|Viking kicker Blair Walsh, after his missed kick last year.|
Forgive me as I and the rest of New England continue to recuperate from our Super Bowl celebrations. Whether you're a Patriots fan or not (and no, Mark Wahlberg, you're not), you've got to admit that was one hell of a comeback.
The numbers alone say it was the greatest comeback ever in Super Bowl history. Regardless of the numbers, the game revealed this team's intestinal fortitude. Courage. Toughness. It reminded me of the following column, which I wrote about a year ago.
Minnesota Viking Blair Walsh had a similar opportunity to win a playoff game for his squad. But he missed a 27-yard field goal attempt, and the Seattle Seahawks won the game. The column was inspired not by the missed kicked, but by how Walsh rebounded, and how we can all learned to be mentally tougher. (As a nice side note, Walsh was just signed by, of all teams, the Seahawks). I hope Matty Ryan and the Falcons can bounce back as well.
Let me know what you think. Thanks!
Nurturing mental toughness
Mental toughness is something we all like to think we have. But the reality is we often don't know if we've got "it" or not until we're put on the spot, when the outcome of a game falls squarely on our shoulders. Ask Minnesota Viking place kicker Blair Walsh about pressure.
It was Walsh who missed a 27-yard chip-shot field goal attempt that would have knocked the defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks out of this year's NFL playoffs. It didn't matter that Walsh is a very good kicker, hitting 87 percent of his field goal attempts in 2015, including six of eight from beyond 50 yards (for his career, he is 121 of 142, or slightly more than 85 percent). When the big pressure moment came, Walsh's kick went horribly awry, spinning wide left.
To his credit, Walsh didn't hide, and didn't make any excuses (some analysts thought Walsh was done in because the holder left the football's laces facing Walsh's boot). "I'm the one who didn't do my job," he told the collective media.
Of course, Walsh was excoriated on the Internet by cowards with keyboards. That's life in pro sports these days. As Ryan Hiles, a columnist for the Louisville Cardinal (the independent weekly student newspaper of the University of Louisville) wrote, "There's no denying that Internet shaming is now a part of sports."
"It's worth noting when we as a society become comfortable with a certain level of emotional sadism mixed into our daily lives," wrote Hiles. "Sadly enough, we can all be deemed guilty of this sadism to a certain extent. It's become almost a sport of its own to revel in the pain of someone far off with whom we share no relationship or connection."
That's unfortunate, but not surprising, given the general decline is basic human decency over the past two decades (just take a glimpse at any political debate for a refresher course). While maybe not ubiquitous, this rush to judge certainly seems more prevalent.
There is hope, however. A group of Minnesota first-graders, recognizing how devastating Walsh's missed field goal attempt must have been, wrote consoling notes to the place kicker, who returned the favor by visiting their classroom. Hiles, the college columnist, got it too.
"This isn't a plea to stop hurting the feelings of millionaires," he wrote. "They're grown-ups, and they can handle their own. They don't need the kind of crusader-like defense that some sports often inspire. Perhaps it's still worth it to think about how eager we are to exploit human misery for a laugh. More importantly, to those of you that take the time out of your day to take to social media and add to the madness, chew on this: what's the point?"
Which brings me to hockey, at almost every level. Like Hiles pointed out, millionaires chasing pucks at the NHL level don't need our pity (though it wouldn't hurt to keep in mind that, yes, they do have feelings). I'm more interested in the kids playing at the youth, middle school, high school, and even college levels. This ridiculous need to point fingers and assign blame has filtered down to the sport's youngest participants, and it's helping to squeeze the life, and the fun, out of our game.
My coaching colleagues and I see this all the time. Given the fact that we work with goaltenders, the most pressure-packed position in sports, that's almost expected. You have to be tough-skinned to play goal. The worst is the email sent from a parent, saying a son or daughter has left the sport because it's no longer fun. How crazy is that?
Yet I'm as guilty as the next "hockey dad." I constantly have to remind myself that my 16-year-old plays the game because she loves it, not because she thinks she's the next Angela Ruggiero. While I try to justify my critiques with the rationalization that "the better you are, the more you'll enjoy the game," even I have trouble believing that logic sometimes. The look in my daughter's eyes says it all. I need to learn when to back off.
Similarly, Dr. Robyn Odegaard, founder of the Stop the Drama campaign (stopthedramanow.com), wants to make sure that coaches and parents (and players) aren't confusing maniacal training with mental toughness.
"I've been very disappointing in what I've seen athletes and even coaches talking about when they talk about mental toughness, things like being forced to run until they throw up," said Odegaard. "Anything that you do physically, whether it's working out to exhaustion in the gym, or anything else, isn't going to increase your mental toughness. It may let you know if you have mental toughness or not, or it may break you if you don't have mental toughness, but it won't change your mental toughness.
"In order to actually increase your mental toughness, you need to understand what you're doing to decrease it," she said. "One of the skills I teach is how to tell the difference between evaluation and performance, and make sure you're doing them one at a time."
Evaluation, said Odegaard, is looking back on a play, and determining whether you did it correctly and what you can change to improve. Performance, meanwhile, is the act of actually doing something.
"Your brain can actually only do one at a time, not both," said Odegaard. "But how often, during a competition, have you thought, 'That was dumb. I wonder what coach is going to think? Will he pull me out of the game?'
"That means you're evaluating. You're looking backwards," she said. "Performance means, 'What do I have to do in the next 10 seconds to be successful?' Being able to take control of your thought process increases mental toughness, not running until you make yourself sick."
To take control of their "thought process," young players need to be given the freedom to make mistakes without feeling like the results of the game is their sole responsibility. I tell my daughter, and the freshmen goalies on her squad, "You win as a team, and you lose as a team." That's not coach-speak; it's the truth. There are plays throughout the game that determine the final score. And even if they do lose, it's not the end of the world.
In other words, ease up. It is just a game. If a group of first-graders in Minnesota, and a college columnist from Louisville, Kentucky, can understand that, so can we.