My college professor once told me, “You can’t get rid of bad habits; you can only replace them with new ones.”
I went to school for a B.S. degree in Music Education, with my major instrument being French horn. To make a long story short, though I had been learning the instrument since I was 10 years old, I was never satisfied with my level of playing. Even after four years of being in the U.S. Army Bands, I wanted to get better. My hope was that individual instruction by a good horn professor could fix my problems.
The big thing I had going for me was that I am a musically gifted person. I have a good ear for pitch and intonation, a strong sense of rhythm, and a knack for being able to sight-read music (i.e., play sheet music without having seen or practiced it before). But being able to play an instrument requires more than a musical mind, one must also have the correct technique physically to be in control of the instrument and make it do what you need it to do.
And this was where I had my problems. My breathing, embouchure (“the use of facial muscles and the shaping of the lips to the mouthpiece of an instrument”), tonguing, and posture were not fundamentally sound; thus, I could not always produce the music the way my mind wanted to. I had formed some bad habits that needed serious changing.
Fortunately for me, my horn professor knew exactly how to help. His goal for me as an undergraduate student was to build a strong foundation in my playing so that I could continue to hone my craft and my artistry without the impedance of poor technique.
This was not an easy task, however, and in fact it was often quite frustrating. He essentially had to break me down to slowly build me back up. At first, we worked a lot on the most fundamental aspects of playing: how to sit, how to hold the instrument, proper breath control, embouchure. It wasn’t really a fun process, and I was simultaneously fighting off the bad habits I had already formed, trying to replace them with the good ones.
So when I look at rookies like Andrew Datko, Jerron McMillian, and even Nick Perry, I empathize with the ways they might be struggling in training camp. Breaking old habits to improve technique is a very challenging endeavor, and not something done overnight. Though the time varies from player to player, it remains a long process. We’ve seen many players come into camp as seemingly worthless, only to take over a starting role later in their careers. The infamous James Harrison spent a couple years on and off the Steelers’ practice squad and didn’t even start for a full season until 5 years after he was initially signed.
The other part of the process is that we often have to regress prior to getting better. When I was fixing my technique on French horn, I got worse as a player before I started to see a noticeable improvement. The problem is that it’s very difficult to concentrate on more than one or two things at a time, so until things start to become habits and can be done without really thinking about them, it will slow the whole process down.
With a guy like Nick Perry, he’s learning to do a lot more as an outside linebacker than what he did as a defensive lineman in college. It’s a demanding transition, and there is a lot to think about. He won’t be able to react as quickly until things become more natural for him. When the game starts to “slow down” for him – in other words, when his brain speeds up – then he’ll be able to make plays with the ferocity he’s known for.
If you’ll bear with me for one more analogy, it reminds me of playing golf. There are so many variables to the golf swing that it’s virtually impossible to think about it all at once, especially when it all happens so quickly. As I work on my swing, I really only work on one or two aspects at a time. When those become habitual, I can start working on other things.
That said, when you hear about all the struggles seventh round pick Andrew Datko has been having this preseason, just take the time to remember everything he is working on to become an NFL-caliber offensive tackle. Not only is he refining his technique in general, but he’s also had to fix the habit of not using his left hand due to a past shoulder injury. It’s only natural that he wouldn’t look that good right off the bat with so much to fix and focus on.
Every player always has something to work on, even the reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers. And the rookies, generally speaking, will have the most developing to do during training camp. Some of them do transition quickly, but don’t fret if it takes more time than you anticipated. If they don’t pan out in the future, then that’s a different story. Just give them the time to grow and become more consistent before throwing in the towel.