Professional football is a marvel of group cooperation and interpersonal communication - so much so, that we can all learn a valuable lesson from studying how they do it.

 

The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, February 7, 2010. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

Special Super Bowl Post: The Marvels of Football Psychology

Peyton ManningToday is Super Bowl Sunday - the supreme day of national communion in the United States.

The two teams confronting one another both have remarkable back-stories. The New Orleans Saints, of course, represent a city that has been assailed by nature and, equally, the failures of local, state, and national governance. The team has never before been to the Super Bowl - indeed, half of the teams' total franchise playoff victories of four have occurred this year. Who can help but root for them?

But the team they face, the Indianapolis Colts, has had its own challenges. The Colts had football's worst running game, and quarterback Peyton Manning has had to throw to new, inexperienced receivers. Yet Manning gained 4,500 yards passing, nearly his all-time best in a great career. This season he had the highest completion rate in his 12 seasons - almost 70 percent.

Both quarterbacks - the Saints' Drew Brees (why do football players have such great names?) and Manning - are remarkable leaders. Brees heads the pre-game players' chant driving his teammates into an emotional fervor. This is not usually the star quarterback's role. Moreover, he is extremely active in the New Orleans community that has been so severely damaged.

Meanwhile, Manning is considered by many the hardest working man in football, showing up before the greenest rookies to work out himself and with his receivers. (Of course, he is paid $14 million annually for his efforts and, at age 33, his contract will expire in 2011. Owner Jim Irsay has promised to give him the biggest contract ever - whatever that is!)

Professional football is the best example in America of successful cooperation among the races, including not only white and African Americans, but a large number of Samoans. If we could all cooperate like these men do on the playing field, we'd be a better society. Quarterbacks in particular have to feel the mood of all the players on their teams and coordinate their efforts.

Among quarterbacks, Peyton Manning stands out. The football defenses he faces are marvels of complexity. The Colts rely largely on a no-huddle offense, so that Manning watches opposing players substitute in and out of the game across the scrimmage line. On the field, players move forward and back as they feint or contemplate charging directly at him (i.e., "blitzing"). And while he is surveying the field, he changes assignments for his linemen, receivers, and running backs - all in a matter of seconds!

How the hell does he do that! How can one human being be that sharply attuned to so many variables? Moreover, how can he communicate so many crucial changes to teammates in so little time with so little motion and effort? He is, after all, chanting countdown numbers and concentrating on taking the ball from between the center's legs. And how can the receivers et al. divine what they're supposed to do from the things he barks towards them between counting down the snap of the ball?

Manning has to know where receivers are headed and in which direction they will break. If he throws assuming the receiver will zig when he in fact zags, the result is - interception - a quarterback's worst nightmare. But, of course, receivers may alter their patterns depending on the defenders' movements - maybe a defensive back overcommits himself in one direction, or there is an opening left undefended on one part of the field that the receiver will head towards.

So Manning must both assume that receivers are running particular patterns, and remain alert to improvisation on the receivers' parts - sometimes while he is running around in the backfield himself. It's like jazz! And this is why Manning is famous for spending so much extra time working with receivers before regular practice begins in perfecting their pas de deux's. I guess he wants to earn his $14 million!

Manning is in the unusual situation of having had a professional quarterback as a father (former Saints quarterback Archie Manning) and a younger brother who quarterbacks a professional football team and who has himself won a Super Bowl (the Giants' Eli Manning - what did I tell you - not a John or a Robert in the bunch). With one year off, either Manning could be winner in three out of the last four Super Bowls (Peyton won the 2007 Super Bowl, Eli the 2008).

And the two are both polite, earnest, hard-working, non-prima-donna young men.

Considering the difficulties many athletes have managing their own lives off of the football field, his sons may make Archie Manning football's father of the decade - no, make that father of the decade with all comers included. And wife Olivia mother of the decade.

One last irony - Archie, who came from a dirt town in Mississippi that he likens to Mayberry - is probably the most popular player in New Orleans Saints history - even though he never came close to playing in a Super Bowl himself with the team.

Picture: Peyton Manning pointing - at either a defensive player who needs to be picked up, a receiver on his own team he wants to change his pattern, or a photographer not getting his best angle - NOT!