Give Them Time: Breaking Bad Habits in NFL Rookies

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Andrew Datko
Packers rookie OT Andrew Datko has a lot to work on during training camp.

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.

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Chad Toporski, a Wisconsin native and current Pittsburgh resident, is a writer for AllGreenBayPackers.com. You can follow Chad on twitter at @ChadToporski

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  • Pack Fan from ATL

    Good read. As a music person, completely understand. I think that is also why Aaron benefited so much from not having to start immediately. He was able to hone his craft under McCarthy and Clements and get rid of a lot of his bad habits without the pressure of a starting role.

  • howard coleman

    thanks for an excellent piece. your musical efforts analogy works very well in making the point that the process of performing at the top levels is a continuing quest.

    great coaching/teaching, often an under-appreciated component, is a both a major necessity and one where i think the Packer organization enjoys a relative advantage.

  • John Zoul

    Well written. Thanks for the analogies…Even considering I have no music skills other than listening!

  • http://None Bearmeat

    As a Doctoral Candidate in Trumpet Performance, a hack golfer, and an avid Green Bay fan, I know EXACTLY what you mean.

    I found myself reliving many, many, frustrating times in this article – with a laugh.

    Great read. Thanks.

  • Oppy

    You hit the nail on the head.

    This is exemplified in the training and coaching of Quarterbacks for NFL play. It’s extremely rare that a QB’s delivery when entering the league looks anything like his mechanics after a few years of playing.

    This is also why as a draft and develop team, the GBPs have historically stuck with the players they pick or acquire as undrafted free agents for a number of years even if the fan base thinks they are bums. This coaching staff sees talent and they know it can take time to strip away the poor techniques and instill sound mechanics and fundamentals to allow the talent to come through.

    Doesn’t always happen, but it definitely WON’T happen if you continually cut guys because it’s hasn’t “clicked” in training camp.

    BTW, the golf swing analogy is perfect.

  • Spiderpack

    Chhhaaaddd! I’ve noticed some similarities in how we think & understand things based on articles & comments you’ve made over the years-I now know why. I’ve got a B.A. in Music-Trumpet major student of the Vincent Cichowicz tree of instruction (not his student, but a student of 2 of his students). Nice analogy and good to connect with a fellow brass player of similar instructional lineage. Musicians & fine-tuned athletes have a deep understanding of the learning process that is not well understood in other fields of study. My favorite book on the subject is “The Inner Game of Tennis” by Tim Gallwey, a very enlightening-even Spiritual book, & an easy, entertaining read. Check it out if you haven’t read it, it is at or near the top of my list of the most meaningful books I’ve read.

  • Chad Toporski

    Thanks all for the nice comments. I’m happy to know my analogy hit home for some of you, and it’s always great to discover that we all have more in common than we thought.