Lessons from a Missed Field Goal: Letting Go and Moving On

Scott Ries, MSW, LISW, above, in his office on the UC Academic Health Center campus. Photo by Cindy Starr / Mayfield Clinic

With the Baltimore Ravens trailing, 23-20, and just seconds left in their AFC Championship game with the New England Patriots last weekend, it was kicker Billy Cundiff’s chance to save or lose the day. And as most of America now knows, the kick sailed wide. The Ravens’ defeat sealed, Cundiff’s misery was captured for all to see — on television, on the Web and on the front page of the New York Times. In the land of neuroscience, we may wince and ask ourselves what kind of person wants to be a kicker in the first place? Why do someone’s talents fail when they are needed most? And how do people who have suffered such a public disappointment recover?

Some answers come from Scott Ries, MSW, LISW, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and the Administrative Director of the Cincinnati Mood Disorders Consortium and the Mood Disorders Center at the UC Gardner Neuroscience Institute, a center of excellence within UC Health. Mr. Ries also happens to be a sports fan, a former football player (an offensive lineman for his high school team) and a former Little League baseball coach.

Mr. Ries can name numerous game-losing miscues from recent decades, including Bill Buckner’s through-the-legs fielding error that helped Boston lose the 1986 World Series. And all with a smile. “In the overall scheme of things, it doesn’t matter,” Mr. Ries says. “A few years ago, when Boston was celebrating the 1986 team, Bill Buckner went back to Fenway Park and got a standing ovation. Eventually, everyone forgets.”

The world is filled with people like Billy Cundiff, who must perform in public, sometimes with all the chips on the table. Mr. Ries observes them in sports as closing pitchers, as golfers who “own every stroke” and as basketball players who shoot the free throws after technical fouls. Outside of sports, clutch performers appear as clinicians in the emergency room, politicians in a debate, trial attorneys in the courtroom, and everyday people who stand up and give an important presentation. Medical students who are trying for the first time to thread a breathing tube down a patient’s airway while experienced nurses and professors hover around them are attempting a procedure that “is easily as pressure-filled, if not more so, as attempting a field goal in a playoff game.”

Success can hinge on attitude: envisioning a successful outcome, for example, or accepting nervousness as normal but irrelevant and moving on. Mr. Ries points to the famous classical guitarist, Andrés Segovia, who said he experienced nervousness every time he performed during his 60-year career, but always knew the jitters would go away.

Ultimately, Mr. Ries believes, talent is more important in determining success than attitude. “Mental fortitude in the clutch, as a personality characteristic, is probably overrated as an important factor in most of what people do. Regarding kickers, for example – and I knew several — ultimately, you have to have the talent for it. You can have ice water in your veins, but if you can’t kick the football 40 yards accurately, you’re not going to be a kicker.”

Inevitably, mistakes will happen.“So what do you do when you blow something big?” Mr. Ries asks. “This can apply to anyone who gives a presentation in front of a board, or a class – or a medical school class.

“The reality is that people miss field goals. This guy, Cundiff, is a good kicker and doesn’t miss many;  he hadn’t missed a fourth-quarter kick in two and a half years. But people miss field goals. People remember that stuff initially, but, particularly in sports, people get over it, with rare exceptions. Because ultimately most people don’t read as much into things as we’re afraid they will. You think that people are going to look at you and think you’ve failed and you’re terrible, but for the most part we move on with our lives.

“Where we make a mistake is in assuming that people are paying more attention to us than they really are. When I talk to students who are struggling, say, with mannerisms they don’t like, I tell them, ‘First of all, most people aren’t paying that much attention to you. And that’s an important thing to remember. Then I stand up, turn my back to them and ask them what my tie looks like. And they inevitably get it wrong. And I say, ‘You’ve been looking at me for half an hour, one on one, and yet you didn’t even notice my tie – which is normal, unless you really care about ties.”

Mr. Ries also points out that when someone “blows something really big,” status and ego are more likely to be threatened than one’s life. “Even missing a big field goal is not life-threatening,” he says. “So another question for people – and especially kickers – is how quickly can you let go of that and say, ‘Sometimes you miss kicks, but everybody does.’ Every baseball closer, even the best, blows saves. There’s even a statistical category for blown saves. So how quickly can you get back out there, how quickly can I let go, learn from that, and move forward?”

Another strategy for anyone who is recovering from a poor public performance, Mr. Ries continues, is to place yourself in the position of the person watching the event and ask, ‘What would I think of them? What would my thoughts be about a medical student who messes up an intubation? Or a trial lawyer who loses a case?’ And most people would say they feel bad for the person. We have evolved to feel sympathy. We can get it weeded out of us, but we are a sympathetic species, by and large. We don’t like seeing people in pain. So we’re willing to let go of things much more quickly than the person who made the mistake thinks we are.”

Being able to intubate a patient matters a lot more than being able to kick a field goal, Mr. Ries says. But even errors in medicine are largely forgiven. “Patients tend not to blame their physicians as long as the physician acknowledges some level of responsibility and humility.”

Errors are so much a part of being human, he adds, that every individual in medicine who is under pressure is at risk of making a mistake. As a result, systems must be created to provide safety nets to compensate for the inevitability of human error. “Ideally you have systems that keep you from making the big mistakes, that check you, that place support under you.”

In sports, of course, there is no safety net. Poor Billy Cundiff’s kick went wide. But the longer-term safety net – the compassion and the forgetting – is there nevertheless. “Most of the Ravens fans who watched him miss the field goal probably got pretty ticked off,” Mr. Ries says. “A day or two later they didn’t care, and next year they’ll welcome him back.”

— Cindy Starr

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