Between the last snap of the Senior Bowl and Roger Goodell's opening of the NFL draft, small armies of coaches, nutritionists, agents, advisors and physical therapists spend long hours instructing, cajoling, encouraging and prodding athletically gifted 22-and 23-year-old college kids into flipping the switch to NFL adulthood. If all parents had their own personal NFL prep facility, the world would be a better place. Really.
The universal parenting goal is to develop children into responsible, functioning adults. The new NFL is trying to forge a more respectable league populated with more role model-worthy players. Perhaps if parents were backed by a $9 billion business, we'd have more tools going into life's most important job. However, there's nothing to say Mom and Dad can't steal a few good ideas from the growing athletic performance industry.
Communication Decreases Conflict
While both Hillary Clinton and every parent of a teenager can attest to this being easier said than done, Lowell Wightman (Adjunct Professor-Master Coaching at Colorado State University) has made it a staple of his work with college players. "The NFL is demanding more out of their athletes in general and one of the things they are demanding is the ability to communicate verbally."
One of the many exercises Wightman uses to foster verbal/non-verbal skills and active listening is having one player give directions to a teammate using only numbers as his words. The same result can be achieved by asking a Parisian for the location of the closest "toilette." It should be noted that Wightman's version saves on airfare and is probably more practical for sibling rivalry scenarios.
Trevor Moawad, Vice President of Mindset Programs for premier NFL Draft prep facility Athletes' Performance, also has a few tips for drawing out that anti-social teen. In a Sports Illustrated interview, Moawad described a two-person drill that he employs with shy players who have difficulty interacting with strangers -- something that will not fly as a football professional.
Partner A: "One"
Partner B: "Two"
Partner A: "Three"
Partner B: "One "
Partner A: "Two"
Partner B: "Three"
The word "one" is then replaced with a handclap followed by substituting a finger snap for the word "three." It's absolutely impossible to execute without eye contact. You may wish to take an aspirin before trying this at home.
Set Goal, See Obstacle, Set Solution, Set Plan
Well that's obvious. Right, and when was the last time you employed Moawad's goal-setting sequence in your own life? That's what I thought.
Nick Winkelman, the Director of Training Systems and Education at AP's Phoenix facility works with his NFL hopefuls on "daily objective setting." One of AP's techniques is to frame objectives and results within an appropriately realistic context. For example, offensive tackles that come into training with a vertical leap of X inches have usually improved to Y inches. It may not be realistic for a 315-lb lineman to run a 4.5 second 40-yard dash, but he can work towards cutting a tenth of a second off of his own time.
Performance Specialist Randall Coburn, who coaches at the Florida branch of AP, shares his philosophy as, "teach them what to expect, but help them practice adaptability." No, that doesn't mean you can change the rules on little Johnny every ten minutes. That's not adaptability -- that's mean.
Don't Teach With Fear
Winkelman and his colleagues search for the athletes' "motivational triggers." In the world of NFL Draft prospects these range from a simple love of excelling at the game to being the agent of life-changing improvements for their families.
Television may still be filled with images of screaming red-faced head coaches (yes I mean you, Jim Harbaugh and Tom Coughlin), but legions of assistant coaches and personal trainers are trending towards relentlessly positive types who frame their criticisms more in terms of improvement than censure.
As Nick W. says, "They accept criticism better that way." You think? I'm not sure Bill Parcells is feeling this theory.
The social aspect of the coach-athlete-team relationship has long been acknowledged, but sports science is starting to prove that couching instruction in "external" terms can be most effective in improving performance. For example, telling a swimmer to "pull the water back" during a stroke as opposed to the "internal" coaching cue of "lift your elbow" is statistically more likely to improve the swimmer's results.
Doctors of Kinesiology Rebecca Lewthwaite and Gabriele Wulf have written extensively about the links between movement, emotion and social behavior, including the impact of "mirror neurons" that enable us to mimic the behavior of others -- including precise movement behavior.
So, telling little Susie to "sweep out the dirt" while cleaning her teeth may be more effective than "brush down/brush up?" Could be. Regardless, no parent needs to be reminded of the "mirror" effect since every family has a child who can imitate Dad's worst habit with a degree of accuracy worthy of a Vegas impressionist.
Self-esteem With Accountability
Baby Boomers obsessed with creating high self-worth in their children have succeeding largely in creating high self-entitlement. So how do coaches try to instill the confident and dominant mindset so essential to NFL success without encouraging the narcissistic behavior so abhorrent to fans, owners and the league's advertisers? By tying self-confidence to personal "ownership" of one's performance and career.
Athletes who lift weights because their college coaches force them to and children who clean their room only as a last resort aren't going to carry those behaviors into adulthood. Mr. Winkelman works at instilling a mindset of autonomy in the athletes who train at Athletes' Performance. The more control they have over their own skills, the more confident they are.
Potential NFL Draftees build that control through physical repetition and good work habits. Winkelman wants them "to feel capable on their own, to know that this is their ship, their business." He believes that this personal responsibility based on personally earned abilities is the single most important key in translating college success into an NFL career.
While Junior may never actually want to do his laundry, he might appreciate that having clean clothes will be appealing to a certain girl in third-period history class.
Awareness of the Moment
All NFL fans have smiled at the Harbaugh patriarch's motto about attacking the day "with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind." Well, it sure worked in that family didn't it?
A room full of young men training for the NFL Draft is not your usual college senior hangout. These "kids" may have a lot to learn about navigating a career and an adult life, but they understand focus, hard work and the importance of every minute--at least every minute on the field. Translating that into the rest of their lives is a significant part of the maturation process: a part that some notoriously never understand.
Preparing their athletes to be grilled in both the media and the interview room is paramount to draft status. Preparing them to be valued employees and the CEO of their own business is a more extended task. Doug Hendrickson of Octagon, a global sports agency, believes that "mental preparation is critical. It takes time and guidance." He's looking for the future NFL pro that has learned to be consciously responsible in all of his moments: "I'm married with three kids. I don't want the 4:00AM phone calls."
In this brave new world of social media where an ill-advised Facebook photo or nasty tweet can ruin a career, parents can use a little more emphasis on Carpe Diem and a little less on the 72nd edition of Assassin's Creed.
Every minute counts. With the clock running on the Kansas City Chiefs, NFL Draft hopefuls know it.
I am building a fire, and every day I train, I add more fuel. At just the right moment, I light the match.
--Mia Hamm, soccer star and two-time Olympic gold medalist
Thanks to Lowell Wightman, Trevor Moawad, Randall Coburn, Nick Winkelman and Doug Hendrickson for their time and knowledge and to Peggy Iralson of Athletes' Performance for her assistance.