Masterminding the Game

When most people think about sports science, they tend to focus on improvements in gear – better cleats, safer helmets, lighter shoulder pads, safer and more realistic artificial turf.  But the gear is only part of the story.  There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes that affects how the athletes prepare for games on Sunday and how they play.

It takes a team of people, and variety of different techniques and technology, to get the athletes ready to perform at the highest levels.  It begins in early season organized team activities (OTAs), through training camp and right through the regular season and the playoffs.

Brain-power playsWe had the chance to sit down with Dr. John Sullivan, Clinical Sports Psychologist, and discuss some of the techniques and technology that have changed the way athletes get ready to play.

Q:  Apart from the gear the players wear, what are some of the key technologies that have changed the way the game is played, and how players prepare for Sunday?

One of the big changes is seen in the detail with which the game is analyzed.  Football is really unique.  In a play that may take 6 to 7 seconds on the field, there are 22 players, each with multiple different assignments, resulting in hundreds of things going on in a tiny window of time.  Small changes that most of us can’t even see at full speed can make the difference between a play ending at the line of scrimmage and a run breaking loose for a touchdown.

Film study is a key tool that permits the coaches and players to breakdown the plays, and capabilities here are light years beyond where we were a few short years ago.  Film study used to be limited to the film room – literally a room with a projector and screen – whereas now video is stored and sorted digitally and available across multiple platforms – laptops, iPads, etc. to enable the players to study more effectively.  This is critical – if you can see it, you can do it.

Studies have shown that athletes viewing a video of themselves performing and correcting their mechanics stimulates blood flow in the learning centers of the brain, indicating that they are effectively learning by watching the videos.  They can work on improving technique even when they aren’t on the field.

Q:  The technology makes it easier to process and review game film, but how does it actually change the way players learn and improve their performance?

Film used to get analyzed, and statistics broken down into tables and spreadsheets by hand to look for team and player tendencies.  Teams can now do instantaneous breakdown of film, and multimedia databases have improved the effectiveness.  Software like Dartfish takes it one step further and allows teams to break down individual players and look at their detailed biomechanics (how they position and move their bodies during the game) to improve their technique.

For example, assume that over a stretch of games a particular receiver has some problems dropping passes.  The coaching staff might analyze all the balls thrown to him, and notice that he has a tendency to drop more balls thrown over his left shoulder on post patterns than any other route.  Once the tendency is identified, his biomechanics will be broken down and reviewed from multiple angles to determine what changes need to be made to correct the problem.  Once the need is identified, various techniques are used to help the player change his mechanics.

Q:  There is a lot of physical training that must take place for a player to get ready, including weight training, conditioning, position drills, team drills, etc.  What are some of the key elements of mental preparation, and how much difference does that make on the field?

Mental preparation has an enormous impact on performance.  When we respond in any situation – we feel first, then we think, then we act.  Regulation of emotions is critical in high stress situations like an NFL game.  Players that are better able to handle and manage their emotions will perform at a higher level.  Mental preparation includes training on regulating emotions, which improves processing and pattern recognition skills, which ultimately determines reaction time and decision making in the game.

Compare mental preparation to a topic that receives a lot of negative attention in sports – performance enhancing drugs.  There is a great deal of focus on drug testing and players taking performance enhancing drugs to improve their level of play but under the best of circumstances, they can make about a 5 percent improvement in performance this way.  For players at an elite level, 5 percent is enough that some players will try this route in spite of the negative health impacts, regulations and drug testing.

Proper mental training can result in up to a 25 percent improvement in performance on the field.  Mental preparation affects everything we do, whereas performance enhancing drugs only affect one or two subsystems in the body often causing imbalances or problems long term.  Plus there are no negative health effects on the players later in life.

Q:  What are some of the technologies and techniques that can help improve a player’s mental preparation, and improve their performance on the field?

Frequently in sports, learning is less effective than it could be because there is not enough consistent feedback, so players can continue to make the same mistakes.  We hear a lot about ‘bad habits,’ and we all know how hard it is to break a habit.  It’s important to have baseline measurements followed by consistent benchmarking and feedback.  This includes multiple sources of data such as video, heart rate data, brain wave measurements and visual feedback.

Correcting habits is particularly difficult for NFL players.  Once an athlete has made it to the NFL, they have already achieved the level of mastery of their craft, commonly defined as spending 10,000 hours on training.  After achieving mastery, it is actually harder to effect changes, and mental preparation is key to overcoming those habits.

Q:  Are these techniques and technologies beneficial to younger athletes and non-professional athletes as well?

Many of these techniques are absolutely beneficial to younger athletes, and even to non-athletes.  Ultimately, performance is performance, regardless of whether you are on the football field, in the class room, or in the board room.  Many skills that we teach are helpful in improving performance in multiple areas of life.  Regulating emotions, improving pattern recognition and decision making are important no matter what we do for a living.

Certainly some basic skills transfer and others don’t, and we need to be aware of that as well.  Pro athletes typically spend 10 years or more and thousands of hours training to react very quickly with high emotional levels.  Athletes have to adjust and train a different set of skills when they walk off the field, and these techniques can help to ensure that athletes can transition better and remain successful in whatever they choose to do after they leave the field.  Player’s safety, welfare and success is just as important to us when they are done playing as it is when we are watching them play on Sundays.

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