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Spring Practice Head Games: Scientists Say the Georgia Bulldogs Should Shut Up and Hit Somebody

I am a subscriber to Scientific American Mind, a magazine that is about exactly what the title suggests. (As Dan Rydell once said on "Sports Night," I know there’s a lot of jargon, but some of these really are self-explanatory.)

The latest issue of that publication makes me wonder why I’m a subscriber, mind you, because the February/March edition did little more than make me aware that I’m doing only one of the six things that will improve my brainpower, that my being a 40-year-old man with a one-year-old daughter may be harmful to my little girl’s mental health, and that all work and no play makes Kyle a dull blogger, but the nerve-wracking nature of the rest of the magazine was made up for by Elizabeth Svoboda’s piece on choking under pressure, which is relevant to the 2009 football season now that spring practice is upon us and Georgia at last may be able to put the 2008 football season in Bulldog Nation’s rear view mirror.

Writes Svoboda:

The best way to make a performance situation feel like rehearsal, said Raoul R. D. Oudejans, a psychologist at Free University Amsterdam, is to subject yourself to the same anxiety-packed conditions during practice that you expect to encounter during your moment in the spotlight. In a 2008 study Oudejans rounded up a group of Dutch police officers and asked half of them to practice their marksmanship skills by shooting at a cardboard target; the other half trained by firing shots directly at one another (the cartridges contained soap, not bullets). After three one-hour training sessions, the "performance" was on: an officer-on-officer shoot-out using the dummy cartridges. The officers who had practiced on cardboard targets caved in this new tension-filled situation, whereas the group that had trained under the same stressful conditions thrived, notching much higher accuracy ratings than the other group did.

Admittedly, if the scene with John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in the car at the beginning of "Pulp Fiction" is any indication, being a Dutch police officer probably isn’t as stressful as playing a season of Southeastern Conference football, but Oudejans’s experiment replicates results obtained in other sports studies; namely, as ye practice, so shall ye play.

This is why mat drills matter. This is why it’s a bad idea to have an indoor practice facility if you plan on playing games in the open air. This is why you practice tackling to the ground.

The 2008 Bulldogs certainly didn’t lack talent, but, for the first time since the 2002 "man enough" game in Tuscaloosa, the Red and Black played in a way that raised questions about the team’s toughness. In the three games the ‘Dawgs lost last year, and in several of the ones they won but did not dominate as they rightfully should have, Georgia didn’t get outrun or out-schemed, but the Bulldogs did get out-muscled and out-hustled. That’s a function of mental focus, physical preparedness, and emotional intensity.

Granted, this is no grand revelation, but, since last year’s distractions seemed to be such an impediment to the putative national champions while the coaches and players at Alabama and Florida and Georgia Tech were getting ready to go win some football games, I thought it bore repeating.

Now, maybe the success of the Crimson Tide, the Gators, and the Yellow Jackets during such a disappointing season for the Bulldogs is an indication that nice guys finish last. After all, Nick Saban often is described as prickly, and, if given the choice, you’d much rather be seated next to the Armani Bear at a state dinner than either Urban Meyer or Paul Johnson, for whom the characterization "prickly" goes on one syllable too long. Mark Richt, by contrast, is a good guy by all accounts.

I don’t think you have to be a bad guy to be a winner; six ten-win seasons in a seven-year period ought to be proof enough of that. You do, however, have to simulate on the practice field what you’ll encounter on the playing field. Whatever the Bulldogs did to get ready for what they would face in Jacksonville was, at best, ineffectual, and arguably made things worse, as the team came out tight and folded after intermission despite having gone into the locker room trailing by exactly the same halftime score (14-3) by which Georgia was down against Auburn in the 2002 showdown that ended in 70 X Takeoff.

I’m not suggesting that Coach Richt ought to take the team out to Junction, Tex., for camp or anything, but the edge we witnessed between the "hobnailed boot" game in Knoxville and the 2005 S.E.C. championship game has been dulled, despite short-lived late-season resurgences in 2006 and 2007. Last year, we were concerned with living up to expectations; this year, I just want to see a team that lives up to its abilities, whatever those may turn out to be. To get to that level, you have to practice with live ammo.

Go ‘Dawgs!