Combine pressure is high by design

TJ Yates

INDIANAPOLIS -- Devon Kennard's father played in the NFL, and when his son prepared for the recent scouting combine, he offered some simple advice:

Don't stress out.

It wasn't a difficult directive for the linebacker out of Southern California to follow. He thrives on intense moments, like the few minutes he gets to impress teams in meetings. He's comfortable and confident even amid the rigors of travel, meetings and myriad medical exams. Prospects might get three hours of sleep one night and five the next before arising for exams and meetings.

"You could let this process get to you if you're not careful," said Kennard, whose father,  Derek Kennard, played 11 NFL seasons as an offensive lineman. "Just relax and be yourself and go do what you were trained to do your whole life."

During the past week at the combine, teams examined more than 300 NFL hopefuls during some of the most pressure-packed days of their lives. Their bodies and minds strain under the microscope of potential future employers, and to many of them, it feels like a make-or-break situation. As teams analyze measurements and workouts, they also analyze the mental makeup of each player. To some organizations, valuable lessons come out of examining a player's reaction to stress.

"They're being dragged from this event to that event," Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said. "[At night] there are gonna be guys that get interviewed every 15 minutes. There's pressure, absolutely. There have been some guys who have imploded.

"Let me tell ya, I haven't seen it a lot, but, generally speaking, if a guy implodes here, he'll definitely implode in August [during training camp]."

"A somewhat unnatural situation"

The heart beats faster, the focus narrows, muscles tighten, breathing quickens and posture changes as adrenaline pumps through the body.

Mentally, perspective gets lost.

"It's basically kind of a narrowing of focus," said Len Zaichkowsky, a sports psychology expert and retired Boston University professor. "You get a tunnel vision, and you can't see the big picture [because of] self-imposed pressure on yourself. When we do [functional magnetic resonance] imaging of the brain, it becomes very clear that the individual just locks in on one thing that's probably not the most relevant thing that they should lock in on."

Zaichkowsky gave the example of a quarterback whose mind narrows its focus to one receiver in a game, ignoring the rest of the field in response to pressure. It's a characteristic, he said, of not being able to manage pressure. It can manifest itself in less visible ways, too. A player could focus too much on failure, letting that negative thought dominate his mind.

A lack of sleep can add to the trouble, and that's a common problem at the combine. So can a lack of the proper foods -- fuel necessary for optimal performance.

"The people who designed this probably don't understand they've put them in a somewhat unnatural situation over a short time frame. ... I think that the combine is kind of a unique thing. ... It's a career make-or-breaker. There may be second chances, but [the prospects] don't see it that way."

That's especially true for players who don't enter the pre-draft process with much acclaim. They're the ones who often feel the heaviest pressure.

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