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The Mental Disconnect and College Football

Transitioning from being the best player on a high school team to being the best in college and how some players never make that mental connection between hard work and preparation.

One of the topics that I’m going to get into over the course of the next few weeks is who replaces the receiver production after the graduation of Eric Ward and Jace Amaro to the NFL. One of the things that’s going to be a pretty big talking point is how the current options really don’t have any indication as to how good they will be because of the lack of statistics or inexperience (and really we’re talking about the outside receivers).  In thinking about this post, I'm already thinking that it is what’s between the ears that can be problematic and I don’t want to this be be misconstrued as me thinking that some of these players may lack intelligence.  I thought I’d explain how I think certain guys can separate themselves despite most of these players being high-end athletes on the high school level and what I mean by mental disconnect based on something I've read.

One of my favorite football blogs is NFL Philosophy and the focus is obviously on the NFL, but I still find myself really interested in the writing. In any event, one of the topics a while back was about the "mental disconnect" between players. Sometimes, the disconnect is about making time to study your craft (via NFL Philosophy). This post (and this is a really good site for NFL things) I think translates well here to the jump from high school to college. The crux of the post here is that the NFL makes up the best of the best and sometimes and that athletic ability is duplicated, but the difference between athletes is what players do off the field.  Something similar could be said about college athletes to an extent:

These players’ egos have been pampered and heads have been inflated with adulation from the moment they stepped onto the field. Life seems to come to them without any effort. These young men live in a distorted sense of reality from an extremely young age. Grades are taken care of, practices are easy for them, and the rewards are praise and commendation.
This is the idea that separates players. Talent plays a part and gives an advantage, but those that believe that talent will give them success are the players who end up being labeled "busts." By taking this idea and internalizing it, making it part of a player’s core – by making it a habit – it will help propel a player to success. -NFL Philosophy

And this is without a doubt accurate about how players translate between high school and college. Players can get away with poor technique because they are supremely more talented than their counterparts:

The superbly talented players are accustomed to getting by on talent alone. They’ve never had to focus on fundamentals because their talent and instincts have always led them to success between the lines. That talent has allowed that player to take a false step or make a wrong move and then recover and still be able to make a play. The player’s talent covers up mistakes both on the field and off the field.

The exceptionally talented players actually learn what they can get away with and what they can’t. It becomes in the playing style of that player. Guys like Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford could get away with risky throws and shoddy mechanics in college because they were so much more talented than anyone else around them. They could throw off their back foot, or heave one up sidearmed, because the windows were bigger and the defenders weren’t as talented, and still complete the pass.

One of the things that we’ve all heard about Davis Webb is his desire to spend inordinate amounts of time in the film room. Maybe this is something that Webb’s dad was able to impress upon him (he is a high school coach), which is that he is certainly not the best athlete, and where Webb will have to make up any difference is to be better in other places, which is the film room.

When I wrote the last time about how there was a disconnect, I definitely do believe that the disconnect is generally mental and how much time a player is willing to study their craft versus getting by on pure athletic talent. NFL Philosophy notes that Matthew Stafford is without a doubt the most talented quarterback, but his inability to stop making mental mistakes is what is holding him back. How much time is he willing to invest make that separation? Even watching him this past year, he continues to make mistakes that it seems like he shouldn’t be making at this point of his career.

This is the idea that separates players. Talent plays a part and gives an advantage, but those that believe that talent will give them success are the players who end up being labeled "busts." By taking this idea and internalizing it, making it part of a player’s core – by making it a habit – it will help propel a player to success.

The best players in the game understand that practice and effort are needed to be great and maintain success. Rookies coming into the league may be a "gym rat" or have a "good work ethic," as many scouting reports can reveal, but that was in college. When football becomes an occupation, the connotation and realization of what "hard work" means is a brutal battle they’ll fight internally.

When players make that jump that we talked about last time, it’s most likely because they made that mental leap, from relying on pure athletic ability to being a technician. Eric Ward’s pro-day at Texas Tech was disappointing because of his 40-yard dash time, but if anything, his success should be a shining example of how his hard work and dedication led him to be a hugely talented collegiate receiver. He made that decision, most likely, very early in his career, in that he couldn’t rely on physical gifts because they ended up being relatively non-existent once he played in college (this is relative to the cornerbacks he was playing against, Ward is obviously talented), but he somehow found a way to catch over 80 passes for three straight years.

That’s not luck. And there were probably more "talented" players behind Ward, but I’m guessing that no one outworked him and no one studied more than him.

If and WHEN Eric Ward succeeds in the NFL, it will be a direct result of the idea that Ward won't be fighting any brutal battle internally because he's been getting by on this for years.  Ward didn't start running a 4.6+ this year or last year, which is why I somewhat scoffed at the idea that Ward lost out because he stayed an extra year at Texas Tech.  Ward has always been what he is.  Up next . . . we get to talk about who gets to fill Ward's incredibly big shoes.