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.

"Focus on the right things"

"Throwing quarterbacks" don't come to the combine with high-profile news conferences and dreams of being drafted first overall.

They're invited to the combine primarily to throw to players at other positions, offensive and defensive players alike. But while they're helping out, scouts get to see their abilities, and they occasionally get drafted. In 2011, T.J. Yates came to the combine as a throwing quarterback and eventually was drafted by the Texans in the fifth round. He started a playoff victory his rookie season.

So even without the attention paid to them, there's pressure to perform well.

"Pressure is part of the game. I think they're purposely trying to put pressure on you to see how you're going to respond to it," said Cornell quarterback Jeff Mathews, who attended this year's combine as a throwing quarterback. "Ultimately, if you go through and do it the right way, the pressure doesn't really get to you. You focus on the right things."

Pressure comes in crucial moments during games, and teams want players who can handle it.

"Quarterbacks, you'd like to watch them: What are they doing on third down? What are they doing in two-minute drills?"  Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. "What is a receiver doing when he's matched up against a great cornerback? What's a great defender doing? What's a pass-rusher doing when you need a sack? ... That's why a lot of times you like to see a live game and watch the player's emotions, watch them on the sidelines and watch what happens if he gets a penalty. If a coach is getting on him, how does he handle it? I think all that stuff comes together, and we try to put all that information together to figure out if that guy can handle the game emotionally."

Colbert doesn't think the combine offers a solid window into a player's pressure-managing abilities. To him, it's too sterile an environment.

Not everybody agrees.

Three steps to handling pressure

Michael Gervais is a sports psychologist who helps train athletes for the combine, and, to him, the ability to dissolve pressure can translate to all kinds of situations.

"The preparation for the combine involves technical skills; it involves physical readiness and preparation and psychological skills to be able to thrive in a very intense environment," said Gervais, who has counted the Seahawks and Olympians among his clients. "Some of the foundations of people who are able to excel in intense moments are their ability to generate confidence, ability to be calm and to be here and now and refocus on the present moment. When they can do those three things, they tend to be able to adapt really well."

They are skills, Gervais says, not innate qualities. They can be learned.

Confidence, for example, comes from self-talk, or an internal monologue, and it can be altered. In his training, Gervais will ask a player what it feels like when he's at his best, and that way he can identify the athlete's ideal mindset.

"Step 1: Identify your ideal mindset; describe it," Gervais said. "Step 2: Increase your awareness of your own internal dialogue, and Step 3 is to be able to guide your self-talk."

Some players possess the natural ability to thrive in high-pressure situations -- a quality that exists in the makeup of some of the world's best athletes. Others have to work to develop the skills to handle pressure, whether it's through training or experience.

"So many of these games come down to the last two minutes," Texans coach Bill O'Brien said when asked what he wants from a quarterback. "We gotta make sure the guy that we have is a guy that can perform under pressure."

No matter how an athlete gets the ability, that factor can define greatness.

Wouldn't want to be anywhere else

Last Thursday, Nevada offensive lineman Joel Bitonio and the other combine participants on the same schedule woke up at 4 a.m. to take a drug test. His day would be filled with medical exams and his night with interviews and meetings. All 32 teams might be paying attention.

Operating on about four hours of sleep, the adrenaline helped.

"All your buddies that have gone through the process tell you, 'Oh, it's busy; you wake up early. Long days,' but until you're actually through it, you don't understand how it actually feels," Bitonio said. "It's tough, but you wouldn't want to be anywhere else."

It's tough for a reason.

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