Thursday, January 24, 2013

One Shot at Glory vs. Sustained Success

Of course, all eyes are now on the Super Bowl in two weeks time.  It is a media event, a grand spectacle that captures the imagination of an entire nation every year.

But, make no mistake.  The NFC Championship Game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Atlanta Falcons was a great game, particularly for students of the game.  Only one team could represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, but I believe that both franchises have the opportunity for sustained success, competitive excellence and a long championship-quality rivalry. What did we learn from this outstanding game?  What really happened?  What will happen in the future?

Confidence is an extremely fragile thing for individuals and teams alike. How a team responds to losses of this type and magnitude can easily dictate the short- and long-range future of a franchise. How losses are analyzed and interpreted can make or break a team. How players and coaches react to the criticism from fans and the media can have a profound influence on the mindset and culture of a franchise.  Confidence can be enhanced or self-esteem issues can be created by what the players and coaches do with their post-season assessment and learning that is done in the off-season.

Both team must be able to see this game as a stepping stone to greatness, evidence of success, an indicator of excellence and a valuable learning opportunity.  Regardless of the outcome of the Super Bowl, both teams can build upon this superb season and improve.

It is likely that we will see the future Super Bowl champion as "the winner" and their opponent as "the loser."  These labels can be deadly to teams, whose winning chemistry is fleeting and fragile at best. Many will look at the newly crowned winner with admiration and respect; and the other as a complete failure, an embarrassment to their city, their division and their conference, unworthy of its position as the representative of said group.  Additionally, it is a mistake to look superficially at the stylistic differences in the quarterbacks, the offensive and defensive schemes and packages, the coaching and players personalities and style.  Jumping to conclusions about the validity of one's team's characteristics, strategy, culture and philosophy over another can be highly misleading.

For example, the Falcons' head coach, Mike Smith, is often seen as a stoic, low-key leader who maintains a calm demeanor.  The loss to the 49ers will shine a critical light on these coaching characteristics and many will scoff at his style and personality.  Also likely is the notion that his outward game face contributed to the loss.

One the other hand, Jim Harbaugh, the 49er head coach, is a high-energy, frenetic, volatile bundle of emotion and hyperactivity.  In the glow of a 49er win, it will be argued that Harbaugh's approach is more effective; a flavor of the month, prerequisite coaching style of the future and a necessary ingredient for success. That would be wrong.  Obviously, both styles can (and do) work and neither should be changed or copied.

Despite the loss, the Falcon's offense has become a highly talented, precise, well-oiled machine that seems highly structured and controlled.  The entire team led the league with the fewest penalties and penalty yards this year, suggestive of a highly disciplined and focused team.  This team is just right for the New South, the steel and glass of an upscale Atlanta.   The loss to San Francisco could alter this perception and create a need for change when little is needed.  

By contrast, the 49ers are characterized by an aggressive, explosive, athletic, and star-studded defense.  A caffeinated team like this accurately reflects an undisciplined and unbridled franchise. This style may perfectly suit a West Coast, Silicon Valley team.  Offensively, Colin Kaepernick, who won the starting quarterback job from steady veteran, Alex Smith, is the epitome of that loose, freewheeling approach.  Smith has always been  seen as the opposite of Kaepernick: a game manager who despite his effectiveness was seen as a liability as a quarterback of a championship team.  However, true or false, the Kaepernick-influenced 49ers style works for them and would not necessary work in other situations with different personnel.

Even if the 49ers lose in the Super Bowl, their recipe for success has been established.

The conference championship game was a viciously fought battle between a proud franchise with a history of winning and a rebuilt franchise learning to win one step at a time.  However, neither franchise had approached this level of competitiveness and success since the mid-1990.  The proud 49ers are 5-0 overall in their Super Bowl appearances and eager to have the opportunity to win a sixth.  Over the past half-decade, the Falcons has slowly but surely developed into a regular season, home field juggernaut that has only recently won its first playoff game with this core of management, coaches and players.

The Falcons' quarterback, Matt Ryan, played two wonderful halves of football, one in the Division Playoff against the Seattle Seahawks, and one in the the first half of the 49er game.  His precision and surgical-like dissection of the defenses in each game was impressive, masterful and highly effective.  He led the Falcons to seemly insurmountable leads in each game.  In the first half of each game, he appeared in full control of an explosive offense.  Ryan displayed a gift for execution and technical abilities found in few quarterbacks.  Critics of Ryan point to his inability to run effectively or improvise on the fly as a fatal weakness, especially in contrast to Kaepernick.

What the Falcons seemed to lack after halftime in each contest was the flexibility and the ability to make adjustments that would allow them to continue to dominate the game.  It appeared that they succumbed to the natural tendency toward complacency that often follows short-term success.  They shifted to an mentality that focused on the avoidance of losing rather than winning.  This mindset prevented them from finishing the game with a flourish. They became tentative, cautious, and protective; wishing for the game to end as it were.    Rather than keeping the pedal to the metal, they rode the brakes.

In contrast, it appeared that the 49ers second-year quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, was more flexible, more resilient, more creative, with a greater capacity to adjust to the evolving game conditions.  His ability create a balanced threat to run or pass kept the Falcons defensive on their heels, particularly in the second half.  The fatigue this created within the Falcons' defense was a key to the 49er victory (as well as the Seahawks' impressive comeback).  The victory was a team victory attributable to many facets and factors beyond the young man in the quarterback slot.  A win or a loss in the Super Bowl should not blind the 49ers to their strengths, build over time and attributable to much hard work.

From this game, the Falcons can learn and improve simply by learning to adapt and finish.  They were able to close out games and win in close (sometime ugly) games in the regular season but seemed to wilt under the increasing and extreme championship pressure of the playoffs.  It would be too easy, to place excessive, confidence killing blame on Matt Ryan for this loss.  It would be equally unfair to point toward a porous defense or an ineffective offensive running game for the loss.  The Falcons' performance must be seen within the context of a highly successful regular season, and two almost perfect halves of playoff football against highly competitive and excellent opponents.

Despite a season of objective success, losing in the playoffs is often followed by intense criticism, second-guessing, loud calls for complete overhauls of coaching staffs and player personnel, and knee-jerk reactions.  Questioning of commitment, effort, talent, excessive age or youth is prevalent during the off-season.  Despite the fact that only two NFL teams have achieved more this season, the Falcons and their AFC counterpart in so-called failure, the New England Patriots, are being raked over the coals.

Regardless of the outcome of the Super Bowl, all the Final Four participants, the Falcons, Patriots, 49ers and Ravens would do well to carefully and logically assess their seasons, keep their wits about them, and avoid panic and overreaction to celebrate and build on a job well done.  Only in this way, can each franchise capitalize on the hard work and success of this incredible NFL season.  They must cultivate a mentally tough mindset that keeps them on the road to sustainable championship-caliber contention for the long term.    

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Newly Confident Sloane Stephens Upsets Serena Williams

“Last night I was thinking about it. And someone asked me, ‘Do you think you can win?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I think so.’ But I wasn’t too clear about it, and this morning when I got up I was like, ‘Dude, you can do this. Go out and play and do your best.’ ”

 --Sloane Stephens, female professional tennis player, after upsetting Serena Williams in the 2013 Australian Open.

Stephens snapped Williams' 20-win streak 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 in two hours and 17 minutes. Stephens has never won a title of any kind. She beat the best player in the world to reach the semi-finals in Melbourne. She will meet Victoria Azarenka. She is the first American teenager to reach a semi-final of a grand slam event since Serena at the U.S. Open in 2001.

Excerpts from and (1/23/2013).

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Origins of the Creative Flow State (VIDEO)

In his classic New Yorker article published in 2000, The Art of Failure, Malcolm Gladwell made the distinction between "choking" and "panicking"  He emphasized the notion that choking is the act of thinking too much, while panicking is thinking too little. Obviously, neither act is conducive to peak performance, success or excellence.

Perhaps, the probability of choking is increased by overpreparation, while the probability of panicking is increased by the lack of preparation.  It could also arise from fear produced by the emerging awareness of the lack of preparation or the perception of threat or failure based on a lack of preparation.

Freestyle is a style of rap, with instrumental beats, in which rap lyrics are improvised,  i.e. performed with no previously composed lyrics, or "off the top of the head".  The improvisational nature of freestyle is similar to that of jazz.  This quality is likely to create the the impression in many people that there is not considerable preparation or discipline involved.

Relatedly, Allen Braun, the chief of the language section of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), said that the same cognitive functions displayed during freestyle rap are used by athletes.

”If an athlete starts paying attention to what they’re doing, how they’re going to move their body to catch a ball, they’ll clutch and they won’t do it.”

He is not wrong; however, there is more to freestyle than meets the eye.  The ability to improvise is based on extreme amounts of practice, intense preparation, and even a great deal of study and analysis.  The skill of improvisation could not be mastered without hours of trial and error, practice, and diligent rehearsal.  At that point, effective improvisation can occur.

Similarly, only through this preparation can athletes perform and improvise as the situations evolve on the field, court, or track.

Many creative endeavors are mistakenly seen as simple acts of expression or manifestations of raw talent that need very little cultivation or development.  In fact, the opposite is true.

The creative process involved in freestyle is crucial for successful rapping. The creative process requires a state of consciousness where we experience a task so deeply that it truly becomes enjoyable and satisfying.  Excellence and success in rapping is often a result of Flow or the Flow State, first identified and popularized by the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  He is the universally hailed as the father of Flow and after decades of researching the characteristics of the “optimal experience”  he wrote Flow: The Psychology of the Optimal Experience.  Freestyle is a great example of importance of Flow as an ingredient for success.

The popular rapper, Eminem,  brought freestyle to the masses in the film "8-Mile,"  Eminem, along with Lil' Wayne, is considered by many to be the pre-eminent freestyle rapper today.  In an interview above, Eminem, displays the deep understanding and passion, the spontaneity, and the raw emotion that are the foundation of improvisation.  Here he describes his history and approach to freestyle.  As the interview evolves, he mentions several important key elements in development of his particular style and his ability to improvise.  These elements have important implications in their application to any performance situation or opportunity.  These elements also are a source of creativity.  

  • Initial failure, disappointment and/or rejection.
  • A period of disenchantment or quitting the activity altogether.
  • Re-emergence from failure or quitting.
  • Re-dedication or obsession with activity
  • Motivation and challenge of "figuring out the puzzle."  
  • Strong need to study, study, study (mastery of the craft through practice and analysis).
  • Appreciation of those who have gone before him.  
  • Discovery that this is "what I want to do with my life."
  • Activity provides individual a source of strength, a voice, emotional outlet, or a means of expression.
  • Provides a sense of belonging, teamwork, and/or comraderie (though, it can be an extremely solitary endeavor at times).     

It is clear that the seminal experiences that Eminem described were the necessary ingredients for him to learn his craft, ultimately, perform at a high level and receive the critical and popular acclaim that he has received in the past decade.  Thus, successful improvisation and creativity are products of hours and hours of intense and focused preparation.


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Monday, January 14, 2013

Russell Wilson, Rookie QB, Loves the Pressure

“I love it when the game is on the line, when everyone else is nervous and I’m excited.” 
--Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks rookie quarterback, discussing his mindset with under pressure.

Wilson played the game of his life in the NFC Divisional Playoffs against the Atlanta Falcons. Down 20-0 at halftime, Wilson lead the Seahawks to a comeback in which they led 28-27 with 31 seconds left in the game. Although, the Falcons kicked a game-winning field goal to defeat the Seahawks, Wilson was already looking forward to next season.

“The greatest thing about it is, we get to look forward to the next opportunity,” Wilson said.

Wilson passed for 385 yards on 24 for 36 passing, his career high, in his second playoff game.   Wilson completed the first 10 passes of the second half and rushed for 60 yards in the game.  The passing total was the highest in history for any rookie quarterback in an NFL playoff game.  

Wilson, an unheralded third-round draft choice, emphasized the Seahawks' resilience in coming back. "What defined the game was our attitude," Wilson said. "The way we played, and our resilient focus to play the game at a high level for the rest of the game.

"Anybody watching this game that knows football knows that was an unbelievable comeback, unbelievable game and an unbelievable atmosphere against a very, very good football team in the Atlanta Falcons."

Excerpts from, and (January 13, 2013).

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Sunday, January 06, 2013

Joe Flacco Has The Ravens Believing in Him

“When you lose three straight, people look at the quarterback, that’s part of the job. I think a lot is made and sometimes it really isn’t that much, and it’s not my job to really listen to [the criticism], so I don’t. … I believe in myself. I believe in this team.”

--Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens Quarterback, who leads the Ravens today against the Indianapolis Colts in an AFC wild-card game, despite a current three game losing streak. 

Flacco has displayed resiliency as a fifth-year quarterback. He has now led the Ravens to AFC North titles in back-to-back seasons, and has another shot at a playoff run.

The Ravens have won at least one playoff game each year since Flacco became their starting quarterback as a rookie in 2008, and they are going back to the postseason this year. His individual performances, however, haven’t matched his team’s success.

Over his career, Flacco has only completed 60.5 percent of his passes in regular-season action, and has thrown at least 10 interceptions per season. His postseason numbers are even worse.

While he has won five playoff games in four seasons, he has completed just 54.3 percent of his passes for 170.2 yards per game in nine career playoff games, and has an even number of touchdowns and interceptions thrown with eight apiece.

In spite of his overall success, Flacco is not seen as an elite quarterback by many critics. This year Flacco was the 12th-ranked passer in the NFL with 22 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and 3,817 yards.Though, it is doubtful that the Ravens would be back in the playoffs without his leadership.

 “I think it says that he’s a very good quarterback, number one,” Head Coach John Harbaugh said. “It also says that he has a lot of determination, a lot of pride, and he was able to handle that. That’s probably the biggest thing. You have to have thick skin, skin like an armadillo.”

His teammates spoke highly of what Flacco was able to do with his back against the wall.

“I’ve always said that he’s handled the pressure better than anybody I’ve ever seen,” running back Ray Rice said. “He’s done a great job handling it – and as I said, we go as Joe goes.”

“I think Joe plays big every week,” tight end Ed Dickson added. “When Joe is in the zone, he looks like one of the best quarterbacks out there. We told him as an offensive group that we have his back. … I think Joe stepped up big and he showed a little emotion today.”

 It appears that the Ravens have committed to have Flacco as their long-term quarterback. He is in the last year of his contract and many expect him to re-sign with the Ravens.

 "In terms of arm talent, he's a top five guy," Rich Gannon, pro football analyst says. "For a 6-6, 245 guy, he's very athletic. The question for Joe is about stepping up — with Ray Lewis retiring, Joe is going to have to step outside his comfort zone and be more demanding of teammates, play more of a demonstrative leadership role."

Excerpts from Bleacher (12/17/2012), USA Today (1/4/2013),

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