By Caleb Hanie
“Mental Gymnastics”…ever heard of it? Yeah, I hadn’t either until my third year in the NFL. Mike Martz brought the term to my attention when he became the offensive coordinator for the Bears that year. You see my first 2 years in the NFL were spent learning from Ron Turner and our QB coach Pep Hamilton. I had never had trouble picking up a playbook and quickly learning it. In Ron’s system, it was no different. Ron’s system was a “concept”-based system. Not sure if that is the official term, or what I just call it. This system is one in which plays are taught as a concept and usually labeled with one word. That one word tells everyone what do, and where to go.
For example, a play call might be “Motion to Trips right, Scat right, Post”. Based upon this, the X and Z receivers knew to run 15-yard comebacks, the Y (TE) ran a crosser, the motion WR (F in this system) ran a short angle route called a post, and the RB (H) had a swing route after checking his threats in the pass protection. Martz’s system is a “Numbers”-based system. So this same concept would be called “Shift to Trips Right, F Motion, Scat Right, 525 F Post H Swing.” What a mouthful. It’s somewhat easier for the WR’s and back because you literally tell every player what to run. A 5 route was an 18 -yard comeback and a 2 is a crosser. Most of the time, the first number is the X’s route and then the play reads left to right for the rest of the WR’s in the formation who are involved in the play.
I had a very difficult time with this offense. I could memorize just about anything, but being able to hear the play accurately, visualize in your head and then repeat it back to the players in the huddle at the speed Martz wanted was proving to be an extreme challenge. One day Martz, probably yelling at me and our youngest QB in the room, said if we ever wanted to get this down and make this team then we needed to go through the mental gymnastics with the playbook. After Martz left, I asked our QB coach, Shane Day, what the heck that meant. He gave me a tip that helped me extremely. I went home and recorded myself reading every play from our scripts from training camp. After that I would play the recording, pause the plays one at a time, repeat the play out loud, draw the play and write down my progressions and blitz adjustments for every play. I now got why this was called Mental Gymnastics because I was exhausted after doing this and my brain was fried for the rest of those nights. This was super tedious, but after doing it every night for about a month, I finally operated the offense at the speed Martz was desiring. Going through the Mental Gymnastics is a practice that has carried over to anything I’m trying to learn in my post-playing career, and something that if some people would just buckle down and put in the time going through this, they’d be much better learners.