One of Chip Kelly’s big mottoes is "Play with emotion – don’t let emotion play with you." He first publicized it when LaGarrette Blount punched a Boise State player after Chip’s first game ever as head coach, back in 2009. On September 6th, after Cary Williams got into a fight with the Patriots' Aaron Dobson, Kelly told reporters that he repeats it at Eagles’ team meetings. And there’s a whole chapter about it in my book, <a href="http://www.palindromist.org">The Tao of Chip Kelly</a>.
Big drama and emotional roller coasters are great for fans. That's what sells sports movies like "Rocky" and "The Mighty Ducks" and "Hoosiers" and even "The Bad News Bears." (But not "Slapshot," which is why it’s the greatest sports movie ever.) TV coverage of this Super Bowl, and of every football game really, revolves around building emotional narratives, players with grudges or who are overcoming tough childhood setbacks for big emotional redemption in crunch time.
Drama makes games much more exciting, but it’s not great for winning football games. It can help, giving people a surge that carries the day, but more often it turns to anger, ego, rage that makes it hard to see, understand or act the way you need to in the clutch. It’s like eating sugar; you get a little burst, but the negatives outweigh the positives.
Obviously Richard Sherman has brought all of these issues to our attention with his amped-up outburst after he slapped away a potentially winning touchdown pass at the end of the NFC Championship Game. He received a lot of quick, shallow criticism from fans and announcers who nonetheless clearly loved the controversy Sherman created. More drama.
Football announcers can be a lot like middle school mean girls some times. As my 8th grader told me recently about her peers, "We’re not stupid, Dad. We're just dramatic."
If you are sympathetic to the criticism of Sherman, please stop reading this article and <a href="http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-films-sound-efx/0ap2000000316744/Sound-FX-Sherman-and-Crabtree-clash">watch the mic'ed video of these events</a> and <a href="http://mmqb.si.com/2014/01/20/richard-sherman-interview-michael-crabtree/">read Sherman's account of them</a> before settling into your opinions. Sherman's infamous rant was less than 45 seconds after Crabtree shoved him in the face, responding to Sherman's good sportsmanship (holding out his hand for a shake and saying "Good game, good game") with petty pouting.
But the issue is much more complicated than calmness = good and emotion = bad (or low class, or "ghetto" as some say out loud despite the obvious racism). As someone I forget pointed out, a thousand white hockey players can fight all night without being called anything other than "tough," while Stanford honor student Sherman gets called every bad name in the book including, yes, that one. For batting a pass away and telling his opponent to stop trash talking him. The fact that a middle class white woman was reacting to his swagger is not incidental to the outrage that resulted.
It’s worth looking more closely at Chip Kelly’s saying: "Play with emotion, don’t let emotion play with you." That’s not just a simple reversal of words. The phrase is a very subtle approach to the inherent contradiction between heart and mind, a deeply paradoxical understanding that parallels a great Chinese philosopher named Zhuangzi (aka Chuang Tzu) who lived 2,500 years ago.
Zhuangzi is one of the few philosophers who is fun to read and even funny from time to time. His philosophy emphasizes not trying too hard and following your nature. But there’s a problem: doesn’t that mean you should be lazy and just do whatever you want, eating junk food and drinking? Because clearly human nature loves a lot of self-destructive behavior. If you truly respect human nature, you have to acknowledge and respect these human vulnerabilities and weaknesses too, right?
The eye of the needle that needs to be threaded is awareness, clear perception, understanding, and raw potential. Self-destructive behavior tends to cloud our judgment and cripple our abilities, so that discipline is required to be spontaneously ourselves, to build our natural abilities to the fullest and improve our clear perception of reality (which is itself an achievement, another ability that needs to be developed, not a given). To be all that we can be, as the Army would say.
The kind of drama that fans love is a cheap sugar high for the competitors. They’re better off with the hearty nutrients of exercise, practice, sleep and real life healthy food.
No offense, Philadelphia fans, but the Rocky movies and most sports narratives are all ego. "People shat on me, I’ll show them. In your face, asshole!" There’s nothing about being a better person or a better athlete; it’s all about diminishing your opponent.
That makes you vulnerable, because your opponents are trying to do the same thing to you. So if you have a setback, you lose confidence and rush toward humiliation because you have nothing of your own, nothing substantial, to fall back on.
Emotion is real, inevitable and good. Being a robot or denying your nature is not healthy or useful. That’s one meaning of "playing with emotion." If kept in check, feelings can add motivation and energy. But "playing with emotion" can also mean something nearly opposite -- having total control of those hot game-time feelings, playing with them like a toy and using them to manipulate your opponents.
The point of trash talk is not to amp yourself up, it’s to rattle your opponent by getting them so mad that they don’t perceive the situation clearly, and hopefully try to do too much, to be the hero. You’re offering emotional candy as a trap, to lure them into unfavorable situations. Or you're just pushing their buttons.
So was Richard Sherman being human and emotional and reflecting an unbelievably intense moment? Or is he a master manipulator, getting into his opponent’s head and messing up his game? Probably both. Playing with emotion in every sense of the phrase.
Definitely it was an emotional situation. A reporter shoved a mic in his face 90 seconds after the biggest moment in his career (so far), a one-on-one battle against a star WR to decide who went to the Super Bowl. As Sherman noted, he was on an island against Crabtree all game, a guy who mocked him in the off season and refused to shake his hand after the game. Their battle was mental and emotional just as much as it was physical.
Adrenaline has a lot of side effects, many nasty, but the bad ones kick in a few minutes after the incident that motivates that adrenal gland to pump out its special reserve. The benefits are immediate, so there’s a double bonus; a burst of strength to get through a dangerous moment, followed by jittery anxiety to remind you not to get into this situation next time. It worked great when saber-toothed tigers attacked, but it's less well adapted to modern situations like traffic jams or post-game interviews.
Was Richard Sherman in control through the end of the game, but over the top afterwards? (He himself explained that "it was the adrenaline talking" during that infamous interview.) Was he crazed during the game and still crazed after the fact, as many critics seem to assume? Or was he totally in control the entire time, even on TV?
We’ll never really know. But we do know results. The Seahawks won, specifically because Richard Sherman outplayed Michael Crabtree on one crucial play with 22 seconds left. And odds are he knows exactly what he's doing. Coaches and GMs are smart. What matters for Sherman’s career is how he affects wide receivers like Crabtree, not what fans think of him. And clearly Crabytree lost his composure.
The key to controlling emotion is training, practice and experience. The side effects never really go away, but like any drug you can learn to handle it and recognize its effects and adjust. The really inexcusable reaction was Michael Crabtree’s, pushing Sherman off and declining his sportsmanlike greeting after the game.
Over the season, Chip Kelly impressed me by grasping the importance of emotion as well as its dangers. The Eagles picked up Cary Williams, a known emotional player, specifically to bring some fire to the Birds' secondary. It's possible to be too professional, and the later years of Andy Reid's coaching tenure in Philly, that how the Eagles looked. If you really don't care about winning, why would you risk career ending injuries and brain damaging concussions just to tackle someone? Too often, the Eagles didn't in 2012-13.
There's another important kind of emotion, that of confidence and success. In 2012-13, Nick Foles was thrust into the starting role as a rookie due to injury. His confidence suffered as his turnovers piled up. Sometimes a trial by fire leaves the young player burned and convicted.
I would criticize the coach for this situation. Under Kelly, people are questioning whether Matt Barkley (USC star, 8 year starter, 2nd year NFL guy) can be an effective backup QB. Why did Andy Reid even consider using an unheralded 3rd round pick rookie from Arizona to be the Eagles' backup, especially with an older, injury prone quarterback like Mike Vick? You need to bring players along, especially in the game's most difficult position, and Chip (and Lazor) clearly turned Foles from a struggling backup into a Hall of Fame star (and Pro Bowl MVP).
This was no accident. Kelly has thought long and hard about this. There is a trade off, because there is no substitute for game time, and yet bad games can cripple confidence. Chip explained this all to Angelo Cataldi on December 2nd:
"What you see with Nick [Foles] and kind of what you see with our entire team is that, they continue to gain confidence the more they get a chance to play. You can manufacture situations in practice as much as you want, but there’s really no training that can simulate what goes on on the game field, with the crowd, with the emotions, with the outcome. You know, you can throw a pick in practice and then we’re just going to put the ball down and play the next play. In a game, there is a lot of weight to it."
Some fans wanted Philadelphia to start Foles from game 1 last year, to place their bets on him long term and develop him faster. He wasn't ready, and the beauty of the competition for QB is that it demonstrated this for everyone to see.
For Kelly, a third kind of emotion is crucial: joy. Few coaches have as much fun with their players while clearly establishing discipline, and this was crucial to Foles' development. Before the season-changing Oakland game, Foles was a struggling second-year backup coming off the worst game of his career (against Dallas) and a week missed due to concussion. There was absolutely no reason to expect him to play well, much less drop 7 touchdowns on the Raiders.
But Chip knew exactly what Foles needed, and delivered advice that the ancient philosopher Zhuangzi would have loved. The tall young QB just needed to relax, stop thinking so much and play instinctually. Right before his crucial breakout game against Oakland, Foles <a href="http://www.philadelphiaeagles.com/news/article-1/Foles-Needs-To-Just-Sling-It/cadb26d5-5e0e-4269-89c4-bd91e549a6dc">told Dan Klausner</a>, ""I think sometimes as players we try to do too much, we try to make too many big plays." Klausner wrote: "A big key for Foles against the Raiders is that he cannot become consumed with the moment and start thinking too much. He has to trust his eyes and simply react, let his instincts and unconscious muscle memory take over. Or, as head coach Chip Kelly said, just 'grip it and rip it.'"
Foles responded, sounding more Taoist than Christian: "Exactly, just sling it. Just rip it. Just throw it how you know, don’t hold anything back, really follow through. I know how to throw a football. Sometimes I try to aim it. I know I’m accurate, I just have to naturally let my throwing motion take control. … "I just focus on the here and now. I’ve always believed that you focus on the here and now and take care of that, and the rest will take care of itself."
And he ended up playing the game of his life. Last week, before the Pro Bowl, Foles <a href="http://articles.philly.com/2014-01-25/sports/46567370_1_nick-foles-philadelphia-eagles-teammates-pro-bowl">returned to the theme</a>. "Whoever's out there at receiver it'll be fun to just sling it around again." And he ended up the game's offensive MVP.
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