Mental toughness more important than any skill


During Monday’s night’s NFC Wild Card matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, we saw history as Cowboys kicker Brett Maher became the first to ever miss three extra point attempts in one game. The Cowboys got the win, so the misses did not play a factor ultimately, but they served as a reminder of how much one’s mentality comes into play in sports.

Kickers have the hardest job in football beside the quarterback in my opinion. Football is a team sport, but there are so many times that one kick can make or break a game. If the blocking is there, the snap is on point, the hold is secure, it truly comes down to the kicker doing his job. Just about any other scenario in football, it comes down to all 11 guys on the field. When it comes to kicking, it often comes down to that one, singular player.

Kickers have it easy in that their position is not physical. They aren’t taking contact most plays and even when they do, there are certain protections and penalties that ensure that they do not get obliterated. From a health standpoint, kickers have the most forgiving position on the field. Mentally, though, what a daunting job they have.

Sure, after the game, Maher and company downplayed the pressure and essentially said it was just a rough night in the office. Just a few poor kicks, nothing more.

In a playoff game, on the road against the greatest quarterback of all time? No way, Maher felt the pressure all night and folded. I’m not trying to be harsh, but that is what happened.

To my original point, though, it shows how important mental toughness is in sports. Every athlete has a job to do regardless of the sport, and to perform under pressure is what makes sports exhilarating whether you are the person on the field or the spectator watching it unfold.

Last week I was at Pilgrim covering a college signing event. Cross country coach Scott Bayha was speaking regarding runner Ian Bubar, who was committing to Division II Stonehill. Bayha told a story on when the Stonehill coach first reached out inquiring about Bubar and said, “I know he can run, but what kind of person is he?”

Now, in this scenario, it seems that the coach was curious about the maturity, the intangibles, that sort of thing. How one handles pressure though is such an important question, too.

If I was a college recruiter and was doing research on prospective athletes, other than grades, my first question would be, “How does he/she handle pressure?”

At the high school level, I believe that is when the gauge is at its most accurate. Personally, I do not believe that someone can develop mental toughness, I really don’t. I’m not saying that an athlete can’t improve their mental toughness or learn ways to cope with pressure, but plain and simple, you are either born mentally tough or you are not. At the high school level, you really see the DNA of an athlete.

Working hard, staying in shape, being healthy are all paramount when training to be a high-level athlete. When separating the good ones from the great ones, it comes down to the things that you can’t teach, and mental toughness is at the top of that list. Maher is mentally tough, you don’t get to the NFL without mental toughness, but he certainly had a lapse on Monday night. It will be interesting next week to see how he rebounds when he steps up to kick.

Speaking of the NFL playoffs, I must admit, it will be a bit refreshing not seeing the Patriots or Tom Brady this year. For the past 22 years, one or both of them have been deep in the playoffs or have had a chance to make a run. The Pats missed the playoffs and the Bucs clearly were not that team this year. The game on Monday was not competitive.

Obviously, there have been years when the Pats and Brady have been eliminated early. But this is the first time that they both truly are afterthoughts in the race.

Am I saying it is more interesting without them? No, but once in awhile it is fun to see what the field can do. It also signals the end of an era in the league.

Bill Belichick will be back next fall and although retirement is on the table for Brady, it feels like he is returning.

At this point, though, it seems like the NFL is no longer theirs. They are now just a small part of the organization and are no longer at the top of their respective positions. It took more than two decades to reach this point, but we are finally here.

Brady and Belichick can absolutely reach the top again, I’m not implying that their careers are over, but they are no longer the ones to beat. As disappointing as it is for New Englanders, it is also a bit surreal. That era of dominance is finally over.

As much as I love to see the hometown team dominate, I also appreciate the bigger picture and the reality of what is going on around me. The Brady-Belichick reign is finally over, and I am looking forward to seeing what’s next for the league as much as I am going to miss the past.

pitch, sports


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