The job of a quarterback at the NCAA Div. I and the professional level is arguably the most demanding position in sport. Quarterbacks in today’s game are expected to display elite athletic performance; agility, strength, speed, and pinpoint accuracy. However, these athletic performance skills are just the price of admission to the elite level of play. What makes a quarterback effective, or even great, at this level, is the cognitive capacity the quarterback develops.
Let’s forget for a moment the intelligence it takes to learn the playbook and vocabulary of modern football; those are more traditional intelligence (IQ) type skills. What we will focus on is the cognitive demands and emotional regulation needed in the 40 seconds between plays that separate the effective, or even great, quarterback from the others that try to play the game. Scott Hanson of the Seattle Times describes this period of elite athletic performance pretty effectively.
Imagine you have just been thrown to the ground by a 300-pound man. But you have no time to wallow in the pain. You must get up, and fast, because the clock is ticking. In the next 40 seconds you will assess the situation, receive the next play, communicate it to your team, make sure you are properly protected and everyone is aligned correctly…. And then maybe change it all up, depending on what you see from the defense.
Encapsulated in Hanson’s passage is a description of cognitive capacity at the elite athletic performance level. The performance starts with self-awareness and the quarterback assessing his own physical and mental state dispassionately and without judgement. “I got hit hard, am I okay? Yes. Move on.” An emotional response to the hard hit will bog down the cognitive process and waste valuable seconds in either self-pity or acting out.
As the quarterback gets off the ground, he is assessing the situation; game situation (down, distance, time, and score) and the mental and emotional condition of his teammates. He uses this data to build an initial predictive mental model or multiple models and begins to test environmental inputs against this model. During this period of athletic performance, the quarterback gets the play either through a visual signal from the sideline, or in the NFL, through a microphone in the quarterback’s helmet. During this critical transmission of game-time strategy, the QB has to eliminate noise (real and mental) and visual distraction from the crowd, sidelines, and other players. And then he has to relay this message clearly while helping to minimize these distractions for his fellow offensive players. Any distraction or break in focus degrades the optimal cognitive processing performance the QB will need to be successful.
At this point, the quarterback breaks the huddle with 15-20 seconds remaining – 20 seconds earlier, he was picking turf out of his helmet. With the time remaining (think about it, roughly 17 heart-beats), the QB must assess the defense at the macro and micro level. At the macro level, the QB assesses the defense set, coverage, personnel, and likely course of action. This data gets fed into the QB’s mental predictive model and any adjustments to protection or the play is made (5-10 heart-beats remain before time runs out). Next, the QB assesses micro level inputs. Where is the safety in relation to the hash, what shoulder is the DB lined up on and where is he looking. This information gets fed into the QB’s predictive model further building the analytic snapshot the quarterback will use to optimize decision making. Times Up!
All of that must be done in a pressure cooker. Besides the cognitive capacity to analytically process the situation, the QB must have the emotional regulation to minimize the mental distraction of fear, stress, destructive self-talk, and pain. Emotional distress takes up a lot of precious cognitive processing capacity and can short-circuit elite athletic performance both at the physical and mental level.
The good news is, that scientific research (including my own studying a Stanford training program) shows that cognitive processes and emotional regulation like I have just described can be training and developed. Cognitive processing speed can be improved at the neural level and reaction times and decision making can be improved. The bad news is that no college or pro program (except maybe the Seahawks) have a formal cognitive training program and none of the big business quarterback factories have figured out how to train this yet…not in a real way and not with evidence-based methods.
If you look at the demeanor of Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, there’s always a calm about them no matter what’s going on and the chaos that’s going on around them. Those are guys that you know are in control of what they’re doing.” Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon
Develop your cognitive skills, decision making, and emotional regulation under pressure with the TierOne Performance Consulting team or at the TierOne Performance Institute. We offer state-of-the-art individual and program-based training to optimize elite athletic performance. Also, checkout this YouTube clip on improving poise and mental toughness through distress tolerance training.
Remember – Put your mind on what matters.