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BYU Football: Mental Keys to Execution

25 August 2014 Jonny Harline
Jonny Harline makes the grab Durings BYU's 38-8 win over Oregon in the 2007 Las Vegas bowl. (BYU photo)

Jonny Harline makes the grab during BYU’s 38-8 win over Oregon in the 2006 Las Vegas bowl. (BYU photo)

A quick (um, not really) follow up to my last article and then we’ll move on!

Once the season starts, there will be a little less theory, a little more analysis. It’s all question marks and conjecture right now.

And I’m not a fan of conjecture at this point in the season. I mean, the Preseason Top 25, they really know what they’re talking about, right?

I wanted to follow up because, although the feedback I got from last week was overwhelmingly positive (thank YOU!), there seemed to be slight confusion that maybe I didn’t think a player’s mindset mattered at all, or that the desire to play well isn’t important.

My main point seemed to be well understood, which summed up is this: In a football game, no matter how much you may want to win, or how great your strategies to win are, these matter little when compared with whether a player’s body and mind are prepared to cause the things to happen (get his job done, or execute) throughout the game that will lead to victory.

First of all, we talked about what desire doesn’t do, it doesn’t really factor into the outcome of a game during the game. But outside of game time it can matter. A player’s desire can certainly be a source of drive to consistently work with effort in the offseason. And huge strides can definitely be made. Ask any of my teammates who saw me play as a sophomore and then as a junior. Night and day difference is an understatement. So I understand first hand the role a focused mind can play in the offseason.

At the same time, although having your desire motivating you in the offseason may lead to great improvement, it still doesn’t guarantee victory over your opponents, or even a starting job. I’ve seen many players who were among the hardest workers on the team but rarely, if ever, saw the field come game time. It still boils down to who the best player is. Sometimes the best player is the one who works the hardest, but sometimes it’s not.

Think of it this way. Three guys are given some money. One guy is given five dollars, and through his business acumen he figures out a way to turn it into ten dollars. Another guy is given two dollars, and he turns it into four. Another guy is given one dollar, and he doesn’t do anything with it. I made this up, I promise. I definitely didn’t get the idea from like, a book about a guy who lived in Jerusalem a long time ago.

Just like these guys are growing their money, football players build on their given talents. Some start with more. Some start with less.

Imagine the frustration of the guy who has two talents and busts his butt to double them, and he’s working just as hard as the guy with five talents, but he can’t catch him. In fact, even if the five-talent guy did nothing to increase them, he’d still have one more talent than the guy who started with two and turned them into four. No matter how they get them, whether earned or given, the guy with the most talent on a given day is going to win.

Please don’t take this to mean I’m advocating that talented players can slack off. No matter how talented you are, if you don’t push yourself to keep getting better, it’s going to come back to bite you at some point. Supremely talented players can skate by in high school, maybe even in college, but they’re in for a rude awakening when they try to get into the NFL.

That’s my take on improving your game in the offseason. By game time, it’s too late for desire. You are who you are by then and no amount of heart, fire, or desire is going to make much difference.

When you do enter the game, your mindset is still very important though. But once again not in the way many people seem to think. Again, you hear these words like “desire,” “wanting it,” “fire,” “emotion,” “will to win.” I hear people all the time use the word, “emotion,” especially. “Football is a game of emotion,” they say. I even hear NFL Hall of Fame Players-turned-analysts use this word. Now, I know these guys have more experience and success on their resume than me. I just have an issue with their semantics.

They’re using the wrong word to express the state of mind they’re trying to describe. “Joyful,” “Angry,” “Elated,” “Cantankerous,” these are states of emotion, and are not helpful in football. Emotion is too much of a roller coaster ride. Too up and down. Even anger, which some (especially Hollywood. The pinnacle of cinematic achievement, The Waterboy, being a prime example) might think is good to have in football, is too volatile for consistently reaching a high level of performance.

The right word these folks are all searching for is “intensity”–mentally and physically, every part of you being focused in on the task directly in front of you. Part of playing with intensity is the “fired up” part, which doesn’t necessarily have to mean screaming, yelling, pretending you’re at a Metallica concert and mosh-pitting in the locker room before the game. Getting “fired up” to me is a way of saying that your fight or flight response has kicked in.

What is fight or flight?

Imagine you’re walking down the street, minding your own business, and someone attacks you. For all you know your life is in danger. Your brain would immediately release adrenaline and warm your muscles and lubricate your joints, to physically ready your body and mind to fight back. Or run, I guess. The point is, your brain sends the signal, and your body is pretty much ready. Or at least that’s how the Cleveland Browns player personnel guy explained it to us rookies as part of our in-season orientation.

Now, in a football game your life is not really in danger but it is certainly a vicious physical confrontation. When I learned about fight or flight though, I thought about how I never really felt like I had to warm up before a game. Practice, definitely yes. But come game day, it’s like my body knew what was coming. I was literally ready to play right when I stepped on the field. Fight or flight.

“Play with intensity, not emotion,” is something I learned from my first real coach, in seventh and eighth grade basketball. He turned out to be truly one of the best coaches I ever played for, the late Randy Cusick (for those of you who follow BYU basketball, Craig Cusick’s dad). Coach Cusick always repeated this. I vividly remember him telling us the night before a big game against one of the better teams in our league, “These guys are all emotion, they’re going to come out flying high as a kite, yelling and screaming. You just come out with intensity and mental toughness, don’t get caught up in their emotion and you’ll be fine.”

We were, and we won.

Coach Cusick’s little catchphrase came to mind again, when I was watching the NBA Eastern Conference Finals this past spring and I saw a perfect example of this concept playing out in real life. For those of you who watched, think back on it. Here’s what I saw:

Lance Stephenson: emotion. Lebron James: intensity.

Stephenson was so up and down, all over the place, making great plays one minute and blowing in Lebron’s ear the next. Lebron was all business, playing with effort, focus, knowing what he had to do and making it happen. It can all seem like one and the same until you start recognizing these fine lines.

My last point is mental toughness. Some seem to have this perception that mental toughness is a magic that great players can tap into at will and elevate their game from great to supernatural heights. True, great athletes often have moments where they play exceptionally well, even by their standards. But, from my observation and experience, these experiences don’t come to players at will. It seems the best they can do is lay out the circumstances that give them the best possible chance of performing well, and then let go of the outcome and focus on the moment at hand.

Real mental toughness is being able to perform as close to your true ability as possible, as consistently as possible, without regard to, or in spite of, the circumstance. It’s being able to execute your assignment even more precisely when good play by your opponent demands that you do. Or as John Wooden put it, “be at your best when your best is needed. Enjoyment of a difficult challenge.”

Example time. Let’s go to my other favorite sport again.

No one is associated more with mental toughness than “His Airness” himself, Mr. Michael Jordan. I’m just going to say it: I’m a fan. I know it’s far from original, but he is by far my favorite athlete and probably always will be. He is literally one of the two men on earth that I would actually think it would be cool to have their autograph (Jimmy Page being the other). But I’d never ask. I mean, that guy has scribbled his name for a billion people who all think, “well it will just take a second of his time.” Now, I know some Jazz fans still have hard feelings about the losses in the finals, but come on, you wouldn’t hate a lion for killing an antelope, he’s just the king of the jungle, you know? It’s his nature.

Anyway, my childish idolization of Jordan was again justified when I devised a clever little scheme to see if I could measure how Jordan’s mental toughness really stacked up against what I figured would be my over-idealized perception. The best way I devised to do this was to see if I could find some stats on player performance in “crunch time.”

I did a search on NBA players with the highest game-winning shot percentage. The research I found was based on players taking shots to tie or take the lead in playoff games with less than 24 seconds remaining in a game. Now, I admit this may not paint a full picture of a player’s contributions in high pressure situations, and it’s a somewhat small sample size, but I do think these numbers are enough to take away some very interesting trends and insights.

In almost every case, a player’s field goal percentage when taking these pressure shots was well below their career average, in most cases at least 10-15 percent lower. In fact, since 1970, the NBA as a whole never averaged less than 43-percent field goal percentage throughout a season, and topped out at 49 percent in 1983-84. But in these playoff game-winning shot situations, the league as a whole averaged only 27 percent, nearly 20 percent lower than the normal situation average.

There are a lot of factors for this drop off, of course. The degree of difficulty may be increased by the defense tightening up on, or double teaming, a star player, and perhaps it’s easier to time a block attempt due to the clock running low.

But really, it’s the NBA Playoffs, when is the defense NOT playing tight? So to me the main distinguishing factor truly is the pressure situation. Why is making this shot different than any other? Physically the mechanics are not any different. Only the outcome of what would happen depending on whether the shot goes in or not is different. And this can, and apparently does, weigh heavy on the mind of almost all shooters.

In theory, a truly mentally tough player would shoot closer to his regular season field goal percentage even in these situations which are no more physically challenging than regular season shots, but are mentally more challenging since the whole game is on the line. See how I did that? It isolates the mental aspect.

Let’s look at how a few other notable players measured up first. And before we do, I acknowledge that all of these guys are champions and true all-time great players, I really like them all and enjoy(ed) watching them.

Kobe Bryant, regarded by many as having a similar type of mental toughness and will as Jordan, actually falls well short in this measurement, taking by far the most shots in these clutch situations at 25, and missing by far the most as well, making only seven. Basically matching the league average at 28 percent. His career shooting average is about 45 percent. So it’s interesting that by these numbers in these game-winning shot situations, although many perceive this is where he shines, he’s actually literally very average.

We love Kobe for his determination, his “alphaness” (new word, coined it. Bam!… or maybe not, I don’t know, I’ve never heard it before though), his desire to step up and be the man in these situations. Again, I love watching Kobe play, and admire his approach to the game in general, and of course, he’s a five-time champ. But seeing this makes me wonder, does his determination in these situations make him feel extra pressure to be the one to take the shot? And does trying to force a shot through sheer will actually hinder him from truly making the play that gives his team the best chance to win?

Lebron James has taken about half the number of these game-winning attempts as Kobe, with twelve. As far as percentage goes though, he’s fared much better, making five of them to put him at 41 percent. His career average is 49 percent. Interestingly, that this area is where many people compare him unfavorably with Kobe (since Lebron has, to much criticism, passed to teammates that he believed had a better chance to score in potential game-winning situations), when in reality he actually outperforms him, making only two less shots in 13 fewer attempts. This makes me think that he’s more selective about taking a shot that he believes he has a good chance to make, instead of deciding beforehand that he’s going to shoot it no matter what. So, not bad by Lebron, pretty solid mental toughness. But not perfect.

Absolute perfection is achieved by our hero, savior of the Looney Tunes, winner of championships, human being extraordinaire, at guard, 6-foot-6, from North CAAARRRolina (the laser lights, the fog, the classic Allan Parsons Project music playing, I’m getting pumped just thinking about those pregame intros. Yeah, I’m 31 years old. Make fun of me. I don’t even care.), Michaelllllll Jordaaaaaaaan!

Anyway back to reality and the exciting numbers, I expected his shooting would suffer at least slightly, just as everyone else’s did. But, take a look. Career field goal percentage: 49.7 percent. Playoff game-winning shot attempt percentage: 50 percent, going 9 for 18. Exactly as it should be for a truly mentally tough player. Not significantly better, not worse.

All over-adulation aside, this is a player whose mind is allowing his body to perform at its best no matter the situation. Notably, Jordan also passed to open teammates for championship winning shots (see John Paxson and Steve Kerr). It seems his mind is trained to allow what needs to be done to win to happen, rather than letting his desire or ego dictate or force too much. Determination, desire, killer instinct, common words thrown around by those trying to describe him, these are not the right words that truly describe what makes him great, because anyone can claim, or seem, to have them.

Toughness, the ability to resist being swayed by the situation surrounding the actual (usually pretty simple) task, is Jordan’s true greatest mental asset, and the one aspiring athletes should seek when trying to “Be Like Mike,” rather than trying to act like what they think a stone cold killer assassin with hyper-competitive drive acts like, as some describe him. I mean, come on. When we don’t understand at all what makes these players great we end up reaching for these weird comparisons and hard-to-define words.

So what does this have to do with BYU football? I know you’re thinking, “Uh…I swear I clicked on Deep Shades of Blue, not Bill Simmons’ Grantland.”

This BYU team is trying to break out of several years of mediocrity and make an impact on the national scene. I know the feeling. Our team faced a very similar situation, and we were successful (although I wish we could have hit our stride right at the beginning of the 2006 season), achieving a top 15 ranking in the country by the end of the year; and at that point, playing at a level that I would have been confident playing against anyone.

Being able to execute in difficult circumstances is the key. A number of games will be relatively easy for BYU this season. In recent history, BYU hasn’t had much of a problem beating the teams they’re expected to beat. But, besides the Texas game last year, they haven’t really surprised me by beating someone that was actually a pretty tough opponent.

It seems many fans are excited because of the stats that some of these players had last year: Taysom Hill rushing for over 1,000 and throwing for almost 3,000. Jamaal Williams rushing for over 1,000 etc, etc. In my view the stats are kind of skewed because they ran so many plays. Almost twice as many as we ran in some games. In truth, if the offense was really on its game, these guys would have had way bigger numbers (especially in the points column). I’m talking Taysom at 4,000+/1,500+, Cam Newton type numbers. So while these are respectable stats, just from my observation I never felt like the offense really ever hit any stride, especially in their red zone execution.

This is where your execution has to be more precise. In the red zone the windows of opportunities close fast. Again, as a player you don’t think, we have to score a touchdown! You think: block, run, pass, catch. And do them exceptionally well, even if (if??? as if a good team wouldn’t!) your opponent is making it tough on you.

Every guy has to execute. Hundreds, thousands of reps in the offseason, confidence and ability rising. Then you go and do it against real opponents in game situations and your confidence and knowledge that you CAN do this grows even more. The pressure eases off your mind some and allows you to just focus on what you have to do, not on, “I hope we win.” And eventually, hopefully sooner rather than later, the touchdowns just start to flow like Calvin Broadus’ words on an Andre Young beat. Meaning: real easy, smooth, not forced, and in large quantities.

Make no mistake, this team must improve majorly from last year to have the kind of season Cougar fans are hoping for. Or maybe better said, to be the kind of team we’re hoping for them to be. The interesting thing is, to make such vast improvements is really just going to take more players getting slightly more consistent at executing their jobs. It’s like you don’t realize how close you’ve been all this time until you make it and you think, “really? That was all there was to it?”

Seriously: Football. Life. And Lessons. What an awesome game.

So of course the question is, will BYU be able to take these few steps forward? Full circle back to the preseason guessing game! I don’t know. I think so, but I don’t know.  But good news, in case you haven’t heard, is that fall camp is over and all our questions will soon be answered. Or at least, somewhat answered.  The long summer football drought is coming to an end and we’re about to get poured on.

Because it’s finally game week.

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