On Sunday night, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson will play in the Super Bowl for the second straight season. But he almost didn't make it to the big game this time around.
In case you missed it, Wilson's Seahawks were on the verge of defeat two Sundays ago. Wilson's terrible performance was one reason why: He had thrown four interceptions. The Seahawks trailed the visiting Green Bay Packers 19-7 with roughly four minutes remaining. It looked to all the world like the Seahawks would not return to the Super Bowl.
But owing largely to Wilson's physical stamina and mental toughness, the Seahawks mounted a furious comeback. Behind Wilson's passing and running, they rallied to win the game, 28-22, advancing to their second straight Super Bowl.
Watching Wilson's late-game heroics with no small degree of pride was the team at EXOS, the company formerly known as Athletes' Performance. The Phoenix-based business, now in its 15th year, had helped prepare several Seahawks for their previous Super Bowl success.
Well known for readying players for the NFL Draft Combine, EXOS also conducts programs for current pros like Wilson. This past off-season, Wilson trained with several other NFL vets, including stars such as Detroit Lions wide receiver Golden Tate and Denver Broncos safety T.J. Ward. Recently Inc. spoke to the group's trainer, Jonathan Brooks. According to Brooks, there are three traits that have helped make Wilson a poised, resilient performer under duress:
1. He practices the art of getting out of his comfort zone. "I was amazed by how quickly he adapts to the different environments that he's put into," says Brooks.
Though Wilson's powers of acclimation impressed Brooks, the trainer points out that adapting to new environments is a skill Wilson works on actively.
For example, anyone who has watched Wilson play knows he is quite comfortable using his speed to create operational space and improve throwing angles. Therefore, heading into last off-season, Wilson wanted to train for in-game moments when he could not use his foot speed to create angles and openings. In other words, he aimed to improve in situations where his mobility was limited or unavailable as a bailout mechanism.
So with Brooks and the EXOS team, Wilson conducted vision drills emphasizing hand-eye coordination and quick decision making. The idea was for Wilson to use his mind, rather than his legs, to make the correct decision under pressure.
For instance, Brooks would run a drill in which he had multiple balls of multiple colors thrown toward Wilson. While the balls were in the air, Brooks would shout out a particular color. It was the balls of this shouted-out color that Wilson had to catch. At varying intervals, Brooks shouted out different colors, forcing Wilson to hear-see-move at a moment's notice.
"The goal is to work on that vision that you need to have on the field," explains Brooks. "It's about his continuing to open his vision and identify patterns and schemes, and progressing with his anticipation and reaction skills."
2. He challenges himself and others to be at their best, even though it is technically off-season training. "He prepped for every day as if it was his game day," says Brooks. "His approach was a lot different from what I've seen, based on his self-motivation and his leading others."
As an example, Brooks says Wilson would constantly build up his EXOS cohorts (Tate, Ward, and the other pros training with them) so "they'd go up to his level." Early on in the sessions, Wilson led by example. He was the first one in the weight room each morning and the first one back from water breaks.
Later on, once rapports and personalities were established, Wilson, like any leader with people skills, used more vocal encouragement with those whom he felt it would motivate. "He would speak with guys individually before a session started, and he would encourage them," says Brooks.
Interestingly, Wilson's encouragements are reminiscent of a practice habit that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has shared.
According to Bruce Feldman's superb book The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, in 2013 Rodgers was watching Purdue quarterback David Blough during a drill. "Well, what do you think I need to work on the most?" Blough asked him. Rodgers replied:
You're staring down your target. You're throwing one-on-ones, so, of course, you're gonna stare down your receiver, but challenge yourself. You've got all the arm talent in the world. You know you're throwing to this guy, but why not stare down the middle of the field and know what timing he's going to be on, and then, on your last step, look over at him and deliver the ball. Find a way to challenge yourself even if it's on a little routine drill or routes-on-air (against no defenders).
Aside from the chief takeaway of Rodgers's advice--challenge yourself--note the manner in which he delivers it: He compliments Blough and says he grasps why Blough had not been challenging himself previously. In other words, he teaches without reprimanding or preaching.
3. He remains mindful that it is still the off-season, and that intense training must not lead to burnout. "He also works hard in the recovery state of things," explains Brooks.
That is, on recovery days, Wilson would not slack off. He would diligently show up for massage treatments and therapy sessions. "He'd still treat it as a normal training day," says Brooks.
As a trainer, Brooks knows one of his primary goals--and ongoing challenges--is upping intensity without upping the risk for injury. A key component to it, for Wilson and the rest of Brooks's athletes, is taking time away from the sport before the season officially begins.
Another component is sleep: between seven and nine hours a night, making sure to consume no food in the two or three hours before turning in.
It's in categories like these--daily habits ensuring rest and reducing burnout--that the parallels between training athletes and training executives are most apparent.
For example, many entrepreneurs need to be reminded about the importance of time off. Left to their own devices, they'll work long days and burn out, even though countless studies suggest they'll be more effective if they sleep long hours and take regular vacations.
The key, as always, is to know the difference between working harder and working smarter. Of course, mastering that difference is one reason why entrepreneurs often work with coaches too. It's something to keep in mind as you're watching Wilson on Sunday night. Whether the Seahawks win or lose, you know this much: Come the off-season, Wilson will be at it again.