Every football player with a pulse and a pair of tight pants has felt the familiar squeeze of anxiety clinching tightly around their chest. The pressure to perform amidst the fear of failure can either paralyze or empower a player depending upon one’s character, external perceptions, self-confidence and even experience level.
This potent chemical response in the brain and body plays a critical role in the performance of athletes everywhere. This is especially true of athletes competing in one of the most violent team sports in the world, at the highest levels of competition. It only seems reasonable to say self-confidence is an absolute necessity to survive the NFL.
However, if an athlete is able to completely abandon the grip of nervousness, he then runs the risk of facing a new animal altogether: overconfidence.
Success in the NFL hinges on a delicate balancing act between confidence and anxiety, belief in oneself and fear of failure. Each serves a role in maximizing performance on both an individual level and as a team.
Sometimes the perfect balance can come shortly after the right coaching transition.
The Transition Effect
Mike Singletary served as the head coach in San Francisco between the midway point of the 2008 season through 2010. During that span he was victorious in 45 percent of his games, regressing each year.
My former boss and one-time Jets head coach Eric Mangini also lasted three seasons in his first gig as head honcho. Like Singletary, Mangini won less than 50 percent of his games in that span, with a slightly better win percentage of 48. In addition, both coaches experienced their highest win percentages in their first year.
Both Singletary and Mangini are obviously unique; however, they still share similar coaching styles highly relevant to this article.
Each of these old-school, hard-nosed throwbacks tend to prescribe heavily to the ideals of discipline, accountability and a no-nonsense approach when it comes to player relations.
Though focuses such as these may seem fairly normal for a football coach, executing them effectively while reducing unwanted side-effects usually means the difference between long-term success and gradual demise.
I can tell you from first-hand accounts that Eric Mangini created an anxiety-filled environment from the top down.
Every single member of that organization, from the assistant coaches to the players on practice squad, existed in a state of perpetual anxiety brought on by the underlying fear of becoming Mangini’s next victim for public execution.
He would routinely look for and find players or coaches who were operating in a way that he deemed unsuitable and make examples of them in the next team meeting. These daily rituals were not done with an ounce of humor to cushion the blow of being humiliated in front of the entire team.
Admittedly, the anxiety served as a strong motivator which helped to maximize preparation and effort. It also prevented players from truly relaxing and being themselves, because the last thing you wanted was to be the guy showing up on some hidden camera he had throughout the facility doing something stupid or not making the most of your time. This raised the bar of expectations for the entire team through fear.
There was even a time when Mangini busted out a video of defensive walkthrough period from the day before. Apparently Mangini had an office intern filming that period through an office window well out of sight. Nobody, not even the defensive coordinator, was aware they were being filmed.
From a distance, the walkthrough had the appearance of being light-hearted and somewhat disjointed. Side conversations and a sluggish pace were abundant throughout the tape, which he dissected and criticized in front of the entire team for at least 15 minutes.
Keep in mind here that the tone of this bashing is deadly serious. There is not so much as a snicker among the players in the meeting for they were fully aware that a single chuckle at the wrong moment could switch Mangini’s focus directly to them.
In an article I wrote about life on the roster bubble, I describe what it’s like playing for Eric Mangini:
He had a style of coaching which demanded the most out of each player, motivated by shame, ridicule and realized threats.
He routinely would hold verbal pop quizzes in our morning team meetings where he would call out a player and ask him a question about something that was talked about yesterday in a position meeting, or was revealed in nightly film study.
In theory, this sounds like an awesome approach to coaching. But the execution of this was a lot different. It became a way for Mangini to use proven veterans as examples for knowing their stuff by asking them questions he knew they would get correct by prompting them beforehand or asking something they were sure to know. In contrast, he would pick a guy on the bubble who may be playing on offense, and ask him a question which would only pertain to a defensive player.
If you were a guy on the bottom of the roster, there was no telling what you could be asked in the team meetings. I would go into those meetings every morning far too nervous to focus on anything helpful toward my preparation. I was not alone in feeling this way. Mangini had his team caring so much that he had inadvertently created extreme levels of performance anxiety throughout the organization.
This carried over onto the field and in the games as well. I hate to admit it, but there came a stretch in New York where I was actually thankful to be deactivated for a game because it meant I at least couldn't mess anything up and be humiliated in front of the whole team just before being sent home without even a goodbye or good luck.
It's easy to see the destructive nature of this mindset. But it's amazing what massive amounts of pressure can do.
For coaches, it’s important to understand the amount of stress athletes are under. Increasing their anxiety with over-the-top consequences such as intentionally humiliating a player in front of the entire team is detrimental.
This method of flexing your authoritative muscle in order to maintain order and motivate players is similar to what Mike Singletary had going on with the 49ers as well.
As mentioned earlier, the style does yield positive results in several aspects of a player’s development. Unrivaled discipline and a high standard of preparation are valuable tools in the competitive world of the NFL.
Every player experiences anxiety in their own unique way. The more self-confidence a player has, the less likely he is to be adversely affected.
Experience is one of the greatest natural builders of self-confidence and can reduce high levels of anxiety that would otherwise be destructive.
Such anxiety reigned supreme in both the Jets’ and 49ers’ locker rooms, growing stronger over the years until eventually these head coaches were shown the exit.
What remained from each team was a roster full of talented, hard-working athletes unwittingly stripped of their self-confidence, left confused and leaderless.
Enter Jim Harbaugh and Rex Ryan.
The contrast in coaching styles between the predecessors of Harbaugh and Ryan is stark, to say the least.
When Harbaugh entered the scene in San Francisco as head coach, it soon became clear that the energy around that organization was being dramatically overhauled, beginning with Alex Smith.
Prior to teaming up with coach Harbaugh, Alex Smith had endured five subpar seasons filled with ridicule and resentment. Over time, the lack of success paired with the expectations of a No. 1-overall pick began to show on the face and in the body language of the struggling QB.
Clearly this was a kid who was being completely stripped of his self-confidence.
Mike Singletary offered very little in terms of solace for Alex Smith, and gave up on him relatively quickly. The year Harbaugh arrived Alex Smith was a free agent looking for work. He convinced Smith to re-sign with the 49ers for a one-year deal and gave the insecure signal caller something he hadn’t had in a long time: someone who believed in him.
In Harbaugh’s first year in San Francisco Alex Smith led the 49ers to 14 wins, including a memorable postseason victory against the Saints. That’s only five wins fewer than his career total as a starter up to that point. As evidence of his growing confidence, Smith also had as many game-winning drives that year (6) as he did for his entire career (Pro Football Reference).
Smith was not alone in this feeling; the entire roster was suddenly infused with a newfound sense of worth. This feeling helped led them all the way to the NFC Conference Championship and a close loss against the New York Giants.
Similarly, Both Jim Harbaugh and Rex Ryan have willed their respective teams to back-to-back conference championships games in their first two years as head coach.
It’s no coincidence that these two positive coaches have so many parallels in their success taking over for dogmatic, despotic oppressors.
Those overbearing coaches who preceded Harbaugh and Ryan left a valuable gift as they handed over the reins. The gift could not have been more perfect for their contrasting successors.
Jim and Rex were each handed rosters completely competent in nearly all phases that they would eventually de-emphasize in their own coaching styles—such as discipline, mental preparation, conditioning and accountability.
However, as the Jets have begun to demonstrate over time, those areas that were once strengths eventually regress without continual focus.
As for Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers, can he continue down the path of growth and sustained success, or will the cracks in his game slowly begin to turn into gaping holes?
One of the interesting things about confidence is that the more success you encounter, the more confidence you acquire. And with more confidence, yup, more success. One begets the other.
This momentum can eventually build into something so powerful that it propels an average starting NFL quarterback on a magical journey all the way to a Super Bowl victory and eventually make you one of wealthiest men in NFL history—sound familiar?
Eventually that high level of confidence peaks after a certain point and can become a detriment. Overconfidence is the result of a player having an exaggerated understanding of his abilities. This can also manifest itself in the form of underestimating your opponents as well. Either way, the longer the athlete functions in this frame of mind, the more he begins to lack in the areas of preparation and self-improvement. This allows for stagnation and complacency to set in.
On the flipside, a player suffering from the effects of a slump is basically on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. This mindset is typically brought on by high levels of anxiety (like the kind an ironhanded coach can induce) coupled with a lack of self-confidence.
But with all that said, it’s important to note that both anxiety and confidence can swing an athlete’s momentum in any direction.
The key is finding that elusive balance like the Jets and the 49ers were able to do as a collective unit and try to hold onto it for as long as you possibly can. A lot of things can affect the outcome of a game, but this element is perhaps the most critical of all and yet ironically, it’s one of the least emphasized as well.
Ryan Riddle is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Before B/R, Ryan played for the Oakland Raiders, New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens.