It was August 2003 and my team at the time, the Pittsburgh Steelers, was holding the first live scrimmage for training camp. As a rookie in the NFL I had practiced a number of times with the team, but this was the first time I was going to suit it up for a “full contact and tackle goal line scrimmage”. The set up was easy. The first and second team offenses would go against the first and second team defenses. The offense had four downs to score a touchdown. If they scored, they won; if they failed to score the defense won.
The first team offense and defense took the field first. The offense included Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, and Tommy Maddox who went against a defense consisting of Joey Porter, James Farrior, and Kendrell Bell. The opposing sides lined up against each other, the referee blew his whistle to start the play clock, Tommy Maddox called out the cadence, then the ball was snapped … … from that instant, the phrase “The Next Level” was defined for me.
“The Next Level” is a phrase commonly thrown around by athletes referring to the ability to play in a professional arena such as the NFL, NBA or MLB. To me “The Next Level” is not a title you gain, e.g. Professional Football Player; it is more a state of mind, an attitude and way of thinking when competing. Therefore, I have come up with three characteristics that I believe all athletes must posses in order to achieve “The Next Level”.
1. Play, Practice and Think with 100% Effort. It is as simple as that. You should have one speed and one speed only – FAST! There is no such thing as “half speed” or “walk thru”. Regardless of what people say, that is how we practiced and prepared in the NFL. Mike Holmgren said it best one day while practicing in the middle of December while preparing for the playoffs, “We run plays at full speed during the week so when the game comes it will be second nature and all you have to do is react.”
2. Be Able to “Flip the Switch” Once the Whistle Blows. This is probably the most mental of the three characteristics. Just picture in your mind a Cheetah stalking a gazelle and how meticulous, careful and alert it is as it sets up its approach. Once that Gazelle notices it is being hunted and starts running, the Cheetah “flips the switch” and accelerates to incredible speeds. Within seconds it has the Gazelle in its grasp and the hunt is over. This is the same way you should approach every play. An average football play lasts an average of 10 seconds or less, but when that ball is snapped a literal switch should be flipped in your mind and every ounce of energy should be released at that moment.
3. Dominate. This one word sums up every quality of those who achieve “The Next Level”. To dominate simply means competing to be the BEST. Does it mean you have to be the best? NO! It just means you are working, preparing, practicing and believing YOU CAN be the BEST. You may never achieve it and if you do there will always be someone that will be better. But if you compete and approach everything with 100% effort, dedication, commitment, and hold yourself accountable, you will dominate. While I was playing with the Philadelphia Eagles during our run up to the Super Bowl in 2004, starting tight end and 3-time Pro Bowl selection Chad Lewis would always tell the team, “Time to DOMINATE!” That is literally how you should approach every conditioning drill, lift, practice, meeting and play as an athlete. You approach it no other way!!
When I witnessed the explosive power, speed and attitude that my teammates displayed that late summer day in Pittsburgh, I came to the conclusion that “The Next Level” is not a title you gain when you make it to the NFL, it is truly a state of mind and way of life for those that achieve greatness in athletics.