Defining the Intangibles

When evaluating NFL players, there are many desirable traits that are broadly lumped under the category of “intangibles.”  These include things like character, leadership, being a good teammate, as well as more specific on-field qualities like good field vision or a good “sense of the game.”

The intangibles in sports are often viewed like the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography – we know it when we see it.  These are some of the most important traits that determine success, both on and off the field.  The intangibles can make the difference between a Hall of Fame player and player who never succeeds at the NFL level in spite of a great 40 yard dash time, impressive bench press, or cannon of an arm.

One of the biggest factors responsible for these intangibles is a player’s emotional intelligence.  And like many other traits in sports – it is an area that can be trained and improved.  We sat down with Dr. John Sullivan, Clinical Sports Psychologist, and discussed what emotional intelligence is, how important it is in driving the success of players on the field, and how it can be improved.

Emotional IntelligenceFor starters, how do you define emotional intelligence?

The formal definition of emotional intelligence is one’s ability to identify emotions, manage them, use them in interpersonal relationships effectively and use emotion to increase one’s situational awareness.

In the last 20 years, intelligence scores (as measured by IQ) have increased significantly, but emotional intelligence has actually decreased.  We’ve generally done a poor job of working with people on their emotional intelligence, and yet the potential benefits are enormous.

For NFL players, emotional intelligence and situational awareness play a huge role in defining how well players respond under pressure.

How can improving emotional intelligence improve the performance of a player on the field?

Think about the example of a quarterback being pursued by a blitz coming from his blind side.  There are multiple factors that help to tell him that someone is there, including sound, vibrations, peripheral vision, etc.  But the quarterback’s emotions can help to account for that “sense” that the defense is coming.  Improving his awareness can mean the difference between stepping up to avoid the blitz and being sacked.

Improving situational awareness accounts for the experience that players sometimes talk about of being “in the zone”, or of the game “slowing down.”   People tend to write these off as being beyond our control – very desirable outcomes, but freak occurrences that just “happen.”  Sports psychology has studied how the brain works and what accounts for these experiences, and it is a trainable skill.

Ultimately, it is a function of how our brain is wired – we feel first, then we think.  There’s no way around it.  Feeling takes place primarily in the limbic system, which responds much faster than the frontal lobe where thinking takes place.  Training an athlete how to feel and think in a systematic way allows them respond faster and to perform at a higher level of the field.  As Hall of Fame running back O.J. Simpson once said, “Thinking is what gets you caught from behind.”

How does improving emotional intelligence help in how players function together as a team?  What is the role in team chemistry?

Emotional intelligence plays a huge role in both character and leadership, which are two of the key factors that affect team chemistry.

There has been a lot of research in sports psychology on character, and identifying what coaches refer to as “character guys.”  There is a difference between what sport attempts to promote and what it frequently does promote, and players get mixed messages from an early age.  Sports doesn’t produce character, it produces characters.  Improving emotional intelligence helps to create more “character guys” is sports.

Leadership is also improved, as better situational awareness affects the ability to understand your teammates, empathize with them, and lead.

There is a famous story about Joe Montana during the 1989 Super Bowl against the Cincinnati Bengals.  The San Francisco 49ers were down by three points with a little over 3 minutes left.  As the players took the field for what would become one of the most memorable game-winning drives in Super Bowl history, the level of emotion on the field was through the roof.  There couldn’t possibly be more pressure on a player than there was in that moment.

In the huddle before the first play, Montana turned to speak with tackle Harris Barton, who admitted to being so excited he was literally jumping up and down to get started.  Montana pointed into the stands, and said “Hey, isn’t that John Candy?”  Everyone in the huddle stopped, looked into the stands, calmed down, and they went on to execute a flawless final drive.

The story is often told to demonstrate Montana’s mythic calmness – cooler than the other side of the pillow – but it is actually an example of emotional intelligence operating at a high level.  He managed his emotions to focus on the task at hand, and his situational awareness enabled him to recognize the emotional state of his teammates.  Pointing out the famous actor in the stands helped everyone in the huddle to calm down and focus.

Can emotional intelligence be developed and improved?

Emotional intelligence can definitely be trained and improved, although currently very few people formally and directly train the central nervous system.  On field practice can help to address central nervous system training, but it doesn’t target the central nervous system directly.  Plus, there is a strong physical component to practice, which adds to the risk of overtraining or injury.

There are biofeedback and neurofeedback techniques available that help to train the central nervous system more directly.  Currently, these are utilized in certain centers of elite sports but are not in widespread use even throughout the ranks of professional sports.

We use neurofeedback techniques to test the limits of a player’s brain, his ability to respond (or not respond) to stimuli, and provide instantaneous feedback.  The player can be trained on how to use their brain to better regulate their emotions.  This is done in a variety of ways, such as with computer-based games that provide instantaneous feedback on changes in brain waves, and can include computer games combined with physical stresses such as running on a treadmill.

We can tell if an athlete is easily over-aroused, easily stressed or excited.  Then we determine what types of stimuli we need to use to help them modify these tendencies.  Training the brain is just like training a muscle – small amounts of targeted stress followed by targeted rest.  The brain learns, and gets stronger.

How do you track improvement?

Neurofeedback technology provides instantaneous feedback, so you can see improvement immediately, even within the sessions.  Players get instant feedback on their progress.  Then you can work with the athletes to bring the improvements to the field.

Emotional intelligence is an important component of success for athletes on the field.  It is rarely talked about by name outside of psychology circles, but it is largely responsible for the intangibles that any football player or fan can identify in so many of the great players in the game.  Like any other trait – once you understand what it is, you can identify it, measure it and work to improve it.

Dr. John P. Sullivan, is a Clinical Sport Psychologist and facilitates both clinical and performance enhancement services for Providence College, the University of Rhode Island, and within the elite ranks of the Olympics, NFL, NBA, WNBA, and MLS.  He works with a variety of performers emphasizing scientific based interventions focused on performance and increasing overall well-being.  His passion has been engaging in activities that range from consultation, serving on scientific committees to direct service to organizations and individuals to facilitate excellence.   He also brings his knowledge and experience to his own consulting practice Clinical & Sports Consulting Services

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