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Skull Sessions: The Power of Neutral Thinking

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Ryan Westmoreland... Photo by Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

In our last installment of Skull Sessions we looked at an onfield technique shared by Nick Saban and Kirby Smart. This time we’re going to dig into a concept they’ve both embraced that can help you, too.

Author and consultant Trevor Moawad has worked with large corporations, the U.S. military, and scores of elite athletes, including notably Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. Moawad was once on staff at IMG Academy, and before that worked with Nick Saban in the NFL and at Alabama. He’s also consulted for Jimbo Fisher on his national title team at Florida State.

Moawad’s not a special teams guru, or a “moneyball” statistician, or a cutting edge nutritionist. He’s a mental conditioning coach.

Kirby Smart has never been shy about how important he considers the mental aspect of football to be. Smart preaches preparation and mental toughness once the game starts as two principle keys to winning. So it probably shouldn’t be too surprising to hear that Smart is among the handful of college football coaches to retain a mental conditioning coach for his team. I’d bet a majority of UGA fans have never heard of him, but Moawad is the Georgia football team’s mental conditioning coach.

One of the concepts he preaches is “neutral thinking.” We’ve all been told to try to avoid negative thinking. And many of us are familiar with “the power of positive thinking.” Athletes have long engaged in “positive visualization”, in which they envision themselves going through all the movements of a successful game or match.

But Moawad preaches something different, rooted in an unassailable reality of competitive athletics: stuff goes wrong. Especially when you’re competing against schools like Alabama and Notre Dame and LSU who have invested tens of millions of dollars in making things go wrong for you. Sometimes the official makes a bad call. Sometimes the ball bounces funny. Stuff. Happens.

Moawad recognized a long time ago that in those instances where all heck breaks lose “positive thinking” can become very fragile. You spend precious time and mental energy recovering from the broken illusion that things are going to go your way. Some athletes can’t really make that switch at all. Not to name names, but we’ve all seen the baseball closer whose third stroke is called a ball, then gives up the game-tying double, and suddenly can’t throw a strike to save his life. Or the receiver who drops one pass and suddenly misses a block and gets called for a false start. Great athletes, and by extension great teams, have a way of not falling into that death spiral, of pulling themselves back up and executing when everything seems to be going against them.

That’s why Moawad espouses the power of neutral thinking. Neutral thinking involves accepting events as they happen and simply asking how to get from that moment to the best possible outcome. Under Moawad’s schema events aren’t “good luck” or “bad luck.” They just are. And you choose how to react to them.

Ideally, your training and planning should take over when the crap hits the fan, and you should be both aware of what you need to do in that neutral moment, and capable of pulling it off. Hope is not a strategy. Being prepared is.

It’s a way of thinking that owes debts to the stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, to Buddhism, and special forces training. And you can hear echoes of it in Kirby Smart saying his team needs to “just keep chopping wood” and that reaching their goals “takes what it takes” (which is actually the title of Moawad’s recently released book).

It’s also a concept that dovetails nicely with Nick Saban’s “Process.” Saban is clear that he doesn’t focus on outcomes, but the habits and actions that precede the outcome. You can’t control the outcome, but you can control your own actions. And if you do the right things every day in preparation and carry that through to game day, your odds of creating the outcome you’re looking for go up.

How can the rest of us apply this elite mental training technique? Say you are worried about a big presentation at work, one that will affect your chances of getting a promotion. A neutral thinking approach would entail laying out the elements of a successful presentation, both in terms of content and style, then preparing your presentation to cover those bases.

You’d also gameplan the things that could go wrong and prepare for those. What if the PowerPoint slides won’t come up? What if Bill from legal who always asks the regulatory questions throws you a curveball? Bill may or may not be trying to sabotage you. It doesn’t matter one way or the other. You may have a shoddy laptop because your boss keeps all the good equipment for herself and her handpicked favorites. Again, it doesn’t matter for purposes of this presentation. You anticipate the pitfalls and you prepare for them.

Then, when one comes up you didn’t anticipate, you fall back on the things you identified as critical to the presentation. You (and stop me if you’ve heard this one before) “keep the main thing the main thing.”

I don’t know that practicing neutral thinking is going to turn you into a world class athlete. But it is a good exercise in self-control and performance enhancement for all of us. And understanding Moawad’s process also gives you a window into how the Bulldog football program is designed, and how Kirby Smart thinks about running it on game day, and every day. Until later...

Go ‘Dawgs!!!