On 'Mental Intangibles'

So, cfred asked a really good and totally fair question regarding the use of "swagger" in my "Three Things" features this week. I started to leave my thoughts in the comments there, but then realized it was A) ballooning in length pretty quickly, and B) might be a good thing to put in a prominent location for those who are interested. However, I didn't think it was worth clogging up the front page over, so I put it over here in the FanPosts.

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I obviously try to avoid topics such as this like the plague in my writing (hence, cfred's question), but I didn't on this one, so let me explain a little. I hope I can do this clearly ... if not all that concisely. If any of it seems unclear or contradictory, feel free to ask for clarification below, but remember: Nothing is black and white, and attempts to paint me/us into some corner with repeated questions of "is this OK?" just isn't going to get you very far. This is a part of the larger philosophy of the site, and trying to reduce a philosophy to a series of absolutes sort of goes against the very essence of a philosophy. This isn't a court of law. We're not bound by precedent. So it's probably best if you don't try to go there -- or at least be as thoughtful as you can with your examples and accompany them with commentary so that we can use them to edify the philosophy rather than simply come up with a list of "yes" and "no."

Additionally: While we try to stay away from, "Because it's our site and we said so!", it is important to remember that a lot of things around here do ultimately come down to the preference of the authors, so if you disagree vehemently with the following or think it's super hypocritical, this might just be one of those things where you have to either make peace with it or refrain from commenting on these sorts of things.

So, let's kick it off by starting here: I have never disputed the existence of the mental aspect of sports. Of course it exists. Like many of you, I've played sports, and like all of you who have played, I have had my good mental days and my not-so-good mental days. However, as a writer here, I have consistently pushed back against those who overstate the 1) actual impact, and 2) quantifiability.

Before we move on, I want to note that I don't equate "swagger" with "mental toughness," though I can see how some would lump them together. I see swagger as sort of a belief in what you're doing -- it's a "talk the talk and walk the walk" sort of thing. That's different to me than "mental toughness," which I believe most every athlete already has to have a healthy dose of if they are even going to make it to -- and stay at -- this level of athletics. Given what athletes have to go through just to make it to Saturday, I actually find it a bit offensive when fans suggest that players aren't "mentally tough." Maybe it's just matter of semantics. But as a writer, semantics matter to me, so I work from the assumption that virtually all of these guys already are "tough." When a fan who's never seen a 6 a.m. conditioning workout says these guys aren't "mentally tough," I actually laugh a little on the inside before getting incredibly irritated.

However, for the sake of simplicity, whatever it is that the generalized "you" see as swagger/mental toughness - let's just label all of it "mental intangibles" for the remainder of this conversation. Because I think all of what I'm about to say applies whether you define those "mental intangibles" as "swagger" or "mental toughness" or whatever.

Back to those two things from the second paragraph.

First, I feel like the impact of "mental intangibles" is greatly overstated. My personal belief is that talent trumps all in the vast majority of circumstances. Does it always? Of course not. If we were looking for an example of that, last year's game against ASU would seem to fit the bill. But how much impact does it have? It's incredibly tough to say. I have lots of students who have great "mental intangibles" who work incredibly hard who still don't get very good grades. I knew lots of athletes in high school who had great "mental intangibles" but never played college ball. Heck, I'm sure there are guys on this football team who had better "mental intangibles" than a few guys who were dismissed during the offseason, yet they didn't play more than those guys last year. Why? Because talent matters -- usually (though obviously not always) more than what's upstairs.

In general, if you told me that winning any given game was the most important thing and asked me if I'd rather have the more mentally tough team or the more talented team, I'd take the more talented team every day of the week. I wasn't the most mentally tough player (just ask my 8th grade wrestling coach) but that's not why I didn't earn a scholarship to play football at WSU. I didn't earn a scholarship to play football in the Pac-12 because I was a 6-foot/200-pound offensive lineman who was too slow to play a position more suited to my size, not because of my "mental toughness" deficiencies. If I had been 6-foot/200 and run a 4.4 40, I'd be sitting here with a degree from whoever was going to give me a scholarship. And I'm guessing the same goes for all of you, too.

If you're talking about two equally talented teams/players/etc? Perhaps it's relevant. But that brings us to the second point.

Let's assume you don't think the effect is overstated - that you believe it's really the most important thing, or that it has some undeniably dramatic impact on the outcome of a game. How in the world would you measure it? By looking at someone's slumpy shoulders or pouty face? That's incredibly suspect. If we go back to Thursday's game, a lot of people were readily throwing Marquess Wilson under the bus, especially after the "route" that involved him stutter stepping at the line and waiting for the ball. But if I recall correctly, his over-the-shoulder catch that wasn't came after that. At what point are Wilson's "mental intangibles" dropping to such a level that it begins affecting his performance? Trying to figure that out is a fool's errand, and because of that, discussions to that effect usually end up devolving into "he was totally pouting" "no he totally wasn't" "YES HE TOTALLY WAS" "NO HE TOTALLY WASN'T!!!" Etc. That's lame and unproductive.

Because of all that, here are the assumptions I work from when I write and when moderating discussions: "Mental intangibles" absolutely exist, but the effect of "mental intangibles" is secondary (at best) in the context of a game, and there's no way to really measure its impact on a game, anyway. Any mention of "mental intangibles" in my writing (which already is going to be sparing) will always come after things that I think matter the most - namely, talent and execution and anything that we can possibly quantify to that effect.

You'll note that my "swagger" comment is consistent with all of this. I never said it was a key to the game, never stated that it was some huge deal. I simply said it was something I wanted to see. I believe it can make a small difference in the outcome of a game, and I believe it can be a good indicator of what is to come over the course of a season, especially for a team that spent the better part of four years getting its collective face kicked in. But I'll leave it at, "Hey, I hope we've got it" and "I also hope I see some sort of evidence of its existence."

Look: We've never said it's absolutely wrong to talk about things that aren't quantifiable, despite some agitated readers' attempts to make it seem that way. All we've really tried to do -- sometimes successfully, sometimes less so -- is ask people to thoughtfully put those things in their proper place in a discussion. "Mental intangibles" isn't a completely off-limits topic; it's just that if you want to be taken seriously around here, your comments should be consistent with the previous 1,500 words.

If you're a person who really does think it's super important and is totally quantifiable, I know there are other corners of the Internet that welcome that kind of analysis. While we still love you, it might be best for you to simply talk with some of them about it, rather than trying to convince all of us that we should adopt your philosophy - something with which we're incredibly unlikely to agree.

So there you have it. Hopefully this makes sense. Perhaps some of the other authors have thoughts on this as well?

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