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On the Couch

Analytical psychologist Christian Conte, who’s worked one-on-one with some 40 NFL players during his career (though not with Sanchez or Tebow), breaks down both quarterbacks and offers some free advice.

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On Sanchez
Conte draws a connection between the Jets’ quarterback situation and the executive dyad of a family system, in which power lies with both a mother and father. What can develop in such a situation is what psychologists call ­“mirror-image disagreement,” in which one parent may be subconsciously more domineering if the other is too lenient. Think of Tim Tebow and Mark Sanchez as the team’s parents. If Tebow were to play especially loose, Sanchez could be in danger of subconsciously going in the other direction and playing tight as a way of distinguishing himself. This could hurt his game, though, so ­Conte ­suggests that Sanchez view head coach Rex Ryan as the team’s ultimate authority and instead focus on his individual role and how it serves the team. He’s a leader but not a “parent.” He must play his own game and avoid defining himself, one way or the other, in terms of Tebow.

Conte also zeros in on the concept of the “ideal self” (who you want to be) versus the “real self” (who you actually are). Conte says that when there’s a wide gap between the two, we tend to be more insecure. Sanchez may publicly root for Tebow to succeed because he knows that’s what he’s supposed to do, but if he’s not genuinely happy for his teammate, that could be a problem when Tebow performs well. “That’s something we call ‘incongruence.’ And if that happens, he’s not going to be able to perform at his best.”


On Tebow
The act of focusing one’s attention on something that might have happened but didn’t is known as “counterfactual thinking,” and Conte says Tebow must avoid asking “What if I was playing?” every time Sanchez, the starting quarterback, makes a mistake. “We create fictitious realities, and then we base our real emotions off that,” Conte says. He suggests that Tebow—who finished last season as a starting quarterback and bona fide phenomenon—focus only on what he can do in his current role. This means being the player he is as opposed to the one critics want him to be. “If he can focus on playing the game that he’s comfortable with, and blocking out that past, then he has a good chance to be successful this year.”

Envy, says Conte, is a natural psychological construct, but it takes one’s focus away from where it needs to be. Given the Jets’ quarterback situation, it could go in both directions: Sanchez could be envious of the attention that Tebow is getting, while Tebow could be envious of Sanchez’s playing time. Conte says that when he works one-on-one with athletes, he explains that envy is like a lead weight that gets placed into a backpack. Carrying it around adversely affects performance, so he has them visualize the act of removing that backpack and setting it down on the side of the field.

Ultimately, Conte points to the Zen concept of “no mind.” “When people are of no mind, that’s what they call the state of flow, or the ‘zone’ in athletics. You don’t have a mind; you just do it because of muscle memory. And that’s really the key to sports psychology. People get in their head a ton, and they let these thoughts block their performance. What we do is try to help them wipe away those thoughts.”


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