Sports Training & Conditioning Zone!

Mental Games to Prepare for Game-Day Pressure


During the NFL draft, there will be much discussion about how physically prepared this rookie class is to handle the rigors of the NFL. For NFL rookies, like any elite or tactical athletes, it's equally important that they're mentally prepared to operate in a high-stress, chaotic environment where decisions must be made in split seconds.

That's why Brett Bartholomew, a performance specialist at EXOS who works with NFL veterans, integrates mental training into the already rigorous physical routines to prepare athletes for what they'll encounter in game situations.

"What athletes do in drills in a quiet, contained environment doesn't translate into the chaotic nature of the NFL," Bartholomew says. "You have the crowd screaming, snap counts, and other challenges that throw you off. You need to simulate that as much as possible."

Just as an NFL team might pump in crowd noise or loud music into practices, Bartholomew creates mental challenges during training sessions.

If, for instance, the group is doing an acceleration drill, Bartholomew will instruct the athletes not to start until he's given them a problem that results in either an even or odd number depending on the rep or the task. By rapidly firing out two-plus-two, five-times-five, or three-times-four, he keeps players locked in mentally, simulating random snap counts and also the consequences for not being attentive to them.

Other times he'll line the players up for a simulated snap and assign a number — perhaps three — for the snap. He'll start with random "huts" grunts, hand or foot movements, and other numbers, eventually getting to three.

"The idea is to create noise, distraction, and chaos," Bartholomew says. "Guys are so ready to react that I'll get two or three guys to jump offside." What this does is level off athleticism. It's not the fastest, athletic guy who gets it done on the field. It's the guy who makes the right decisions — quickly.

If the group is doing a drill working on shuffling and crossover technique, Bartholomew will assign a random conflicting word to each technique. He might say "out" when he wants a shuffle and "back" when he wants a crossover.

For cone drills, he'll line up cones of different colors — perhaps red, orange, and yellow — and tell them to cut around one particular color. While they're getting into position, he'll have other coaches yell the other colors — or totally different colors, forcing them to concentrate. Or he might start the drill without providing the color until they need to cut. That forces the athletes to react quickly, much like they must on the field.

Though the drills are perfect for football, Bartholomew and EXOS use them with other sports at all levels and also for tactical athletes. Especially in an age of digital distraction and a lack of focus in all age demographics, such training is important for all athletes.

"We make decisions every day on the fly," Bartholomew says. "You have to respond to words and stimuli as part of the decision-making process. Success isn't just about the physical aspect. It's about making real-time decisions under stress."

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(May 2015)