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News » Mental toughness is a good start

Mental toughness is a good start

Mental toughness is a good start
Just before the Dallas game, Donovan McNabb had the city shaking its collective head (again) when he pronounced that he'd had a "great" 2008 season.

Which season was that?

The one in McNabb's mind, said top sports psychologist Bob Rotella.

"The great ones have instant amnesia - no matter what just happened, they're able to pull out the positive," Rotella said. "In any sport, people get beaten up. You're going to have great moments and bad ones. ... McNabb's had his ups and downs. You've got to really believe in yourself. The guys who do that last a long time in the league."

Rotella works with NFL players - a lot of kickers especially, he said - and he's worked with franchises such as the 49ers, but he's best known as a mental coach for professional golfers, including Padraig Harrington and Trevor Immelman, who combined to win three of 2008's four major championships. Rotella pointed out that when Tiger Woods hits a lot of drives off-line in a round and is asked afterward about hitting it in the woods - "he immediately talks about how good his course management was, how good he was putting it."

And because Tiger Woods is Tiger Woods, that kind of attitude is invariably cited as one of a champion.

Rotella doesn't think McNabb is in denial when the Eagles quarterback doesn't get specific about his own mistakes at postgame press conferences.

"There are some guys who will tell the media what they're really thinking and a lot of guys don't," Rotella said. "It doesn't mean in his own head, he isn't addressing those things, or in coaches meetings or with his receivers. A lot of guys think, 'If I open up the can of worms, they'll never let me forget it.' I think what is crucial - is the athlete addressing it themselves?"

As for which team has the mental edge going into today's NFC divisional playoff between the Eagles and Vikings, you might want to wait until the post-game show before putting too much faith in it as a factor. A headline in a Chicago paper before the last NFL weekend read, "Bears have big mental edge over Vikings - Bears' focused approach a stark contrast to Vikings."

The facts in the story were all true, except the Bears lost at Houston, the Vikings beat the Giants, and the Eagles are in Minneapolis today instead of Chicago.

There are a million examples of this. Go back to the 2001 NBA playoffs. The Sixers played Indiana in the first round. An AP analysis of the series pointed out, "The Pacers believe they have the mental edge over the Sixers by virtue of having knocked Philadelphia out of the playoffs the past two seasons; (Reggie) Miller is a proven playoff performer; (Allen) Iverson and (Dikembe) Mutombo aren't." The AP prediction: Pacers in five. Instead, the Sixers won the best-of-five series in four games on their way to the NBA Finals. From then on, Iverson was a warrior.

It's not that the mental side of the game isn't crucial. It's just hard to pin a label on an entire team.

"There are players on playoff teams who do a poor job of preparing - they get by on ability," said NFL Network analyst Jamie Dukes, a former offensive lineman. "Others are preparation warriors, like Peyton Manning, Brian Dawkins ... The athletes are the athletes. They do their thing. It goes back to your quarterback. That's where this game is. It's the execution of the quarterback on either side."

Dukes said he couldn't even try to put a list together of the mentally toughest teams in this year's postseason. The Patriots would still be high on the list and they're not in the playoffs. But individual toughness is easier to recognize. Dukes mentioned a debate he had this season with Deion Sanders, his former teammate, about Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.

"His greatness is going to be judged by how he performs when the stakes get higher," Dukes said of Romo. "Deion, the bigger stakes got, the better his performance was. The stars, they all did their thing when the lights were on."

He puts McNabb in this thumbs-up category for mental toughness, saying guys like Matt Ryan and Matt Cassel will have to perform in big games over the long term to be considered McNabb's equal.

The old clich? about treating playoff games like any other - going back in sports history, that's not how all the great ones handled it.

"I think its pretty much an individual thing for how people prepare for stressful situations," said Bob Cousy, Hall of Fame point guard for the Boston Celtics dynasty. "I was so intense, for the most part, I didn't prepare differently."

Until the end of his career, he said.

"The last three or four years, I thought I had more trouble coming self-motivated to the site of the event," Cousy said.

So even for home games, he would check into a hotel, tell the front desk not to put through any calls, "isolate myself," Cousy said.

"I wouldn't do these things during the season, or you'd send yourself to the psych ward," Cousy said. "But by the time we got to midcourt, I would have preferred to kick the guy in the groin than shake hands with him. I had isolated myself to that degree."

There are famous stories about Celtics great Bill Russell throwing up before crucial games. They were true, Cousy said.

"We knew everything was fine when Russell would race to the head to throw up," Cousy said. "He would just be dry heaving in there and we'd all feel a sense of relief."

Now, coaches usually follow the clich? about not changing things much.

"Let's put it like this, if you believe in your team, you are sticking to your routine," said Rotella, the sports psychologist. "It's a big, big part of the preparations. When coaches go to extreme changes before a big game, it sends a message: 'We don't completely believe in these guys. We are hoping ...' Players pick up on that. 'Coach doesn't believe in us; they're worried.' "

Go back to the Eagles team that beat Detroit in the first round of the 1995 playoffs, then had to play Dallas. Maybe it was no factor that Ray Rhodes took his team to Vero Beach, Fla., to prepare. Maybe it didn't matter that Randall Cunningham, the backup that year to Rodney Peete, forgot his playbook. It wasn't that the Eagles brass thought they needed to do something different. The Eagles were worried about the weather for practice in Philly that season. They weren't taking the team to Club Med. But they haven't tried that sort of thing again after losing to the Cowboys.

Who are the toughest guys mentally? The winners, of course.

"Nothing confirms the authenticity of somebody's opinion more than success," Cousy said. "My first years in the league, nobody used to talk to me. Then when we began winning, everything I was saying was pearls."

Rotella does think the Eagles are in a good place mentally. They believe in themselves, he said, but expectations aren't oppressive. The Giants getting hot last season and winning the Super Bowl after winning playoff games on the road will be noted by Eagles players. Interestingly, he thinks even the Phillies winning this season could be contagious.

"Athletes are very good at taking little things and using it to their advantage," Rotella said.

And being in a good mental place is crucial, Rotella said, mentioning that every team has a positive outlook in training camp - but it's a long season.

"Teams start getting beaten up and get down on themselves," Rotella said.

The sports psychologist doesn't go overboard in thinking that psychology will determine today's game.

"The real story - it's going to be how the offensive line blocks," Rotella said.

Contact staff writer Mike Jensen

at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com.

Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: January 4, 2009

David Akers Name: David Akers
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