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Stay still and don’t blink: One way the Seahawks look for a ‘thin slice of grit’

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Dr. Michael Gervais at How the Data Era Will Build High Performing Humans - 2015 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival Photo by Amy E. Price/Getty Images for SXSW

Back in March 2018, former Texas Longhorns punter Michael Dickson was interviewing with teams at the NFL combine. Dickson said the strangest question he’d gotten from a team was to compete in a starting contest. That team was the Seattle Seahawks, and they ultimately gave up a seventh round pick to move up seven spots in the fifth round to select the All-Pro punter.

In the Audible Original “Compete to Create,” released on July 9 by Seahawks sport psychologist Michael Gervais and co-authored by Pete Carroll, there are details of a much more elaborate test. It’s described as a “biodata assessment” that requires an athlete to be very still for about 20 minutes (longer than the 15-minutes a team has for interviews at the NFL combine).

At the time of Dickson’s 2018 meeting with Seattle, one report speculated that it was Carroll’s “Always Compete” mantra that drove this request. But when it came up again in 2019 that someone on the Seahawks staff squared off in a staring contest with Kentucky cornerback Lonnie Johnson, former Seahawks scout Jim Nagy responded to a tweet of the encounter with two words: “Grit test.

The explanation provided by Gervais, in the chapter of the audiobook focusing on grit, provides further detail beyond the explanation from Nagy.

As part of the assessment, evaluators tell the player if they “move around” it can impact the quality of information they collect, saying that “even blinking can throw off the test.” They show the athlete the computer monitor that is collecting the data and how it is impacted just by blinking.

In the audiobook, Gervais describes the most impressive performer of the test as an player he simply referred to as “one of the most intense athletes in the building.” This player made it 12 minutes into the test without blinking and he continued to stay completely still. The length of that and the intensity of the player during the interaction demonstrated to him how he might be able to identify grit simply by looking for “thin slices of passionate responses.”

“He chose to override the natural impulse to relieve the dryness in his eyes by blinking,” wrote Gervais. “He used his mental skills to control an automatic activity that each of us has to do thousands of times a day.”

Grit test.

Gervais joined the Field Gulls podcast to discuss the book, but still wouldn’t give up the name of the player.

Tune into the episode as we talk about the grieving and healing process that some of us may still be working through after the end of Super Bowl 49. Gervais explains why some of our brains are wired to compartmentalize competitive losses in the same way our brains process the loss of loved ones.

Richard Sherman recently contrasted the coaching styles between Kyle Shanahan and Carroll and we discuss the thoughts behind Pete’s leadership style. We also go through some of the concepts in mental performance that have helped with much of the team’s success.

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