When you love a football team, the way many NFL fans do, you can spend the offseason arranging the players on your favorite squad as if they're pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. You slot starters here, you stow reserves there, till you reach a final roster of 53--and a practice squad of 10 more.
For fans of the New England Patriots, safety Patrick Chung was no sure bet to be part of the assembled picture last summer. Having started his career with the Patriots as a second-round draft pick in 2009, Chung played four years with the Patriots on his rookie contract. After the 2013 season, he signed a three-year, $10-million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles.
For NFL players, reaching that so-called second contract (the contract after your rookie deal expires) is an accomplishment. It means you've survived at least four seasons in a cutthroat league. It also means your talents are valuable enough to elicit competitive bidding among multiple teams. So you could not be faulted for believing Chung's second contract was a sign of success--a milestone.
But a funny thing happened during the 2013 season. Though the Eagles finished 10-6 and made the playoffs, Chung struggled. The Eagles released him after the season. "It was hard not to interpret his release after one season as a sign that Chung was a big part of the Eagles' problems in 2013. Their secondary led the NFL in touchdown passes allowed," said Phil Sheridan on ESPN.com.
So the Patriots invited Chung, now a player without a team, to camp last summer. And Chung entered his offseason training aiming to revive his NFL career--and once again be a key piece in a team's roster puzzle.
"He didn't quite have the season he'd wanted to have," recalls Brett Bartholomew, the trainer with EXOS (formerly Athletes' Performance) who worked with Chung this past offseason. "But he came in here and worked. He put his nose to the grindstone. It shows that even the greatest athletes are not immune to the ebbs and flows of careers."
According to Bartholomew, there were three keys to getting Chung back on track:
1. Providing a little "contextual interference." "He's strong, powerful, and he already had tremendous burst," is what Bartholomew says when you ask him to describe Chung's strengths. All of which makes sense: After all, Chung was a second-round pick. That usually doesn't happen unless your raw physical talents are top-notch, even by NFL standards.
But while burst, speed, and strength are vital, they aren't everything. The best players make fast, accurate decisions about which players to pursue--and which angles of pursuit to take.
So Bartholomew led Chung through drills that would help him make these fast decisions. For example, Bartholomew would ask Chung a math problem prior to the drill's physical component. Chung's action would depend on whether the answer to the problem was an even or odd number.
Bartholomew calls this "a little contextual interference." The idea is to make the player think fast--and process a quick decision--prior to choosing where and how to move.
The contextual interference provides a more viable simulation of what Chung actually has to do in NFL games. In games, Chung's burst and athleticism are important, but they're only important if he's made the right decision prior to his initial on-field movement.
2. Using "social proof" as motivation. Pro athletes in all sports, most famously the NBA's Allen Iverson, have questioned the notion of trying hard in practice situations, as opposed to actual games. That puts trainers like Bartholomew in a challenging situation: How do you motivate well-compensated pros to compete hard in offseason settings, especially settings that are not team-sanctioned activities?
For Bartholomew, "social proof" is one of the most powerful motivators, even in practice circumstances. By social proof, he means activating an athlete's inner desire to compete with his fellow athletes in a given social setting.
For example, if you have nine or 10 players in a group doing a drill--a mixture of rookies and veterans, stars and scrubs, and everyone in between--chances are, the players are still going to take pride in challenging and defeating each other.
"And that drive is what we want to harness," says Bartholomew. "And the beauty of [Chung] is that he gets that."
In other words, in addition to Chung's physical traits, he's competitive in all settings. He's willing to compete like mad for the sake of social proof. He wants to win all the time. The stakes, for him, are always high. And that's is all any trainer can ask for.
3. Tapping into a sense of purpose and humility. "Purpose," says Bartholomew, "is the best performance enhancer."
And Chung was full of the purpose only humility can create, following his release from the Eagles. He didn't need to be reminded that in the NFL, a gifted former second-round can be out of work in a flash.
Bartholomew notes that Chung's humility had another advantage: The perspective that failure is a possibility, even if you try hard.
That may not seem like a groundbreaking insight. But it is something that young football players--who've excelled at every stage prior to their first dose of NFL adversity--need to learn. "Talent needs trauma," is how Bartholomew explains it.
Chung's experiences gave him empathy for other players who'd make mistakes or struggle through drills or simply be having a tough day. "He'd pick other dudes up, correct them, or coach them up," says Bartholomew. "He was very much a team guy first, not a 'me' guy first."
After his offseason with EXOS, Chung arguably had the best season of his career. Not only did he make the Patriots roster--which was hardly a forgone conclusion, last summer--but he started at safety for a Patriots defense which ranked 8th (out of 32 teams) in points allowed.
Best of all for Chung, the Patriots were pleased enough to reward him with a three-year contract extension through 2017, including $3.4 million in guaranteed money.
A Super Bowl victory on Sunday night would be the crowning achievement. Not that Chung would rest on his laurels, if it happened. "If [Chung] wins the Super Bowl, he's not going to come back here and act like he doesn't need to train hard again," says Bartholomew.
Such is the power of humility, followed by redemption.