Most people have watched Malcolm Butler’s interception in Super Bowl XLIX to help the New England Patriots defeat the Seattle Seahawks– but not many people know about the amazing cognitive skills that this required. Let’s break it down:
- Preparation: During the week prior to the Super Bowl, Malcolm Butler had seen that exact Seattle play at practice, but with a very different result–he got beat for a touchdown… Luckily, the next time that he saw this play, there was a drastically different result.
- Emotional Control: After playing excellent coverage the entire game, Butler made a phenomenal play on a deep pass by Russell Wilson. Unfortunately, the ball took a crazy bounce and wide receiver Jermaine Kearse made an unbelievable catch on his back–all but sealing back-to-back Super Bowl victories for the Seahawks. Butler came off the field frustrated and agitated.
- Recognition: Butler re-entered the game with less than 30 seconds left and quickly composed himself. As he lined up opposite the Seattle offense, Butler only had several seconds to correctly identify the offensive formation and mentally prepare for a vast array of potential route combinations and plays that were about to occur.
- Dynamic Processing: At the snap of the ball, Butler planted his foot in the ground and made a break towards the receiver that he was covering. In this dynamic and chaotic scene of people blocking and running around, Malcolm Butler was simultaneously able to see Brandon Browner jam up Kearse at the line in his peripheral vision, observe his own man preparing to catch the ball, while also tracking Russell Wilson gearing up to throw the ball.
- Anticipation: As Butler broke towards the ball, he subconsciously calculated the correct path to take towards the ball based on his man’s route angle and speed, as well as the trajectory and velocity of the football. If he was a split-second early, his man catches the ball and walks into the endzone. If he was a split-second late, he collides with his man and gets flagged for pass interference–giving Seattle 1st and Goal from the 1 yard-line. Both scenarios likely ending in a New England loss.
- Hand-Eye Coordination: If Butler was just able to break-up the pass, it would’ve been a great play to keep the Patriot’s Super Bowl hopes alive for at least one more down. Instead, he made arguably the most amazing play in Super Bowl history–timing his break on the ball perfectly, positioning his body to knock the wide receiver off the ball, and ultimately getting his hands up to secure a ball coming in at a high velocity.
- Mental Stamina: Playing an entire football game is both physically and mentally exhausting–but the Super Bowl takes exhaustion to a new level. In the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, players must do their best to remain focused and continue preparing for game day despite the media circus and national spotlight that they deal with at all times–it’s easy to see how any player could be overwhelmed and mentally fatigued come Super Bowl Sunday. Butler had the mental stamina to overcome the events prior to game day, as well as playing in the biggest and most physically and mentally demanding game of the season in front of over 100 million viewers and intense pressure– and yet, he was still able to perform at an elite cognitive level late in the 4th Quarter, and ultimately make the game-saving play with seconds left.
Malcolm Butler was an undrafted rookie when he played in the Super Bowl XLIX– there were 53 defensive backs drafted ahead of him that same year. Year after year, many scouts overlook players based on physical attributes (see: Tom Brady), but football requires just as much cognitive skill as it does physical–if not more. Malcolm Butler is obviously an elite athlete and was gifted with incredible physical and cognitive attributes, but just as an athlete can train to get bigger and faster, you can also train your brain to increase your cognitive abilities.
As the legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne once said, “Football is a game played with arms, legs and shoulders but mostly from the neck up.”