Mental conditioning driving force behind Russell Wilson's success
RENTON, Wash. -- In preparation for a game at Pittsburgh in Week 2, Russell Wilson watched a package of plays from his 2015 duel with Ben Roethlisberger. Crammed in a 4-minute, 22-second video were Wilson's best throws from that wet November afternoon in Seattle, when he led the Seahawks to a shootout win by tossing five touchdown passes with no interceptions.
But this was not your typical film study. It didn't take place inside the quarterbacks room at Seahawks headquarters, nor was Wilson's position coach or offensive coordinator the one showing it to him.
Wilson was working with Trevor Moawad, a mental coach who, in his words, oversees the psychological architecture of Wilson's career. Moawad is part of what Wilson calls his performance team. It includes a physical therapist, a personal trainer, a massage therapist, a yoga instructor/movement specialist and a personal chef.
The video of the Steelers game is not about X's and O's but is, as Moawad puts it, a "way to take him back to the emotion of that experience so that he can connect that emotion with that behavior with playing Pittsburgh."
Behavior is Moawad's world, and visual exercises are part of the regular work he does with Wilson. He is an expert in brain training, and Wilson is his most well-known pupil. Their weekly sessions usually last about 90 minutes and take place either in person or over the phone. They talk about things such as neutral thinking, goal-setting, language and the aggregate of marginal gains.
"I've lived in this world [of mental conditioning] for 18 years, and superhero gifts are not the defining factor," Moawad said. "Elite behavior is the deciding factor, and you take people with average talent and great behavior -- they're going to make it. Russell is a collection of world-class behaviors. ... He has very good gifts, but he has exceptional behavior. But if he didn't act the way he acts, he wouldn't be who he is."
The two will tell you that it isn't by accident that Wilson is a Super Bowl champion, a six-time Pro Bowler and the owner of the richest contract in NFL history. Nor do they believe it's any coincidence that a few days after reliving that 2015 performance against Pittsburgh, Wilson was equally brilliant -- three TDs, no picks and a career-best 82.5% completion rate -- in a two-point victory at Heinz Field.
"It's a massive part of it," Wilson said of the edge he believes his work with Moawad gives him. "I think it's a critical part. I would say it's one of the most significant things that I do."
Wilson's neutral mind
Another quarterback on Moawad's client list, USC sophomore J.T. Daniels, gave what he considers an apt description of his work when he told the Los Angeles Times, "He's not a sports psychologist. He's not a life coach. But he's somewhere in between that."
Moawad was once a teacher. He earned his master's in education from Occidental and taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District after college. He coached various sports while teaching there and in Florida. Then his career took a turn in 2000, when he was invited to a clinic at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
When he saw a presentation from Jeff Troesch, IMG Academy's director of sports psychology, Moawad knew he was built to teach the same thing. After several letters and phone calls from Moawad, Troesch agreed to give him a summer internship that kick-started a career transition.
The term Moawad uses for his area of expertise is mental conditioning. He has worked for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Alabama and a handful of other college programs coached by Nick Saban disciples, including Florida State and, currently, Georgia. He has had clients in MLB, the NBA and the U.S. Special Operations community.
Over the years, he has had to adapt his teaching to appeal to the way athletes are wired.
"I'm not going to get guys to meditate. It's not happening," Moawad told ESPN. "If I say we're going to talk about mindfulness today, guys will tell me to go play in traffic. In my time working for Coach Saban and Coach [Jimbo] Fisher, they wanted me to have a plan that worked for all of our athletes, not just the one that wanted to be self-actualized. So what we realized was that learning how to be less negative was much more powerful than being more positive."
Positive thinking, Moawad says, requires a change of mindset that's too fast for most people, so they give up. And positive language doesn't always resonate in skeptical ears.
"And so early on, we taught these concepts around non-negativity, and then eventually we came to the idea of neutral thinking and neutral behavior, which is a recognition that the past happened, but the past isn't predictive," he said. "Your next behavior is predictive."
Moawad likens the idea of neutral behavior to a car, which can't go from reverse to drive without going to neutral. He showed Wilson a video about the Apollo 13 mission to illustrate neutral behavior in action.
"So when the explosion happened in the LEM (Lunar Excursion Module), essentially they had a series of ways to address it," he said. "Everything was really incremental and one step at a time. Basically a checklist: Can we still land on the moon? Can we still orbit the moon? Now that we can't land, we can still orbit, we're facing these issues, how do we solve them one at a time, and how do we get from this ship to this ship? Basically this process approach from 205,000 miles ... No different than if you're down 16-nothing. There's no 19-point play.
"The simple fact of the matter is the best performers think alike, whether they were trained or not."
One of Moawad's go-to examples of neutral behavior is Wilson's language in the 2015 NFC Championship Game. The Seahawks trailed Green Bay 16-0 in the second quarter and 19-7 late in the fourth after four interceptions by Wilson. They scored 15 points in the final two-plus minutes to force overtime, in which Wilson threw the winning touchdown to cap an improbable comeback.
"If Russell is positive in that situation, he's constantly talking -- 'We're going to beat Green Bay. We're going to beat Green Bay' -- because much of positive thinking is connected to outcomes," Moawad said. "Neutral thinking is truth-based thinking focused on behaviors, and Russell's language is all about competing. There's time. He's not pretending that he didn't throw four picks. But what he's being very clear of is there's still five minutes left. And that's the truth, and even the most skeptical people recognize that that five minutes has not happened yet, so how are we going to play those five minutes? And we don't have to concede those five minutes because of the first 55 minutes."
'That could have been it for them'
Wilson met Moawad in 2012 while training for the NFL draft at IMG, where Moawad was the director of performance. Mental conditioning is part of the training there, but the two met multiple times per week on top of the regular sessions. After Wilson's pro day, he told Moawad he wanted to "keep this thing going."
Since then, they've become more than a teacher and a student. Wilson calls Moawad a best friend. Moawad says he trusts Wilson with his life. They're business partners, having cofounded a business coaching consultancy called "Limitless Minds," which brings Moawad's insights into the corporate world. Wilson wrote the foreword to Moawad's new book, "It Takes What It Takes." The title is a motivational line that Moawad will often remind Wilson of via text.
"One of the things that Trevor and I always say is you don't have to be sick to get better," Wilson said, referring to Moawad's proactive approach to mental conditioning.
Moawad sees that as a shortcoming in the world of sports, in which most athletes look to make psychological gains only in response to adversity. He believes Wilson, on the other hand, was prepared to handle the aftermath of Seattle's devastating loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX.
While there were a number of reasons the Seahawks failed on their final play at the goal line, the largest television audience in history saw Wilson throw the decisive interception.
"We recognized the next thing in his control was a world-class offseason," Moawad said.
The first step was getting Wilson out of Seattle, the epicenter of post-Super Bowl gloom. Two weeks after the game, Wilson set up temporary residence in San Diego, where he began training three times a day.
"I just trained," Wilson said. "I was just so zoned in on what was going to happen next. Because most people, I think, the reality is that that could have been it for them if they didn't have the right mentality -- I think the weight of that. And for me, it was just the beginning."
The 2015 season was Wilson's best at the time. After catching fire at midseason, his numbers over the final eight games were like something out of a video game: 25 touchdowns and two interceptions.
"So when you say, 'How did he throw 34 touchdowns and seven interceptions the following year?' That's how," Moawad said. "Because his behavior is always ahead of his success."