The Super Bowl is one of the most watched events on the planet. On February 5, the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons of the NFL will play for the 51st Super Bowl championship in Houston, TX. Millions will be watching, enthusiastically rooting for their favorite team. We spoke with Florida State University Sport Psychology Professors Dr. Graig Chow and Dr. Gershon Tenenbaum about what is going on in these elite athletes' heads before this big game and how sport psychology professionals can help them prepare.
As it turns out, Super Bowl athletes aren't super human when it comes to game anxiety. "Football players have reputations for being tough guys, but they're just like the rest of us when it comes to managing anxiety and other emotions surrounding big events," said Tenenbaum, who's a Certified Consultant with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology and a member of the United States Olympic Committee Sport Psychology Registry. Professional athletes are human beings like everyone else. There are some who are more anxious and some who are less anxious. It depends on the importance of the event, how well they are prepared mentally, their personalities, the climate the coach has established with the team, genetics, and many other factors.
But what is at stake? What causes this anxiety and high level of pressure that have the potential to shake even the most elite athletes? Chow, a member of the American Psychological Association and the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, says for some athletes at games of this magnitude, there is pressure to leave a legacy, validate their career, or prove that their skills stack up against the more experienced players.
Take Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, for example," said Chow. "He is going for his fifth Super Bowl win and can break the record for most wins by a starting quarterback currently held by Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw. For Brady, what is at stake in this game is his legacy."
Opposite Brady, you have Matt Ryan who has been in the league for nine years, and while he has always been considered a good quarterback, I think this is his opportunity to show that he is on par with a lot of those upper echelon quarterbacks like Brady, Manning and Rogers.
But the quarterbacks are not the only players with so much on the line.
Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones is considered one of the best receivers in the game, and his performance in the NFC title game defeat of the Green Bay Packers was impressive. The Super Bowl is his chance to put his name on the map in a broader, sort of global scale, said Chow.
With so much at stake, coping with anxiety is imperative. If a player feels high anxiety, he may divert his attention from the game and is more susceptible to errors, said Tenenbaum.
But he also reminds athletes that anxiety is only one of the emotions in sport.
Anxiety is very much a product of uncertainty. That is why it is more pronounced prior to the game. Once the game starts, anxiety changes into other emotions, such as anger, frustration, excitement, and the feeling of accomplishment. The challenge is dealing with the emotions - changing the negative thoughts into positive ones, and the threatening situations into challenging situations.
Both Chow and Tenenbaum encourage athletes to manage their emotional and mental states before and during competition with the use of strategies, such as self-talk, thought manipulation, imagery, and other relaxation and activation techniques. These practices can be used at all athletic levels from amateur to professional.
In Sunday's game, the Atlanta Falcons will face off against the New England Patriots. It will be the Falcons' second Super Bowl appearance. The last time being in 1998, when they lost to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII. Their opponent, on the other hand, is very familiar with winning championships, and will return to the Super Bowl stage for an NFL-record ninth time.
The athletes on both teams will have to overcome anxiety and control their emotions to perform their best individually and as a team. Chow hopes the Falcons will get off to a good lead and hold it. I think the Falcons are playing really well right now. Their offense is high-powered. As long as the Falcons' defense can get a couple stops on third downs early in the game, I think they will be able to score enough points to win. If the Falcons cannot stop the Patriots, it is going to be tough. Tom Brady and New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick have experience in big games, so I think if it comes down to the fourth quarter, the game will swing back in their favor.
I think that if the Falcons are able to keep their emotions and their mental state positive at the beginning of the game, they will be able to stay with the Patriots. The Falcons are coming from a different place than the Patriots. They are not in the Super Bowl every year. They are a positive surprise and have a mental advantage as the underdog. It will really depend on how the Falcons handle the high expectations of playing at this level against a team that is used to being there."
Be sure to tune in this Sunday, Feb. 5 for a Super Bowl showdown sure to be filled with emotion.
About Dr. Graig Chow
Dr. Graig Chow is an Assistant Professor of Sport Psychology in the Department of Educational Psychology and Learning Systems at Florida State University. His research focuses on the development, implementation, and evaluation of evidence-based interventions designed to enhance performance, well-being, and mental health in athletes. Chow has published in several sport psychology and psychology journals, such as the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, Journal of Sports Sciences, Journal of Applied Social Psychology , . , and Small Group Research. He has also authored book chapters on collective efficacy in Group Dynamics in Exercise and Sport Psychology. Click here to learn more.
About Dr. Gershon Tenenbaum
Gershon Tenenbaum, Ph.D., is the Benjamin S. Bloom Professor of Educational Psychology at Florida State University. He is the former director of the Ribstein Center for Research and Sport Medicine at the Wingate Institute in Israel and coordinator of the graduate program in Sport Psychology at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. From 1997-2001, he was the President of the International Society of Sport Psychology, and from 1996-2008, he was the Editor of the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. He is published extensively in psychology and sport psychology in areas of expertise and decision-making, linking emotions-cognitions-motor systems, psychometrics, and coping with physical effort experiences. Click here to learn more.
About FSU Sport Psychology
Florida State's Sport Psychology program is designed for graduate students who wish to study in the area of sport behavior, gain skills that may be applied to enhance sport skill performance, and learn to assist athletes in resolving sport related problems. The program provides a solid foundation in sport psychology theory, real-life situational practice, and research. We offer degrees at the master's and doctoral level in this program. For more information, visit https://education.fsu.edu/degrees-and-programs/sport-psychology.