Super Bowl 50: Quarterbacks seek mental strength edge in cutthroat NFL

Story highlights

  • Mental conditioning permeating NFL
  • Trevor Moawad is Russell Wilson's mental strength coach
  • Moawad also employed by NCAA champions University of Alabama
  • Internal dialogue between plays is key to winning, says expert

(CNN)If there's one thing Cam Newton and Russell Wilson clearly have in common, it's confidence.

But if there's another, more subtle, similarity between the back-to-back Super Bowl quarterbacks, it's their exposure to mental strength conditioning -- a process catching on in the hyper-competitive worlds of NFL and college football.
Trevor Moawad, a leader in the field who worked with Newton in preparation for the 2011 NFL draft combine and his rookie season, tells CNN the mental fortitude of the Carolina Panthers stalwart is often overlooked.
    "Sometimes when we look at people with so many physical gifts it can diminish their psychological gifts," he says of the six-foot five-inch, 248-pound Newton, likely to be on his way to NFL Most Valuable Player honors.
    "But he is a guy who can learn and process information very quickly, and that is extremely important in the National Football League. In psychological terms, they would call it a growth mindset."

    A photo posted by Cam Newton (@cameron1newton) on

    Moawad is more commonly associated with Wilson, who hired the motivator soon after he was drafted by the Seahawks in 2012, along with the University of Alabama, where he has earned four national championship rings as a core part of coach Nick Saban's team of mental strength experts.
    In a dizzying two-week spell last month, Moawad flew between Seattle -- where Wilson was preparing for consecutive playoff games at Minnesota and Carolina -- and Arizona, host of the BCS National Championship game, where the Crimson Tide prevailed over No. 1 ranked Clemson in a thriller.
    Wilson was less fortunate, losing to Newton's Panthers in the second round of the NFL playoffs after being stunned 31-0 in the first half, although his Seahawks came back to within a touchdown as they were beaten 31-24.
    It was his second crushing end to a season in a row following last year's heart-stopping Super Bowl finish, when he led the Seahawks in position for a sure go-ahead touchdown before throwing the interception that went around the world.
    It's hard to believe but the pass cradled by the Patriots' Malcolm Butler with 26 seconds remaining was never once mentioned between the quarterback and the man keeping his mindset in check.
    Part of Moawad's process, however, centers on erasing past mistakes and focusing on the next snap... even if that snap is seven months away.
    "That play doesn't define Russell," he says. "With a competitor and a person like Russell, I never for a second thought that moment would be too big for him -- win or lose -- to overcome."
    Former Moawad client Fred Taylor says Wilson's 2015 Super Bowl interception is "without a doubt" the most scrutinized play in NFL history (though its failure is attributed more to coach Pete Carroll's call than Wilson's throw).
    "It has to be the toughest thing that (Wilson) has had to endure since he's been in the game," Taylor says. "It's not easy to bounce back from."
    But bounce back he did.
    This season, Wilson finished with 34 touchdowns and eight interceptions, along with a career-high passer rating of 110 -- the best in the league (Newton, who finished eighth, posted a 99.4 rating). He even clinched offensive MVP honors in last weekend's Pro Bowl. "He's been terrorizing (the league)," Taylor says.

    Offseason rituals

    During each NFL offseason, Wilson and Moawad meet for between 10 and 20 sessions of "positive visualization techniques" and other methods aimed at sharpening the quarterback's mind control, following up every few weeks during the season.

    Business Trip. #GoHawks

    A photo posted by Russell Wilson (@dangerusswilson) on

    Moawad prepares a mental checklist for his athletes to picture during a game's idle times (of which there are surprisingly many), comparing the process to writing a grocery shopping list to avoid filling your cart with unnecessary items.
    The Wall Street Journal reported that an average NFL game includes just 11 minutes of on-field play, while Major League Baseball games consist of 14 minutes of action and nearly 90% of "standing around time."
    Tennis players endure roughly 78% of idle time -- crucial moments when the game can be won or lost -- according to Moawad.
    That's because players are constantly engaging in a mental dialogue with themselves at a rate of 800 to 1,400 words per minute, he explains. The key is controlling that internal discussion and using it to provide an advantage.
    "I remember one thing he always used to say: 'Your brain can only take one thing at a time -- is it going to be positive or negative?'" says former University of Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson, introduced to Moawad when Nick Saban took over as coach in 2007.
    "You kind of control what you think, so train your brain to think in a way that's going to be productive -- whether it's going to class, playing football, or anything."

    Proving doubters wrong

    Former All-Pro running back Taylor says he was "very skeptical" when the Jacksonville Jaguars assigned Moawad to work with him early in his career following concerns about his body language after mistakes or injuries.
    "They started calling me Fragile Fred," Taylor recalls. "And I wasn't fragile, I just played the game at an extremely high level, very reckless, didn't care about my body.
    "And when Trevor came on it was just reinforcing my confidence and understanding the difference between the routine and commitment."
    Once Moawad gained the running back's trust, it was time to get to work on rebuilding his mindset from the ground up. "He reprogrammed me," Taylor says.
    Moawad put together highlight reels of Taylor running to the soundtrack of his favorite songs. Quotes would appear on screen from inspiring athletes including Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and sprinter Michael Johnson -- a close friend of the consultant.
    "I would watch this tape before each and every game and the night before a game," Taylor explains. "And watching the film allowed my mind to know that we've done that, we can do it again, we can do it every time. We were just creating the game in my head."
    Taylor -- whose in-game routine consisted of imagining a breakout run as he would return to the huddle -- adds: "I was able to visualize success again, and he believed that when you visualize success it's right there on the horizon. It's there for you to go and touch it."
    The running back -- whose career numbers of 14,079 all-purpose yards and 74 touchdowns make him worthy of Hall of Fame consideration -- looks back on former Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin's hiring of Moawad as "a total blessing."

    One of Derrick Henry's two first half touchdowns here at the #NationalChampionship game #RollTide

    A photo posted by Alabama Football (@alabamafbl) on

    He admits their bond became so close that he grew to rely on the consultant to be on the sidelines, especially during big games.
    "I needed him -- I depended on him being there," he says, adding that it raised eyebrows among his peers.
    "My teammates called me crazy," he recalls. "They were like: 'Freddie, you're seeing a shrink.' But once I saw the results, they could joke all they wanted."
    To be clear, Moawad is not a licensed medical practitioner. Rather than clinically analyzing his clients, he takes after his later father Bob, a pioneer in motivational speaking, by encouraging them to empower themselves.
    Acceptance, however, often comes in stages.
    In 2005, Moawad's former colleague at the IMG agency Chad Bohling, who also worked with Taylor, was hired by the New York Yankees as their director of optimal performance. The idea did not sit well with certain players.
    "I don't believe in it," star outfielder Gary Sheffield told the New York Times. "I think it's for people who are weak-minded. I think there are people who need someone there for them. It's not for me."
    Moawad says Sheffield's reaction was "a response based upon a stereotype."
    "I deal with that skepticism, I watched my dad deal with it," he adds. "So one of the challenges is to help people understand how and where you can add value."
    Eleven years later, Bohling is still with the Yankees, though his current, more exact title -- Director of Mental Conditioning -- is a sign of progress.