE YOU EVER GONNA MISS ANOTHER BLOCK!?” There was a colorful Anglo-Saxon gerund between another and block, but I’ll omit it here.

The only acceptable answer was “NO SIR!”, which we too were expected to scream at several decibels’ volume. This would assure Coach of our mettle, dedication, and worthiness to have him verbally assault us for the rest of the season. But to me, Coach’s question sounded unreasonable. After all, I still had two-and-a-half seasons of football ahead of me. What promises could I make at that tender juncture? Thus, when my turn came, I drew a breath and said, “Look, Coach, I certainly don’t want to miss another block. I promise you that. But probably yes, I think I will miss a few. Eventually.” 

From the bewildered look on Coach’s leathery face, you’d think I’d just morphed into a giant marmoset right before his eyes. For a moment he continued to stare at me. Then he exploded. Labeling me “a smart-ass” who was “out to show him up,” he banished me to the end of the bench. Not long after play resumed, however, he quietly inserted me back in the game. It seems that my replacement—one of those players who would “never miss another block”—was missing quite a few of them.

Years later, when I began writing about self-help’s component parts, I’d see the parallels between what undid Coach Chisholm’s way of thinking and what undoes so much of self-help—especially the PMA-based variety that purports to help you climb every mountain, ford every stream, etc. With that as preamble, I present for your reading (and thinking?) pleasure my take on the world's largest aggregation of motivational nonsense, otherwise known as the Super Bowl.

As any gridiron aficionado will tell you, it's impossible to appreciate the Super Bowl without a keen understanding of the attitudinal factors that control every single game element, beginning with the coin toss. Ahh, the coin toss: to the uninitiated, a simple matter of physics and the laws of chance. Insiders, however, know that it's one of those improbable competitive subtleties where objective reality can be forced to submit to the power of the human spirit. This in turn explains why only the most seasoned team captains, men of profound mettle and valor, are dispatched to midfield to yell “heads” or “tails.” No coach wants to risk having a novice go out and fuck it up.

Following, then, is a primer in the rest of football's so-called mental game. If you're a casual fan, or you'll be watching with others who are, this will not only enhance your viewing pleasure but enable all of you to decode the insightful banter from the broadcast booth on Sunday. 

Realize first that an athlete competing at the Super Bowl level is already well versed in the potent psychodynamics of winning. He knows there's no “I” in team—yet he can personally carry the team on his back if need be. He stays within himself while also knowing how to stretch. This superb athlete understands the fine line between limitless confidence and overconfidence. He goes into competition with a clear head as well as intense concentration, and though he recognizes that winning is everything, not for one second does he worry about losing. He has mastered the art of pacing himself in an environment in which he's expected to give 110 percent at all times—and he still has another gear left if he needs it. This competitor is fiery yet calm, patient yet eager.

The Super Bowl being the Super Bowl, fans can rest assured that teams will be in the zone, not looking ahead to next week. Surely in this one game, players will leave it all on the field. (NOTE: The NFL employs specially trained crews to come to the stadium Monday morning and pick it all up again. It is then mailed back to players during the off-season.) From the moment the athletes race onto the gridiron, they're out to make a statement—although some teams prefer to let the other team make its statement first, so they can answer with authority.

Ebola virus stuck to under-inflated football. Photo courtesy Bill Belichick.
By newly enacted league rule, every NFL game must feature at least one momentum shift. Befitting its name, this is an epochal development wherein the side that seemed to have matters well in hand suddenly turns the ball over at an inopportune moment, thereby allowing the other team back in. (The epidemiology of momentum, the mechanism whereby it spreads from player to player or team to team, remains controversial. Some believe it's a filovirus, genomically akin to Ebola.) Momentum shifts are not, however, irreversible. They can be undone by a loss of focus or poise. As such mistakes are unforgivable at this climactic point in the season, top NFL brass are now mulling whether a loss of poise should be penalized with a loss of down or even disqualification of the offending player(s).

If the game is close and circumstances afford one team a final chance to seize its destiny, the stage is set for another time-honored competitive phenomenon: the gut check. This requires players to reach deep inside themselves in order to find out what they're made of (and, while they're in there, look for that other gear). In keeping with a recent trend involving the commercial marketing of all discrete moments in any given contest (“This kickoff brought to you by...”), Super Bowl XLIX's gut check will be sponsored by a PSA for prostate screening. Well-read viewers may recall that some years ago the makers of Prilosec paid a significant sum for the naming rights to the term “fire in the belly.”

Football statue made of crystallized Pepto; Canton, OH
Favored teams that find themselves unexpectedly behind as the Super Bowl moves into its late stages may turn as a last recourse to a player who knows how to win. It has been posited by Hawking and others that these elite players emit waves of invisible energy that are capable of causing fumbles, errant passes and broken plays—and can even summon gusts of wind that deflect field goals or conjure the sudden existence of a more advantageous angle in a videotape replay. In any case, such a player will be asked to communicate this proprietary know-how to the rest of the team. This ceremony usually takes place at a sideline meeting, where the elite player imbues his teammates with the will to win by screaming inspirational totems like “just win, baby!” or “now let's go out and kill the muth&*!*$%amp;%*ers!” (Emerging medical research suggests that concussions actually result from collisions between opposing players who both know how to win, or will not allow themselves to be beaten, or some combination thereof. Such players soon may be required to wear prominent W's on their helmets, analogous to the green dots now worn by guys who are mic'd up; this will identify them to one another and thus help them avoid direct contact.)

Important caveat: A player who knows how to win must never exercise that gift prematurely. He may not, for example, inspire his team to score four touchdowns in the first quarter, thereby putting the game safely out of reach. Rather, he must bide his time while awaiting the perfect moment to enable his team to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The delicacy of this balancing act is such that a player sometimes waits too long, rendering his team vulnerable to opponents who have no quit in them.

Thus illuminated, now grab a brew, sit back and enjoy the game. (Helpful hint: Turn off the sound.)


Anonymous said...

I've read most of your work and this may be the funniest thing you've ever written in its way. Did you publish this as a newspaper piece once? I could've sworn it seems familiar. Still funny though! I will forward it to my football-crazy friends.

Anonymous said...

You told your coach that common sense indicated you'd probably miss more blocks! LOL!! Love it.

roger o'keefe said...

I thought this was clever the first time you posted it and I still think so now.

On another topic I was a bit surprised by your donation button, I always got the sense that things were going swimmingly for you. I've appreciated and admired your work through the years even when we disagreed so I did kick into the pot. Hope it helps keep the lights on at SHAMblog! Happy 2015, Steve

Steve Salerno said...

Thank you, Roger. I've received several donations but I considered it a private matter between me and my benefactors unless they went public as you did here. I am appreciative.

Also from my POV, regardless of how well or unwell things have been going, I reasoned that it was time to attempt to monetize SHAMblog to whatever extent possible. The basic nature of the bargain remains that I provide what I consider worthwhile, thoughtul content, and your only "obligation" is to read it and think about it. But for those who are so inclined, I no longer feel squeamish about accepting payment on a "for what it's worth" basis.

In any case, leaving money totally aside, I thank all of you who've accompanied me on this grand journey of mine. Your philosophical loyalty to the blog is paramount.