I am not a sports psychologist, but after decades in and around sports, I understand what is needed above the shoulders to succeed. These include a few recognizable things like passion, mental toughness, and love of team, but it also involves less obvious elements such as operating with humility and creating space away from the sport.
I took to sports like a Golden Retriever takes to water, but my draw to football was the most magnetic. After grade school football practice, I would get home and still needed more so I begged to watch NFL games on TV. Dad, who ran a tight ship, had a cruel habit of turning off Monday Night Football at 8:30 p.m. sharp, regardless of the game status. That was truly sacrilegious for anyone passionate about the sport. The announcers made every game an event not to miss. And I was lucky enough to have the same trio call a few of my games over a decade later. It was torture to forgo the last quarter of close matchups, but Dad’s house rules were not up for debate. Even worse, the Viking games my family attended resulted in a nonnegotiable early exit to beat traffic. No matter the score at the start of the fourth quarter, the Wrights were out. These cliffhangers left me begging for more. I dreamed about plays that might have been used during the final minutes of those games. I suppose it was the earliest memory I have of sports visualization.
It was common for me to have afterschool football practice followed by a quick dinner and then off to city league for another round. This was fine with me because I loved every minute of it. From that point on, the more I could play football, the better. Despite my passion, not a single childhood, high school, or college coach ever suggested I had what it took to make the NFL. Yet that did not deter me one bit. I was playing with a pure heart, not an agenda. It was not until age thirty-five that the mental exhaustion of the sport caught up with me. While I still loved the physical aspects of the game, I was finished both mentally and emotionally. This made my departure from the sport necessary. If I had stayed without the passion for the game, I would have put myself and my team at risk.
The pressures of playing in the NFL are immense and derailed many a career. Even with a healthy psychological profile going in, I was challenged from the start. The incessant yelling from my Cowboys’ line coach would send my head into a tailspin and rock my confidence until Coach Ditka offered me some mind-bending insight.
“Start worrying if Jim stops yelling at you,” Ditka stated definitively during one of our post-practice walks.
“I don’t understand. Can’t he see that I am giving him everything I have?” I questioned as I fought back my frustration and balled my fists so hard that my fingernails dug into my palms.
“Yup, he does, but he also sees more in you than you see in yourself.” Ditka said as he stopped to look me in the eyes. “Trust the process, Steve; he knows what he’s doing.”
In that instance, a stifling burden I carried in my mind was set free. They really saw a lot in me? Within a millisecond, I felt light as air. I smiled at Ditka and shook my head. I had much to learn about the mental fortitude needed to thrive in this profession.
I learned to manage conflicting emotions and intensity on the practice field. But it became more complex hours before a game and would crescendo at the first snap of the ball. The pregame mental gymnastics were an out-of-body ritual. One of my Pro Bowl linemates, who will remain nameless, cried before games because he was so mentally cranked. Other players puked or punched lockers before entering the Coliseum. These guys were all seasoned professionals.
The temperature and stress mounted as I paced around the echoing tunnel to take the field. My dark emotions had nowhere to escape in the confines of the tight space. The ambient energy felt like tiny electric shocks as I bolted through a lineup of cheerleaders into a sold-out stadium as my name flooded the soundwaves.
Even a decade into my career, this pregame introduction ritual was a mind-distorting experience. I shouted obscenities, threw my body around, and pounded on my teammates as the caffeine and testosterone redlined. The bubbling rage made me feel indestructible. But I always tried to remember Lao Tzu’s wise adage: “The best fighter is never angry.” While pressure filled my world, I worked to manage my voltage. I had to stay under control so it would peak on the first snap of the ball.
More on this topic and others in my forthcoming memoir, Aggressively Human, to be released on all platforms in November 2023.