Elite Athletic Performance – Cognitive Demands of a Modern Quarterback

athletic performance

Peyton Manning displayed the cognitive skills and emotional regulation to master the quarterback position and demonstrate elite athletic performance.

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.

Sports Performance – Integrating Cognitive Mind Training into Practice

Russell WilsonCredit: Photograph by Peter Yang

Sports performance and elite athlete development can be optimized through cognitive mind training, but the challenge is integrating the training into limited practice time.  Photo from yogadork.com

The cognitive mind training revolution is changing how performance and sports psychologists think about developing elite athletes.  The problem is that practice time is limited, especially in the highly regulated NCAA sports environment.  But in order for athletes to optimize the performance value of mind training it has to be done regularly and integrated into sport specific activities.  So how does a time-limited stressed out coach do this?  Here are five ways you can integrate cognitive mind training into your daily routine and optimize the performance of your elite athletes.

  1. Focused Attention (FA) meditation is a powerful way to increase focus and strengthen the brain’s attentional network.  The object of meditation is not as important as the process of bring attention back to the object when the mind wanders.  Conduct FA meditation during regular weight training workouts and use the barbell or grip on the weight machine as the focal point of attention.  You can also use skill or position drills during practice as a time to practice FA.
  2. Body scan meditation improves an athlete’s awareness of physical states that can impact elite performance.  Practice body scanning during pre-practice stretches.
  3. Open Monitoring (OM) meditation helps develop the ability to recognize novel stimuli in the environment, a significant skill in elite performance.  Athletes can practice OM meditation while walking to class or during lunch breaks.
  4. Distress tolerance training increases poise and mental toughness.  Build cognitive mind training into skill and endurance workouts that stress the physical capacity of the athlete.  Interval or high-intensity strength training are great times to increase poise and mental toughness with cognitive mind training.
  5. Encourage your elite athletes to adopt a 24/7 performance mindset.  Your athletes are away from you more than they are with you; develop a shared vocabulary and philosophy of intentional behavior that supports elite performance.  This intentional behavior includes nutrition, sleep, emotional resilience, and commitment to build cognitive performance skills outside of practice.


For more information about integrating cognitive mind training into your practices or developing a customized cognitive mind training program for your organization, contact dr. dutch at TierOne Performance Consulting or consider taking courses at the TierOne Performance Institute.

Remember – Put your mind on what matters!