Football, Flow, and Finding Your Way After Tearing an Achilles Tendon
“It all starts with the flow. Throw in the performance aspect and that’s when you really have something. Larry [Bird] played with passion, persistence, and purpose. There was meaning to his performances . . . Flow plus meaning equals performance.”
—NBA Hall-of-Fame basketball player Bill Walton, on former teammate Larry Bird
Athletics and academia often seem like strange bedfellows, but School of Behavioral and Organizational Sciences’ Positive Psychology student Damian Vaughn is fusing his love for both into a successful post-playing career after five seasons as a professional football player.
In 1994, Vaughn’s collegiate football career began after an inauspicious start. He wasn’t recruited out of high school, and was red-shirted as a freshman walk-on after trying out for the Miami University football team in 1993 so that his strength and speed could further develop. But when he took the field for the Redhawks’ first home game that year, something strange and unexpected happened. The redshirt freshman tight end inexplicably felt more focused, more confident, and more energized than he ever had in his entire life. His nerves disappeared; he was tireless; he seemingly got open at will, caught every pass thrown to him, and could make every block. He could do no wrong.
“I thought, ‘What the hell was that? Did I eat something?’ I didn’t know how I got to that place, but it felt like I couldn’t expend the energy I had in my body. I wanted to re-experience it, so I began focusing on my game-day rituals,” Vaughn said. “But it wasn’t until my senior season that I began to sort of get it.”
It was in his senior season that he discussed his on-the-field experiences with his godmother, a psychology professor in Brazil. She remarked that what he was feeling sounded similar to a then-relatively new psychological concept: flow. The concept was first identified by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, currently a distinguished professor of psychology and management at CGU, and popularized in his 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In Flow, Csikszentmihalyi describes it as being “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” When Vaughn read that he realized, “Oh my God, that’s it!”
In college, Vaughn’s enjoyment of football—playing for it the “sheer sake of doing it”—was a key factor in his success. He started every game during his four seasons for the Redhawks and was a first-team All-Mid Atlantic Conference selection his senior year. In the 1998 National Football League draft, he was selected in the seventh round by the Cincinnati Bengals, making him the first Brazilian player (he holds dual citizenship in the United States and Brazil) in NFL history.
While the life of a professional athlete is idealized by almost every amateur, Vaughn discovered that working in the NFL stifled much of the joy he had found on the football field in Ohio. And without that joy, his performance suffered.
“There is so much pressure and it’s just so intense. I have never experienced anything close to the high amount of pressure that’s in the NFL,” Vaughn said. “You constantly feel like you’ve got to prove yourself. Get approval from peers and coaches. Half of the time you’re telling yourself you don’t belong there. Most of the guys in the NFL think that.”
This anxiety is often the result of constant, high-stakes scrutiny, and can lead to unhealthy attitudes and decisions. Players battling injuries that would keep most bedridden still manage to suit up for games. They take medication that might mask the pain, but only delays recovery, risks further injury, and can lead to a dependency on painkillers. Additionally, with the players’ livelihood dependent on performance—or more accurately, the perception of their performance—the game itself becomes less enjoyable and more about pleasing coaches, impressing peers, and proving yourself to fans.
“It takes you out of your game. All of a sudden you are dependent on others,” Vaughn said.
Ultimately, Vaughn ended up playing two seasons with the Bengals, one with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and a final season with the Barcelona Dragons in NFL Europe. After tearing his Achilles tendon, he rehabbed for over a year but was unable to pass the physical exam that would allow him back on the field. Just like that, his playing career was over. And like so many athletes in NFL, he didn’t have a fully developed game plan for life after football.
Though his interest in psychology was constantly stoked by his interest in flow and the various psychological methods to achieve peak performance, a career in that field didn’t seem viable. Instead, he became an entrepreneur, founding businesses in America and Brazil that manufactured countertops and imported rare and exotic stone for commercial application. These ventures achieved revenues in the millions, but despite this success, his interests drifted back to football.
As someone who had successfully transitioned into a productive life after the NFL, retired players began approaching Vaughn for advice: “I became sort of a big brother. I had started some companies and players would ask how I did that; how I got into something entirely different than football, not just coaching.”
Rather than teaching his former colleagues the nuts and bolts of business management, Vaughn passed on the real secret of his success: clarity, focus, and peace of mind. All of these are invaluable, if not necessary, assets in achieving success, be it running on a football field, or a small business. Vaughn found his help was in such demand that his time and interests began shifting from his businesses to helping retiring and, increasingly, current athletes. After two years of immersing himself in cognitive neuroscience and consciousness course work at the University of Arizona, he founded the Vaughn Center in 2009.
In its three years of operation, Vaughn’s work through his center has focused almost entirely on helping athletes maximize their performance through mental improvement. This includes elite performers in track & field, baseball, basketball, and, of course, football, ranging in levels of competition from collegians to Olympians to professionals.
One of his most prominent success stories is Green Bay Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk. The former All-American from Ohio State University was drafted in the first round (fifth overall) in the 2006 NFL draft, and was in the midst of a productive but unspectacular career when he began working with Vaughn.
“He was struggling with team politics, and self-sabotage on top of that. Athletes don’t just compete against their opponent, they compete against themselves. If your teammate gets a big contract, you start worrying about whether there’s enough money left for you. You pick up little nuances, like if a coach talks to you differently, or if he directs a sarcastic remark at you. You’re thinking about all this instead of focusing on getting the job done,” said Vaughn.
In the 2010 season, his first after working with Vaughn, Hawk completed 111 tackles, after finishing with less than 90 the previous two years. That year the Packers also won the Super Bowl, and the team rewarded Hawk in 2011 with a five-year contract worth $33.8 million.
“People don’t realize how much of the game is mental. Damian brought that to my attention and taught me how to clear out all of the clutter on and off the field,” wrote Hawk. “He teaches you how to be present and aware of every situation you find yourself in. I look forward to a lifetime relationship with Damian.”
Vaughn stresses that his work with Hawk, as with all his clients, is about overcoming the mental and physical challenges of being a professional athlete, not addressing one’s personal, off-the-field problems. “It’s not life coaching. It is about work, productivity, performance, and leadership,” he said.
In one of Vaughn’s assignments this summer, he spoke to the University of Oklahoma Sooners football team during their training camp. His talk with the students went so well that executives from Fox Sports offered him a position doing Spanish-language color commentary for Fox Deportes’ college football coverage, which he postponed to the 2014 season (Vaughn is fluent in English, Spanish, and Portuguese).
His discussion with the Sooners revolved around finding meaning in their performance and enjoyment in what they do. This is a common refrain of his outreach work, and the driving force behind the research he is doing as a graduate student.
“I love what I’m doing now, but I also love research. So I came here hoping to supplant my outreach work and make my own contribution to the growing body of research in positive psychology, especially revolving around flow,” Vaughn said.
His current project involves, not surprisingly, football and motivation. He is looking at how athletes achieve flow in their performance; in particular, he wants to discover the optimal relationship between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation for achieving flow.
In sports, extrinsic motivations include outside rewards: money, adulation from fans, and even winning the game itself. Intrinsic motivation is less tangible. “It’s playing for the love of the game, for the joy it brings you,” said Vaughn. “There’s also the challenge of learning, of pushing yourself, of finding satisfaction with your performance.”
For almost any athlete, there will be some balance between intrinsic and extrinsic. In Vaughn’s football career, his motivation made a steady shift from largely intrinsic to almost entirely extrinsic as he moved up the ranks, from high school to college to the pros—and his ability to achieve flow in his performance suffered accordingly. It is Vaughn’s belief that this focus on extrinsic rewards adversely affected his career—as it seems to for many of the athletes he coaches. Now he is looking at current players from top high school, college, and professional teams to see what effect external and internal rewards have on their performance.
In the NFL, extrinsic rewards—with its lucrative salaries and audiences that number in the tens of millions—are highest in the sport. Those rewards are still present in Division I college and top-tier high school football programs—anyone who’s been to a Pacific-12 Conference football game or a high school game on a Friday night in Texas can attest to that—but there is a clear difference in magnitude.
For his research, Vaughn will survey football players at all levels and ask them to rate their extrinsic and intrinsic motivations on a scale of 1–5. Using this data and comparing it to those who self-report experiencing flow will give Vaughn a good idea of what combination of the two types of motivation is most conducive for optimal performance.
In addition, through CGU’s Quality of Life Research Center, Vaughn is pursuing two pilot studies: one looking at how athletes’ personalities determine what sport they play, another gauging what effect, if any, wearing compression apparel has on athletes’ ability to attain flow. These projects are in line with an ultimate goal of carving out a new niche in positive psychology: positive sports psychology. Even better: they are giving Vaughn a chance to work with Csikszentmihalyi.
“Working with Mike has been great. He’s just amazing. He is modest and laid back, but his contributions to my work are invaluable,” Vaughn said. “What he’s helping me do is expand the field. There’s already sports psychology, but there isn’t positive sports psychology. CGU is already a pioneer in positive psychology, and I think this would be a great place to raise our flag.”
Though football is the venue through which Vaughn is predominantly gathering his information, he sees this research as applicable to the general workplace as well. Certainly, most of us don’t get tackled by 300-pound linemen or have to hit a 100-mile-an-hour fastball in our chosen profession, but that doesn’t mean we don’t face the same challenges as those who do.
“The principles are the same,” Vaughn said. “I attend production meetings at Fox [Sports] and I see the same dynamic there that exists in an NFL locker room. The stressors—one’s own job security, errant comments from your boss—they’re the same. It’s all about getting past those and focusing on the job.”