What NFL players can learn from French philosopher, Rene Descartes

Your talent determines what you can do. Your motivation determines how much you are willing to do. Your attitude determines how well you do it.– Lou Holtz

If I asked you how much of football is mental, what would you say? 50%? 70%? 90%? When I ask an athlete, these are usually the numbers I get back in response. But when I ask them how much they practice this aspect of their game, I usually get blank stares in return. “So you’re telling me you spend 100% of your time working on 50/30/10% of your game?” This makes no sense to me.

Often, people believe that things like motivation, emotional regulation and focus are attributes a person either has or they don’t. “So-and-so is a natural born athlete,” we might say. Maybe he’s born with, maybe it’s Maybelline. In reality, these are skills that can be developed and improved. Anders Ericsson, author of the book Peak: The New Science of Expertise, has shown that anyone can be good at a particular skill, as long as they dedicate the time and energy to practicing that task. But no ordinary practice will do – it is purposeful, directed practice, with specific goals that are necessities to improve. This is where people like me come in.

Let’s be honest, all NFL players are talented. Their skill has helped them reach the highest levels of their game – and many players ride that talent for a long time. We are already talking about the best of the best, but you can’t deny that even within the top 32 quarterbacks in the country, there are still some who stand out even more. But what separates the Tom Bradys from the Alex Smiths?

While not all players are outspoken about their work with mental coaches, there are a few who acknowledge their efforts on the mental game, like Drew Brees and Russel Wilson (and the Seattle Seahawks in general). This leads to the question, why *don’t* players talk about it or even buy into it in the first place? They have strength and conditioning coaches, throwing coaches, biomechanists, and exercise physiologists, all to fine tune their game and mold their body to be the best football player they can be. Pursuing excellence is a choice, but many players limit their pursuit to only the physical.

There is a belief that your brain and your body function independently from one another. The fancy term for this is Cartesian Duality – because it stems from 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes – who famously said, “Cogito ergo sum” or in other words, “I think, therefore I am.” This idea led to the belief that the mind was separate from the physical body. This was actually useful at the time, because as Dr. Neeta Mehta explains in her article, “Mind Body Dualism: A critique from a health perspective,” this separation allowed for medical study of anatomy via dissection. Back then it was understood that body and soul were one, and if the soul was to enter heaven, the body had to remain intact. By separating the two, scientists were then able to make progress in the fields of anatomy and physiology without religious limitations.

This dualism carried over into the idea of positivism (an impersonal, analytical, completely objective method of medical study), and then into reductionism, in medicine – if we make narrower and narrower deductions, we will ultimately drill down until we get to the The Problem. This resulted in physicians focusing on a physical disease to the exclusion of the person experiencing it. In 1977, a psychiatrist at the University of Rochester, Dr. George Engel, introduced the idea of a biopsychosocial approach to medicine. This is the notion that the social, psychological, and physical all interact, and that understanding a person’s subjective experience is as important as their physical condition. Here’s an example: let’s say you have to give an important presentation and you are super nervous about it. What does being nervous feel like? Most of us get jittery, sweaty palms, tense muscles, even an upset stomach; this is the physical response to the psychological state of nervousness. It is clear that how you think and feel about a given situation has physical symptoms- the mind and body are inextricably linked. Now imagine yourself as a wide receiver before a big game. If you are jittery, tense, and sweaty how likely are you to hold onto a football or run the correct routes with the right timing?

When we think of sport psychology, we often limit ourselves to players who suffer from a clinical diagnosis like depression, or social anxiety disorder. And frankly, that is the only perspective we get from the media. But there is a whole side of sport psychology that is dedicated to (legal) performance enhancement- helping players train their brain so they don’t over think things, don’t let their mind wander and don’t let their nerves get the best of them. So, in this column I’ll talk about the different aspects of sport psychology and how NFL players use these skills. From illuminating different techniques to talking to players from different positions about their varied psychological needs to dissecting trending news topics related to the mental side game of the game and beyond, I will richly cover this crucial aspect of the NFL. Hope you’ll join me!

Leah Washington, PhD, ATC is a certified athletic trainer and a sport psychology consultant. She has worked with athletes of all ages, from youth to professional, on improving their mental game and specializes in working with injured athletes. She is a life-long fan of the Washington Football Team, so if you want to get her anything for Hanukkah, a Doug Williams jersey will do just fine.