Malcolm Gladwell’s Advice to the Eagles

Tuesday, February 15th, 2005 interviewed Malcolm Gladwell and asked him (hypothetically) to advise the Eagles (before the Super Bowl). He fell back on one of Blink‘s anecdotes, about the military’s wargames going into Iraq:

Van Riper, in a sense, went to the ‘no-huddle’ against his much more formidable opponent. And his experience shows that being good at deliberate, conscious decision-making doesn’t make you good at instinctive decisions.

That’s why I’ve always been so surprised that more NFL teams don’t use the no-huddle. It’s not just that it forces your opponent to keep a specific defense on the field. It’s that it shifts the game cognitively: it forces coaches and defensive captains to think and react entirely in the instinctive ‘blink’ mode — and when teams aren’t prepared for that kind of fast-paced thinking crazy things happen, like Iraq beating the U.S. Andy Reid has to know that Belichick has an edge when he can calmly and deliberately plot his next move. But does he still have an advantage when he and his players have to make decisions on the spur of the moment? I’d tell Andy Reid to go no-huddle at random, unpredictable points during the game — to throw Belichick out of his comfort zone.

I had a self-defense (not martial arts, self-defense) instructor who shared deBecker’s philosophy:

DeBecker talked a lot about how rigorously he trains his people [at his personal security agency]. If the quality of our coordination and instinctive reactions breaks down when our heart rate gets above 145, he wants to expose his people to stressful situations over and over and over again until they can face them at 130, 110 or 90.

So he fires bullets at people, and does these utterly terrifying exercises involving angry pit bulls. The first and second and third and fourth time you run through one of deBecker’s training sessions you basically lose control of your bowels and take off like a scalded cat. By the fifth time, essential bodily functions start to return. By the 10th time, you can function as a normal human being.

This, by the way, is why police officers will tell you that you must practice dialing 911 at least once a week. Because if you don’t, when a burglar is actually in the next room, believe it or not you won’t be able to dial 911: you’ll forget the number, or you’ll have lost so many motor skills under the stress of the moment that your fingers won’t be able to pick out the buttons on the phone.

So I’d run quarterbacks who don’t do well under pressure through deBecker’s gauntlet — or any other kind of similar exercise so they have a sense of what REAL life-threatening stress feels like. I’d run them through a live-fire exercise at Quantico. I’d have them spend the offseason working with a trauma team in south-central L.A. It is only through repeated exposures to genuine stress that our body learns how to function effectively under that kind of pressure. I think its time we realized that a quarterback needs the same kind of exhaustive preparation for combat that we give bodyguards and soldiers.

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