The Most Important Job Interview in Sports: Part I

Sam Bradford from the University of Oklahoma waits for the draft.

by Noah Gentner, PhD, CC-AASP

Over the last month much of the content on this site has dealt with the Olympics.  One of the most interesting things about the Olympics is that they give us a glimpse at how athletes deal with highly pressurized situations.  Most Olympic athletes spend a lifetime preparing for one event in one Olympics.  There is no second chance for most of these athletes.  In many ways the Olympics represent the most difficult challenge in all of sports.  Given one opportunity can an athlete perform at her best on the biggest stage in the world?

While no other athletic event can match the pressure of the Olympics one may come close:  The NFL Combine.  Taking place each February, the combine provides an opportunity for each NFL team to medically, physically, and psychologically examine and evaluate potential draft picks.  The players are put through a series of strength, agility, and skills tests in addition to medical exams, psychological tests, and 15 minute interviews with each team.  The results of these tests can often mean the difference between millions of dollars in salary for the players.  In fact, the NFL works on a “slotting system” where rookie salaries are based on their draft position.  So, if a player drops from a top 10 pick to a late first round pick he will most certainly lose millions of dollars.  For example, in 2005 Aaron Rodgers was being considered for the first overall pick by the 49ers.  Partially based on the results of the Combine, the 49ers chose Alex Smith instead of Rodgers.  This caused Rodgers to fall all the way to the Packers at number 24.  What did that cost Rodgers?  Well, Alex Smith signed a 6-year $49.5 million deal with $24 million guaranteed while Rodgers got 5-years and $7.7 million with $4.13 million guaranteed.  That’s a BIG difference; one that helps us realize the importance of draft position.  Based on all of this it’s easy to see why the Combine is an extremely stressful experience which requires a tremendous amount of mental toughness.

As a Sport Psychology Consultant I am fascinated by events like the Combine.  Where else do athletes have one chance to secure millions of dollars?  Where else can one mistake cost you more money than I’ll ever see in a lifetime?  I’ve always wondered how athletes deal with that experience.  I believe we can learn a tremendous amount about achieving peak performance by watching how athletes handle situations like the Combine.  By identifying the challenges these athletes face and the strategies they use to overcome them we can gather information about how to help other athletes, or ourselves, deal with difficult situations.  So, to find out more about the Combine I decided to talk to someone who was there.  Mike Rosenthal is a 1999 graduate of Notre Dame where he was a four year starter on the offensive line.  After the 1998 season he was voted First-team All-American by the Walter Camp Foundation and was subsequently invited to the 1999 NFL Combine.  He was chosen in the 5th round by the Giants and had a successful 9 year NFL career.  I asked Mike about the Combine because I believe we can draw upon his experiences to understand more about how to deal with difficult situations.  Over a series of blogs I will be discussing his answers and how they can be used to improve performance in a variety of situations.  However, before I discuss the strategies he used to enhance his Combine performance it is important to identify the challenges he faced.  Therefore, the rest of this blog will deal with the unique challenges of the Combine while subsequent entries will discuss strategies to deal with those challenges.

One of the major challenges presented at the Combine is dealing with the knowledge that you are constantly being scrutinized.  As Mike said, “I think the biggest mental challenge was the stress of knowing that everyone was watching every step I took.”  This is a sentiment echoed by many athletes at many different levels of compeition.  In highly pressurized situations athletes often feel “on stage” or that they are constantly being evaluated.  This leads to anxiety and a focus on others’ thoughts and feelings.  This is something that all athletes have experienced and often leads to poor performances.  Of course the question is how can we deal with those challenges?  The most successful athletes are those who are able to perform well in these situations.  In future posts I will examine how Mike dealt with the anxiety of being evaluated and how you can use that information to improve your performance.

While they are being evaluated at the Combine the athletes are also pushed to the limits both physically and mentally.  “It was mentally draining because at the combine they try and stress you to the limit physically and mentally.  They keep you up late at night for interviews and have you up early in the morning.  They want to see how you perform with little sleep and in uncomfortable surroundings.”  This is interesting because one thing we know about elite athletes is they are able to perform well even in less than ideal circumstances.  We are all good on our best days but the great athletes are good even on their worst days.  This is exactly what the Combine is designed to test.  Which athletes can still excel under difficult conditions?  In future blogs I will examine this issue and Mike’s suggestions for handling challenging situations.

There is no doubt that you or your athletes have experienced stressful situations.  We have all been nervous in important competitions and we have all dealt with the challenges of performing in difficult circumstances.  Over the next few weeks I will examine how you can deal with those challenges and achieve your goals.  Please check back to hear more about how Mike dealt with the challenges of the Combine and how you can improve your ability to deal with difficult situations.

Noah Gentner, Ph.D., CC-AASP is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Sport Psychology graduate program at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, GA.  He received his Ph.D. in Sport Psychology from the University of Tennessee in 2004.  He has published his research in several journals and has given presentations on Sport Psychology at worldwide and regional Sport Psychology, Coaching, and Athletic Training Conferences.

Dr. Gentner and Dr. Vanessa Shannon (coaching education specialist at West Virginia University) contributed one of Podium Sport Journal’s most popular Podcasts – “The Gold Medal Secret Sauce – Whats in it?”  Check it out:



3 thoughts on “The Most Important Job Interview in Sports: Part I

  • March 19, 2010 at 7:15 am


    Great insight into the combine phenomenon. I can see an interesting study on the “mental experience” of the NFL combine.

    Keep up the good work.


  • March 19, 2010 at 8:35 am

    Very cool post. I’ve always wondered how athletes handle the pressure of the Combine. I’m looking forward to hearing more about this.

  • March 23, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    As I read the beginning of this insightful piece, the slow beat of “lose yourself” was overpowering in my mind……”Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity
    to seize everything you ever wanted, one moment, would you capture it or just let it slip?”…….but as I read on, I too became entrenched in the concept of pressure situations on the athletes psyche. We are so accustomed to see top tier athletes overcoming pressure and expectations that we often forget there was a time they got nervous (unless your Bron Bron). Interesting topic and cannot wait to read the rest……”lose yourself in the music, the moment you own it, you better never let it go, you only get one chance, do not miss your chance to blow, this opportunity comes once in a lifetime, YO!”


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