Mental Preparation & Team Culture Count in SuperBowl XLVIII

By Matt Long, M.A., M.Ed.

Russell WilsonCredit: Photograph by Peter Yang                                                                  Photo: Peter Yang

As fans here in Denver struggle to pick up the pieces after a heartbreaking loss in Super Bowl XLVIII, one can’t help but wonder what happened to a team with the greatest offense in the history of the game, statistically speaking.  On the biggest stage of all, a Broncos offense that scored an NFL-record 606 points during the regular season only managed 8 points – and even those came when they were already down 36-0.  So what happened?

There are three primary components to performance – physical, tactical/preparation, and mental – and we can confidently rule out the first two as reasons for the Broncos’ flop.  They proved throughout the first 6 months of the season that they have as much talent as anyone, particularly a Seattle team that was made up of 40% undrafted free agents (!) and 100% Super Bowl rookies.  (I’ll let you sit with those numbers for a second…)

As for the second component, no team with Peyton Manning as its quarterback will ever be the less prepared team on the field.

Mental Preparation & Team Culture

So that leaves us with the third and final component of performance, the mental game.  Now, I don’t pretend to know the mental makeup of the Broncos roster and coaching staff, but there are some windows into the culture of each team that I think go a long way toward explaining what happened on Sunday.

I think the result of the Super Bowl had more to do with what Seattle’s organization is building and the way they are building it than large failures on Denver’s part.  Looking at Denver vs. Seattle, we find a contrast in styles that is impossible to ignore.

After the victory, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson talked about the team’s mentality: “We believed we could get here.  We just said, ‘Let’s go 1-0 (each week).’  That was our mentality throughout the season.” This is the ultimate one-game-at-a-time, process focus (see “Stay in the Moment” for more on the importance of focusing on the process).  Wilson also consistently talks about his use of visualizing success.  Prior to Sunday night, he had pictured and felt what it was to be a Super Bowl champion many times.

In Denver, all season the players and coaches have voiced a “Super Bowl champs or bust” mantra, with anything less viewed as failure.  I wonder how that perspective affected players and coaches as they fell behind a Super Bowl-record 12 seconds into the game?  And as things continued to go south early in the game?  This is a primary difference between a process focus, where adversity feels like an opportunity to grow, and an outcome focus, where adversity feels like a dangerous threat. 

Whole Person Development

In Seattle, Coach Pete Carroll has built a culture around coaching the whole person, highlighted by his used of the best resources in nutrition, player development, and yes, sport psychology (for a great behind-the-scenes look, check this out).  Dr. Michael Gervais, a high performance psychologist, has worked closely with the team since 2011, helping to foster a culture where mental skills such as visualization, positive self-talk, and meditation are put on the same level as weight training.  Make no mistake, this is a team that has made the mental side of performance just as important as the physical.  Denver has nothing that comes close.

While we’re on the subject, college football provides further evidence for the value of mental conditioning.  What do the previous two BCS champions have in common?  A mental conditioning coach.  Take a moment and contrast the Broncos’ response to falling behind early with that of the Florida State Seminoles, who overcame a horrendous start and being down 21-3 to win the BCS Championship.  They played their best when it mattered most, the identity of a mentally tough team.

At the highest levels of sport, particularly when the two best teams are on the field together, physical talent and preparation do not differ significantly enough to result in a 43-8 game.  That only happens when one team’s mental conditioning greatly outmatches the other’s.  This is what we witnessed on Sunday, and nobody (besides Russell Wilson and the Seahawks of course) saw it coming.

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