As in all sports-crazed cities, we have our share of sports drama. One current heated debate is the Eagles' quarterback choice. Right now, Nick Foles is still healing from a broken collarbone, but what should we do when Foles is ready to return. Is Foles tough enough to take the Eagles to a Super Bowl?
The "Is he tough enough" question ignited recently when Buzz Bissinger called Foles a "chickensh*t" (Philadelphia magazine, July, 2014). The Friday Night Lights author believes that Number 9 is too humble and polite to lead the Eagles to the ultimate title. Foles supporters fought back, asserting that it's Bissinger who's the real baby, resorting to name-calling because Foles turned him down for an interview.
The back-and-forth insults made us overlook an important question: How aggressive and mean do our athletes need to be?
This question probably gets debated in every city. Is Jay Cutler a whiner? Should Eli Manning stop making pouty faces? Is Richard Sherman too nasty?
Even though I'm an Eagles fan, when I wear my sports psychology hat, I too wonder about Foles' toughness. Our humble QB has a boyish face and haircut, a gangly body (as Mike Missanelli puts it), and a nice-guy public persona. Does this mean that he's not tough enough to lead the Eagles to a Super Bowl win? Maybe.
But, then again, maybe not.
Unless you're on the team, we only have our at-a-distance perspective on Foles, so we really don't know. That uncertainty may not create the same buzz as Foles' 2013 passer rating, but it's the truth.
If I were to work as Foles' sports psychologist, I would talk with him about the advantages of developing a tougher-guy image for the field. Some snarling and growling at opposing teams might instill some hesitancy and doubt in his opponents. Making the other team believe that you're a threat can definitely help in aggressive, competitive sports such as football. Even if it's an act. Image isn't everything, contrary to Andre Agassi's long-ago commercial, but it can stand at the line of scrimmage alongside strong playing to help teams win.
For some players, the "thug act" is comfortable. As Richard Sherman reminds us, however, it's often just a role. Some athletes can be menacing on the field, but are able to separate that from their true personalities. A player who is naturally less inclined to macho aggressiveness can learn to develop that persona for the game.
To draw from another sport, the Spanish tennis player Rafael Nadal transforms himself into a warrior on match day. His warm-up ritual includes a freezing cold shower to call up his toughness. He imagines that he's putting on armor as he ties the laces of his sneakers and dons his sweat bands. He squashes any empathy for his opponent with a "this is war" mentality. And his sneer – that's one that Foles can copy.
In real life, Nadal is described as a nice guy. Hey, he even lives with his mother. But he uses a tough persona to draw out his own fighting spirit and to intimidate the guy on the other side of the net.
For athletes who are nice guys - perhaps like Foles - there are two major challenges to being in a profession of battle.
The first is the cost of transforming yourself into something you're not. Is it acceptable to become someone you would dislike if you met him? Foles may not want to become a thug, even on game day. For that type of player, I emphasize that it's like acting. At the end of the performance, you put away the costume. You use acting to get the best out of yourself for your sport.
As well, toughness and aggressiveness don't have to cross the line into meanness and abuse. The warrior metaphor of killing your enemy may not feel right. Instead, I'll have a player use an image that connotes strength rather than nastiness. When Aloe Blacc's The Man plays through Foles' headphones, he can envision, let's say, a man of steel, a superman, instead.
The second challenge is that if you put on an act often enough, you may start to confuse that character with your true self. If the line between the actor and the real person gets blurred, the warrior walks off the sports field but forgets to put his weapon down as he enters his home. I believe we've seen the result of that in the recent NFL domestic violence and child abuse stories.
This, for me, is the saddest result. We ask football players to be gladiators on the field, but then go home and be loving and kind husbands, partners and fathers. Some players may not be able to leave the snarl on the field.
The challenge for each of our NFL heroes is how to be the best player and the best person possible. Is that do-able? Or do those roles require such different skills that it's impossible to excel at both and to keep them separate.
For both Foles and for society, I hope the nice guy can finish first.
Dr. Sarah Whitman practices sports psychiatry in Philadelphia. When the Eagles win in February, she challenges all the Foles doubters to carry a chicken around for a day. She is a guest contributor on Sports Doc.