It’s time to find out which Psychology Today readers are also football fanatics. The following is my annual post on psychology in sports (as seen on television and, hence, within the jurisdiction of media). The most striking narrative of the 2010 national football season thus far has been the demise of the heavily hyped Dallas Cowboys. Rarely has a football team entered the season with such a rich tradition, such vast resources, and such clear-cut talent only to self-destruct without warning and delay. All of a sudden the nation’s most beloved and relevant team is not just one of the worst teams in the league but completely out of playoff contention. It’s barely November. This past Sunday constituted rock bottom as the Cowboys were soundly throttled at home by one of the weakest teams in the league, the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The dysfunction was pervasive to the point of suffocation on Sunday, as players acted paralyzed, fans looked bewildered and coaches looked flat out depressed. All of this begs the question, what happened? The answer has to do with the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy system.

Let’s start with a healthy system because we all know what that looks like when it’s operating seamlessly before our eyes. In football, a game of interrelated ingredients that includes strength, speed and strategy, the following formula characterizes a successful team.

For starters, there is the cognitive domain. Do you know what you’re doing on any given play? Do you understand how to best expose the opponent’s weaknesses or adapt to shifts in their strategy? To a deceivingly high degree, football is a mental game in which the cognitive skills of processing, remembering and abstracting a fund of basic knowledge is critical, and never more so then under the high anxiety of the lime light. Do you know why a 30 yard button hook will work now when it failed miserably the last time? Such questions must be answered quickly, correctly and instantaneously. Information relating to one’s specific role on the team must be learned but also understood within the context of what everyone else is doing. The studiousness required to be an elite player is vast and poorly educated players are doomed to such outcomes as missed assignments, penalty flags and blown opportunities.  

Next, there are the social facets to consider. A successful team is socialized to the values of winning. Staying after practice to work out, catching the assistant coach in the hallway to critique the playbook, getting to bed by midnight, learning how to relax during the pre-game warm-up, these are habits of healthy playing that either become the norms, the implicit rules of successful teams. Losing steam in the fourth quarter, feeling deflated after one half of poor play and failing to grow throughout the sixteen game season are all consequences of poor social functioning.

Finally, there are the emotional components to success on the football field as each teammate must appreciate, trust and feel inspired by every other teammate. Players spend a third of the year on the road, in the huddle, on the bottom of a pileup, at the mercy of public scrutiny or sitting in an ice tub. Like any other foxhole, it takes the presence, pressure and bond of a ‘greater good’ to transcend the day-to-day misery and keep hope alive. Exhibiting peak performance when it counts, playing through pain and rallying in the face of adversity are just some of the many upsides to a team’s high emotional IQ.

As you may have guessed by now, the Cowboys fail rather strikingly on each of these fronts. I do not wish to regurgitate the countless media articles that play the blame game. What matters is this: players are not learning what they need to learn because nobody is studying and nobody is teaching. Moreover, players are not exhibiting the healthy habits and clear values of success because the frame for such socialization was never supplied. And, as the losing continues, the emotional fuel needed to maintain motivation, positive affect and commitment has slowly leaked away.

What this means is that a dysfunctional culture in Dallas has come to exist. It starts with the owner, Jerry Jones, who thinks that billion dollar stadiums and prime-time promotions are more important than slow, systematic steps toward health. It continues with the head coach, Wade Phillips, who prefers to protect his players’ egos rather than expose ugly flaws in performances. It ends with players who do not communicate the presence of an unhealthy system as weeks pass by and plays remain unlearned, and practices fail to unify.

Misplaced confidence and negligent parenting are two broad points that underlie this sort of systemic dysfunction.

Misplaced confidence: There is a world of difference between self-esteem (believing I am great at something without reason) and self-efficacy (working hard and gradually acquiring legit competence). America is great at the former, as American students lead the industrialized world in viewing self as more wonderful than sliced bread. Since the 1970’s a movement has unfolded in cushy suburbs in which parents’ cheer-lead their children to undeserved praise and unwarranted grandiosity. What should be promoted is a sense of self-efficacy, or a belief in being masterful because you are actually competent at something. The Dallas Cowboys were told they were great simply because they were Cowboys. They never learned that to be great involves assuming you are not great until objective evidence proves otherwise.

Negligent parenting: A team implicitly and unavoidably takes on a familial dynamic, of which the coaches and owners are parental figures. In the latter part of the 20th century a rather large pile of psychological research emerged related to the importance of child-parent attachment on healthy personality development. A researcher named Harry Harlow, for instance, proved that a cloth monkey was more important to the successful development of the child monkey then an un-clothed monkey that actually provided basic needs like food. The take-home message was the intimate touch and unconditional positive regard was critical. And although Wade Phillips’ warm girth and protective demeanor resembles a cloth monkey, what research now shows is that in addition to intimate touch and affection, clear communication, honest social feedback and skillful living are also necessary ingredients to successful attachments and subsequent life trajectory. In other words, good parents tell you when you are bad, make sense of chaotic experiences and teach how to be good. Yes, Jones and Phillips are negligent parents as neither seems capable of providing a coherent, meaningful frame to the Cowboy’s losing season. As mom and dad of the team they do not bench underperforming players or incentivize over-performing players. And they certainly do not teach players how to regulate game-day emotions, and cope effectively with adversity, as evidenced by their collective vacillating decision-making, vacant stares and post-game mumblings.

If you want a tutorial on a healthy football team note the 2009 Super Bowl-winning New Orleans Saints. And, if by chance you’d prefer a tutorial on what NOT to do as a healthy NFL team then, well, at least the Dallas Cowboys accomplished one thing with their abysmal season…

About the Author

Jeremy Clyman Psy.D.

Jeremy Clyman, Psy.D., is a forensic and clinical psychologist.

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