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The mind of No. 1 prospects

Fear can do some funny things. It affects people in so many ways.

Josh Sweat sat on a stage in his high school's auditorium waiting anxiously to receive his Under Armour All-America jersey. Before the ceremony started he leaned forward and whispered to the emcee that he didn't want to give a speech in front of his classmates.

He cautiously glanced over at his mom to make sure she didn't hear him say it.

He was afraid.

The 6-foot-4, 240 pound defensive end is the No. 5 ranked prospect in the country, terrorizes quarterbacks, sheds 300-pound offensive linemen with ease, but there he sat, terrified of speaking in front of his classmates.

Sweat has always been quiet. He is such a shy, reserved person off the field that his family was surprised when he initially said he wanted to play football.

The sport just went against one side of his personality.

"Josh has been quiet his entire life, so that's why it was surprising, because he was always just into books," his uncle Kenneth said. "Once he started growing and getting the size, though, he turned into a totally different person on the football field. He turns into a beast."

For sports psychologist Eddie O'Connor, that change is one he often sees in athletes. It has to do with their fears and responding to that emotion.

"The difference between elite athletes and someone else who is afraid of failure and is paralyzed by their fears is how they react to it," O'Connor said. "The great ones will use that as a motivator where as others will crumble and give in to their fear."

Sweat is very self-aware, and while that fear causes him to draw into himself before speaking to his classmates, it also is the mechanism that flips the switch when he gets to the field. He recognizes that something takes over him and changes his demeanor when he's playing football.

Sweat had been ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the country until injuring his knee in September, when he dropped to No. 5 overall. That injury made way for the new No. 1-ranked prospect, Terry Beckner Jr.

Besides both holding the top spot in the ESPN 300, knowing the rigors of being a highly sought-after recruit and being defensive linemen, they both share the same personality.

Beckner knows what his status entails, but is desperately trying to remain a regular high school student.

"I just stay to myself and I'm just trying to win a state championship right now. I like the attention, but when you have so much on you it gets to be too much," he said. "I just try to worry about one thing at a time. I'm just a normal kid that likes to have fun."

His high school coach, Darren Sunkett, has seen plenty of highly recruited football players at East St. Louis (Illinois) High School, but not many like Beckner.

And Sunkett, like Sweat's family, notices a palpable change when his five-star prospect goes from student to player.

"He doesn't really get excited about the recruiting process and he's just that type of kid that doesn't really like the spotlight," Sunkett said. "He's just a normal kid, but he has a split personality. On the field he's one type of kid and off it he's another."

The change in demeanor is a trait that is essential for elite athletes. They understand what it takes for each task, what they need to be and how much they need to commit to reach their goals. And they tend to have tunnel vision to those things they have to do to succeed.

For O'Connor, that's simply a fear of failing.

"I think it's very interesting because typically we think you can't be afraid of failure, but if you listen to it, they're afraid of failure not success. They're afraid of failure in the way that they can't stand to lose," O'Connor said.

Sweat starts to rub his hands together and his head bobs back and forth. Even thinking about losing has caused the feeling to creep up and affect his emotions.

"My heart is beating just talking about it even though I know I can't play right now. It's the nervousness, and I get that before every game," Sweat said. "It's that thought of getting beat, that's when the switch gets flipped and I get that nervous feeling. When you know your skill set and there's something standing in the way of your goal, that's where it comes from."

While it might show up in a different way, Beckner has a similar reaction.

"I'm not losing; I hate losing. Even when I'm in the weight room and my body says I can't go anymore, I say yes I can," he said. "I get a little of both [anxiety and nerves], but I know what I have to do when I'm on the field and that's when I turn the switch. It doesn't bother me to be in high pressure situations, because I know I have to perform."

All of that returns to their psychological makeup and what separates average athletes and elite athletes.

According to O'Connor, the average athlete could succumb to their emotions, but the best athletes find a way to channel them.

"It's all in their reaction to that fear of failure that makes the difference. The great ones hate to lose and are afraid of failure, but they channel that into their dedication and effort," O'Connor said. "It's a human quality that goes across everyone that the more you're invested in something, the more you're going to be worried or have some anxiety. To not do well is a threat."