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Need Cleveland Despair? Yes, (Temporarily).

News that Coach Kevin Stefanski, Guard Joel Bitonio and three others tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday landed as if an 8.0 earthquake hit Cleveland. But despite the shock, this eruption doesn’t need to swallow anyone. If the Browns have the smarts to deal with the magnitude of their rumbling and conflicting feelings, their mindset could become the edge that leads them to a memorable win in Sunday night’s playoff game in Pittsburgh.

Neuroscience tells us that our fears, frustrations and disappointments are critical to what we can envision and what we can achieve. Language however gives us a mechanism to transform these painful emotions into the outcomes we want. Accepting all their unpleasantness – a foundational strategy within The Shull Method – prevents the paralysis that comes from mishandling them.

First, it would have been OK if the Browns let loose with a few expletives upon hearing the news. Anger and frustration made sense. Fear also was completely rational. What will happen to our Coach? Are he and his family in danger? And of course, will we be able to perform at our competitive best with him and Joel and the others at home watching on TV? 

As some therapists say, “the only way out is through.” Everyone can grieve and work at the same time. Sadness can actually increase focus. Being upset is fine, as long as they keep doing what led to this playoff possibility.

Otherwise, the revered stiff-spine approach that insists on positives-no-matter-what will backfire. Teammates and coaches could make lists of their fears and frustrations. They could talk about them amongst themselves or at least with a team member they trust and one who will NOT tell them to “get over it.’ Everyone at the Browns should give each other the gifts of understanding and empathy.

Done right, this respect for the logical emotions will lead the players to authentically vow, ‘Damn it, we’re going to do this anyway.’

Typically, we try to skip to the confidence stage without acknowledging the truth of what we feel. The feelings then remain, even if only in the subconscious. When something inevitably goes wrong in the game, all the pent-up energy comes rushing back in a completely unmanageable way. The safety valves previously available now have closed.

That has happened to the Browns a billion times over the last however many years, right? The curse of the Browns is that a little thing goes wrong and they just collapse.

Somehow this season Stefanski has upended that pattern. He is steadfast. He emanates competence.  You can tell he believes in his plan and his players. He can still communicate that to them. They can still hear and internalize his vision and deliver what he has inspired.

The team also can get each player to imagine the scenario where it all goes right. I’ve shown pictures of ballet dancers to the most hardened competitors. I tell them to imagine what it feels like to be that guy who throws that woman and catches her perfectly. Imagine how the ice dancers do it. It is possible. What will it feel like if you go into Pittsburgh and just execute on what you know how to do?

Capture that feeling. The door will open. Ask, “What can I do to contribute to all of us having this feeling come Monday morning?”

If we go through the process – working through the bad stuff – we develop a perspective and sense of confidence about what we need to do to survive and thrive. And we’re more optimistic about doing it because we’ve brought ourselves to new beliefs.  Athletes are conditioned to not allow any negative thoughts even though they carry them like everyone does. Taking this unexpected approach will create resilience even though while it’s happening it will seem risky.

These are my Browns. Of course I want them to do this. I know it will work – as long as all feelings are allowed. Yes, it’s wildly counterintuitive, but if they are honest with themselves and open about their feelings, the events of Tuesday will become a competitive advantage on Sunday.

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