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The Psychology of Super Bowl Sunday: A Mental Match-up


On February 11th, millions across the United States will be on the edge of their seats tuned into one of the most watched events of the year - Super Bowl LVIII. A rematch of Super Bowl LIV, the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers will go head-to-head in a battle for the Lombardi Trophy and all the glory that comes with it.


Who will win? National Football League (NFL) fans and experts are immersed in spirited debate, basing predictions on their team loyalties and a meticulous analysis of NFL statistics from the 2023-2024 regular and postseason games. Much attention has been directed at assessing the conference championships where the Chiefs beat the Baltimore Ravens, lauded as the best regular season team, and the 49ers came back from the largest halftime deficit in conference title game history to secure a win against the Detroit Lions.


Receptiviti has a unique perspective to consider when contemplating Super Bowl odds and evaluating this year’s conference finalists: the psychology of the head coaches (HCs) and quarterbacks (QBs). This approach is less about what happens between the goalposts and more about what happens between the ears.  


Super Bowl Dataset & Analysis


The NFL requires teams to be available to the media for press conferences after every game and during the practice week. At press conferences, coaches and players answer questions, providing an opportunity for them to address concerns, discuss strategy, reflect on performance, and share updates.


We analyzed January 2024 press conference responses by the HCs and starting QBs of the Chiefs, 49ers, Ravens, and Lions to provide insight into the mindsets and dynamics of this year’s highest performing NFL teams.


Our findings reveal that the teams have distinct cultures and attitudes. We discuss findings within the framework of the following key themes:

  • Stress Management: How effectively do HCs and QBs handle the pressure that comes with being at the apex of their profession?

  • Decision-making: How skilled are HCs and QBs at navigating complex problems and employing critical thinking?

  • Team vs. Individual: How do HCs and QBs strike a balance between promoting individual confidence and fostering collective confidence within the team?

  • HC and QB Relationship: As team leaders, how aligned and compatible are the HCs and QBs?


Stress Management


Professional sports are widely recognized as highly demanding work environments, especially during the postseason when games are “win or go home.” The pressure can lead to increased cognitive load, defined as the mental effort needed to understand an environment or situation.


Although a certain level of cognitive load is required to process and complete tasks, elevated cognitive load can lead to increased stress and can negatively impact performance by making it difficult to focus, maintain confidence, and make decisions efficiently.


Patrick Mahomes Lamar Jackson Jared Goff Brock Purdy Cognitive Load Analysis

In our analysis, we observed significant variation in cognitive load among the teams. Patrick Mahomes’ (Chiefs QB) and Andy Reid’s (Chiefs HC) language demonstrated the lowest cognitive load. This suggests the Chiefs QB and HC are better at coping with the pressure of the playoffs and Super Bowl. With Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs QB) having won ~82% of his 17 postseason matches to date, the Chiefs may be more confident than teams with less experienced leaders. This advantage may allow them to go into their games with more mental composure.


Decision-making


Coaches are tasked with making choices about player selection, training strategy, play calls, and more. Meanwhile, QBs need to make split-second decisions about when to scramble, who to pass to, and must be able to adapt to plays based on whatever happens on the field. Thus, HCs’ and QBs’ abilities to use critical thinking to analyze a situation and make informed decisions is paramount to the overall performance of the team.


We analyzed the QBs’ and HCs’ language to detect the degree to which they think analytically, a cognitive style “characterized by careful, effortful deliberation based on reason and logic.”


During the press conferences, the Lions came across as significantly less analytical than the other teams, suggesting that their HC and QB are more narrative thinkers, a cognitive style associated with “ quick gut reactions grounded in intuition and personal experience.



Such results are fascinating considering many attribute Dan Campbell’s (Lions HC) decision to go for fourth down conversions instead of settling for field goals as a primary factor in the Lions’ loss of the NFC Championship. The following excerpt from a recent Forbes article describes it well:


“[People] might think of [Dan Campbell] as a business leader who has the courage and commitment to take informed risks. They also might think of him as someone who pushed the risk envelope a bit too hard; who didn’t adjust his thinking to the circumstances at hand.”


Team vs. Individual



To evaluate whether HCs and QBs emphasize individual contributions or team collaboration, we analyzed the degree to which they use collectivizing language (i.e., “we” and other social words) and individualizing language (“I” and other self-focused words) during press conferences. Results showed that the teams used significantly different rates of social language, words related to interactions, communication, and engagement with others (i.e., mate, talk, they). Also, differences in their use of “we” approached significance. 



Notably, the Ravens used the highest rate of social language relative to the other HC/QB pairs. Additionally, Lamar Jackson (Ravens QB) used “we” more than all other QBs and HCs.  Such findings suggest that the teams may differ in the degree to which they prioritize self-efficacy versus collective-efficacy, with the Ravens coming across as a team that values collaboration and a shared sense of purpose.



HC and QB Relationship


Studies show that strong coach-athlete relationships predict a team's motivational climate as well as the degree of harmonious passion (a form of healthy passion) reported by coaches and players. Elements of interpersonal alignment, closeness (emotional connection), co-orientation (shared knowledge and understanding), and complementarity (cooperative and affiliative interactions), are important factors in understanding the degree to which there is an effective bond between a player and coach. 


Language Style Matching (LSM) has been used to study alignment and rapport across a variety of contexts to predict outcomes, including romantic relationship stability, team performance, and negotiation outcomes. Here, we use LSM to study the level of alignment between HCs and QBs.

 

Quarterback & Head Coach Alignment Lions Chiefs 49ers Ravens

In our analysis, all HC/QB pairs had relatively high LSM, but the Lions had the highest and Ravens had the lowest. This suggests that Dan Campbell (Lions HC) and Jared Goff (Lions QB) may be more in sync and have a higher degree of mutual understanding.


Takeaways


Professional sports demand more than just high skill and physical fitness—it also requires mental fortitude. We often hear about the “playoff mentality,” the idea that players and coaches must elevate their mindsets to win in the postseason. In this analysis we’ve highlighted what that “playoff mentality” looked like for 2024’s top ranking NFL teams. As you watch the game Sunday in awe of the winner’s epic throws, tough tackles, and spectacular catches, consider this article an invitation to also appreciate the less visible factors that contribute to a Super Bowl victory, such as the managing of cognitive load, employing analytical thinking skills, encouraging collective self-efficacy, and ensuring HC/QB alignment.


Even for those less interested in sports, these insights remain relevant, offering an example of how the dynamic between key team members can influence overall group performance and team culture.


To learn how Receptiviti can help you derive psychological insights from your language data, contact us.

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