Giants vs. Patriots, Round Two: The Psychology of the Rematch

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What will be going through Tom Brady's mind as he faces New York at Sunday's Super Bowl?

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Tom Brady has already put together one of the greatest careers in the history of the NFL. He owns three Super Bowl rings and two Super Bowl MVP awards, and on Sunday he will start in his fifth Super Bowl, tying John Elway's record for most starting appearances by a quarterback. Should the Patriots win, Brady will join Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana as the only quarterbacks with four Super Bowl rings.

Despite all these accomplishments, some recent comments by Brady suggest he still smites at the fact that just four years ago the New York Giants upset the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, denying him and his teammates the chance to become the only team in NFL history to finish a season with 19 wins and zero losses. Last week Brady toldBoston sports radio station WEEI that he cannot watch highlights of that game, adding "we had a great opportunity there and really squandered it because we didn't play our very best." Those words, particularly "opportunity" and "squandered," suggest that Brady may not be completely over that loss. This shouldn't come as a surprise, since just last year it was revealed that Brady is still upset that he wasn't chosen until the sixth round of 2000 NFL draft. He is clearly an athlete who does not easily forget the past, and one of the concerns for the Patriots heading into Sunday's rematch is whether the painful memory of Super Bowl XLII will in any way inhibit the All-Pro quarterback from performing at the level that earned him two Super Bowl MVPs in the early 2000s.

Sunday's game marks the first Super Bowl rematch since 1994, when the Dallas Cowboys defeated the always-a-bridesmaid Buffalo Bills for a second straight championship. (Super Bowl XLIII was Buffalo's second straight loss to the Cowboys but fourth straight Super Bowl loss overall, a record whose dubious reputation often prevents that Bills team from receiving the praise they deserve for reaching four straight championship games. It takes a significant amount of talent to be that good for that long.) In the three rematches which have occurred in Super Bowl history, the team that prevailed in the first contest also won the second time around. (Technically there have been four rematches in the Super Bowl era, but since the third meeting between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys occurred 17 years after the second meeting I don't consider that an actual rematch.) The first meeting between the Giants and Patriots is now considered one of the greatest upsets in championship history, but the two teams' rosters have changed so dramatically since then—only 16 players on New York's roster and seven on New England's played in the 2008 championship—that it's hard to even call this game a rematch in the true sense of the word. Still, there are a number of key players on both teams—Brady, Eli Manning and Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora—that made significant contributions four years ago, and it is reasonable to wonder whether or not the memory of thes previous meeting will have any bearing on the outcome of Sunday's game.

Sports psychologist Dr. Michael Lardon says that rematches can leave athletes prone to certain psychological foibles. Anticipating a rematch can cause athletes to allocate chunks of their attention to criteria outside of their control, like the crushing pain from previous defeat or the confidence gained from a prior win, and detract from their ability to stay focused on the task at hand. To avoid such pitfalls, Lardon suggests athletes work to keep their minds trained on executing particular roles in the upcoming game rather than focusing on the desired outcome. "That's what made Pete Sampras such a great athlete: He would never focus on winning, he'd focus on execution," says Lardon.

Chris Stankovich, a licensed athletic counselor who describes his work as helping athletes achieve the somewhat abstract construct commonly referred to as "mental toughness," echoes this sentiment but adds that the way an athlete approaches a rematch from a mental standpoint is critical to his or her success. "You can look at it [a rematch] as a threat, or you can look at it as a challenge," says Stankovich, adding that athletes who feel threatened by the prospect of a rematch are more likely to suffer from a case of jittery nerves once play commences. To Stankovich, the case of a rematch is a perfect example of how athletes ought to focus on what's relevant, the upcoming game, and block out the irrelevant, what happened in the past.

In this sense, preparing for a Super Bowl rematch is no different than preparing for any other game during a season, since staying focused on the relevant details of an upcoming game and avoiding irrelevant distractions can help a player perform well in a Super Bowl or a week three contest against a non-conference opponent. In post-game press conferences, NFL coaches and players love to spew the mantra "we're just going to take it one game at a time," conveying the sense that they are so zeroed in on the next opponent that extraneous factors will not distract them week to week.

Sports fans are so accustomed to hearing such talk that the concept of taking-it-one-game-at-a-time is now codified in the unofficial record of sports cliché. But sports psychologists defend that mindset, saying the ability to keep your thoughts focused on the present is often what separates successful from athletes from their unsuccessful counterparts. When I asked both Lardon and Stankovich if they would suggest that members of the Giants and Patriots prepare for Super Bowl XLVI any differently than they would for any other game both replied no and emphasized that the best thing that coaches Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin can do this week is keep their players minds off the past and focused on things they will be able to control such as the precision with which they run routes, tackle and block. Perhaps the devil truly is in the details, and the key to achieving mental toughness as an athlete is finding ways stay in the moment while ignoring the bigger picture.

This is one of the aspects that make professional athletics so fascinating. On the eve of the biggest single sports contest in America, it's hard to imagine how the players will be able to fend off the distractions and pressures that come with playing in a Super Bowl. In our winner-takes-all sports culture, champions are lionized while runners-up are treated like afterthoughts, and any player who makes a critical mistake on Sunday will have a hard time fighting off the "choker" label that is too often applied to players on second-place teams. You could even make the case that it's worse to lose in a Super Bowl than to not make a Super Bowl at all, since losers in a game of this magnitude will most likely receive more negative attention than their play will probably warrant. The fear of failure alone could give even some of the most disciplined athletes a case of stage fright.

What increases the pressure on the players is that the window of opportunity for Super Bowl glory is fleeting. A year ago most sports fans expected the Indianapolis Colts to have a realistic chance at contending for this year's Super Bowl. But that was before a freak neck injury prevented Peyton Manning from playing a single game all season. It now seems as if Manning, who prior to this season had never missed a game due to injury, may be forced into early retirement just two years removed from a season in which he played in a Super Bowl. When Brady and Eli Manning take the field on Sunday, both players will know on some deep level, even if they choose not to acknowledge it, that it could be their last chance at winning a championship. And when they retire, something that will likely happen before either man turns 40, they will then face the daunting prospect of spending the rest of their lives being judged for what they did and did not accomplish between the ages of 21 and 35.

Thinking about the task facing Brady—blocking out all mental distractions so that he can focus on playing what is arguably the most complex position in American sports on its biggest stage—reminds me of an essay the late David Foster Wallace wrote about the tennis player Tracy Austin's memoir. Throughout the essay, Wallace seems intent on trying to understand what goes through the mind of an elite athlete while that athlete is in the midst of competing, and he seems genuinely annoyed when he concludes that the answer to that question may be nothing at all:

How, at the critical moment, can they [great athletes] invoke for themselves a cliché as trite as "one ball at a time" or "gotta concentrate here," and mean it, and then do it? Maybe it's because, for top athletes, clichés present themselves not as trite but simply as true, or perhaps not even as declarative expressions with qualities like depth or triteness or falsehood or truth but as simple imperatives that are either useful or not and, if useful, to be invoked and obeyed and that's all there is to it.

I don't necessarily agree that absolutely nothing goes through an athlete's mind during competition—though I'd like the opportunity to ask Brady what he's thinking during a fourth quarter drive—but the fact that elite athletes can block out distractions and resist reflecting on the enormity of the moment while in the midst of competitions watched by millions of people will always fascinate me.

I don't expect Tom Brady to have any difficulty focusing his mind on the details of the game come Sunday. Brady has played well in big games throughout his career—he is 16-5 in the playoffs—and if the Patriots lose and/or he doesn't play well it probably won't be because he allowed the memory of the Super Bowl XLII to distract him. But this rematch serves as a reminder of the mental fortitude the best professional athletes display on a regular basis. The method for achieving that fortitude may be somewhat clichéd, but that doesn't make it any less impressive.

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Kevin Craft is a writer based in Arlington, Virginia. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, and Arlington Magazine.

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