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Why Mental Discipline Is So Hard For Bills To Achieve As A Team

iAfter the most incredible year of upheaval in the history of the Buffalo Bills franchise, one thing has not changed. Despite a spending spree on players, coaches, and an organizational restructure, after four games the team’s record is 2-2.

What does this ‘say’ about the Buffalo Bills football team? If you look at the investment made in this team from a cost/benefit perspective, the early returns don’t look all that great.

However, it’s still early in the season and time will tell whether this team is experiencing growing pains, or will end up being the ultimate underachievers of the NFL this year. The Pegulas spared no expense reworking this team from the ground up in record fashion.

If success is operationally defined this season by whether or not the Bills make the playoffs for the first time in 15 years, the jury is definitely out. And its not injuries or lack of talent that will hold this team back.

If the Bills fail to make the playoffs, it will most likely be because they lack the mental discipline to realize their potential. How disappointing will it be if this group of highly gifted players cannot pull themselves together enough to get over a Mt. Everest size hump to get to the playoffs?

453561459-safety-aaron-williams-of-the-buffalo-bills-gettyimagesOne of the biggest problems in dealing with ‘the intangibles’ is defining them. What is “mental discipline” with respect to football? It’s sort of an ambiguous term that seems to encompass anything outside the playbook the involves cognitive activities that promote success in winning football games.

If you can’t operationally define something, it becomes nebulous and hard to measure. That’s why I’ve been writing a series of articles called “The Intangibles” here for the last couple of years.

Just because mental discipline is difficult to measure or define in a physical sense, (think 40 times versus “football IQ”)… it doesn’t mean you can’t affect it through training. In that sense, physical and mental reps are very similar.

However, that’s pretty much where the similarities end. How does one measure focus? Passion? Loyalty? Dedication? How do you keep a team full of egos in harmony with one another? In truth, it’s probably not as easy nor as hard as most people think.

One of the biggest mistakes I see leaders make trying to create a collective mindset to achieve a goal is when they assume that other people think the same way they do. Many people differ in how their minds work.

For example, the media reported this week that Rex Ryan implemented a plan for decreasing penalties by making players that commit them stand alone and watch, as everyone around them drops down and does ten sit ups.

Rex explained this to Chris Brown in his latest edition of “Coffee With The Coach” at buffalobills.com. He described his theory behind implementing this type of approach to decrease penalties.

He said that when players are forced to stand alone and look at how many people their actions have affected, it will somehow make them realize they need to be more disciplined on the field. Okay…

What’s the problem with this approach?

Where do I begin…

First of all, the biggest assumption being made using this philosophy is that shaming someone (negative reinforcement) will work the best in changing a behavior that happens in a completely different situation (on the field). That’s a problem for two reasons.

One, contextually you are trying to replicate a behavioral change from two completely different environments (in front of peers only at practice vs. game in real time in a stadium full of people). The transfer of behavior is more difficult if the context is completely different.

Two, and this is the biggest faux pas of this approach… an assumption is made that every person would feel shamed or guilty for ‘punishing’ their peers because they did something wrong (penalty). Not everyone necessarily feels that way.

For example, it is reported that regarding personality, anywhere from 2-15 % of the US population fits the criteria for some degree of pathologic narcissism. So that means a representative sample on any Bills team would include up to a half dozen players fitting that predominant behavioral pattern.

What is the defining characteristic of a narcissist? They lack the ability to form empathic bonds with others. In other words, they lack the capacity for being shamed.

Feeling shame requires that a person actually cares what another person thinks about them. In the case of most narcissists, they simply do not care. That is not what would motivate behavioral change in them.

My point here is that assuming people are motivated in the same manner is a false assumption.

Furthermore, some people’s brains are not wired in the ‘abstract’. Creating a sense of ‘guilt’ in someone in order to motivate a player to decrease their undisciplined behavior on a football field requires a huge leap from one behavior (guilt), to another (more self control). The brains of most people don’t work that way.

As a retired psychotherapist, I look back now at how I helped clients change very complex behaviors, and what made certain methods work better than others over the years. Feedback for therapists help them improve performance (like reps for a football player).

What my clients told me was most effective about our work together over the years was how I was able to decipher their motivation for certain behaviors based upon their personality traits, and genetics in some cases.

Bottom line here is that you cannot effectively change behavior by a “one-size fits all” mentality. You must come to understand how each individual in a collective thinks, and what motivates them will emerge from this pattern. A group activity to enhance that experience is fine, but it won’t replace the base behavior you’re trying to change.

So what should Rex Ryan do?

Rex appears to be fairly astute at sizing people up. In addition to whatever group activity he endorses, he should learn more about each player in terms of personality, and what specifically motivates them or prevents them from being motivated if that is an issue (ex- like why can’t Jerry Hughes get motivated to stop going off the rails during games?).

jerry-hughes-nfl-buffalo-bills-denver-broncos-850x560How’s this for metaphors:

Inside each of us is a fuse box. When you keep blowing fuses you have to check the box to see if there is a larger electrical issue. If there isn’t, then you have to see what is causing each fuse to blow, because otherwise you will not perform at peak efficiency.

Bottom line:

If Rex Ryan wants his team to perform at peak efficiency, then he has to create a more disciplined environment that is responsive to individual differences in motivation. He’s a genius at the x’s and o’s of defense. Behavioral change agent? Meh, maybe not so much.


The views and opinions expressed on this website blog are soley those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Buffalo FAMbase, Inc., and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Robyn Mundy

About Robyn Mundy

Robyn Mundy is Editor-in-Chief of the BillsMafia blog at BillsMafia.com. She’s a retired oncology nurse & psychotherapist who loves to write about her life-long passion for the Buffalo Bills, and occasionally something of clinical or social relevance. Robyn lives with her husband Gary and their dogs in the foothills of the glorious Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming.

Robyn is also a proud founding sponsor.

Follow her on Twitter at @robynmundyWYO.

4 thoughts on “Why Mental Discipline Is So Hard For Bills To Achieve As A Team

  1. Dear Robyn,
    I myself am a life long fan of the Buffalo Bills. I just read your article on Rex Ryan’s approach to changing our penalty problems. You are extremely intelligent and this was truly the most insightful point I have read. I am definitely interested in reading more or all of you articles. I feel as though we need many more complex thinkers with your educational expertise.

    • Thanks, Mike. I appreciate the feedback. At the end of each of our articles, you can find a link to all the articles each author published here. If you go back and do a review of mine, get ready for a lot of weirdness, lol. I take a lot of heat for my “psychobabble”, that somehow got turned into the term “wyobabble” over the years :)

  2. This confusing exercise in futility is beside the point. Football isn’t rocket science and when a team is leading the league in penalties by a wide margin (our 47 compared to 38 shared by “bad company” Oakland and Tampa Bay), it signals the fact that our preparation, concentration, and attention to detail is lacking. Young men respond to reward and punishment but professional athletes of this era would boot out a disciplinarian like Vince Lombardi. What are we left with then? For starters, we don’t need the distractions and immaturity we’ve seen. It was “buckle my seatbelt” with the excessive trash talking leading up to the Patriots game and then I’ve been shaking my head at the whining about Beckham after the latest incomplete effort. Less social media, headphones, and other distractions and greater focus on the job at hand is all that’s needed. They’ll feel relaxed and ready to go when they’re confident that they’ve worked harder and prepared more thoroughly than their opponents. Either they put up or shut up tomorrow.

    • Thanks for your comments JimV. I guess if the answer was that simple it might be done already, but it’s not. Unfortunately, human behavior is not quite as cut and dry as we might like.