In the 1960s, Al Davis identified four characteristics that he looked for in an athlete. These attributes were the player’s “football character” and they included:
- The player practices hard.
- The player knows their assignments.
- The player is not a disruptive force in the locker room.
- The player plays hurt.
Davis’ “football character” remains just as relevant today as it was in 1960, with one minor adjustment: coaches today would NEVER ask an athlete to “play hurt” when injured, but we do ask athletes to push past pain and discomfort. Football character is built after an athlete has recovered from the stress of competition, both physically and emotionally.
Emotional recovery works like a traffic light.
The purpose of a traffic light is to regulate cars and drivers on busy roads in the absence of police. Vehicles stopped at red lights allow cars with green lights to pass by fluidly. Yellow lights indicate caution and notify drivers that the flow of traffic will change soon. When drivers obey the rules of regulation, traffic is able to flow autonomously.
Everybody has an emotional traffic light that regulates their readiness and decision-making. While red, yellow, and green signals do not mean stop, warning, and go, as they do to drivers, color classifications can provide insight into the emotional state of an individual. Here are the colors and emotions of the emotional traffic light:
Coaches can effectively use the emotional traffic light by practicing outcome-based thinking with their athletes.
Think of a situation as yellow, warning an athlete that the environment around them is changing. The red area inside the situation indicates all of the things outside of that individual’s control. These are the things that get an athlete’s attention. An individual can choose to focus on them, but energy and effort spent in the red will not directly impact the outcome of the situation. For example, a student who fails a test may worry about how their grade will change as a result of their performance on the test, but worrying about the test’s result will have no impact on restoring their grade in that class. The lower grade in this situation gets the student’s attention.
On the other hand, the green area inside the situation indicates all of the things that an individual can control. These are the things that deserve your attention because they will directly impact the outcome of the situation. Using the example above, the student who failed a test should focus on studying more, then request a retake with their teacher. These two actions are within the student’s control and will directly impact their grade.
Operating in the Green for Best Results
In order to achieve peak performance or experience flow, an athlete must be operating in the green. Individuals who can move from red to green or yellow to green emotionally during times of uncertainty or stress experience faster rates of recovery and will regain their composure quicker than athletes who cannot. While many coaches tell their athletes to focus on what they can control and ignore the rest, we must help kids practice outcome-based thinking by recognizing the difference between what is getting their attention and what deserves their attention in any situation. It is our job as coaches to help athletes stay green emotionally.
Have you ever seen one of your female athletes have a really tough day? Makeup smears down their face and their eyes become puffy. These are visible signs that she is red emotionally. In her book Girl, Wash Your Face, author and super-influencer Rachel Hollis tells young women that when they feel overwhelmed, unworthy, and are ready to give up, to go to the bathroom and wash their face. Hollis educates readers to move from red to green with one simple action. By washing their face, your athletes can reset emotionally, start fresh, and prevent people from knowing they are having a tough day.
How the Best of the Best Get Back to Green
NFL All-Pro tight end George Kittle has another physical cue to reset emotionally. Before a game, Kittle uses a Sharpie marker to draw a power button on his hand. When he misses a block, drops a pass, or draws a penalty, Kittle holds down the power button for a few seconds and resets himself mentally. Powering down is Kittle’s way of getting back to green, which allows him to focus on what deserves his attention: the next play.
New York Yankee outfielder Aaron Judge has a routine that helps him emotionally whenever he steps into the batter’s box. Just before every at bat, Judge grabs a fistful of dirt and rubs it between his hands. Dirt from the batter’s box reminds him to be gritty when facing major league pitchers, especially when down in the count. The ability to stay green in high-pressure situations has made Judge one of the most dynamic hitters in baseball today.
Jay-Z has been staying green since 2003 when he released his hit song “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.” In the song, “dirt” represents people who are trying to bring you down. It can also represent those who are jealous of your success. The lyric “get that dirt off your shoulder” is usually accompanied by Jay-Z casually wiping off his shoulder. By brushing away negativity, Jay-Z is able to ignore the noise and get back to green emotionally.
Like Jay-Z, Taylor Swift also has a strategy to stay green. Swiftwarns her listeners that “the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate,” before mentioning her solution to getting back to green in the next line. “Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake. I shake it off. I shake it off.” By shaking off the haters who get her attention, Swift is able to focus on the things that deserve her attention.
Get Your Players Back to Green
How can you help your athletes get back to green? Settle their emotions by adopting a simple physical cue. Coach Nick Winkler in Clintonville, Wisconsin keeps a small mason jar of dirt on his desk. Given to him by his college coach after playing four years of college football, the dirt is from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and serves as a reminder that people in the U.P. are just a little tougher. Whenever life gets hard, the mason jar reminds Coach Winkler to rub some on it and toughen up emotionally.
In conclusion, the ability to get back to green after facing adversity and stress speeds up recovery, builds resilience, and strengthens character. Think about the last time you had a bad day. What was the situation? What got your attention? What deserved your attention? Was it a bad day or really just a bad five minutes that you let bother you all day? Get back to green and continue to be elite!