Posted by: woodjared | August 15, 2011

Bradley’s Triple Was One Key to Success

Following a triple bogey, and with only three holes to play, Keegan Bradley walked off the 15th green 5 shots down to Jason Dufner. Three holes and two birdies later, he was headed to a playoff with Dufner, a playoff he would eventually win in dramatic style. Today I heard Bradley say that without that triple bogey, he probably would not have won the tournament. Say what? A three shot swing in his opponents favor was a key victory? Actually, it could be. Here’s how.
Many times golfers play tight. They struggle mentally and physically against the fear of doing something wrong. Often, the fear of doing something wrong does more damage than the actual bad event does. When a golfer realizes the world didn’t end when he made the mistake, he can often move on calmer and with less fear of making another mistake. Calmer and less fear tends to be good for the golf swing.
Further, in this case, Bradley had a lot of pressure on him being down only one or two (as was the case in his mind) with four left to play. Down five with three left almost makes a comeback seem impossible, so all pressure was probably off. A lack of pressure is also good for the golf swing, so that probably helped him play better down the stretch too.
Make no mistake, between the end of regulation and extra holes, Keegan Bradley made some great clutch shots under tremendous pressure, but I also think the triple bogey too some pressure off of him and helped him realize that he could handle anything that day. So I can see where he believes he might not have won without the triple bogey rinsing on 15.

Posted by: woodjared | March 29, 2011

Early Losses Helped Butler Win Later

As a follow-up to my post Avoiding the Upset, I’d like to note an article I read about the Butler Bulldogs, now headed to their second Final Four in as many years. The article was written by Andy Katz for (Early Losses Fueled Butler’s Tournament Run, after Butler defeated Wisconsin in the Sweet Sixteen. Recall that in my previous article, I noted how a sense of complacent overconfidence can be detrimental to preparatory effort. In contrast, some sense of doubt, often fueled by losses, can cause doubt, which then has a motivating effect that increases preparatory effort. Although the Butler article does not specifically note preparatory effort (my guess is because Katz didn’t ask about it, it wasn’t the focus of his article), my guess is that early season losses fueled preparatory effort and attention to the little things that made them successful, which in turn began to occur in games. The good play then helped raise their confidence, and with a strong sense of work ethic renewed, carried them forward on the right path.

Early in the season, their play likely reflected a lackadaisical approach to practice and games. Take the description by Shelvin Mack, Butler’s junior point guard, when describing how their play was poor in losses against Youngstown State and Evansville, two underdog opponents for Butler. From Katz article:

Shelvin Mack: “When we lost to Youngstown and to Evansville, it was a few possessions that we didn’t control. We didn’t dive on the ball. We didn’t take charges. We didn’t do the things we needed to win.”

Although Mack doesn’t say it, this lackadaisical play was likely a product of how they were practicing at the time. As one of my coaches always used to say, “You will play like you practice.” Great coaches and players know this and change it when they sense it.

Now contrast Mack’s description of their play early in the season with Wisconsin junior guard Jordan Taylor’s descriptions of how Butler played against them. “They’re scrappy, relentless. I don’t know, they’re tough kids. They never quit. That’s what makes them winners.”

To be sure, both Mack’s and Taylor’s descriptions are both about game time situations, but I would bet that the play reflected the way they were practicing at the time. It would be interesting to find out more about how their play and practice habits matched up. If anyone has any insight about that, I’d love to hear it.

For now, in your own pursuits, remember to match the intensity and work ethic you want in games with the same in practice. And don’t be afraid to admit that your opponent is worthy of the matchup against you. It might cause just enough to motivate you to practice hard while saving your necessary confidence. Remember, the fact that an opponent can rise to the occasion should not cause you to doubt yourself, but it should cause you to work as hard as ever. Work like a champion.

Remember also, sometimes even when you work your tail off, your opponent is going to work just as hard. Excellent preparation is essential to performing excellently, but when two teams or athletes have prepared equally well, game time confidence can the be difference between winning and losing. Work hard in practice. Prepare excellently. Be confident in your preparation. And let your confidence shine in your performance.

Posted by: woodjared | March 14, 2011

Avoiding the Upset

It’s March Madness time. This week millions of brackets will be filled out. Judging by the tournament talk I hear, one of the most enjoyable parts of filling out a bracket is trying to pick correctly the upsets that dot the landscape of the tournament and give it its madness characteristic.

From a sport psychology perspective, what are the ingredients of an upset? I think it all boils down to confidence. Certainly, to pull off an upset, an underdog has to play with confidence and believe in the game plan coaches have put in place, but even before the game begins, confidence exerts its effect on the outcome of the game through its effect on practice effort.

The Curious Case of Preparatory Efficacy

Going into a tournament matchup, the favored team typically has more justification for their confidence (i.e., self-efficacy when applied to a specific game or situation). In most cases, this confidence serves them well. However, in some cases, favored teams who end up getting upset by an underdog are accused of overconfidence. Does this accusation hold water under the light of empirical research?

Despite the seemingly universal idea that overconfidence is a bad thing, there is actually very little to no evidence that extremely high confidence has a negative effect on athletic performance. In fact, the opposite is true. An substantial volume of research shows that high confidence is good for athletic performance. So why does the idea of overconfidence persist?

Several prominent researchers (Bandura, 1997, Weinberg & Gould, 2007) have suggested that overconfidence is not necessarily a problem at game time but can be a problem in preparation. When a sense of complacent overconfidence permeates preparation, players are ripe for falling prey to a slackening of effort during practice activities. When confidence is lower, in other words, when some doubt exists, it serves as a signal that great effort is needed to properly prepare for the game. Thus, a lack of confidence, although not beneficial to performance, can be beneficial to practice effort. This idea — that confidence in the practice stage of competition matters to preparatory effort — is called preparatory efficacy, and it was the focus of my dissertation.

Players who are prone to slacken practice effort when confidence is high might not put in quality effort on extra skill work (what we used to call “winning time”), conditioning, rest, or studying a game plan or film. A small slackening of effort, applied over multiple players and multiple days, can be a recipe for disaster when playing a properly motivated underdog opponent whose players are willing to put in great effort in preparation for the chance to pull off a great upset.

Combatting Overconfidence in Preparation

Although combatting overconfidence in practice is worthy of a much more thorough write-up than a good blog allows, it’s always important to provide players a challenge that is worthy of their confidence. A favored team’s players need to understand the proper challenge of executing to their own level of excellence. Teammates should challenge each other to the best of their abilities in practice. Further, the team should prepare for and expect the underdog challenger’s best effort, bad luck, bad whistles, and other things that might cause a game to be closer than normally expected. Lastly, through their great effort in practice, the team should build their confidence throughout the preparation period, peaking just before game time.

Posted by: woodjared | March 7, 2011

Change the Physical, Change the Mental

The job of a sport psychologist is highly dependent on helping people change their mental processes. We educate, train, and move athletes toward self-regulation of mental skills. In this process, I am constantly seeking the best way to change my athletes’ mental processes. When I ask the question, “What activities change mental processes?” one of the most consistent answers I get from both lay people and experts is this: To change the way the mind thinks, change the way the body moves.

Changing the physical before the mental isn’t always necessary, but it is often helpful on several fronts. First, not all athletes seeking performing improvement are in the best physical shape they can be. Some lack strength, some flexibility, some conditioning, some specific skills, but almost all amateur athletes, other than at the elite level, have significant deficits in at least one of these areas that can improved rather easily through the proper training.

Training the right physical component of an athlete’s being can improve their biology in number of important ways that influence their mental processes directly and indirectly. Most importantly, from my admittedly biased standpoint, is that of the indirect route through confidence.

The primary source of confidence is performance accomplishment. We are confident we can do again what we have done before. To the extent that physical training helps an athlete perform better, the performance will then likely increase the athlete’s confidence.

Further, feeling better physically can improve confidence. In every sport I can think of, more strength and power (all other things being equal) is beneficial to skill development. Therefore, strength and power are prime candidates for helping improve confidence.

Also, sticking with a physical training regimen can improve what sport psychologists refer to as self-regulatory efficacy. In other words, if an athlete learns confidence through starting and maintaining a physical training regimen, a competent coach or sport psychologist can help the athlete generalize the confidence learned from the physical regimen to a mental training regimen.

Whether you are a competitive athlete or just someone who wants to get into shape, changing the physical to change the mental is a good step to improving your mental performance in sports and life. Increasing strength, power, flexibility, and skill is a great way to increase confidence, physical self-concept, and overall health. It is highly recommended for competitive and casual athletes alike.


Posted by: woodjared | March 1, 2011

Upping the Ante: Using Competition to Practice Smarter

On The Golf Channel yesterday, I watched a segment on the gambling games professionals play during practice rounds. The pros made some good points that amateurs can use to improve their own skills, and they don’t have to gamble to do it. Professional golfers have played in so many tournaments and faced so many pressure situations that it’s often difficult to summon any feeling of pressure during a practice round. This creates a problem. Skills honed under a lack of pressure in practice are unlikely to hold up well under pressure tournament conditions. Of course, the pros have other tournament pressure experience to fall back on, but sometimes they want to up the ante in practice, so to speak, to make their practice situation more competitive, more pressure-packed, which will help their skills hold up under competitive tournament situations. To accomplish this higher-stakes situation in practice, pros often a technique that makes them feel some pressure, turning up the heat on the results of their performance: the threat of losing or winning money. With the extra pressure of a bet, the practice situation become more like a real tournament.


Amateurs can benefit from the same principle the pros benefit from. To build skills that hold up under competitive stress, introduce some competitive stress to your practices. Play games such as closest to the pin, best drive, and other putting and chipping games. On the course, competitive amateurs can do many things to increase the competitive nature of their practice rounds, including simple bets for pride for lowest score or match play. Alternative competitive games can be employed to challenge and experiment with course management skills. For example, because many amateurs make poor decisions while trying to save a par, a game in which making birdies, pars, and saving bogeys is emphasized can help players learn better course management (for example, score a birdie 4 points, a par 3, a bogey 2, and anything higher as 0). Players who lack focus could play games in which only four holes (or another number half or less than the total number of holes played) out of an entire round are scored for the total score. The hole numbers can be picked randomly out of a hat after the round. This method ensures that players have to focus on each shot and each hole to have the best chances of shooting a good score. It helps eliminate the tendency to lose focus and give up on a bad round. Players can have some fun making up games that help them work on the weakest parts of their game to build strengths and confidence where they had little previously.


For those in the Southest Michigan area, I will be running golf camps this summer that focus on these and other competitive games in order to develop strong mental skills. For more information, contact me:


Posted by: woodjared | February 1, 2011

Change the Scoring System, Change Player Development

Watching my nephew play 8 year old basketball today made me think about what we emphasize in sport and how it affects player development. At 8 years old, what the players do on the court is starting to resemble basketball, but many of the most important building blocks are still missing and not emphasized or reflected in the score of the game. What is emphasized in the game, by virtue of the points awarded, is three point shooting. Here are some suggestions for changing the scoring of basketball as a developmental or practice exercise. I actually think youth league should change their scoring to a system like this, but I’ve seen enough bad basketball at the high school, college, and even pro level that I think any level could benefit from making certain scoring changes in a limited time frame in practice. The following examples all involve basketball, but I believe fun, exciting, and challenging changes in scoring can be used in almost any sport.

Play Reflects Practice

First a note on changing scoring systems. In sports, athletes play like they practice. If you want to emphasize particular aspects of play, emphasize them in practice. A good way to emphasize them is to use a logical reward system that players already understand: points. Trust me, changing the scoring system will not produce unwanted styles of play unless you are emphasizing the wrong thing. I think this is exactly the problem when teams jack up unwanted three after unwanted three. Three point shooting is emphasized simply because it is awarded the most points in the game. Even in practices in which score is not kept, players still know that a shot behind the arc is worth three points. If there are building blocks you want to teach your players, emphasize them by scoring them in practice. Scoring games in practice can help players and teams set, track, and achieve goals.

Change Scoring to Emphasize Important Elements: An Example

The youth basketball games I’ve watched are notoriously bereft of basketball fundamentals including passing to outlets, passing to set up scores, defending passing lanes, keeping a balanced defensive position, and boxing out. To start emphasizing these things, I would change scoring systems in either practice or games. For players under 10, I would consider changing the game scoring in a simple way to emphasize the fundamentals of good basketball and de-emphasize three point shots. First, keep free throws at one point. Second, make all other field goals worth two points. Third, make assists worth an additional two points. For example, a pass that leads to a bucket is worth four points: two for the goal, two for the assist. This helps emphasize passing to set up scores and taking high percentage shots, both good things in almost any coach’s basketball philosophy. Further, on the defensive side of the ball, it emphasizing players cutting off passing lanes, a solid defensive strategy in most, if not all, defensive schemes.

Advanced Techniques

I like the idea of taking this further too, especially in practice. I don’t think it would take too many coaches to monitor either. I even think one coach could do a nice job with a clipboard or scoreboard and a whistle.

Depending on what a coach wants to emphasize, other scoring changes could be used in practice as part of player and team development. For example, boxing out could be worth a point a box out. Because this might be cumbersome to track each possession, a coach could privately select which specific possessions to score for each side. For example, Team A would be scored on the 2nd and 5th possessions, Team B on the 4th, and 5th possessions. By not telling the players which possessions would be worth valuable box out points, players would have to box out each possession in hopes of it being scored. A whistle and a, “Freeze!” call could help the coach record box outs.

Other ideas could be implemented based on team needs. For example, some teams get out of good defensive position and commit costly fouls when they are constantly reaching in for steals. To de-emphasize risky steals and emphasize good defensive positioning, a coach could use practice sessions to score defensive rebounds as a point while awarding no points for steals. Players would still easily understand to grab loose balls or poorly protected balls, but reaching in would be de-emphasized.

Another idea for a team who gets too three-happy at the expense of feeding the ball inside could scrimmage with points in the paint counting as three points and points outside the paint all counting as two points.

Why It Works

By being rewarded (rewarded symbolically by points, the same scoring system used in basketball since it was invented) for certain elements of play over others, players will naturally change their focus and begin to play differently. As long as the coach wisely chooses the elements of play that receive points, and as long as players understand the scoring system (for this reason, keep it simple), players will begin to play as the coach intends them play (assuming the coach uses good general coaching techniques and is technically sound). As a further benefit, by changing scoring, coaches can easily give feedback on elements of good play. For example, during a scored box out, the coach could yell player names and count points. This type of feedback increases self-efficacy (situation specific confidence) by pointing out what the player accomplished by playing the correct way. Thus, changing the scoring system not only emphasizes different styles of play, it emphasizes a method for building self-efficacy.


I recently heard an analyst on ESPN ask a question along these lines: Will the Heat’s slow start be a benefit to them in the long run? I think it can be. I can think of at least 4 studies in which some struggle eventually produced better performance (and even higher goals in some cases) in contrast to early easily obtained results.

But the story isn’t as simple as a slow start equals better performance in the long run. I think the Heat case has a few factors that made it ideal for them in the long run.

First, the Heat players are full of confidence (self-efficacy). Confidence in elite athletes is usually resilient. Certainly, confidence can be shaken with poor performance, but athletes such as Dwyane Wade and Lebron James are not going to be easily swayed by a month’s long stretch of bad play. They believe they are among the world’s best athletes in any sport, let alone basketball, so their confidence can dip downward without reaching a debilitating point. Sometimes, a jolt to confidence is needed to get an athlete to change a mindset or put in greater effort to the task at hand.

Second, the struggles weren’t catastrophic: their play simply did not match personal expectations. Athletes can only handle so much adversity before breaking, and the Heat didn’t reach their breaking point yet. Breaking points (such as the struggles of Greg Norman in the 1996 Masters, the throwing woes of Chuck Knoblauch, or the final confrontation with mortality experienced by Brett Favre this year) are extremely difficult to overcome. However, when perceived struggles are simply the result of performance lower than a self-set standard of excellence, athletes often adjust with increased effort toward goals. This seems to be what the Heat did, as evidenced by their more disciplined and focused play during the hot stretch.

How can you use this idea to your advantage? First, don’t panic when in a slump. Slumps are part of the natural cycles of sport performance. Second, notice that the Heat didn’t come out of the slump over night. It is likely that their poor play caused a modest decreased in self-efficacy (for winning a championship), and with an already high sense of efficacy, they persisted and applied a greater effort to their craft. This effort then resulted in changes in their attention, focus, practice, and play. Struggles are opportunities to refocus and reapply effort anew. Third, if you are a coach, notice that some struggles can be catastrophic for athletes. Put athletes in positions to succeed. Challenge them appropriately, giving them incentive to work hard but not presenting them with impossible challenges that could be debilitating to their confidence. Finally, high expectations are good, but occasionally, a downward adjustment in expectations is fine. The downward adjustment doesn’t have to mean an abandonment of the previous goal, it just puts it on hold while confidence is built by succeeding at lower level goals. Once the lower level goals are met, be sure to increase the goals by an appropriate amount. Aim high, but don’t be afraid to adjust goals as well.

Posted by: woodjared | December 21, 2010

NFL Has It Wrong on Cause and Solution of Dangerous Hits

The NFL has been cracking down on helmet to helmet hits, hits on quarterbacks, and hits to what they term, “defenseless players.” To be clear, I think they are correct in their concern for player injury, especially concussions arising from helmet to helmet hits, hits that are dangerous to spinal function, etc. But to penalize and fine the defense for these hits is shortsighted and changes the game fundamentally. It ignores the clear cause and effect situations involved in these hits. I think a better solution would be to penalize the offense for putting a player in a defenseless position.

I know this sounds preposterous, but if the overall goal is to reduce or eliminate these hits, a penalty to the offense for putting a player in a defenseless position would be a better remedy. Think about it this way: the defense will always be responsible for keeping the offense out of the endzone. In some cases, the only thing between a defenseless player and the endzone is a crushing hit by the defender. How likely is it that a defensive player in the heat of battle, in less than a second, will be able to think logically enough to figure out a new way to stop the offensive player from making a catch and possibly getting to the endzone? It won’t happen. The hit will occur, incurring a penalty and fine to the defense but also a possible severe injury to the offensive player. Defensive players are not cerebral after the snap. They are reactive.

In contrast, the player ultimately responsible for causing the positioning of the defenseless receiver, the quarterback, is trained to be cerebral before and after the snap. Certainly, some of what a quarterback does is reactive, but unlike the defensive player trying to defend a catch, the quarterback has more options, among them: throwing to a different receiver, throwing the ball away, throwing so as not to put his receiver in a defenseless position, tucking the ball and running, etc. By instituting a penalty for putting a receiver in a defenseless position, quarterbacks will learn how to eliminate those throws (and choices) from their repertoires. This is the only sure way to eliminate hits on defenseless players: prevention. But as of now, the penalties and fines incurred are placed on the defense, which is both reactive to the problem and rewarding to the offense. Thus, it is likely that the cause of the positioning of the defensive player will continue: it is rewarding to the offense. Therefore, the penalty for putting a player in a defenseless position should be incurred by the offense. By incurring penalties rather than rewards for making receivers unsafe, quarterbacks will learn not to make throw choices that lead to defenseless players.

To further the likelihood that quarterbacks will go away from these types of throws, I would fine them. After all, if fining is a true deterrent for the hits, then it should be a deterrent for the throws that lead to the hits. And if any position in football can afford a fine, it’s the quarterbacks.

At this point, it makes sense to ask the question, won’t this just encourage defensive players to make helmet to helmet hits? Not if done correctly. Headhunting and spearing have always been subject to penalties. This should continue. But enforcing penalties for clean hits that happen to result in accidental helmet to helmet contact runs the risk of fundamentally changing defensive football play, something not all footballers embrace.

NFL, give back our game of reckless abandon for everyone but the quarterbacks. It is as the game was intended to be played.

Posted by: woodjared | August 25, 2010

Working Memory: Free It Up, Golf Better

Working memory is rarely talked about in any sport, let alone golf, but it’s an important concept to understand. Working memory basically has to do with the things on your mind at any moment. It’s linked to focus and attention, but it’s truly a form of memory. It’s important in sports in general, and golf specifically, because of one basic concept: It’s capacity is finite. In other words, what we can focus on is limited.

This is an important concept. For the most part, we cruise through our rounds of golf, and we have these little rituals we go through. We look at our ball, assess the lie, look for a target for our next shot, among other things. Usually, we do these automatically without much conscious thought. We can switch focus easily from one thing to another (i.e., lie, stance, target, etc.) under normal conditions, whatever “normal” is for each of us.

Where we get into trouble with working memory is when the situation changes. This is where Dustin Johnson got into trouble recently at the 2010 PGA Championship. Ordinarily, DJ wouldn’t have any trouble understanding when his ball is in a bunker. He is able to switch focus from his lie to his target to his shot shape and so forth with a fluid, flexible train of thought. However, under the weight of possibly winning the PGA, the thoughts on his mind changed. Under such pressure, it is natural to think about things like managing anxiety, the spoils of winning the tournament, avoiding catastrophe and so on. Likewise, the situation itself, the management of the crowd around his ball for example, requires attention. All the possible things to think about compete for attention, and because our working memory is limited, we focus on some things and ignore others. We have no choice to do so. It’s like carrying around a bunch of objects in our arms. At some point, we can carry no more. Our mind works the same way. However, unlike carrying objects, we have no natural way of knowing all the things we need to pay attention to. After all, how do we pay attention to something that’s not in our attention?

Although there is no natural way to always be sure of having adequate working space, there is a good contrived way to create more space. If we have a preset checklist of things to consider for each shot, we have a great chance of not overlooking something important. Checking the list can be a simple part of a pre-shot routine. For example, if you have a small booklet or a notecard (or if your caddy has these things), it is quite possible to get into the habit of going through a checklist for each shot. The list might go something like this. Assess : 1) lie (including hazard or not in hazard), 2) stance, 3) wind, 4) absolute must avoid situations in next shot, 5) best available target, 6) distance. Choose: 1) shot type, 2) specific target, 3) club.

It may seem ridiculous to go through such a checklist. After all, under normal circumstances, we typically have no problem doing this. We switch our focus easily, and we don’t overlook anything. However, when the importance of a shot increases anxiety, we lose some working memory capacity. This can also happen when we are distracted by other thoughts that are not necessarily important to our upcoming shot. For example, part of Tiger’s recent troubles may be related to thinking about his personal like while on the course, which distracted him from the task at hand. Having a checklist, especially one that is written so that nothing can be overlooked (other than the choice to look at the list), can ensure that the best possible shot decisions are reached under all circumstances. Having a written checklist, and checking it every shot, will create a habit that holds up under even the most intense pressure.

Posted by: woodjared | August 8, 2010

Smith and Rice: Hall of Fame Wills

Last night the Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted two of its statistical leaders and greatest players of all time, Emmitt Smith and Jerry Rice. Listening to their speeches, I was struck by one consistent thought: both of these players were more products of will than talent. That’s not to suggest that they weren’t talented or blessed with genetic ability. They were. However, it seems to me that these players were driven by mental factors more than by physical factors. While this could also be considered genetic to some extent, it is something that can be summoned by a committed individual, regardless of genetic gifts.

Relative to other players at their respective positions, Rice and Smith were not particularly blessed with speed. In a sport that reveres speed, a lack of it doesn’t bode well for Hall of Fame induction. However, what these players lacked in speed, they made up for in will, and they applied their will relentlessly to develop other skills and attributes necessary for football success.

In Rice’s case, he honed his route running, catching, and conditioning to give him a competitive advantage. This started even before he hit the football field. As a young boy Jerry and his brothers moved bricks from the bottom floor of a building up a story or two to where their father would use them to build structures. Jerry’s job was to catch and stack the bricks as they were thrown to him. In his induction speech last night, Rice talked about taking pride in this job, never dropping a brick for fear of disappointing his father and not delivering on the job to which he was assigned.

As he progressed into college and professional football, Rice made up for a lack of speed through exceptional conditioning, which allowed him to stay near top speed throughout the entire game. While others’ conditioning was giving way and causing them to lose speed, Rice was able to maintain his speed, giving him an advantage even though his top speed may not have matched that of other receivers or defensive backs he faced. Similarly, Rice honed his routes to unmatched precision. His breaks were so precise that his efficiency helped make up for a lack of pure speed.

Smith’s will is perhaps less obvious, but it was certainly clear in his induction speech. Throughout his football days, starting in childhood, Emmitt became a believer in setting goals. In his speech, he differentiated his goals from his dreams. He dreamed it first, then he wrote it down, making it a goal. Among his goals were to play for the Dallas Cowboys and to become the NFL’s all-time leader rusher, both of which he accomplished. After he wrote down his goals, he worked relentlessly in pursuit of them.

Apart from dogged pursuit of goals, Emmitt’s running style shows evidence of a will and discipline unmatched at his position. Emmitt never possessed the elusiveness of Barry Sanders, Gale Sayers, or Walter Payton, and he is often criticized as a runner for having such great offensive lines in front of him. But what escapes the critics is that Smith’s brilliance as a runner wasn’t his elusiveness: It was his discipline. What made Smith such a great runner was that he was disciplined enough to run the ball exactly as the play was designed. In that task, he picked up every yard his offensive line provided. Not all runners can do that. But beyond picking up all the yards his line provided him, Emmitt always picked up a few more. He got every yard he should have gotten and then he got some more. Through his disciplined style, conditioning, durability, and strength, Emmitt applied his will to become the most prolific rusher in NFL history. Running with discipline within a system shouldn’t be criticized as a weakness; it should be hailed as a strength. It’s called coachability, and if coaches are asked what they want in a player, it ranks near the top of the list. Talent will come and go, but even the most talented player will never reach his potential without being coachable.

Apart from applying their wills toward their own physical behavior, Smith and Rice both seem to understand that the game requires teamwork. Both thanked teammates, coaches, owners, fans, and family members for the support and sacrifices they made for these players to receive glory. I thought the best moment of the night was Emmitt’s heartfelt expression of appreciation for Daryl “Moose” Johnston, his fullback in the Cowboys system. Emmitt clearly understands that football is a team game. Without being committed to the team aspect of the game, individuals cannot excel to the best of their ability, and the whole team cannot reach excellence.

The good news for coaches and players is that we can capitalize on the examples set by Smith and Rice. Talent does not just flow unrestricted into football excellence. The nature of the game demands mental toughness; therefore, the expression of talent is too often restricted by mental limits. Through limitless capacities of mental strength, Rice and Smith were able to squeeze every ounce of talent out of their physical bodies. Their examples help us understand that the expression of football talent has a causal route, and it flows from mental to physical, not the other way around. The factors that made these players great – discipline, coachability, the will to endure despite setbacks, relentless pursuit of goals – are accessible to everyone. Therefore, our own personal excellence is a matter of choice and relentless pursuit of goals, not predetermined genetics. How do we develop an attribute such as discipline? There is no magic formula. It’s as simple as creating a plan and executing every day. It’s as simple as going beyond average every step of the way.

Lastly, it is worth pointing out that Smith and Rice have translated their mental strength in football to other pursuits. It’s not a mistake that Rice and Smith have experienced post-football success in pursuits such as dancing, media, and golf. Consistent, disciplined application of coachable behaviors has given these players confidence in all types of activities. They are confident that if they follow a plan and adjust when coached, they can succeed. It’s a lesson all of us can learn, regardless of our chosen fields of endeavor. It’s a lesson that can and should be learned from sports.

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